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Bioshock 2

(2K Games; US: 9 Feb 2009)

Returning to Rapture is a bittersweet experience.  Gone is the sense of your own fragility and the terror evoked in the opening scenes of the first game as you first encounter both Rapture and its denizens.  Inhabiting the role of a powerful Big Daddy and knowing what kind of a world you are already getting into, allows the decaying undersea city to feel more familiar and comfortable than the first game ever did.  Additionally gone is some of the wonder of Rapture’s atmosphere, the novelty of the period music wafting over the devestated ruins of what was once an elegant, stream lined art deco paradise.


Nevertheless, the atmosphere of Rapture (one of the great strengths of Bioshock‘s aesthetics) and its evocation of a time associated with an idealized nostalgia, ironically shattered by the same forward thinking idealism of a generation of Builders is still so carefully crafted and lovingly rendered that the wonder of the game world’s novelty is replaced with an appreciation of 2K Marin’s attention to detail, familiar as it is.  There are still wonderful set pieces here and surprising moments.


Comfortable and “homey” (which is, perhaps, appropriate in this game, which is so focused on the intricacies of family) as Rapture feels, though, new lead designer, Jordan Thomas, takes a completely new approach to the kind of storytelling and exploration of themes that the setting of Rapture provides than that of his predecessor, Ken Levine.  Levine’s writing critiqued the player’s own perceptions of free will and agency within a game world.  As the chains tatooed on the protagonists of the first game’s wrists indicated, despite our sense as players of games that we have control over our own actions in such interactive fiction (and despite the game’s own nods to pure libertarianism in the form of Andrew Ryan’s objectivist philosophy), the player’s will is more often an illusion in games as designers force us down the twisted passageways of their own stories, not ours.


That player’s balked at the infamous encounter with Ryan when the player’s own control of his in game avatar was wrested from him in order to demonstrate the limited power that an individual has in the world, seems an appropriate enough response.  Levine’s point was to emphasize the player’s helplessness and magnify it.  It seemed to have been his point in creating a game that otherwise was full of choices about how to build and design a character, a character whose powers were augmented by a moral choice to rescue or save Little Sisters.  Despite all these seeming choices, Ryan’s libertarianism seems bankrupt in the hands of a universe that coaxes you towards a goal that is not of your own design.


Intriguingly, Thomas’s approach to reconsidering Rapture was, perhaps, to first listen to the outcry of players about the enforced limitation of choice on the player and craft a game that explores will and its outcome in a wholly different way.  The choice of offering Ryan’s opposite, a pure egalitarian (or “collectivist” in Ryan or Ayn Rand’s world view), Sofia Lamb, as the antagonist in this game might overtly suggest a choice to invert the vision of the first game.  If the decay of Rapture in Bioshock was a testament to the bankruptcy of greed in an unrestrained libertarian culture, then the twisted, nearly suicidal outlook of Sofia Lamb’s “Family” becomes a stinging indictment of a utopia based on the common good at any cost to the individual.


However, the political and philosophical interests of the first game are also made subordinate to a storyline much more personal in nature than that of the first game.  The cultish fidelity of “The Family” to the common good is a mere shadow of the game’s interests in looking at the family as a personal, not political experience.  By recasting the player as a literal daddy (the metaphor of occupying the diving bell uniform of Rapture’s Big Daddies being as telling as the tattooed chains marking the identity of the protagonist of the first game), the game seeks to explore the role of guiding a little one (or in this case, Little Sisters) on a path throughout the game’s world.  This is metaphorically represented through the added ability to not only rescue or harvest Little Sisters, but to also adopt them, meaning that, as a Big Daddy, the player will haul their Little Sister around and protect her from splicers as she collects Adam from the dead.  Thus, the player takes on the traditional role of a father as protector in appearance and activity (or to shirk those traditional roles by “using” his children to feed his own ego).


The choices that the player makes in the sequel are less limited than in the first game, as several key decisions to kill or allow characters important to the plot also exist.  These choices, along with the choice to adopt, harvest, and rescue Little Sisters, shape the player to some degree (providing more or less Adam to be used by the player to power himself up as well as perks granted or denied based on the choices of who to spare or kill), but even more significantly, these choices effect how the player (as a literal) daddy will effect the attitudes and goals of his own daughter, Eleanor (the central plot of the game focuses on the player, Delta, rescuing his daughter from Lamb’s clutches).


In other words, if the theme of Bioshock suggests an idea that free will is an illusion, the father-daughter dynamics that guide the plot and gameplay of the sequel suggest that choice is exceptionally meaningful.  The way that the player serves as a role model through the choices made throughout the game will ultimately contribute to the identity of his daughter.  This is a game, then, about parenting and how modelling choices effect generations to come.


The idea bodes well for Bioshock 3 as it suggests that there is a future for the series.  After all, if one generation can effect the next by molding its best attributes into something fresh and new, then the next game may too have an equally fresh way of approaching old ground.

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G. Christopher Williams is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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“I wouldn't say that games are the ideal way to experience literature. I think literature has done that quite well. That being said, games offer the opportunity to ask interesting questions and allow the player to answer them in a way that transcends previous mediums.” -- Jordan Thomas, Creative Director, Bioshock 2
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