Owning ‘BioShock 2’

My naturally cautious nature made me apprehensive about BioShock 2. The original BioShock, while not without its flaws, was instantly hailed as a monumental triumph. It dealt with serious moral and philosophical themes, commenting on the nature of freedom in both society and video game design. Rapture’s beautiful, yet decrepit environment told the story of what happens when self interest goes unchecked. The surroundings were more than pretty set pieces: shadowy corridors, flammable oil, and flooded rooms could be exploited by using various battle techniques to one’s advantage. It felt like (and to a certain extent still feels like) my ideal game. It was a complete experience that I didn’t want subsequently altered by the unknown consequences of a sequel. My adventure through Rapture was personal, and I felt ownership over it and its subsequent legacy.

I’m not alone in this. The necessity of BioShock 2’s existence is a common theme in discussions about the game. The first line of Justin McElroy’s review was “BioShock didn’t need a sequel” (“Review: BioShock 2 (single-player)”,Joystiq, 8 February 2010). Mitch Krpata remembers in his year end review that a sequel “seemed like a bad idea from the start, one that could end up only as a blight on the original”, but then goes on to praise it as a game that “in some ways surpassed” its predecessor (”The Top 10 Video Games of 2010″, The Phoenix, 21 December 2010). Will Herring admitted, “While I was initially in the camp that believed BioShock to be a self-contained narrative that didn’t need further exploration, it didn’t take long for BioShock 2 to unequivocally sell me on the idea of a return-trip to Rapture” (BioShock 2, GamePro, 8 February 2010). It is poetic that the original game fostered such strong possessive feelings in light of the ideology that built Rapture. A game about self interest inspired its players to take ownership of it, to treat it like their property that needed defense. Equally poetic is BioShock 2‘s success in weakening that sense of possessiveness and demonstrating that, all too often, being forced to relinquish ownership is both inevitable and enjoyable.

Had I and so many other critics had our way, we would have never experienced the impressive extension of BioShock’s combat dynamics. I know that I’m not the only one who made it through BioShock mostly by zapping and bludgeoning any splicers that I met. While I toyed with the environmental effects and various plasmids, switching between weapons was cumbersome and experimenting was time consuming enough that I mainly stuck to what worked: electrobolt followed by the wrench. In BioShock 2, because of something as simple as dual-wielding, I was much more inclined to mix and match combinations, discovering unexpected dynamics and learning how to properly use off-beat abilities like the insect swarm and decoy plasmids. It became so natural to quickly cycle through weapons and plasmids that I actually forgot that it was a new development; BioShock 2 didn’t overwrite my memories of the first game, it positively modified them.

Rapture’s intricate environment was also highlighted by 2K Marin’s talented level designers. Because much of the combat in my playthrough revolved around protecting Little Sisters while they were harvesting ADAM, I became well versed in reading the terrain and making preparations for the optimal hostile encounter. Knowing all a room’s entry points, elevated vantage points, the width of its hallways, and whether there were any leaky pipes that I could use to my advantage was rewarding in both a narrative and ludic sense. My observations yielded emergent events and dynamic battles while also allowing me to glean bits of the story told through the scenery.

BioShock 2’s story and overarching morality system explore the limits of control. Unlike the first game, the choices that the player makes are not only meaningful to them but to others whose subsequent decisions will have uncontrollable ramifications. The prime example of this is Eleanor, who will act independently after observing Subject Delta’s behavior. As my writing partner, Jorge Albor, put it:

Eleanor ultimately becomes the type of person Delta appears to be. If Delta seeks vengeance, so will Eleanor. If Delta harvests children to survive, Eleanor too will commit herself to survival, regardless of the sacrifices. Being responsible for another person’s identity goes beyond responsibility for a few disparate outcomes. My version of Delta would probably not have let Sophia Lamb live. When Eleanor forgives her and saves her life in the “good” ending, it evokes a sense of responsibility for something greater than the self. She becomes a better person than those before her. (“The Sensationalist: Guilt and Responsibility in BioShock 2, Experience Points, 2 August 2010)

This altruistic version of Eleanor Lamb in Jorge’s virtual world is a metaphor for BioShock 2‘s existence in the real world. Based solely on the attitudes of people like me, BioShock 2 would have never been created, just as Jorge’s Subject Delta would not have spared Sophia Lamb. However, my choices to praise the game’s beauty, dissect the components of its combat and moral systems, and immerse myself in Rapture’s fiction had ramifications that I could not control. As was the case with the millions of other BioShock fans and critics, my actions were more powerful than my wishes. I assumed ownership over something that no single entity truly controls.

As repugnant as it would be to Andrew Ryan, BioShock 2 makes it clear that Rapture is now communally owned. Where I once thought of Ken Levine as its sole proprietor, the gritty Pauper’s Drop environment and the outstanding Minerva’s Den make Steve Gaynor seem like its mayor. Irrational Games may have had the original vision, but 2K Marin fleshed out the potential. Characters like Atlas once towered over the landscape of Rapture, but people like Grace Holloway demonstrate that the city was an amalgamation of many lives rather than the vision of a single man.

Had BioShock been the property of any single person, it’s quite likely that BioShock 2 would not have existed. Ownership often breeds conservatism, and in the case of a BioShock sequel, fans wanted to play it safe: why risk sullying something great? “Because there is money to be made,” says the corporation. “Because there are creative challenges to face,” says the artist. And now, the converted believers like myself can say: “Because placing BioShock on a pedestal would have ultimately stifled it.” It may feel safe and comfortable to possess something, but ownership can also be a restrictive illusion, one that robs your most prized possession of its full potential.