Why Bioshock 2 is the Art Game You’ve Been Looking For

I find it strange that Bioshock gets a great deal of love. I didn’t used to, back when it first came out, because it is a clever, unique, and interesting game, with a lot of cool ideas, but then I played two very important games: System Shock 2 and Bioshock 2.

System Shock 2 revealed Bioshock for what it was–a nice-looking, but shallower representation of the Shock ideal. Bioshock was a simpler creature, lacking the vim and verve of its spiritual predecessor. When you stripped away Rapture, there wasn’t much left. Gone were the guns that broke, the inventory management, the reasons to go back to previous levels and have a look around. Gone were the big ideas, too, and the characters that drove them. The gameplay had tightened up significantly, but even though powers were easier to use, they tended to be far less interesting. The dearth of enemy types hurt the game as well.

Still, it was unique, and it did make a rather interesting point about video games: choice is created by the developer, everything is fake. You are a slave to the game. You do not have total freedom. You are a puppet, dancing at the developer’s whims.

I can forgive Bioshock for not having the best combat ever. Half-Life doesn’t have the best combat ever, but it’s still pretty fun, after all. I can forgive it for not having an inventory system, because they did a pretty good job making the game without it. I have a harder time forgiving the lack of good characters, but Rapture and Andrew Ryan alone made for an interesting world. Putting the game on a numerical core, I’d still give it a solid 9 out of 10 because the <i>experience</i> transcends its many weaknesses.

But… Bioshock 2 is by far the better game.

Wait; let’s back up a bit. Wasn’t Bioshock critically acclaimed? Didn’t a lot of people talk about how great that point was? In fact, wasn’t the largest criticism about Bioshock 2 the fact that it didn’t need to be made because Bioshock was so perfect?

Okay, yes, a lot of people did talk about how great the point was, and they did go on to say that Bioshock 2 didn’t need to be made because Bioshock was complete as it was… but… saying that a sequel to a great game doesn’t need to be made? That’s a really uncommon criticism. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say “this great game doesn’t need a sequel!” It’s just not a thing people do. So why did Bioshock warrant this claim? Was it really so perfect? Was it the best game ever made, so perfect that it could cure disease, kiss infants, and make you smarter just by thinking about it?

I think not. Generally, a very good game is a game that most people, once they’ve played it, like. They might not have heard of it, it might not have sounded interesting at first, but if it’s truly good, then most of the people who pick it up are going to really enjoy it. Bioshock is rather interesting because the response to the game seems to be rather cool. There’s a surprising number of gamers who actually didn’t enjoy it all that much.

In fact, most common complaint I heard about the game went: “I love Rapture, but the game isn’t very fun.”

It’s interesting to note that Ken Levine, when first revealing Bioshock Infinite, said something along the lines of: “Bioshock wasn’t about Rapture, it was about exploring new worlds.” It makes sense, then, that the biggest appeal of Bioshock would be the discovery of Rapture. Likewise, it makes sense that people might not be hyped for Bioshock 2, even if they claimed to love its predecessor. In truth, the appeal of Bioshock was, by and large, the discovery world–that idea of being under the sea for the first time, the newness wonderful early-60s aesthetic, that first appearance of those freaky men in sdiving suits highlighted by neon, creepy little girls trailing behind them excitedly talking about angels. It’s no surprise, then, that Bioshock 2 didn’t garner the hype that its predecessor did; Rapture had been done, but the game behind it was mediocre at best. No one really wanted to play Bioshock, they wanted to discover something new.

In this way, it makes perfect sense that the biggest argument against Bioshock 2 was that people had already played Bioshock: the appeal of Rapture had worn off, and people had actually begun to dread the idea of playing Bioshock again.

But, you see, Bioshock did need a sequel. While the gameplay itself might have been lackluster, the point it made–this idea that choice is illusory, that freedom isn’t real, that the developer need not be burdened by the medium’s strength, interactivity–was a bad one. It’s sad to me that the developers at Irrational feel this way; indeed, the worst part of Bioshock was the part where it revealed itself to the player, removed all choice, and turned itself into an empty, linear experience. The game was genuinely interesting when it offered you choices, but when the folks at Irrational decided that they’d have enough and decided to remove choices from the game, it became far less interesting.

Any artist will tell you that the best art is that which plays off its medium’s strength. A film built entirely around reading words on a screen isn’t a film worth watching. Likewise, a sitcom that tries to use filmic storytelling isn’t going to work because film’s pacing doesn’t allow all that much to happen in half an hour. Gaming’s strength is its interactivity–as soon as you can interact, that means that the gameplay is choice-driven. A developer who chooses not to capitalize on that strength, instead going for the “choice is fake!” route, does a disservice to the medium.

People like to say that choice is an illusion, but that’s only true if there are no consequences. Over the weekend, I played Back to the Future parts 4 and 5. I had the choice to pick various dialog options, but only one of them was the “correct” option. If I tried to tell Citizen Brown that a character would live a happy life in the future, Marty would invariably say something stupid, the dialog option would be removed, and I’d have to pick whatever option was laid out for me. That’s the illusion of choice. One example I’m fond of using is an ice cream store. A store claiming to offer hundreds of flavors, but truly offering only vanilla, is offering nothing more than the illusion of choice. A store offering a limited selection of different flavors, however, is offering choice, no matter how limited that choice may be. If something changes, then you have, in fact, made a real choice, regardless of the size of the consequence. Maybe it’s simply the difference between chocolate and vanilla.

That Bioshock would effectively argue “there are no real choices in gaming! This is all it can be!” is, then, rather sad. It’s a myopic take on the medium. It’s an inherently limiting idea. This is where Bioshock 2 came in. Where Bioshock said “hah! gotcha! choices are fake,” Bioshock 2 assessed the situations and went for something significantly different.

In Bioshock 2, You are Subject Delta, an early-model Big Daddy, bonded to a little girl, Eleanor. You were killed by Sophia Lamb, Eleanor’s mother. Resurrected after the downfall of Rapture, you wake to discover that Sophia has been turning Eleanor into some sort of superheroic savant, capable of bringing Sophia’s dream of a Marxist family to the world. You need to get to Eleanor. In a way, you are her slave. The entirety of the game is built around making your way to Eleanor to free her. It does not appear you have much choice in the matter–without her, you will die and the world will be doomed. Unlike Bioshock, the maps are actually linear. You appear, at first glance, to have even less choice!

…but…

You meet Grace, Stanley, and Gil, Sophia Lamb’s lieutenants. At each juncture, you have a choice. You can kill them or you can walk away. One of them was a pawn, another was misguided, and another was a key figure responsible for your slavery. Each one tries to kill you, and, as such, it could be argued that each one deserves to die.

I chose not to.

When I died, at the end of the game, and Eleanor absorbed my consciousness into her own, a profound thing happened: she chose to be a better person. She, with the powers of a goddess and the upbringing of a Marxist, realized the power of choice. She realized that we each needed to choose for ourselves the kind of person we would choose to be. She learned that from me. She could have forced the world, kicking and screaming, to be remade in her image, and maybe some would have thought it a better place, but Eleanor realized that it wouldn’t truly have been. I showed her the value of freedom.

Where Bioshock argued that choice in games could be nothing more than an illusion, Bioshock 2 made the counterpoint that, no matter how limited the choices may be, they can have a profound impact on the world of the game, and that is true choice. The value of the choice is not based on the audience’s willing to believe–it’s a burden placed upon the developers. There is nothing that says choice must or must not matter.

Bioshock 2 is a game that capitalizes on interactivity, the element that separates video games from visual media like film and television. It offers a metatextual counterpoint to its predecessor, Bioshock, in addition to making a point about how our choices affect others (unlike other media, as a game, Bioshock 2 actually allows us to see how our choices have an effect), and it does so while featuring better gameplay and storytelling than its predecessor. If you want to argue that games are art, Bioshock 2 is one of the best examples you could possibly use.

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    • awalloftext
    • May 15th, 2012

    Well put. I went back and tried BioShock after playing BioShock 2… man, just being able to wield a gun and a plasmid at once put the gameplay leaps and bounds ahead.

    It saddens me how many people look poorly upon Bio2, and even how many fans of the original never even tried it. The original BioShock was, like you said, an exploration piece; exploration of a bizarre new world and exploration of an ideology.

    BioShock 2 was a character piece, I feel. And it was a good one at that. I despised Sophia (in the best way possible). I enjoyed Sinclair as a character as well, and was pleasantly surprised to see him remain a loyal companion to the end. Just goes to show, just because a character is a sleazy businessman doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is gonna stab you in the back.

    I, as a player, cared about Eleanor. I’m not a father, but I’d like to think Bio2 gave me a small glimpse into a father’s desire to protect his daughter. Maybe I’m just projecting, but for a game to be able to evoke that kind of emotion is simply marvelous.

    I mean, when I got to the end of the game and received Eleanor’s summon power… I didn’t know if she could get hurt or not; I specifically avoided summoning her at several points because I didn’t want her to die. I know at least two of my other friends had the same reaction.

    Even the metacurrency – Little Sisters – had so much more resonance in Bio2, just by adding the subtle touch of having to hold them and look them in the eye when you were carrying them. It really just made the segments where you were protecting them from splicers that much more emotionally connective. Just like Eleanor, you *wanted* to protect them, to keep them safe.

    Powerful stuff.

    My only complaint? What happened to Tenenbaum?! I feel like they never really wrapped up her story arc. I assume she escaped with the Little Sisters, just would have been nice to know for sure.

    • Read Me
    • January 8th, 2013

    You do realize there’s a choice mechanic in Bioshock 1 too, right? Deciding whether or not to save the Little Sisters changes the ending you receive. It’s exactly the same sort of binary “to kill or not to kill” mechanic employed in Bioshock 2. It’s literally exactly the same. If you save the little sisters/ spare Sofia’s lieutenants you get the good ending and if you harvest the sisters/ kill the lieutenants you get a bad ending. Your point about the first Bioshock presenting choice as an illusion isn’t exactly correct, then, as your choices DO influence your ending. I could understand if, after reaching the big twist midway through the first game, you concluded that the game meant to ridicule the idea of choice in video games, but there’s another whole half of a game still there! Centered around Jack freeing himself from his conditioned slavery! With an ending that is affected by the player’s choices! It’s the same mechanic that was present in Bioshock 2! I don’t honestly see how you could form the opinion that the first Bioshock definitely concluded on an anti-choice narrative unless you just stopped playing halfway through the game or something.

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