Archive for the ‘ Bioshock 2 ’ Category

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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Freedom: On the Authority of the Character

Hey guys. This post is older than it looks, so it might not look as if it were intended to be part of a series. I don’t think it needs editing, though. Previous posts are here and here.

I’ve been playing Skyrim a bit in my free time. Also, I’ve been thinking about character interactions in Bioware games, as news about Mass Effect 3 reaches fever pitch. In addition, I was reading a thread a few weeks ago about graphics, so Uncharted 3 is getting mentioned (mostly by two or three people with Uncharted/Sony-exclusive-title avatars), as is The Witcher 2. I was also in a discussion a month or so ago about Deus Ex: Human Revolution and a (not the winter one, an earlier one) Steam sale allowed me to purchase the DLC at $7.49.

These things all have something in common: Freedom. The other day, I read an article about 2011 being the year of the sandbox title (often associated with freedom), and, of course, I just wrote about the idea of total freedom a few posts ago. There’s a reason for this, but I’ll write about it at a later date. For now, let’s just talk about a hypothetical game and hypothetical freedom.

Game Q, as we’ll call it, generally offers you a lot of freedom. There are a few points, however, when it takes that freedom away. It’s not a mechanical breakdown, though. Where Deus Ex: Human Revolution taught you to expect freedom and build your character as you saw fit, then turned everything on its head in a fit of stupidity, Game Q takes the freedom away when the plot demands it.

Let’s say, for instance, that you’ve pissed off Evil Mister X. You’re playing a mission, sneaking around Factory Z in order to find evidence pointing to the location of The MacGuffin (though you could just as easily have gone in guns blazing, or maybe stealthily executed everyone in your path; whatever you wanted), when, suddenly, Evil Mister X calls you out on the PA system, locks the doors to the room you’re in, and fills it with sleeping gas. You wake up, tied to a chair, bright lights shining on you, with Evil Mister X’s favorite interrogator preparing to stab you with a few exotic-looking needles or something.

You’ve just lost the freedom to play the way you wanted.

Let’s back the story up a bit. Earlier in the game, you did a favor for Evil Mister X. Turning him down puts you in the first situation. He doesn’t hate you this time around, however, so when doing the mission, suddenly the alarms go off, soldiers pop out of nowhere, aggressively looking for the intruder. It turns out that Evil Mister X sent his favorite assassin in to help you out, but, being Evil Mister X, he wanted it done with some style, so the assassin went in guns blazing, ruining your stealthy plans.

Isn’t that a better game than one where you have total freedom to do whatever you want?

See, Evil Mister X is a pretty big bad guy. He doesn’t take kindly to doing things someone else’s way. He does them the way he wants. For him to be a valid character, he needs to appear as if he’s making choices, even if those choices conflict with the outcomes you had in mind. If everyone just listens to you and does whatever you want no matter what, they start to feel less fully realized. There’s something wrong with a game that gives you plenty of freedom, but bends over backwards keeping everyone else in check so they only ever do what you want.

Let’s look at Infamous 2 for a moment.

Nyx, the fire-wielding hot-head (a cliche that annoys me, but whatever) conduit, offers, a few times, to do things that sound totally batshit crazy, like crashing a trolley car into an enemy base to take out all the bad guys with relative ease (but it’ll kill lots of cops). If you choose not to do it, she gets pissed, but that’s about it. So far, she won’t do anything to contradict you (I haven’t beaten the story yet), and that actually kind of bothers me. It’d be nice if I planned to do something my way, and Nyx went ahead with her plan and made a mess of things anyways.

The one obvious problem is that you essentially have the same outcome, no matter what. If you do Nyx’s plan, other people will be mad at you and cops will be dead. If you don’t do Nyx’s plan, she’ll be mad at you… and the cops will be dead. All that really changes is whether or not you wanted it to happen, and then players run the risk of feeling like their choices have no consequence, which, as I’ve previously discussed, is a bad thing. There’s no point in having a choice if the outcome is always the same, after all.

Uncharted is a pretty great example of doing the opposite. It never lets you make a choice, and as a results, its characters can feel more like real people. Never mind that Infamous 2’s characters are way better than anything Uncharted has to offer–they’re held back by having to remain secondary to your choices. Uncharted’s aren’t. They can do whatever the writer wants them to do.

It’s a prickly problem: do you want freedom or do you want real characters?

…why not have both?

If Evil Mister X doesn’t know you’re going on this mission, maybe neither things will occur.

I’ve been running with the idea that, like Deus Ex, Game Q is an immersive sim. The idea behind immersive sims is that the AI often uses non-scripted behavior to make the world feel more alive. Wolves will hunt bunnies because it’s in their nature, not because the game designer said “okay, as you round this corner, those wolves will chase that bunny.” It’s a genre that more effectively creates game worlds which feel alive, and being able to transport us to worlds by making them feel alive is something that games really ought to be doing more often. After all, if they try to tell us a story and allow us to participate in it, then nothing should break that illusion, right? (Oh, man, that’s going to have to be another post for another day. Too long.)

See, scripting can be good–just look at the original Half-Life, one of the greatest games of all time, for proof of that. At the same time, it can be bad when used in excess (see Uncharted, which is so much worse than Call of Duty when it comes to scripting and level design reducing freedom that it isn’t even funny–yet another post for another day). I think Game Q should operate with some level of scripting, but it should only do so in a way that enhances the story or the characters. Evil Mister X shouldn’t do a thing because the game designer wanted him to–Evil Mister X should be ready and able to do a lot of things dependent on the player’s behavior in the game, because that’s who he is.

Ultimately, those scripted behaviors throughout Game Q mean that the player feels like they need to interact in a specific way with any NPC they meet.

If Friendly Boss might help you out for sneaking in to Base Y, maybe you should let him know. If the game is able to track your play style (“player completes missions with 30% sneaking, 10% shooting, 60% disguises”), maybe NPCs might recognize that you did a mission if you keep using that play style, so you might want to consider changing things up. Maybe you know that one of Evil Mister X’s spies has infiltrated your organization (it might even be Friendly Boss!), so you decide not to tell anyone and do everything off the grid so nobody learns about your mission until it’s done.

Basically, I think removing player freedom doesn’t necessarily mean the game stops being free. If you lose your freedom as the result of your actions, then… it was your freedom that got you there. If anything,  your freedom is enhanced when it gets taken away. Ghandi once said (more or less) that freedom doesn’t matter unless you have the freedom to screw up. If you choose something that screws you over… well, that’s still freedom, even if it means being tied in a chair and being beaten by it. As long as Game Q doesn’t permanently take that freedom from you, it should be fine.

Somebody else once said that the people who value freedom are the ones who have it taken away. It seems to me that the game would matter more if you were put in situations where you had no freedom (as a direct result of your freedom, as just discussed), and you had to re-earn your freedom through some way.

Game Q should be able to combine the player the freedom and unscripted nature of the immersive sim alongside the scripted nature of more story-focused games, topping both by having characters that appear to make intelligent decisions based on player actions. They’re still reactive characters, like you’ll find in story-focused games like Mass Effect (I never said they had to be good stories, did I?), ultimately doing what they do based on what you do, but at least they’re not either simple AI behaviors or set-in-stone scripted behaviors.

I guess you could think of this implementation of scripting as… really elaborate AI behaviors. Jamie Griesemer and Chris Butcher, in their presentation “The Illusion of Intelligence,” which discusses the implementation of Halo’s AI, mention how part of the illusion of enemy intelligence was by giving Halo’s enemies a wide variety of things to do and letting them be around long enough to use some of those abilities. The scripting is just a really large event that occurs based on the context the characters find themselves in. It makes them seem better.

Complete (not total) freedom gives you a game that doesn’t feel genuine because its characters don’t do anything big. There’s rarely any human X-Factor in there. You just do things the way you want to do them, the end. The world doesn’t change as a result of your actions beyond, of course, “oh, this mission’s sub-objective was not to be detected, so you lost a chance to earn 500 XP and some dialog options changed.” The choices don’t really have consequences, and, as you should know by now, choices are meaningless without consequences. Likewise, a scripted game is going to be the same no matter what, so, once again, your choices have no consequences, because you have no choice. You do what you’re told and nothing ever changes.

A hybrid of these two should offer the strengths of both while eliminating their weaknesses.

That’s the theory, anyways.

On Villains

"Round up the usual suspects!"

What makes for a good villain?

Storytelling 101: stories almost exclusively follow the three-act structure of beginning, middle, and end, and feature both a protagonist and an antagonist. The antagonist is generally either man, nature, or self. These three situations, “man against man,” “man against nature,” and “man against himself” establishes what we call conflict, which is a necessary element of drama. For example, Casablanca is “man against man,” Old Yeller is “man versus nature,” and Citizen Kane is “man against himself.” In Casablanca, the protagonists are allied against the Nazis and the Vichy Regime. In Old Yeller, the story comes to a head when the eponymous dog contracts rabies. In Citizen Kane, the central theme of the story is the character’s internal struggle. Above all else, a good villain must provide some form of conflict.

Before we look deeper at what makes a good villain, let’s look at what makes a great character… by looking at what makes a bad one. We accept that Mary Sues are bad characters. Why? They’re unrealistic and unbelievable. What makes them so? Generally, Mary Sues are written as flawless characters, or characters with flaws that aren’t excessively negative. A Mary Sue flaw would be clumsiness–a good character’s flaw is more likely to be, say, perfectionism or sexism (halloo, Reed Richards!). This personality flawlessness has a tendency to make Mary Sues very bland, lacking in any sort of complexity or contradiction. Good characters are almost always defined by how human they are, and humans tend to be quite complex and often contradictory. That complexity brings us to motive. In the case of nature, which has no motive, this does not apply, but in the case of self and others, it most definitely does. What motivated Captain Renault to do what he did in Casablanca? Why did he join the Vichy Regime? Why did he choose to betray them at the movie’s end? A good character is one who makes choices not because the plot demands it, but because those are the choices that they, as a character, would make.

A plot hole is an element of the story that makes no sense in context. This can be extended to characters–poorly written characters often make their choices because the story needs to do certain things. In some cases, this is called the idiot ball. In others, it’s just because they’re a poorly written character. A bad guy who does nothing but, say, shoot his own men, hurt innocent people, and seek power is not a particularly good antagonist because he’s only doing what he’s doing because the plot dictates that he’s bad.

He's Nimoy with a Robot Moustache! OF COURSE HE'S A VILLAIN

One of the chief complaints about the Transformers movies is that the audience don’t actually care about the characters. The movie never provides us with a reason to care about what Shia LeBoeuf wants. Why should we care what happens to Megan Fox? Because she’s hot? Why should we care about saving the world? It’s not ours. Simply saying that the Earth is in danger doesn’t mean that the audience has any reason to want Shia to win, because, after all, he’s annoying and ungrateful for all the cool things that have happened to him. He’s just saving the world because he has to.

When plots dictate characters, we definitionally get bad stories.

Before I continue, I want to make a point that I’ll come back to later: in a game, you are the protagonist, not some other guy. I could get into a discussion about how this means that a game where the character has fundamentally different motivations than the player is a bad game (because no good game should be anti-player), but that could take a while. Instead, I’d just like to point out that simply being the protagonist does not somehow magically make the story better. Just because The Fallen has personally stolen your MacGuffin does not somehow mean that Revenge of The Fallen is any better than it was when The Fallen stole Shia’s MacGuffin.

This is all, as I’ve said, Storytelling 101. If (as in a discussion I had on Friday) you feel inclined to disagree, then you’ve got to prove wrong thousands of years of accumulated storytelling knowledge to do so, or, perhaps more easily, prove that my understanding of storytelling is flawed. There would be no point in me writing about villains if I didn’t believe I knew what I was talking about, however, so, for the rest of the article, we’ll assume the following:

A good villain is like any good character, having the same complexities that any character should have, making decisions (and thus guiding the plot) based on who they are, not what the writer feels they should be doing. It’s particularly prodigious when what the villain does lines up nicely with where the plot is going.

You can tell he's evil because he's bald and ugly.

This brings me to some of the best and worst villains that video gaming has offered us in the past half decade or so: SHODAN, Zoran Lazarevic, Sofia Lamb, The Combine, The Prophet of Truth, and The Reapers.

I shouldn’t need to tell you that SHODAN is, of course, from the former group. In case you don’t believe me, though, feel free to read Kieron Gillen’s take on the character, which remains, to this day, one of the best breakdowns of a video game character I’ve ever read. She is, in a way, an evolution of Durandal, the antagonist/best friend/antagonist/best friend from Marathon, or, more likely, they were both influenced by the same sources. Either way, singing SHODAN’s praises would take too long and Gillen’s already done it better, so there’s no real point in me saying anything more.

Half-Life 2, one of the most loved games in the world that I have a remarkable capacity for hating, stars the Earth-invading psychic worms known as the Combine. They’re pretty much generic, dystopic alien overlords. We don’t actually know much about them or what they want, and their influence is fairly cliché, unique aesthetics aside. Their human emissary, Doctor Breen, may be the single most boring enemy I have ever faced. Don’t get me wrong, he’s actually performed brilliantly, displaying a fantastic mix of arrogance and sympathy, but… meh? Half-Life 2 never really gives you a reason for doing anything you do beyond “go save Eli.” Exploring the “why” of Half-Life 2’s world or its characters doesn’t seem to be a priority for the game. The game seems to think you should just take it as a given that the overlords are bad and that the resistance is good, without ever doing much more than that. Funny that Rage got ticked for this and Half-Life 2 didn’t.

You can tell they're evil on account of them... um... being... I don't know.

The Reapers are basically the same. In fact, upon meeting them for the first time, they basically say “OUR METHODS ARE TOO AWESOME FOR YOU TO UNDERSTAND,” which is, of course, code for “using plainer speech would have made us sound about as threatening as Dominic Greene.” To its credit, Mass Effect as a whole does a fairly nice job of portraying its universe, with characters like Admiral Kahoku or the Petrovsky’s providing us with reasons to want to save the universe. You’ve got people who are awesome and people who aren’t, which is really cool.

…then Mass Effect 2 comes along and ruins it. For one thing, there are no personal sidequests besides breaking up a fight between two assholes in the Citadel. Most everything is just a case of “go to small, remote location, do a task, shoot some dudes, get an email about it.” It becomes instantly less personal. That, right there, is less of a reason to want to fight. It’s not just that, though. Have you ever messed with the contrast on your monitor to the point where nothing is visible because it’s all one tone of grey? Well, Mass Effect 2 is the same way; turns everything into one shade of grey.

In the first game, you could come across a woman who just wants the best for her dead husband’s son, a politician who gets you to murder her pirate sister… it’s all over the place. Mass Effect 2 makes everyone grimdark. Cerberus is no longer a group of Space Gestapo. Instead, they’re just a bunch of dudes who sometimes do bad things to ensure humanity doesn’t get screwed over. The Geth are no longer crazy space robots who worship more crazy space robots–they’re a form of sentient life with feelings. AI isn’t exclusively bad any more (which kinda ruins the point of the entire first game, which is that yes, AI is exclusively bad all the time). Mass Effect 2 is a game that forgets the importance of contrast and never makes anything purely good or purely bad. It confuses moral ambiguity for storytelling maturity.

He's called the Prophet of Truth because he lies.

Speaking of contrast, Halo has some amazing villains. While you might not understand The Flood, they never attempt to obfuscate their motives in order to seem scarier. They are space zombies that get smarter as they spread, becoming more effective at zombifying things. In contrast, the Covenant are a conglomeration of various alien races, united by an unwavering belief in The Forerunners and the desire to meet them by undertaking “The Great Journey,” which is effectively a galactic mass suicide. You’ve got some great stuff going on there–The Prophet of Truth is forced to become a liar or admit that everything he believes is a lie, for instance. In choosing to give in to his pride, he sets in motion the events that lead to the Human/Covenant war. With Halo, Bungie contrasted a villain motivated by hubris, pride, and emotion with one motivated purely by instinct. It’s id versus ego, if you will.

One element that made The Covenant so frightening was their belief that, through genocide, they were making things better. There are few things scarier than those motivated by the belief that they’re doing the right thing, because those things have the absolute conviction that they are doing the right thing. They care. They are driven.

That’s why Sofia Lamb is one of the greatest video game villains I have ever had the pleasure of defeating, while Zoran Lazarevic is pretty bad.

See, Uncharted 2’s Lazarevic is just a dude who is evil and wants power. He has even less motivation than The Fallen or Sentinel Prime, both of whom are trying to save their respective races. He just wants, uh… power, I think? That’s really it. Compare this to Sofia Lamb, who, over the years, subtly turned the people against Andrew Ryan and his ideals. She relied on human laziness–the belief that we deserve things–to obtain her goals. She’s a brilliant counterpoint to Andrew Ryan, who was all about how we must stand on our own efforts. Taken together, both Bioshock and Bioshock 2 complement each other in a way few games can. Both of them present, effectively, an argument against rigid ideology, and it’s a point that’s well-made, but I’m getting sidetracked here.

Bioshock’s characters were human–motivated by a myriad of various desires. In Stanley Poole’s case, his greed had brought about the downfall of Lamb’s haven, resulting in a desperate desire to hide the evidence. Grace Hollaway desperately wanted a daughter, and Sofia provided that by making her Eleanor’s caretaker, investing Grace in the ideals of The Family. What is perhaps the most frightening thing about Sofia, however, is that she truly believes what she is saying. She is not manipulating lesser people because she enjoys manipulation–she manipulates them because she wholly believes she is doing what’s best for them. She believes, completely, in destroying everything it means to be human.

That’s why ultimately, beating her is so great.

Yeah, you don’t get to kill her. I get that. It saddens me, sure, that after everything she put me through, I didn’t get to put a bullet in her skull. Above all else, she deserved it.

But you know what? I think I my victory was greater than that. If I’d ventilated her brains, she would have become a martyr. She would have died with no remorse. Instead, I destroyed her ideology. I did not merely shake her faith–I annihilated it. When all was said and done, Sofia, stripped of her hubris and arrogance, had to admit that I was right. Ideas might be bulletproof, but it doesn’t mean that they cannot be defeated. As Bioshock 2 ended and Delta died, I watched as the choices I had made brought about a change in Eleanor. I watched her, the living embodiment of all that Rapture possessed, make the right decision. I gave her that. I showed her just how powerful choice could be.

Actually, the fact that she would kill you in front of a small child is evil in and of itself, but nobody ever said a great villain couldn't still kick the dog.

As I type this, I find myself wondering if a video game’s ever been written better.

I’m starting to think that maybe, just maybe, Bioshock 2 is the best video game I’ve ever played. Bioshock, for all the joy it seemed to take in telling us that our decisions didn’t matter, might have been a metacritical critique of the idea that games could ever offer us freedom, but Bioshock 2 was the perfect reply to that. I never was put into some silly, scripted event where I got to shoot some stupidly splicer-enhanced Sofia Lamb. Instead, the game demonstrated to me that yeah, we don’t make every choice, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make choices. I wasn’t confronted at every turn with a button prompt or funneled down some rigidly designed fight tube–sometimes, I just had to make the choice to walk away.

Villains, the good ones, they choose.

If a writer chooses everything for the villain, saying that they ought to be bad just because they’re the antagonist, with no thought put into the choices and motivations of that character, then they’ve created a bad character. This isn’t just true of villains, actually–it’s true of anybody who’s ever been written. A good character is a truly human character, one makes decisions not based on some preordained plot, but on who they are. Asimov once said something about science fiction basically being a reflection of ourselves, but I think that’s true for all fiction. Bioshock 2, unlike most games, has that in spades. Its core moral is ultimately about the power of choice–the very thing that makes video games unique from every other story medium.

It deserves a lot more love than it gets.

Of course, we could just forget about villains and strong narratives and just go for living, breathing game worlds in which our only cares are how to survive the night. That sounds awesome, right? Yeah. It does. STALKER’s awesome. Let’s all go play that now.