In Defense of Bioshock 2: A Story of Parenting

At an 88, Bioshock 2 has the lowest Metacritic score of the three Bioshock games, and the second lowest of the 5 -Shock titles (losing out only to the Enhanced Edition of the original System Shock). The original Bioshock is praised for its innovative design, open-ended combat, and unique narrative and setting. Bioshock Infinite, while maybe the tides have turned on the game since release, is still noted as a beautiful game, one with interesting characters, and, if nothing else, a game worth debating about.

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Bioshock 2, however, doesn’t get nearly as much discussion as the other titles in its series. Most people consider it the redheaded stepchild of the series. Both other Bioshock titles were unique, interesting experiences unlike anything else in video games. Bioshock 2 feels like….Bioshock. It’s more Rapture, more Big Daddies, more plasmids, more Tenenbaum, more all of that.

And, yes, this game is not perfect. Despite being a Big Daddy, playing Subject Delta feels just like playing Jack for the first 2/3 of the game. Characters, especially Tenenbaum, seem shoved in just to go “Hey, you remember Bioshock? That game was pretty good.” before unceremoniously leaving. Few of the new characters are memorable in the way Atlas or Andrew Ryan was. The game actually looks pretty bad, even accounting for age.

However, Bioshock 2 is far from a bad game. In fact, Bioshock 2 is a really good game, one which actually does some things that its younger brother, Bioshock Infinite, has been criticized for. For example, Bioshock 2‘s motif, one of family and parenthood, is one that it holds true to for the entire game. Where Bioshock infinite‘s themes of racism and of personal choice get…muddled, Bioshock 2‘s story of family is not only held to the end, it provides an interesting parallel to the theme of the first Bioshock. Where Bioshock  was a story about how your choice are ultimately predetermined by unseen forces, Bioshock 2 reverses the relationship: the player IS the unseen force, predetermining the choices to be made by Eleanor, the player’s Little Sister.

In Bioshock Infinite, you never really feel like Elizabeth is in danger, partially because she is mechanically invincible, partially because the game literally tells you not to worry about her, and mostly because she is an omnipotent world-bending goddess. You’re told from square one that you have to protect and save her, but this idea gets muddled by the end of the game: you’re a man with a gun, she is literal divinity. You never feel responsible for Elizabeth, because she doesn’t need your guidance or you to save her, not really.

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“Hey Booker, I know I can rip holes in the very fabric of reality, but I really need you and your dinky little gun.”

The father-daughter relationship between Subject Delta and Eleanor, however, is far more interesting. Delta doesn’t necessarily want to save Eleanor, but, in both the Rapture and mundane sense, he is her Father. He has to. Moreover, he doesn’t have to save her from some evil monster or a dungeon or a dragon, the person he’s saving her from is her mother, who, both in the game universe and in modern societal norms, is the person with the stronger connection to the child.

On top of this, Eleanor is neither a damsel in distress, nor completely free. As a child, she was basically unable to save herself, but through her years being raised by her mother, she has come closer and closer to becoming independent. She’s not quite there yet, though. She needs her Father to “complete” her childhood and ascend to adulthood.

This dynamic shakes up even more when you finally do reach Persephone, the climax of the game, and free Eleanor. While she was a girl when she was your Little Sister, that was 10 years ago, and now, she’s a young woman. Not only is she a young woman, she’s a woman who has been trained to master ADAM, the mutagen which gives people superpowers, and when she emerges from her cell, she emerges more powerful than anyone you’ve ever seen. In those moments, her childhood ends. And then, those chilling words:

Mother was right about one thing: I have been watching you, Father. Studying the way you’ve treated others.

You see, in Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite, the point that gets hammered home is that nothing you do matters. In the face of destiny, in the face of the world that shaped you, the things you do simply will happen. In Bioshock 2, however, your actions have consequence: they shape the predestined actions of another. You are Eleanor’s Father, even if not genetically, and while her mother offers Eleanor a predetermined path to follow, she chooses another: to follow in your footsteps. She has finally decided to move on, and to make her mark on the world, and she chose the path you laid out. Your actions cannot change your predicament (you were damned to your hell in a Big Daddy suit more than a decade before the game), but you can damn Eleanor to a fate of your choosing.

And damn is what I did. I tend to play Bioshock games as a monster. I reap Little Sisters, slaughter my foes, and execute characters who stand against me. I was mentally prepared for Eleanor to come out and hate me, revile me as the brute I was. However, what I wasn’t prepared for was for Eleanor to come out of her cell, excited to become the woman I taught her how to be. And Eleanor, my daughter, was damned from my actions to become an even greater monster than I ever was. She killed dozens of Little Sisters, as well as both her own parents, and set out to subjugate the world. This, I think, is the master stroke of Bioshock 2.

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Couldn’t you just get the lead in a school pageant or something?

When games put you in charge of something or someone, usually what happens in one of two things. One, the things you’re in charge of are static, or at least only move along a certain path, and it’s up to the player to change themselves to match. Mass Effect is a good example of this: your crew members don’t change to match your character, you model your character to be appealing to those characters. “I’m gonna be a good guy,” I remember saying, “because I want Garrus to like me”. No matter how I play, I cannot turn Garrus into a monster. I just can’t. He’s always going to be the warrior of justice in an unjust galaxy.

The second way games can give players responsibility is by giving them responsibility of a thing which does not actively affect the world. Included in this category is a set of things that a player gets responsibility over which, in turn, affects the way the player controls the world. Think of settlements in Fallout 4. I can control the exact contents of any given settlement, but that settlement doesn’t act. It’s not an independent state, with its own goals. It merely sits there, occasionally offering me new ways to affect the world, by giving me the ability to craft new guns, armor, or structures. The settlement itself doesn’t do anything.

The way Bioshock 2 differs from this is that the responsibility that the game offers you isn’t perfect control, nor is it a lack of control. It falls somewhere in between. Players have a responsibility over Eleanor, but there’s a point where the player’s burden of responsibility is lifted. This ties back to the theme of parenthood, because, while I can’t speak from personal experience, one of the most important moments of parenthood is the moment when your child becomes independent, when they become their own agent of change in the world and you realize that you’ve done what you can, and now, it’s time to see how you did.

I think, for a lot of creators, be it artists and writers or creators of other people (read: parents), a significant part of that process is the point where you lose control, where the thing becomes it’s own entity in the world. And it’s exploring this critical part of creating, of parenthood, that Bioshock 2 becomes an independent, unique, interesting thing.

 

 

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A Gothic Cathedral Is Just a Bunch of Rocks Put Together: The Genius of Overwatch

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I have been playing a positively disgusting amount of Overwatch, to the point where I’m starting my day with the stated goal of “Don’t just play Overwatch all day”, and I’m occasionally failing. This game just hits all of the pleasure centers of my brain just right and I just want to play it for hours.

The thing that makes Overwatch compelling, in my opinion, is how many interesting interactions arise from relatively simple mechanics and abilities in the game. Generally speaking, every character has a gun with a regular and an alt-fire, two abilities, and an ultimate that can be triggered when a meter is filled. That’s really it, and while it might sound imposing all listed out like that, compare that to the variety of weapons and playstyles for any one character in Team Fortress 2, or the sheer number of loadout possibilities in a Call of Duty or Battlefield style shooter, and 5 main ways to interact with the game seems….sparse.

The thing Overwatch understands is that you can create extremely complex and compelling gameplay out of some very simple mechanics in interesting combinations, the same way the most ornate Gothic cathedrals are just simple rock rectangles, arranged in an interesting way. These combinations largely work in the way you’d expect, despite not necessarily being obvious. For instance, Genji, the cyborg ninja, has an ability that allows him to reflect any projectile sent his way for a limited time. His brother, Hanzo, has a devastating ult that sends forth an arrow that transforms into massive energy dragons, travelling through walls and dealing tons of damage.

Genji cannot reflect the dragons, which is what you’d expect: they’re large, not really tangible, and seem less like projectiles than sentient spirits. However, astute players will recognize Hanzo’s ultimate starts out as a simple arrow before summoning the dragons, and astute Genji players will recognize that this arrow can be reflected. If you’re Genji, and you’re attentive and skilled enough, you can be rewarded with a great play in reflecting this ult.

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The “Dragons” animated short Blizzard put out, which features Genji and Hanzo, actually hints at this interaction

The game is full of these interesting interactions, which make for exciting techniques that master-level players can perfect, and can properly separate advanced players from beginners. Reinhardt can charge D.Va’s self-destructing mech away from his team, saving them. Mei’s wall can also be used to give someone instant high ground, great for McCrees hoping to land a clutch Deadeye. These interactions are layered on top of each other in a six-versus-six game, to create a series of situations with deep, deep complexity.

Another key component to Overwatch is, I believe, Blizzard’s mastery of game feel. For being a title in a genre completely foreign to Blizzard up to this point, the gunplay feels great. Every gun, from Tracer’s pistols to Roadhog’s shotgun, feels good to use, and the hit markers and headshot indicators offer excellent feedback. But, more than that, every character, no matter who they are or what they do, when played at their best, feels good, and moreover, feels good in a unique way.

When I’m having a good day with Roadhog, I almost feel like a hunter, or a predator, grabbing people out of the air and reeling them in, watching them helplessly look at me while I line up my shot. When Reaper drops down from an unseen alcove and begins his Death Blossom, you feel like a force of nature, like Death itself. When you play Junkrat right, well, in his own words, “everything comes up explodey”.

Compare this to other multiplayer games I really like. In Left 4 Dead, all of the humans have the same playstyle, and you cycle through the Infected so fast you can basically consider them all one, homogenous playstyle. In Assassin’s Creed, the one way to play is “quiet, slow, and stabby”. Even in fighting games, characters don’t tend to stray too far from the sort of ur-style of that game: anime fighting game characters are fast and airborne, NetherRealm game characters are slow and plodding, Marvel vs Capcom characters are twitchy with a bunch of ranged attacks, etc.

This, I feel, is the key to Overwatch‘s longetivity. Talking with my friend the other day, I realized that I haven’t played any game other than Overwatch since it’s release, literally. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because whenever I get tired of the playstyle of Overwatch, instead of switching games, I simply start playing a character I haven’t played in a while. When I’m sick of picking off targets as Roadhog and Widowmaker, both of whom are characters heavily reliant on careful selection of targets, I pick up Reinhardt and Reaper, and get in the middle of the action. When I’m done with them, I play Junkrat and Symmetra, and adopt a playstyle that’s much more anticipatory, and based on traps.

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Junkrat is also very good if you wanna make a bunch of shit explode

I love Overwatch. I think the characters are all unique and interesting, both from a visual and narrative design perspective, and in the different ways they are all satisfying to play. No two characters fulfill the exact same roles, and when you combine this with the interesting way all of the characters interact with one another, and the little tricks each character has that only high-level players can learn and know, and you get a game with a ton of depth, and a nearly infinite ability to engage.