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.
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.
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.
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.