Sunday, April 11, 2010

Hindsight - Bioshock 2

Hindsight is the name of a group of editorials (among other things) that I'm working on for Chocolate Lemon, where I revisit a title I've mined considerably, and offer not a review, but some retroactive thoughts on what I'd experienced. Hope you enjoy :)

[[[ SPOILERS abound. I may seem to be selective in the details I go into, but trust me when I say reading this will ruin Bioshock 2's story for you if you have yet to experience it. ]]]

I was originally one of those people who didn’t welcome Bioshock 2 with open arms. I wondered why the game even existed, why it needed multiplayer, and most importantly, why anyone thought it’d be a good idea to have us as gamers revisit Rapture a second time around. I’d personally felt that what added to the infinite wonder that was Rapture was the contrast of how finite the reality was; Even though you become swept up in discovering a new world, the presence of your objective and the rapidly deteriorating surroundings meant the experience wouldn’t last. To me, it meant the experience was one to be savored, and savor it I did.

A preemptive run of the original game a week before release reaffirmed this sentiment in my mind. What reason was there to return to Rapture, if at all? At its conclusion, it didn’t seem like Rapture would last another 10 days, let alone another 10 years.

So my second tour of Rapture was a bit…skeptical, to say the least. The game did waste no time trying to lure me in with that surreal view of a pre-civil war Rapture, and even the subsequent first person suicide was a shock that, while not completely in the same vein as the plane crash, still shocked me and drew me in. However, as soon as I had control, having been tasked with finding Eleanor, my Little Sister, I spent much of my time wandering around aimlessly. A bit of wandering, some shattered glass and the ocean floor later, my worst fears were realized--I simply wasn't wowed. I wasn't really blown away, though I was impressed, but it honestly just felt like more of the same. This was a Rapture I'd seen and heard before. From a gameplay perspective, that’s great. From a storytelling one, in a game where story is the driving force, not so much so. After seeing it to its conclusion, I was singing a very different tune, and I’m very glad I didn’t let the first hour or so dissuade me, because what I experienced later on took me completely by surprise.

Unexpectedly, the locations struck a chord with me. During my tour I had seen the Atlantic Express, an old railway that ran through Rapture before single person bathyspheres became popular, giving the metropolis a sense of history and progression it didn’t have before. Ryan Amusements, a theme park turned propaganda machine made me uneasy in showing just how far its namesake Andrew Ryan would go in promoting his vision. The poor district of Pauper’s Drop, the slums where diners and jazz bars thrived in light of Ryan’s “tyranny” fascinated me as well. There was so much going on in Rapture, so much that the first game couldn’t possibly have captured, that in revisiting it all from a different perspective, I gained a new appreciation for the underwater city. Akin to discovering Ryan’s trophy room in Hephaestus from the first game, a similar feeling of dread overcame me when arrived at Persephone, a detention center where Ryan would send his detractors and dissidents. It took a bit of time, but I regained that familiar feeling the first area failed to inspire—the feeling of discovery, of putting together pieces. I was exploring the parts of Rapture that have been long forgotten, even by the residents themselves, and the city felt a lot richer because of it.

It was the same for the characters, main or otherwise. As a protagonist with a clean slate and snubbed memory, it’s just as easy to step into Delta’s shoes as it was to step into Jack’s, and the story behind his origins, while not on the level of the introspective mind f*** Jack had, was still interesting in its own way. As an accomplice, I grew fond of Sinclair, even while knowing of his true intentions behind helping me. Others like Stanley Poole (who is responsible for many of the central characters misfortune), religious/Lamb fanatic Simon Wales, the maniacal Gil Alexander (aka Alex the Great, a man turned monster) all take turns standing in your way while displaying their eccentricities. Surprisingly, each of them were twisted and memorable in ways I didn’t expect, and seeing that many of their lives were in my hands, my encounters with them (particularly Gil Alexander’s) stuck with me long after their time in the spotlight was done.

Of course, I’d also found a new antagonist to despise in Sofia Lamb. While her collectivist ideology initially seemed like a welcome relief from Ryan’s objectivist policies, her true motives in the cultish “Rapture Family” and her altruistic philosophy painted her as a much more sinister villain than Ryan in my eyes. Having taken control of Rapture in Ryan’s wake, she uses her power not only to brainwash the remnants of Rapture into her own personal army, but to also attempt conditioning her daughter into what she believes is the perfect human being; one who is devoted to the common good, with no will of their own. The more I found out about her, the more I realized just how corrupt she was in contrast--where Ryan had become a despot in response to his vision of Utopia spiraling out of his control due to his failures, Lamb came to Rapture with the intent of gathering followers and imposing a new order under the guise of family, and succeeded.

There were two defining moments of the experience to me though, ones that elevate the sequel in my mind to the level of, if not beyond the original. No, neither of them have anything to do with gameplay. (Though it is easily one of the best sequel-to-sequel gameplay updates I've ever seen..)

The first was when I rescued a sister without it being my prime objective for doing so, and I still can’t pinpoint what it was exactly. It might’ve been when she looked at me after defeating her protector and said “Daddy….is that you?” It might've been the moments when I was forced to defend her while she completed her tasks. Might’ve even been the playful moments with her on my shoulder, hearing her taunt my enemies while I fought. There was a different dynamic at play here, and I felt it. These little girls weren’t just a source of ADAM, or a barometer for my moral compass as in the first. They trusted me. They saw me as their father, a protector, and the more of them I came into contact with, the deeper that bond grew in my eyes. I wanted to help them, they wanted to help me, and no one, not even Lamb’s new Big Sisters could keep me from my task. I wouldn’t allow it. Finding out later on that my decisions towards them affected Eleanor and her eventual outlook on life attached even more in terms of gravitas.

The second was the Little Sister sequence towards the end. If the Big Daddy sequence at the end of the original served to communicate the hopeless drudgery of their protector roles, the brilliant Little Sister sequence in the second revealed to me just how brainwashed these tortured little girls were. Rapture became as pristine as a young girl’s bedroom, complete with drapes and toys strewn about. Grotesque splicers became upscale masquerade ball attendees, and when they fell asleep, angels appeared for me to collect, surrounded by butterflies. Blood spatter became rose petals. The Big Daddy was exalted from a grotesque overseer trapped in a diving suit to a knight in shining armor, complete with sculptures illustrating my actions in-game. It was just as shocking when I was jolted out of the fever dream and saw Rapture for what it really was.

It all did eventually come to an end though, and when it did, culminating in an incredible final push by the Rapture Family, I was given a very fuzzy, yet satisfying ending. It didn’t feel like a copout, as the first one did, and I really felt like what I’d done influenced the outcome for the better. On the other end of the spectrum, playing again as an evil character filled me with a sense of dread, and I truly felt like a bastard. Pressing Y to harvest was infinitely more difficult this time around. The girls were afraid of me, the prejudice, fear and hatred against me in Rapture justified. Worst of all, my ruthless, unforgiving behavior had done something to Eleanor that even I didn’t see coming. Sometimes a bad ending can carry a sort of guilty pleasure to it, a bit of a malevolent glee from being a dick, but not here. I was morose by the time the credits rolled.

It’s very funny how things change. I was one of the game’s biggest detractors, and it took two playthroughs just to absorb what 2K marin had accomplished with Bioshock 2. No, it doesn’t fire on the same exact cylinders as the first, and no, the twist doesn’t carry the exact same weight. To expect it to was admittedly a bit much to begin with, but this isn’t an excuse in their favor. The truth is, the story is surprising in different ways, its central antagonist is more of a presence, arguably more sinister in her goals and ideals, and your choices, while seemingly insignificant and ancillary at first glance, carry an immeasurable weight as the game reaches its conclusion.

I came away more than satisfied.

Still don’t care about the multiplayer though, heh.

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