The underwater city of Rapture, the setting of 2007’s Xbox and PC hit “BioShock” and its just-released sequel “BioShock 2,” is aptly named. Few video game worlds are as thrillingly conceived as the alt history utopia gone awry of 2K Games’ fantastic franchise. But if the locale is what immediately immerses players in the series’ vigorous first-person shooter action, it’s the storytelling that’s the true lure. As so many critics and fans have proclaimed, the original “BioShock” is a rousing work of game design on both a narrative and gameplay level, marrying form and content in a way that few titles have dared to even try.
That, in the end, the game didn’t wholly achieve its lofty goals was a minor letdown, but its ambition and inspiration were stirring. Rarely has a game tried to reflect the ideology of its storyline through its gameplay construction, and it’s even more rare that a game use that storyline to comment on the medium of gaming itself while also confronting players with direct moral dilemmas. Falling just short of greatness may be “BioShock”‘s lasting legacy, but in the process, it offered a window onto a new, exciting, attainable future.
“BioShock”‘ fully realized, self-contained narrative could have made its follow-up seem like an unjustified cash-grab. But “BioShock 2” makes it clear that that grown-up gaming future is now even closer at hand.
Before delving into this surprisingly superior follow-up, let’s take a moment to reconsider what made the franchise’s first installment such a unique near-masterpiece. In “BioShock,” you’re Jack, a blank-slate avatar who survives a plane crash and discovers Rapture, a submerged metropolis built by an entrepreneur named Andrew Ryan who believed — cue Ayn Rand — in the supremacy of the individual over the collective.
Ryan built Rapture, a gorgeous Art Deco city brimming with iconic “Fountainhead” slogans and statues, as a place where man could reach his full potential, a belief that led to genetic modification via superpowers called Plasmids that were generated by ADAM (enhanced stem cells) and fueled by chemical ammo known as EVE. Ryan championed individual gain above all else, which led the population to abuse ADAM to the point of mutation, eventually resulting in a civil war that left Rapture in ruins, as you find it when the game begins.
Throughout, you’re guided on your amnesia-addled path by a mysterious figure known as Atlas, who wants you to kill Andrew Ryan. To do this, you have to upgrade yourself with Plasmids, destroy various enemies dubbed Splicers, and confront giant monsters in diving suits known as Big Daddies that are charged with protecting mutant girls called Little Sisters who harvest ADAM from corpses. The Little Sisters are the vehicle for “BioShock”‘s moral conundrum — you’re given a choice to kill them and selfishly harvest their total ADAM, or save them and receive a lesser amount. Unfortunately, it’s not much of a conundrum, since the game — subscribing, shrewdly, to Andrew Ryan’s “every man for himself” ethos — compels you to fully power Jack up during the course of the action, meaning that the only logical choice is to harvest the Little Sisters for your own gain.
Though the Little Sisters “choice” was an inherently loaded one, there was something bracing about the melding of the game’s design and themes, with Ryan’s objectivist beliefs mirrored by your own focus on enhancing Jack’s abilities to achieve an end goal. Here was a game striving to have its construction and story be one and the same. But, as game developer Clint Hocking so astutely pointed out at the time, “BioShock” is at odds with itself, encouraging you to both adhere to objectivism (by doing what’s best for you, to advance) and simultaneously discard it by forcing you to help someone else (a directive that’s the opposite of helping yourself), and furthermore, to help a man (Atlas) who directly opposed Ryan’s philosophies. It’s an irresolvable conflict, one in which the gameplay and themes were at once in harmony and disharmony, resulting in an experience that — for all its positives — came off feeling slightly muddled.