Welcome back to Rapture: a lot has changed in the 8 years since the events of Bioshock (you can read about it here). The city is under new leadership, and in greater disrepair, if you can imagine, than in the previous game. What hasn’t changed is the very foundation of Bioshock: a city full of crazed “splicers” hell-bent on killing you, the sense that you’re just being used as a tool, a misguided social experiment, and the general scariness of a dark, post-crisis city beneath the sea.
If you played any of the Bioshocks, or like playing games at all, you owe it to yourself to play Bioshock 2. With the critical reception that Bioshock and Bioshock: Infinite have received, it’s easy to forget about the middle child. However, I would argue that Bioshock 2 is a sequel that’s almost necessary to fully appreciate the first. It features a cleaner battle system (which informs Bioshock: Infinite) and a balancing foil to the ideological background of its predecessor. Warning: their will be spoilers of both Bioshock and Bioshock 2 here.
In the first Bioshock, you gradually discover that you are a tool, a weapon, and you take an understandable revenge on the triggerman. Well if you played the first, then you will recognize quickly that you are a tool in the second as well. After all, you’re a Big Daddy, forced to find your “bonded” Little Sister before you go insane and, inevitably, die. There is no room for a gear wrenching plot-twist like that of the first Bioshock, when Andrew Ryan reveals that you are a mindless puppet being used by Frank Fontaine, under the guise of “Atlas,” the revolutionary.
That does not mean that the plot is any less interesting. There are choices for you to make, because although you are a Big Daddy, and therefore biologically dependent on your Little Sister, you are fully sentient and self-aware. And in Bioshock 2, self-awareness is the new Bolshevism. The original Bioshock pits you in a world that was torn apart by the inevitable result of unchecked capitalism. For Andrew Ryan, pure libertarianism is the key to Utopia, with unchecked scientific discovery fueling its development. Your ally for the better part of the game is a would-be revolutionary, a socialist of sorts, until it is revealed that he is actually a capitalist, too: just one who doesn’t mind lying and killing to get his way. But, we discover in Bioshock 2, Frank Fontaine is only capitalizing on Andrew Ryan’s perversion of his own image: as people’s trust in Ryan’s libertarianism fell away, and more and more turned to figures like Sofia Lamb, Ryan became a totalitarian. A tyrant. So, at the end of the day, Bioshock was about a grossly extreme example of capitalistic competition.
In Bioshock 2, however, capitalism has no sway in Rapture. The city has devolved to the point that mind-rotted splicers are nearly its only inhabitants, and mind-rotted splicers don’t make for good, industrious capitalists. They are controlled through more subversive means; means that Ryan tried to silence, and in doing so became the thing he hated most. They are controlled by Dr. Sofia Lamb’s careful psychological conditioning, and have become something like a religion. Sofia Lamb claims that self-awareness is the enemy: it leads to self-interest, to selfishness, to evil. She becomes like a god to Rapture’s psychotic populace, whom she calls “the Family.”
Now, like I said, there is no “a-ha” moment, no momentous plot-twist. Sofia Lamb takes your Little Sister away, and you need to find her. There is, however, a battle of principles that develops into something quite beautiful by the end. You are self-aware. They call you a death machine, but you decide whether or not that’s true. Your ally, an ostensibly self-interested businessman named Augustus Sinclair, is certainly self-aware. He wants to bring the technology of Rapture to the surface to make a tidy profit, and he offers to share it with you if you help him. Sofia Lamb is self-aware, although she sees this as humanity’s greatest weakness. She tries to make her daughter Eleanor, your Little Sister, un-self-aware. But she fails, and Eleanor’s self-awareness ends up driving the entire plot. Because, as it turns out, she has raised your body from the dead to come and rescue her. In a way, you have been her tool all along. At least she’s thankful for it…
…depending on your choices. So who’s really the good guy? Sofia Lamb is trying to create a Utopian: a person who carries no self-interest, one who is only concerned with the common good. Eleanor is trying to escape the fate her mother has chosen for her. Augustus Sinclair is trying to salvage what’s left of a failed experiment and cash out. You choose whether or not you are merciful, or vengeful. It’s confusing, and a fitting conclusion to the Rapture story. Rapture is built by a man, Ryan, who wants ultimate freedom; it is destroyed by the perversion and exploitation of that freedom by men like Ryan, Fontaine, and Sinclair; it is reborn in unity against freedom by Lamb; it dies again by Eleanor’s desire for freedom.
There is always some moral fogginess surrounding the Rapture story. It’s hard to tell who’s right, and who isn’t. Bioshock does you the favor of giving you a really evil man, Frank Fontaine, as a final antagonist. The racist, exploitative, and hypocritical society of Columbia in Bioshock: Infinite is equally comfortable to hate. Bioshock 2 takes that comfort away. Your greatest ally, Sinclair, is not far off of Fontaine, your mortal enemy is just an overbearing mother, and her cult is seeking to take selfishness away from humanity (not really a despicable cause). The object of the game, Eleanor, can either grow up to be a monster or a saint, depending on your actions, of course. Because of this, I believe Bioshock 2 is the most human of the three, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t take a chance to play it through. Plus, it’s just fun.