Subject Delta is back from the dead and this time he’s passively progressing towards his arbitrarily assigned goal.
Although not very catchy, the premise to BioShock 2 sets the scene for what happens to be a very enjoyable game. Standing on the shoulders of BioShock, the 2007 critical and commercial hit, the sequel gloried in tweaks to the winning formula and in allowing players to further explore the mythos of deep-sea metropolis Rapture.
But while its successes are many to count, BioShock 2 is not without some glaring faults.
One of its shortcomings, and in this it was at least faithful to its predecessor, was in how it implemented morality through divergent choice mechanics. BioShock employed a ‘harvest or rescue’ player choice dichotomy in relation to the many Little Sisters you find throughout Rapture. Players were promised rewards if they saved the wee darlings and ADAM (rare currency used to buy abilities) if they killed them. From the very first time the choice is offered, it is framed in such a way as to establish value through the goodies consequently available, as opposed to a value set determined by the nature of one’s actions in the context of the fictional world – is it immoral to kill a child, are Little Sisters children, is your survival worth their sacrifice, and so on.
Although BioShock 2 provides a much more enjoyable gameplay process to surround the Little Sister choice dichotomy, it still imports these same narrative flaws from the original. Not to be accused of a dearth of creativity, however, the sequel managed to introduce entirely new ways to compromise its own ability to tell a story. A second system of moral choice permeates the game at regular intervals, this time revolving around player adjudication on the fates of a trio of NPCs.
As Subject Delta, the player traverses the soggy streets of Rapture in the quest to rescue Eleanor Lamb, his Little Sister by plot device. One by one you meet these three characters and are given the option of killing them or showing them mercy. The ways in which you interact with these characters then determines whether you receive the good, neutral or evil ending.
First is Grace Holloway, popular ex-jazz singer and Eleanor’s former custodian. Prior to encountering her, Holloway goads and challenges the player on the basis of a misinterpretation of Subject Delta’s nature. Stricken by grief, she wrongfully blames him for Eleanor’s abduction and transformation into a Little Sister.
Shortly later the player comes into contact with one Stanley Poole, political spy and mass murderer. It was he who kidnapped Eleanor and sold her to the Little Sister program and it was he who betrayed Johnny Topside, the man who would later become Subject Delta. Poole is a pitiful, cowering creature, motivated only by power and fear.
Each of these two encounters offers sufficient context for the player to internally debate his/her choice. It is surely not too unreasonable to kill Holloway given how she campaigned for your death, nor would sparing the life of Poole, pathetic and quavering as he appeared, be especially remiss of any player. Moreover we can agree in these contexts that to show mercy would be humane and by “show mercy” we know what choice that refers to.
Slightly different is the third NPC. Formerly a prolific scientist and engineer, Gilbert Alexander volunteered himself to an experiment which grotesquely altered his body and devastated his sanity, turning him into the maniacal and bloodthirsty Alex the Great. As the player explores Fontaine Futuristics, recordings left by Alexander prior to his mutation offer good-natured assistance and help the player in progression, while Alex the Great taunts and obstructs. On coming to the creature’s enormous holding tank and obtaining the key to the next level, the player is once again given the option of determining someone’s fate.
Here, Alex the Great begs for mercy and promises to flee into the ocean. Gil Alexander, however, requests the player to end his life should the experiment on his body produce what it produced. From his sane state in the past he implores you to not let him live on in such a corrupted incarnation. So should you show mercy to the man or the monster? Surely, as many players felt, fulfilling Gil’s final wishes is more edifying than allowing the survival of this ruthless tyrant. The moral choice is more ambiguous and interesting than those of Holloway’s and Poole’s.
That is, right up until the game outright informs you that the killing of Alex the Great is immoral. Shortly after leaving Fontaine Futuristics, the player is shown statues representative of his/her encounters with the three NPCs. Sparing Holloway and Poole will have the statues modelled in merciful poses, whereas killing them shows up in a similarly appropriate fashion. However, if the player spared Alex the Great, the respective statue depicts Subject Delta pulling Gilbert Alexander from the maw of a serpent. Contrarily, fulfilling Alexander’s dying wish and granting him eternal peace is symbolized as Delta and the serpent embroiled in battle.
The oddity is further reflected in the game’s allocation of endings. Depending on how the player spared or slaughtered each NPC and how he/she regarded the Little Sisters, antagonist Sophia Lamb will either be saved or left to drown by Eleanor, citing your footsteps as her guidance. Should the player kill only Alex the Great (or Holloway, or Poole), he/she would need to have rescued every Little Sister in order for Eleanor to come away benevolent. The context of your decisions evidently counts for nothing. BioShock 2 has spoken. To kill is wrong.
Both this disregard for context and Eleanor’s assumptive reaction to your behaviour is reflected even further in the death of Augustus Sinclair.
From early on in the game, Sinclair serves as the voice in your ear, helping you to progress from level to level and offering exposition to enrich the world of Rapture. Along the way you learn of Sinclair’s own less-than-savoury backstory.
Before he told you how to open doors, Sinclair operated as a wealthy businessman in Rapture’s upper echelon, his success built on the backs of a highly exploited workforce. Further to that, Sinclair Solutions operated a jail within which Ryan’s outspoken opponents were imprisoned when he wanted them removed from the public sphere. Never to refuse an opportunity, the prison employed a classist internal structure where rich inmates benefitted from the purchase of better treatment and comfier quarters. Prisoners were also rented out as test subjects for Plasmid experiments and the Big Daddy program. It was Sinclair who hired Stanley Poole to spy on Lamb, and when civil war erupted it was Sinclair who profited by allowing consumers to field test his products. His crimes many, he was the very definition of the Rapture dream.
When he is then transformed into a Big Daddy and you are forced to end his life, his melancholic expressions might fall on stoic ears. Here again Eleanor speaks up in assumed accordance with the player’s behavioural patterns. Should the player have largely harvested the Little Sisters throughout the game, your ward will express indifference towards Sinclair’s death. On the other hand, if you rescued those harmless, convivial, victimized little dears, Eleanor voices sympathy to the sorrow you must feel, for this despicable, exploitative, abusive, rancid ghoul was your friend.
If it happens that you actually feel morose at the death of Sinclair, the moment may go unnoticed. As for me, the silent protagonist merely stared at Eleanor with utter vapidity while my television substituted to hear my say on the matter.
An argument could be made for BioShock that the utilitarianism governing the moral choice system suffices within Objectivism as a thematic base for the game’s narrative. BioShock 2, however, bases its plot on collectivist theory, Sophia Lamb striving for a utopia wherein society exists without egotism. Under this structure, the killing of any of the three NPCs, no matter how kind one’s intentions, could be construed as counteractive to this utopia since it corrupts social unity. However, this would fail to account for the hundreds of other Rapture citizens laid to waste by Subject Delta.
The result is a tale about morality with little knowledge as to what exactly that morality is. BioShock 2 welcomes the player into compelling situations of moral choice before asserting an unintelligible prescriptive morality, possibly compromising the player’s experience and revoking what meaning he/she had taken from the narrative. On top of flaunting a moral framework devoid of any sense of reality or depth, this is then compounded by the compartmentalization of player actions into gameplay (where the player can slay all sorts of NPCs in a myriad fun ways) and narrative (where doing in NPCs is immoral regardless of context).
So, what is the moral of the story? To kill is wrong… except when it isn’t.