Welcome to Defining Moments in Games , where I take some of my favorite games of all time and analyze single moments to see what they do right, and how they leave a lasting impact on the game. Today, I’m going to be talking about one of my favorite franchises of the last gaming generation: Bioshock. While it’s very easy to point to obvious defining moments of the series, “Would You Kindly?” and the like, today I’m going to be focusing on the one game no one is expecting me to talk about: Bioshock 2.
Because of it’s status as “the one that wasn’t developed by Irrational Games”, Bioshock 2 is often overlooked or out-right dismissed by fans of the series. However, it’s still a decent game by it’s own right, and while it may just retread some familiar threads and visuals, it does provide some interesting food for thought about the Bioshock universe. And perhaps one of my favorite moments of the franchise as a whole comes from the often-complimented final hours of the game.
Warning: Spoilers of the end-game of Bioshock 2. If you’ve ever considered playing it, don’t read this yet. And if you’re a long-time fan of the franchise who has avoided this installment because of the negative views, I urge you to give it a try. You may be surprised by how good it actually is.
Irrational Games recently closed it’s doors after finishing the DLC for Bioshock Infinite. Ken Levine has moved on with a small team to work on new projects, and the rest of the people who spent years working on the franchise have went on to find new endeavors. But in their wake, they’ve left one of the most memorable and fascinating franchises of the last generation. Bioshock took a familiar formula and plopped it down into one of the most mind-blowing environments we’ve ever seen: Rapture.
Bioshock has never been about the gameplay, which pulls influence from many games, including Irrational’s own System Shock 2. But much like System Shock 2 before it, Bioshock focused on atmosphere and stellar narrative moments. The original is full of subtle detail and shocking events that twist your views not only on reality, but on your position as a gamer as well. And while much could be said about the original’s amazing moments, the focus is on the sequel.
The gameplay in Bioshock 2 is an improvement over the original. Taking the foundation laid out and working out a few issues to make a more seamless experience. You play as a prototype Big Daddy, one of the hulking behemoths from the original, and this immediate change in perspective comes with new tricks and new narrative possibilities. As you slowly reawaken your Big Daddy strengths, you follow the story of the mysterious and frightening Little Sisters and their relationships with their protectors. It’s this relationship that provides one of the greatest moments in the franchise.
Throughout the entire game, Delta has been fighting through Rapture to return to his bonded Little Sister, Eleanor. When we’re finally reunited, we find Sophia Lamb, the primary antagonist of Bioshock 2 and an ideological opposite of Andrew Ryan, sitting at her bedside. We watch from behind a glass as Sophia Lamb explains one final surprise about the bond between Eleanor and Delta: if her heart stops, Delta will lapse into a coma.
Lamb proceeds to smother Eleanor with a pillow as Delta pounds against the glass, trying desperately to do his job as protector. However, before he can get in, he passes out, and the final thing he sees is Eleanor’s body fall to the floor in front of him.
Delta awakens a little while later to find himself strapped down and unable to move. This is when Eleanor starts speaking to him again, revealing that Lamb had stopped her heart just long enough to detach them from each other. She sends a Little Sister to help him escape, and this is when the best part of the game kicks in. Unable to get out on his own, Delta is provided with a means to take control of a Little Sister temporarily and use her to escape. In an instant, our perspective is changed from Delta to the Little Sister we were just looking at. And it’s clear immediately that we’re about to see things in a whole new way.
For the next handful of minutes, you’re free to wander the halls of Rapture, but this time as a Little Sister. Everything is changed. Gone are the broken-down machines, cracked glass, blood, and rust. In it’s place is a beautiful idealist utopia full of gold and plush carpeting. Even the Splicers, usually deformed and b*****, look like upstanding upper-class citizens in decorative masks and their finest clothing. Instead of blood trails, we see lines of beautiful red flowers spilled out all over the shining floor. The entire world is the complete opposite of what we know to be the reality. Following Eleanor’s instructions, you help assemble a Big Sister suit and even proceed to draw Adam from “Angels” on the floor, all the while witnessing the occasional break in this hallucination to reveal the real Rapture underneath.
WHY IT WORKS
You’re always given a very basic explanation of how the Little Sisters function and survive in such a bleak and frightening environment, but it’s not until this exact moment that you come to realize that they see the world very differently. That when they refer to corpses full of Adam as “Angels” they quite literally see them as such. That the Big Daddies which appear as ugly, intimidating forces of destruction appear as golden-clad knights, beautiful and heroic to the Little Sisters. This stark contrast and moment of clarity provides context for one of the more mysterious elements of the universe.
After almost two whole games, you’re used to seeing the world of Rapture. It’s a familiar place to you now, so you immediately recognize all the things you’re looking at even if they’re now altered to seem beautiful and serene. Is this what Rapture looked like in it’s prime? Is this the vision Andrew Ryan had in his mind all along? Are we now looking at the original form of Rapture’s citizens, before they spliced themselves into monsters? This provides a sudden visual context for everything we’ve heard about throughout our trek through Rapture’s ruination.
While the Rapture we know is covered in grime and darkness, this Rapture is full of bright lights and pleasant colors. Greens and reds punctuate gleaming stone and brass. By providing such a stark contrast, such an opposite view of the world, Rapture’s run-down oppressive atmosphere feels that much more terrible and sad. We’ve seen it at it’s worst, and now we’ve seen it at it’s best. And it’s all done through being given the time to walk around this faux version of Rapture. This would not have worked as a cutscene. Being able to actually play through this part ourselves allows us to experience this place in the same way we experienced the fallen Rapture.
But every once and awhile, things break. The wool pulled over our eyes as a Little Sister parts temporarily. Just long enough for the real Rapture, the dead Rapture, to reappear. These moments of sudden clarity remind us that we’re currently trapped in this hellish world, and that this momentary peace is just fleeting. It’s a lie. We know better, but do the Little Sisters? As you’re forced to reassemble a Big Sister suit and suck the Adam from the necks of dead Splicers, we get a sense the Little Sisters bliss-through-ignorance is on the verge of cracking at any moment. But at this point, will it matter? Is giving them this fake version of Rapture right? Will their come a time when the world is so far gone and they’ve been gone from it so long that they’ll no longer need this cover-up? More questions to add to the philosophical depth of the Bioshock universe.
All done in just a few minutes of gameplay.
Well, now we HAVE to save Eleanor! This is the kind of world she’s been subjected to her whole life. Poisoned. Stripped of her innocence. When we’re finally given back the control of Delta, we have a new ally: Big Sister Eleanor! It’s time to tear this world apart piece by piece, to finally free these Little Sisters of this mental prison they’re forced into as they’re subjected to horrors they can’t possibly fathom. This moment of eye-opening realization is exactly what we needed to want to wreck everything around us. It’s the perfect reason to save these little girls.
And that’s basically what you get to do. The last chunk of the game is chaotic as Delta and Eleanor fight off hoards of splicers and generally just put the final nail in the coffin for Rapture. This narrative context we’ve been provided through a simple change of perspective and visual trickery has given us that final push we need to long to change the world we’ve been forced into. While it’s only a short piece of gameplay, it’s the climax of narrative for the Big Daddy/Little Sister story, and leads us into the final moments of the game, and closure for a tragic story.
We’ve seen Rapture for what it is, and we’ve seen it for what it isn’t. We’ve experienced something we never thought we could: the life of an innocent in this nightmare. The only ones that get to see beauty in this destroyed utopia are the Little Sisters, and just a small taste of that has stuck with me more than most moments in this franchise full of incredible moments.
Now, how about we take this giant drill and shove it straight up Sophia Lamb’s…