This article contains plot spoilers for BioShock and BioShock 2.
If you played it at launch in 2010, you might have found it easy to disregard BioShock 2 as a cowardly, or at least diffident, kind of video game. Three years earlier, its predecessor, BioShock, had made land on the browned shores of gaming, and been heralded a watershed moment for both critical debate and commercial taste. It questioned whether games and the people who made them, when faced with the unpredictable behaviour of the player, truly had anything to say. At the same time, it introduced to first-person shooter fans the philosophy of Ayn Rand, demonstrating how different subject matter could infiltrate the basest entertainment forms.
And so BioShock 2 was bound to face derision. It wasn't just the sequel to a shooter, and therefore an hereditary target for brickbats. It was the follow-up to, what was at the time, the most significant mainstream game in ten years. To outclass its older brother, as video game sequels are uniformly expected to do, BioShock 2 would have to not only embark on a more penetrating philosophical expedition, but redefine for people, once again, the core principle of gaming. And it didn't, at least, not overtly.
Review scores were fair and some writers, like Tom Bramwell of Eurogamer, saw the game for what it was, and found room to praise BioShock 2's subtlety compared to its forebear. But the game, nowadays at least, is largely forgotten. Between the ground-breaking BioShock, and the marred, implosive BioShock Infinite, BioShock 2 is the overlooked middle-brother – a shame, considering it's the smartest, most sophisticated of the trio.
'BioShock 2' launch trailer
BioShock, and its acclaimed satire of capitalism, self-interest and Rand, is nowhere near as brave as its sequel, which chooses as its philosophical quarries notions of community, collectivism and altruism. The antagonist, Dr Sofia Lamb, aims to inject the genetic memories stored in people's blood into a single individual, effectively imbuing that person with a physical understanding of every other person's needs, desires and experiences. This "true utopian," selected to be Lamb's daughter, Eleanor, will be, in theory, an efficient and altruistic leader of the world, whose decisions will be based not on potentially selfish ideology, but intrinsic empathy towards all.
The idea backfires, however, when it is tested on researcher Gil Alexander, who rather than a benevolent, understanding leader, becomes a monster, driven insane by the myriad desires and experiences pulling his mind in different directions. The ideal is further compromised by Lamb's methods, which devolve into kidnapping, extortion and murder. She becomes a character who will stop at nothing to help people.
BioShock 2 argues the impossibility of absolute altruism. To equally and unwaveringly care for absolutely everybody, at all times, in all things, is not possible – no system or person is capable of balancing the vastly different experiences and expectations that human beings have. At the same time, any system that proposed to do such a thing would still, BioShock 2 recognises, require a leader, and so a utilitarian society is shown to be an hypocrisy, insofar as it being a society in the first place.
The criminal lengths Lamb goes to are merely an endgame example of how the small amount of power granted to a utopian, altruistic individual would still corrupt, how even in a world where everybody, ostensibly, got a fair share, there would still be one person with a greater amount of influence. More than attacking Rand, greed and big business, questioning the plausibility of equal distribution takes guts. And where BioShock was an argument for and against the player, BioShock 2 adopts a much harder stance: the desires, expectations and whims of other people are a cancer.
Like Gil Alexander – like the would-be utopian, Eleanor – BioShock 2 was burdened by expectation. Stemming from players, from critics and from within publisher 2K, all of whom expected a sequel to BioShock to look a certain way, BioShock 2's development team was subject to the demands and requirements of other people, forced to imbibe them like the genetic memories contained in blood. If the original BioShock doubted the honesty and wherewithal of a video game developer, implying that it was perhaps more valuable to ignore what a game is telling you, BioShock 2 questioned the involvement of outsiders, suggesting that a multitude of pressures, and an abundance of influence, is what damages the creative process. Alexander goes mad through trying to accommodate the wants of every single person. Likewise, you can imagine the BioShock 2 developers, trapped, frustrated and drowning in the various things that they were told their game had to be.
If it's the conflict between despotic developer and capricious player which is poisonous in BioShock, in BioShock 2 it's the mainstream industry's determination to be inoffensive, to give all things to all people. Attending to feedback, be it from journalists, players or your own bosses, perhaps has some merits. And BioShock 2 director Jordan Thomas, who I've met and spoken to on various occasions, would be the last person to champion, above all else, auteurism. But BioShock 2's protest is against design-by-committee, against games being made anodyne on purpose. It's testament to the game's writing that its posturing on the implications of altruism flows into its post-modern debate.
"Dadification" is a term you may have heard, particularly in this essay by Mattie Brice. It describes a specific and unfortunately common type of video game story, wherein the playable protagonist is male and has to rescue and/or protect a sometimes younger, but always vulnerable female companion, essentially a daughter surrogate. The Last of Us is a prescient example, also BioShock Infinite, Splinter Cell: Conviction, the original Silent Hill. But where the relationship between the father and daughter is often romanticised in games – since games are often made by middle-aged men, who themselves have children – BioShock 2 characterises "dadification" as monstrous, perverse.
Your character, Subject Delta, is one of the BioShock series' iconic Big Daddies. A great, hulking figure, part man, part machinery, he is bound – via hypnosis and pheromones – to protect the Little Sisters, grotesque young girls who gather blood from dead bodies. The bond between "father" and "daughter" in BioShock 2 isn't founded on love, or even emotion – it's forced by chemicals and augmented biology. Also, their relationship boils down to the father shooting, stabbing and killing while the daughter extracts dead people's blood and drinks it, in order to convert it, using her strangely modified internal organs, back into raw genetic material.
There's nothing pretty or romantic about it, just sick, repulsive and strange imagery. BioShock can take some credit for this, since it's the game that birthed the Big Daddies and the Little Sisters, but BioShock 2 is almost entirely about their relationship – it foregrounds their ugly, nightmarish image of parenthood, where love for and the need to protect one's children is partly the forced result of internal chemicals and hormones. Unlike a lot of other "dad" games, being a father isn't beautiful, or noble, in BioShock 2. It's a kind of grubby obligation. And the male's protective instinct doesn't result in some whirlwind end scene, where he is reunited with his daughter and she's safe, and everything is fine again. It simply sees him killing lots of enemies, while the little girl obscenely drinks blood. It's bizarre and horrible, the opposite of a romanticised "dadification" of games.
But still, five years since its release, BioShock 2 remains sidelined. It didn't have the new-found celebrity of Ken Levine to help publicise it, nor was it in a fortunate position credibility wise – sequels, especially to beloved original IP, are often doomed from birth. But it is, truly, the best BioShock game. It has loftier themes and more interesting writing than either of its siblings, but they're disguised by fun-first shooting mechanics and joyful, B-movie excess. Play the scene where Sinclair, your comrade, is transformed into a Big Daddy and try not to smile.
This, ultimately, is what BioShock 2 has over its contemporaries: self-awareness. Neither the grandiose BioShock or the pretentious BioShock Infinite seem particularly mindful of their own silliness, bloodiness or absurd, balletic combat, and so it becomes hard to have faith in anything they say at all. BioShock 2 has fun with shooting, bloodletting and genre, but still comes with a philosophical and ideological boot knife strapped to its ankle. It's a very intelligent game. It's the BioShock that ought to endure.