The announcement of a follow-up to 2007’s ‘Underwater-Objectivist-Dystopia-Shooter’ Bioshock was met with an uncharactaristically luke-warm welcome for a medium that usually thrives on sequels. After all, sequels give creators opportunities beyond ‘expanding the universe’ – improving graphics, iterating on mechanics and generally pushing things forward within the framework set out by the original game. Ask a gamer for their favourite games of all time, you’ll get a series of numbers and subtitles; 2,3,4… Chaos Theory, Snake Eater, Blood Money… Do the same with a movie goer, on the other hand and you’re unlikely to get a similar answer even though sequels form the backbone of most studio’s release schedules.
2K Marin’s Bioshock 2 got the kind of reception you might expect if someone announced a sequel to Blade Runner (oh, wait…) Bioshock, you see, had already told us everything we needed to know about the underwater city of Rapture. Any attempt to return would not only be a disappointment, but would cheapen the original’s legacy and make even the memory of that first trip in a bathysphere a little less special. Toss in an ill conceived multiplayer mode and you’ve basically announced that the upcoming Blade Runner sequel stars Shia LaBouf as Rick Deckard, will be directed by Michael Bay and was written by George Lucas with Will.I.Am providing the soundtrack. (And if the Black Eyed Peas haven’t already used some of Vangelis’ soundtrack to create a shrill, obnoxious and repetitive song about ‘partying like a replicant’ then I hope they all die before they get a chance).
Except the guys that made Bioshock 2 are talented… like, crazy talented. Jordan Thomas showed brass balls by stepping into Ken Levine‘s considerable shoes for the sequel that nobody wanted – he regularly comes across as a smart, candid and all round interesting guy in interviews. I was an avid reader of level designer (and lead designer on the ‘Minerva’s Den’ expansion) Steve Gaynor’s blog Fullbright and I eagerly await Fullbright Company’s upcoming game Gone Home which features the efforts of many former Bioshock 2 staff. And the whole team does an amazing job with Bioshock 2. It’s a brilliant game. But it’s one that’s let down by, of all things – the setting of Rapture.
It doesn’t make sense you see, Rapture. It didn’t make sense in Bioshock The First and it makes less sense now. The first had the luxury of being a place that we, as gamers had never imagined playing a shooter in. And yes, it was an allegory, it’s not meant to be taken literally – the ubiquitous audiologs, invincible little girls, fist full of bees… etc etc etc. It was a game about Objectivism for sure, but it was also a game about videogames. It wasn’t the dreaded Citizen Kane of Gaming, but rather a sort of videogame Watchmen – a deconstruction of how games work and how they’ve taught us to consume them.
Without the luxury of metacommentary Bioshock 2‘s fiction crumbles under further scrutiny on this repeat visit. There’s a point early in the game where the player takes a tour through a Rapture/Andrew Ryan propaganda theme park. It’s a wonderful level, as brilliantly designed as the rest of the game and filled with delightful blackly comic touches – right down to a trophy for knocking the head of an anamatronic Andrew Ryan with a golf club. (A strong contender for Gaming’s Greatest In-Joke?) But its here that the fiction of Rapture starts to creak. There’s a host of juddery dioramas (dioramai?) that depict a self-mythologising Ryan as he decides to build Rapture under water, waking in the middle of the night on a boat and crying something to the effect of “Here please“, then we see a team of diving suit-clad engineers laying the foundations for rapture. Ryan echoes JFK’s Rice Moon speech – he chose to build Rapture under the sea, not because it was easy, but because there were magic slugs down there. We see slums, we see railways, we see factories, we’re taken behind the scenes to see the inner workings of the carnival ride of the first game. But in trying to explain Rapture, it seems less plausible.
Then there’s audiologs, I think even Ken Levine admitted that audiologs were becoming a bit of a crutch after the release of the original Bioshock, by the time the sequel rolled around it had become hilarious to think of people constantly leaving voice memos ‘to themselves’ – usually after particularly harrowing experience. “Dear Diary, I injected myself with slug juice and now my tits have fallen off – the code to my safe is 1066, Andrew Ryan is a bad bad man. I am scared.” Going further into the symbiotic relationship betwixt Big Daddy and Little Sister also churns up mixed results, as does the explanation of ‘plasmids’ for workers in Rapture… for like, welding and shit.
But by far the hardest part to swallow is the notion that, once again, the player has arrived in Rapture to find a war going on for who ‘rules’ the city. It’s like finding two well dressed, charismatic academics fighting over a cake full of broken glass and smallpox. It seems not a year goes by without some ostensibly ‘normal’ person (ie – not insane and deformed) making a concerted effort to become King or Queen of a city full of insane and deformed spider-people who shoot fire from their hands and weep uncontrollably. (But then again, why do people run for mayor of *Insert City*? SATIRE) What happens when Sofia Lamb manages to [SPOILERS] turn her daughter into a giant brain in a jar? (?) Will everyone just go back to how things were before? Or will they carry on scavenging and splicing and attacking Big Daddies? (Which I can’t figure out whether Lamb is for or against?)
All this being said, I love Bioshock 2. I love it for reasons I’ll explain in another post. And those reasons kind of melt away the quibbles I have with audiologs and giant brains in jars and the voice acting and the fact that Sinclair hides in a train for the whole game except for the bit where he comes out as another Big Daddy who fights you whilst saying “I can’t help myself!”.
Maybe it’s a step forward when gamers don’t want sequels to beloved titles? Maybe it shows that these things aren’t products to be improved upon endlessly - Portal 2 received a similar reception (before coming out and being totally awesome). But it’s got to be a good thing when a game means more to fans than a series of mechanics to be iterated upon year after year.