Avec les anges si purs / La mer / Bergère d’azur, infinie (BioShock 2)

by Eugen Pfister

The futuristic city of Rapture, which is the size of Manhattan, lies several thousand metres below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, hidden from the eyes of the world. Built on the initiative of a visionary private investor shortly after the Second World War, the city’s gigantic glass and steel structures and elaborate neon signs bear witness to unimaginably advanced engineering and former wealth. By the end of the 1960s however, Rapture is almost completely deserted. Much of the city has been lost, lying in rubble on the ocean floor. A few neighbourhoods, though, still show signs of partial life: light attests to a working power supply, fresh oxygen continues to be pumped through the alleys and streets. Here, in the Atlantic Express Depot, I find a tape recorder on a fallen filing cabinet beside a packet of industrial rivets. I play it and hear a woman’s voice, pleasant and sonorous, with a deliberate enunciation to each word  – Dr Sofia Lamb.“In ethical psychiatry, we must account for the role of evolution. Depression, fits of panic, sexual pathos — all responses to ancient selection pressure. The irony is that this theory is why Ryan’s people invited me here. They mistake my study of natural law for the worship of competition. Remember, Eleanor — one must know the beast before it can be slain.” Before I can even finish listening to the tape, I hear the confused voice of a young woman from the neighbouring workshop: “H-hello? Is there someone in the hall? Moments later, crazed mutated Splicers descend upon me. These are grotesquely mutated people, their faces disfigured by bulging growths, their limbs strangely asymmetrical. I shoot two with my rivet gun, another I pierce with my drill. All this in brutal contrast to the voice I have just heard.

Name: Bioshock 2
Developer: 2K Marin
Publisher: 2K Games
Lead Design: Jordan Thomas
Year of release: 2010
Platform: Xbox360, Windows, Mac OS, Switch, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4
Setting: retrofuturism, alternate timeline, science Fiction
Genre (ludic): First Person Shooter

I – Production analysis

The First-Person Shooter (FPS) BioShock 2 was released in 2010, three years after the release of its hugely successful predecessor BioShock( 2K Boston 2007). The latter – released simultaneously on Windows and Xbox 360 – is set in an Art Deco-style underwater city. In a state of dilapidation, the city is at once mesmerizingly beautiful yet claustrophobic. As well as its striking retro-futuristic setting, Bioshock also distinguished itself from the myriad of FPS’s that appeared at the time because of its powerful political statement. Unlike other developers working then, lead designer Ken Levine, who had previously codeveloped System Shock 2 (Irrational Games 1999), made no secret of the fact that ideological statements were an integral part of the game. Central to this was a deliberate attempt to observe the failure of Ayn Rand’s objectivism (Packer 2010). BioShock is in equal parts a spiritual successor to the SF horror-shooter System Shock 2, i.e. the protagonist is trapped in a hostile environment, threatened by deformed former humans where a supposed helper turns out to be the enemy, and a direct reference to Objectivism as mentioned above: in addition to the quasi-anagram of Andrew Ryan/ Ayn Rand, Bioshock also features a character called ‘Atlas’, alluding to Rand’s novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’. At the same time, Levine has relativised the game’s political statement in interviews: The gameplay was developed first (Courcier/Kanafi/Lucas 2016, 88) and only then was a narrative framework built around it:

“So I came up with this notion of this Utopia they didn’t want anyone to find. From that, I wondered what sort of Utopia it would be, and came up with the character Andrew Ryan and his sort of philosophical background: pseudo-objectivism and extremely capitalistic view on the world. He’d be terrified the New Dealers in the US and the Stalinists in Russia would find his city, so – as he said – it wasn’t impossible to build a city at the bottom of the sea – it was impossible to build it anywhere else.” (Gillen 2007)

The game, which stood out from other FPSs through its narrative and aesthetic vision, gained considerable critical success, with an aggregate Metacritic rating of 96/100. BioShock became a darling of the press and went on to win several awards over the next few years (e.g. Bafta Best Game 2007). As early as November 2012, Time Magazine had listed the game as being among the “100 greatest video games” of all time. Within a few years, the game had become canonised into a “prestige game’”, as Felan Parker describes it:

“BioShock’s careful discursive positioning as an innovative and entertaining AAA shooter that also has something worthwhile to say, and the ongoing critical and scholarly attention to its nuances has secured its canonical status for now, having been firmly established as a work of artistic and historical importance and ‘‘required playing’’ for those invested in gaming as a cultural form.” (Parker 2017, 755)

In terms of strategic planning, however, financial success was more important for the publisher than the game’s critical reception.  By March 2010, more than four million copies of the game had sold worldwide according to the publisher’s own figures (Oliver 2010). For 2K Games, then, the need to quickly initiate the development of a follow-up game was obvious. The developer tasked with the job it was not, however, the original IrrationalGames/2K Boston team, but a new team based in San Francisco called 2K Marin, which was made up of former Irrational Games employees and led by Jordan Thomas, co-developer of Thief: Deadly Shadows (Ion Storm Austin 2004) (Courcier/Kanafi/Lucas 95f). In an interview, Ken Levine explained that he had no interest in making a direct sequel, instead choosing to work on BioShock Infinite (Irrational Games 2013) : “The reason we didn’t do BioShock 2 is because… The time frame that game had, and the company understandably wanted another game in Rapture… But we felt we had said what we wanted to say about Rapture, about those kind of environments and that kind of feel.” (Yin-Poole 2010). Jordan Thomas had worked on BioShock as a level designer and designed “Fort Frolic”, among other things (Totilo 2010).

In contrast to many of his colleagues, however, he has been somewhat modest in his assessment of himself in interviews:

View of Rapture (screenshot of the author)

“I’ve asked myself so many times why I was picked to direct BioShock 2, but the reality is, while I was working on that first game I was sat next to Alyssa Finley. She became executive producer at BioShock 2’s developer, 2K Marin, and she was the one who had watched me stay late every night—it was Alyssa who got in touch and asked me to come to California to work on the sequel.” (Smith 2016).

As the game was to be a sequel, one of the publisher’s specifications was that the game should retain some elements or certain “essential values” of its predecessor. (Courcier/ Kanafi/Lucas 96.) At the same time, the publisher wanted the game to become even more accessible, i.e. hurdles should be removed that prevented players from finishing the game (Ebenda). The changes made were thus cosmetic: although you now played one of the iconic “Big Daddies” who were antagonists in the first game (most of the time), the gameplay remained unchanged. The portfolio of enemies was expanded to include the “Brute Splicer” and the “Big Sister”; the management of the psychic powers  – the so-called “Plasmids” – was simplified. The multiplayer that had been envisaged for BioShock was realized (Ibid 97). The turbo-liberals Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine feature in the first game. Following on from this, the story of Bioshock 2 centres on collectivist Sofia Lamb as antagonist. It is interesting that Jordan Thomas, like Ken Levine before him ( ibid 25), cites theatre as a major inspiration for the game mechanics (Totilo 2010).

On the whole, however, he is rather critical of his contribution to the game:

“What I should have done is two things, […] First, commit to making a stripped-down horror game. My original pitch was that you’d play a former Little Sister, in an underpowered return to Rapture, full of fertile trauma that would be uncovered as you went. Very Silent Hill. But I was told—I don’t even remember by who, it could have just been Marketing Person X—‘We think BioShock can be a big-shooter franchise like Gears of War or Call of Duty.’ And I thought, Good Lord… Why did you hire me? So the second thing I should have done is learn to say no. Going from a level designer to a creative director is dizzying. I wasn’t ready to say no. And that is just the worst. If you don’t know how to say no, especially to yourself, you are, at best, a rookie director.” (Smith 2016)

In the Vice interview it is touching to read how Jordan Thomas set out to use his first experience as a game director to create a seminal work, but wasn’t able to live up to his own expectations, and was forced to make many compromises. Although the game eventually became both a critical and financial success, Thomas gives a damning account of this period of his life:

“I wasn’t soured on triple-A immediately after, but I had a blasted hellscape in my wake in regards to my personal life. I barely recognize the memory of the guy I was when that game was finished. The fairly smart, put together person I was at the start of the project had become half crazed by the end.” (Smith 2016)

II – Product analysis

The Story

“1958. Beneath the Atlantic Ocean”

In the (non-interactive) intro to the game, we see a “Big Daddy” – a man in an armoured Skaphander – escorting a “Little Sister” through a bustling and lustrous underwater city. In the game world of BioShock, these conditioned young girls use large hypodermic needles to collect a substance called “Adam” from corpses that are scattered around. This substance consists of unstable stem cells that are harvested from a sea slug which once injected can enable humans to undergo controlled genetic modification. These modifications are a central narrative element of the BioShock world. This world the brainchild of successful entrepreneur, Andrew Ryan who decided to build a city far from the grasp of any state or religious control at the bottom of the ocean, in the spirit of liberalism (or in the spirit of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism). He built it to house the smartest, richest and most beautiful, whom he actively recruited from all over the world. Thus, the underwater metropolis of Rapture was born, a city without taxes, with no societal controls on science or art. In this city, ethical concerns would no longer hold up progress. However, when people begin to become dependent on genetic modifications after the discovery of “Adam”, this society collapses.

A Leadhead Splicer (screenshot by the author)

Driven by greed and envy,  the residents descend into a destructive and aggressive madness. Andrew Ryan – against his objectivist instincts – increasingly takes on the role of a dictator, employing a secret police force to fight his adversary, the criminal Frank Fontaine. To meet the growing demand for “Adam”, orphaned girls are mentally conditioned into becoming “Little Sisters” and are genetically modified – they are each implanted with a sea slug resulting in a symbiotic interaction with them. They are able to recycle the Adam in corpses through their bodies. Their protectors have also been mentally conditioned. Former inmates, their protective armour has been fused with their bodies to become the Big Daddies. For want of state control, civil war quickly breaks out. The people dependent on Adam degenerate into aggressive and witless “splicers” who kill each other for a handful of Adam. This sums up the background story of the BioShock game world.

In the first BioShock game, the players assume the role of Jack, a man with no memory, who learns in the course of the game that he is the son of Andrew Ryan. He is conditioned by Frank Fontaine to kill his father on command, but eventually also takes revenge on his supposed mentor Frank Fontaine.

The intro of BioShock 2 takes place a few weeks before the outbreak of Rapture’s civil war. During a heady and decadent party, a nameless Big Daddy is ambushed while protecting his Little Sister. He is overpowered. A woman named Sofia Lamb tells him that the timid Little Sister he was trying to protect is, in fact, her daughter Eleanor. Using a mind-control plasmid, she orders “Delta” to shoot himself. The screen goes black…

Sofia Lamb in the intro (screenshot of the author)

The plot of the game then picks up again in 1968, eight years after the story line of its predecessor left off. The players take on the role of the formerly deceased “Project Delta” one of the first Big Daddies– a so-called Alpha Protector – who is revived in a Vita-Chamber by means of his stored genetic code. Eleanor, now a young woman, contacts Delta and asks him to help free her from her mother, who is holding her in captivity. As he has been conditioned to bond closely with Eleanor as his Little Sister, he has no choice but to go to her aid – a deliberate reference to the teleological linearity of most computer games. On their way through the dilapidated city, the players soon have to defend themselves against hordes of crazed Splicers. They fight their way from the once luxurious spa area of the “Adonis Luxury Resort” to the workshops of the “Atlantic Express”, the city’s first railway station. There the players meet Brigid Tenenbaum, a young scientist and concentration camp survivor who played a leading role in the first Bioshock game. It was Tenenbaum who discovered Adam, and the development of the gene-alerting plasmids was based on her research. In an attempt to rectify wrongdoings of the past, she helps the protagonist in the first BioShock game and now has returned to Rapture to free the remaining Little Sisters. From this point on, every time the player encounters a Little Sister, they can choose to kill her in order to steal all of her Adam or free her and receive only a fraction of the Adam.

Atlantic Express (screenshot of the author)

As the game progresses, the players must first fight their way through “Ryan Amusements”, an amusement park designed in the spirit of Andrew Ryan’s propaganda. Then they must go through the slum district of Rapture – called “Pauper’s Drop”, where Delta must obtain the override key for the Atlantic Express from Grace Holloway. Grace, who has remained human, was once Sofia Lamb’s patient and was later entrusted with Eleanor’s care. At this point, the players can decide whether to let her live or not. Immediately afterwards, the scene continues through the red-light district of “Siren Alley”. Here, Delta must confront the former two lead architects of Rapture, the Wales brothers who are very different by nature. While one has become a brothel operator, the other is a religious zealot working for Sofia Lamb. In the underwater art museum “Dionysus Park”, the player must once more decide towards the end whether to spare someone’s life, this time the journalist Stanley Poole. As it turns out, Poole had Sofia Lamb’s daughter turned into a Little Sister against Lamb’s will.

Fontaine Futuristics (screenshot of the author)

The journey continues through the research facility “Fontaine Futuristics”, named after Frank Fontaine, the antagonist from the first BioShock game, where the players are confronted with the grotesquely mutated researcher Gil Alexander. According to Lamb’s plan, through a successful transformation Alexander should have become the next step in human evolution. He should have evolved into a so-called “Utopian”, who would combine the positive characteristics of all citizens: “So if we could suppress my sense of self, but imbue me with cognitive capacity to serve the common welfare … we could thereby generate the first Utopian.” (Audio Diary by Gil Alexander – Solving for X). In fact, during the process of transformation Alexander went insane, and what emerged was a creature that is reminiscent of a whale that could only survive in a purpose-built tank. Here again, the players have the choice of whether to let him live or not. Finally the journey through Rapture ends at “Persephone”, a hidden clinic, or actually a prison run by Augustus Sinclair, the man who has guided Delta through Rapture so far. Here, we learn about how political opponents of Andrew Ryan were used as “volunteers” for plasmid testing. This can be heard in an audio diary by Gil Alexander: “Volunteers were … scarce, even as the economy buckled. A man named Sinclair approached us with a seemingly limitless supply. He … rented them to us, bound and sedated … no questions asked” (Audio Diary by Gil Alexander – Source of Volunteers).

In Persephone (screenshot of the author)

In Persephone (screenshot of the author)

After Sofia Lamb is banished to Persephone by Andrew Ryan, she rebuilds her power base here with the help of the patients. Here, the players meet Eleanor again and learn that Lamb now plans to create an altruistic Utopian out of her daughter. With Eleanor’s help, who has now grown into an extremely powerful “Big Sister”, the players finally succeed in overpowering Lamb. At this point, there are two different endings, depending on the choices the player has made during the game. Did they spare the lives of Grace Holloway, Stanley Poole and Gil Alexander? Did they free or kill any Little Sisters? In the “good” ending, Eleanor forgives her mother and, absorbs the essence of the mortally wounded Delta with an Adam syringe and begins a new life with the liberated Little Sisters. In the “bad” ending, Eleanor kills her mother and prepares to take over the world with an army of Little Sisters.

The “good” ending (screenshot of the author)

Whereas the first DLC “The Protector’s trials” is little more than a series of separate battle situations, “Minerva’s Den” is effectively a story in its own right and therefore a standalone game, though still set in Rapture. The player takes on the role of the Big Daddy “Subject Sigma”. He is tasked with bringing “The Thinker”, a computer built to achieve artificial intelligence, to the surface on behalf of Brigid Tenenbaum. Over the course of the DLC, we discover that Subject Sigma is actually one of the computer’s inventors Charles Milton Porter, who was betrayed by his partner Reed Wahl so that the latter could gain sole control of “The Thinker”. In contrast to the main game, this DLC is less about fighting and more about learning Charles Milton Porter’s story. Towards the end in particular, the DLC veers more towards an exploration game than a first-person shooter in terms of game mechanics. This, perhaps, is not that surprising, since the DLC was developed by the indie developer Fullbright, who went on to make a name for themselves with Gone Home (Fullbright 2013) and Tacoma (Fullbright 2017).

Minerva’s Den (screenshot of the author)

The audio-visual setting

Like its predecessor, the game draws on an Art-Deco aesthetic, the city impressively beautiful yet eerie in its dilapidation. Bioshock 2 adopts this design from its predecessor with few significant changes.  We find ourselves in an ostensibly functional environment with a historical industrial feel: narrow corridors, steel pipes overgrown with shells and algae, tiled walls, steel stairs, brass fittings. But the claustrophobic atmosphere of real underwater facilities never comes across. Here, the feeling of confinement within the narrow corridors is often dispelled, when, for example, the player sees the mesmerizingly beautiful cityscape of Rapture through portholes and panoramic windows, and glimpses a whale or squid swimming among the skyscrapers, as a measure of scale.

Adonis Luxury Resort (Screenshot by the author)

Equally, Rapture’s interior spaces seek to impress with an exaggerated grandeur than tips into the satirical; a luxury pool, huge reception rooms, gigantic production hall, vast panoramic windows and glass domes. Rapture intends to amaze us on a regular basis. As with its predecessor, the game shows no restraint: wealthy neighbourhoods overflow with references to luxury and decadence: Everything is disproportionally large, marble, brass and gold. On the other hand, the poorer areas of the city seem to have been in a state of disrepair even in the city’s heyday. Overall, advertising brochures contain references to how capitalism pervades society: neon signs, billboards, vending machines where all kinds of possible and impossible items are for sale. The game would have infuriated turn-of-the-century architect Adolf Loos: at every turn, there is the “Ornament and Crime”(1908) he despised so much in the form of overblown Art Déco design. Every bulkhead, every door handle is embellished, even in the places of the city that should be purely functional.

A workshop at Atlantic Express (screenshot of the author)

In the game, the city’s heyday has long since passed. Only references to a once golden age remain: eerily beautiful and impressive ruins of a failed (retrofuturistic) utopia. Huge statues lie toppled, cracks run through the gigantic glass domes, large swathes of the city have been flooded and are now covered with algae and mussels. Here, the scene finds its counterpart in the genre of ruin painting. Nature has long since reclaimed the once grand city. This is also reflected in the dominant colour tones of the game. Against our expectations, blues do not dominate, but – as in painting – mainly earthy colours: brown, orange and green.

Dionysus Park (Screenshot of the author)

As in The Last of Us (Naughty Dog 2013), the architectural ruin is mirrored by the ruination of the human subject: here we encounter comparable imagery. Remnants of luxury and gaiety: dinner jackets, dresses, and lingerie adorn the otherwise grotesquely deformed bodies of the Splicers: the spliced characters here are American ideal characters in the manner of Norman Rockwell, but totally distorted. These mutated figures, based on the characters from the first game, were inspired by photographs of veterans from the First World War, as Arno Görgon shows (Görgen/Krischel 295f.) “One artist we looked at was Jennie Seville [actually Jenny Saville], who does horrifically beautiful figures. If they’re twisted Norman Rockwell, these are more idealized, perfect Leyendecker Rockwell representations.” (Colin [Fix] in: Deco Devolution 14)

In Dionysus Park (Screenshot of the author)

As in The Last of Us (Naughty Dog 2013), the architectural ruin is mirrored by the ruination of the human subject: here we encounter comparable imagery. Remnants of luxury and gaiety: dinner jackets, dresses, and lingerie adorn the otherwise grotesquely deformed bodies of the Splicers: the spliced characters here are American ideal characters in the manner of Norman Rockwell, but totally distorted. These mutated figures, based on the characters from the first game, were inspired by photographs of veterans from the First World War, as Arno Görgon shows (Görgen/Krischel 295f.) “One artist we looked at was Jennie Seville [actually Jenny Saville], who does horrifically beautiful figures. If they’re twisted Norman Rockwell, these are more idealized, perfect Leyendecker Rockwell representations.” (Colin [Fix] in: Deco Devolution 14)

Diner (screenshot by the author)

The dichotomy between joie de vivre and ruin are skilfully amplified in the soundtrack, or more generally in the soundscape, as in the previous game. In addition to the professional symphonic soundtrack by Garry Schyman, the use of popular songs by Bing Cosby, Billie Holiday, Rosemary Clooney and Django Reinhardt from the 1920s to the 1950s is particularly effective. William Gibbons’ observations in his study of how popular music is used in the first Bioshock game applies here:

“The ironic quality of the popular music allows it to create and maintain the dystopian atmosphere that permeates Bioshock. The juxtaposition of mid-century aesthetic ideals, given voice through the period music, with the visual evidence of the corruption and collapse of those ideals taken to their ultimate extreme, provides a powerful experience for gamers.”  (Gibbons 2011)

In contrast to the more familiar songs, which often create a sense of dissonance with the brutal gameplay through their upbeat gaiety, Schyman’s symphonic music conveys a melancholic mood. Schyman drew inspiration for this from Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok and Sergei Prokofiev (Courcier/Kanafi/Lucas 2016197). Apart from this melancholy backdrop, there are pieces of music that create a nervous tension which utilise, for example, musique concrète and atonal music in the tradition of horror films. At the same time, music is used only sparingly and always to support central narrative moments. Most of the time there is no music, neither song nor Shyman’s symphonic soundtrack (Ebenda 195).

The entire audio-visual design oscillates skilfully between delivering something recognisable – a supposed familiarity – and ominous alienation.

The game mechanics

In terms of game mechanics, BioShock 2 adheres very closely to its successful predecessor. Any changes are purely cosmetic. Primarily, the game is a comparatively linear first-person shooter. Although the individual districts of Rapture can be explored at will, it is usually not possible to return to them. Each level demands that the player masters a certain task to progress, usually involving a fight with an enemy, or sometimes involves also the decision whether or not to spare the life of an NPC. The route to these central decision points, however, is not strictly predetermined, unlike the FPS of the Call of Duty series, for example. Hostile Splicers have to be defeated in battle using various weapons and plasmids, psychic powers that can be used to attack enemies with fire, lightning, ice or bees [sic!]. Alongside this, there are also smaller puzzles dotted throughout the gaming landscape. Frozen doors, for example, can be thawed out with the ‘Incinerate’ plasmid. Hidden throughout the maps are weapon upgrades, ammunition, Adam and so-called audio diaries. The latter are audio recordings that tell the story of Rapture from the perspective of its various inhabitants.

When the player lets Grace Holloway live (Screenshot by the author)

As with the first BioShock game, BioShock 2 emphasises the so-called “moral decisions” part of the game mechanics. As well as the decisions whether to actively kill Grace Holloway, Stanley Poole and/or Gil Alexander, there is also the question of how to deal with a Little Sister in each encounter. If the accompanying Big Daddy is killed, players can have these young girls “harvest” Adam from special corpses for themselves. They can then decide whether to save the girls with a vaccine from Brigid Tenenbaum or to kill them. The latter  action earns the players more Adam, which they can in turn use to increase their abilities. However, the effects of these “moral decisions” are limited to different end sequences. If the players have decided to spare the NPCs and save the Little Sisters, Eleanor “learns” from these actions of her foster father and spares her mother. In the opposite case, she takes revenge.

A new feature in BioShock 2 is the “Big Sisters” a new type of enemy who appears on each level after the player has rescued or murdered several Little Sisters. The “Big Sisters” are Little Sisters who have grown up. They are extremely strong, lithe and heavily armed, and pose a challenge.

In addition to the single player campaign, BioShock 2 also features a multiplayer game in which players can compete against each other worldwide in separate arenas and take on the role of individual Splicers at the beginning of the civil war. Successful players can gain experience with their characters and upgrade them for subsequent conflicts.

III – Reception analysis

With an aggregate Metascore of 88, BioShock 2 fared slightly worse than its predecessor (BioShock 1 comes in at 96) and its sequel (Bioshock Infinite scores 94) in the reviews, but it is still the fifth best-rated game of 2010. 

On the whole, most reviews are positive, whereby the game is naturally always compared with its predecessor (Parker 2017, 753). The Gamestar review ponders “whether the first-person shooter Bioshock 2 can match the quality of the creepily good first part.” (Schmitz 2010). The comparison determines the reviews, as can be seen in Tom Bramwell’s otherwise generally positive review:

“There are even occasions in the first few hours of the game when you worry the absence of new ideas may be terminal, as the developers seem to rattle through almost exactly the same beats. There’s the city rising out of the gloom for the first time in profile, there’s zapping a pair of splicers in a pool of water with your first dose of electro-bolt, there’s getting trapped in a room by the enemy, left to be disposed of by machinegun-wielding splicers only to escape more by luck than judgement.” (Bramwell 2010).

One of few underwater passages (screenshot by the author).

Also mentioning the first BioShock game, Onyatt praises the BioShock 2’s improvements in the IGN review :

“While it’ll feel initially very familiar, it won’t be long before you start to run into some of the changes 2K Marin has made, all of which are welcome and help refine the gameplay formula to make for a better play experience.” (Onyatt 2010). The increased focus on moral choices in the game was favourably received. “Throughout the experience you’ll find a more clear-eyed approach to bringing the player to moral crossroads in several ways” (Ibid). Though minor changes were welcomed, the somewhat outdated graphics were criticised “Rapture’s halls aren’t quite the visual spectacle they were when we saw them back in 2007, but the subaquatic city is still a terrifically detailed and engrossing setting” (Ibid cf. also Schmitz 2010).

However it is the concluding verdicts that make for the most interesting reading. Here, as with the first BioShock game, the characters and narrative, but especially the moral message of the game, are positively commended: “Anyone looking for a first-person shooter that offers more than flat, stereotypical characters and copy-and-paste supersoldier plots, one that attempts to establish a sense of right and wrong and loops you into the decision making process, and one that’s set in one of the most vividly realized settings around should pick up BioShock 2.” (Onyatt 2010)

In particular, McWerthor’s review for Kotaku refers to the moral dilemmas foregrounded by the game, highlighting their importance: “BioShock 2 not only provides a more interesting quantitative outcome to many of the player’s decisions, well beyond the extra ADAM one can gain from a Little Sister rescue, it successfully makes the player question whether he’s making the right decision.”(McWerthor 2010). However, the device of including moral decisions in the game has also been negatively viewed as superficial by some:

“Once again, the obligatory moral decisions are on the agenda: exploit Little Sisters or free them? Hero or ass? Messiah or bastard? If you mime the good guy, you get less Adam, but small rewards. If you give in to the dark side, however, the Adam cash box will ring and finally an alternative end sequence will flicker across the screen. This was similar in part 1 – a pity, there is little to see of the “grey” announced by the developers, it ultimately comes down to ‘black’ or ‘white’.”(Krauss 2010).

IV – Ideological Mythemes in BioShock 2

Myth 1: Atlas Un-Shrugged. The dangers of unrestrained liberalism

Many critics and feature writers appreciated the first BioShock for its supposedly overt political critique. Levine’s explicit reckoning with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism became the main impetus for the game’s canonisation as convincingly analysed by Felan Parker (Parker 2017, 746). In this way, the game was able to develop an appeal that went beyond the usual audience of computer gamers, as evidenced by John Lanchester’s essay “Is it Art?” in the London Review of Books (1 Jan 2009): “BioShock is visually striking, verging on intermittently beautiful, also violent, dark, sleep-troubling, and perhaps, to some of its intended audience, thought-provoking.”  (Lanchester 2009). In Game Studies, the Bioshock series is probably one of the most cited, especially when it comes to ethics and politics in games – this is also the case for me. Joseph Packer, for example, has dealt extensively with the comparison of Ayn Rand’s work and BioShock.

The Great Chain (screenshot of the author)

Ayn Rand was a US writer who was able to communicate her ideology of “Objectivism” to a wide audience through two extremely successful novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Unshrugged. Particularly in the USA, her influence cannot be overestimated. In a survey by the Library of Congress, Atlas Shrugged was named the second most influential book after the Bible. By 2007, just under 8 per cent of the US population had read the book (Packer 2010, 210). Put simply, the book propagates an ethic of rational egoism and an extreme form of individualism, which is very similar to (neo-)liberalism. This logic calls for a laissez-faire capitalism with minimal state interference. In BioShock, Andrew Ryan (a quasi-anagram of Ayn Rand) embodies this ideology and has to watch it fail.

“I am Andrew Ryan, and I’m here to ask you a question. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? ‘No!’ says the man in Washington, ‘It belongs to the poor.’ ‘No!’ says the man in the Vatican, ‘It belongs to God.’ ‘No!’ says the man in Moscow, ‘It belongs to everyone.’ I rejected those answers; instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose… Rapture, a city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, Where the great would not be constrained by the small! And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well.” (The voice of Andrew Ryan in an announcement from BioShock)

What is particularly interesting is how Packer not only addresses the background story, but also the game mechanics of the first BioShock game in this regard:

“If  the  player  does  employ  a  pre-emptive  attack  strategy,  then  the  game  makes  an  argument  about  the  behavioural  environment  Objectivism  creates.  The  player  shoots  first  at  the  citizens  of  Rapture,  because  he  or  she  fears  the  Objectivists  attacking  first.” (Packer 216). Although there are authors who argue that the game is not a convincing critique of Objectivism because Andrew Ryan simply does not adhere strictly enough to Rand’s ideological guidelines (“but Andrew Ryan wasn’t a very good Objectivist.” Rose 2015), they all nonetheless understand BioShock as a conscious critique of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. (Packer 2010, 221, Görgen/Krischel 289f). In the second part, this critique of Objectivism – through the introduction of a critique of collectivism (See Mythem 2) – is relativised to a certain extent, but still it remains. Ryan is still no role model, Rapture still no utopia. Again we encounter Ryan’s manic individualism in his audio diaries: “I am told that the people grow tense and isolated in the absence of the sun. Now… they clamor for a psychiatrist. Do they miss the state censor, I wonder? Wartime seizure of private assets? Or the Cheka police, vanishing them in the night?” (Audio Diary von Andrew Ryan – The Great Chain Rattles) and  “I founded Rapture to be free of law and god… to live among those for whom work is our wage!” (audio diary von Andrew Ryan – Generation). Even more impressive, however, is the game’s critique of Ryan’s narrow-minded and, above all, missionary objectivism/liberalism in the form of the amusement park “Ryan Amusements”. Here, the players have to fight their way through the remains of a propagandistic amusement ride called “Journey to the Surface”.

Journey to the Surface (screenshot of the author)
Journey to the Surface (screenshot of the author)
Journey to the Surface (screenshot of the author)

The park was once intended to show the population of Rapture the dangers and threats of the authoritarian world on the surface using short animatronic sequences. At the various stations of the ride, neon signs describe the upper world: “Bureaucracy”, “Conformity & Co”, “Authority Inc.”, “Collapse Ave.”, “Social Services L.n.”, “Curfew” etc and short propaganda texts describe the horrors of encroaching state and social institutions to park visitors. Giant mechanical hands tear apart homes here to conscript children as soldiers. Scientists are prevented from making exciting new discoveries by the giant hand of the state, artists are censored. As part of the pleasure ride, ideology is exaggerated into the grotesque – with many parallels to propaganda films from the 1950s. Yet in the game, traces of vandalism are intended to show that not all the population of Rapture are entirely convinced by this agenda (Deco Devolution 76). Perhaps the most impressive critiques of Ryan/Rand’s ideology can be found at the levels “Pauper’s Drop” and “Siren Alley”, which reveal the dark underside of the Objectivist Utopia with every virtual step, the poor and the weak hidden in the bowels of the otherwise shining metropolis.

Mythem 2: The Horseshoe at the Bottom of the Sea: Liberalism vs. Collectivism – Objectivism vs. Altruism – Andrew Ryan vs. Sofia Lamb

This is where the BioShock story begins with the new antagonist Sofia Lamb. The psychotherapist casts herself as the protector of Rapture’s poor and disenfranchised. Her “Family” – a kind of sect – is open to all. Indeed, Lamb’s family is nigh on omnipresent in the game world. Small shrines consisting of candles and the book “Unit and Metamorphosis” written by Sofia Lamb can be found everywhere. The symbol of the Family is a butterfly, created from hundreds of handprints in purple paint on the walls behind the shrines. In the course of the game, however, it becomes increasingly apparent that the “Family” embodies a form of collectivism – an ideological umbrella term for social models in which the individual is subordinated to the collective – that turns out to be as inhumane as the laissez-faire capitalism it opposes.

In the pre-story of the game, she has spent years dealing with the very poorest of Rapture’s citizens, who have been left abandoned and broken. Her analysis of Ryan’s world is damning: “Depression, fits of panic, sexual pathos — all responses to ancient selection pressure. The irony is that this theory is why Ryan’s people invited me here. They mistake my study of natural law for the worship of competition. Remember, Eleanor — one must know the beast before it can be slain.” (audio diary from Sofia Lamb – Know the Beast). She counters one extreme – that of amoral individualism – with another extreme – the total surrender of the individual. Her goal is to unite the consciousness of all the inhabitants of Rapture in a single superhuman – the “Utopian”. After a first attempt to use the scientist and volunteer Gilbert Alexander to achieve this goes horribly wrong, she chooses Eleanor as the next subject for the experiment. Lamb will stop at nothing to achieve her goal, even if that means people die in the process.

Sofia Lamb shrine (screenshot of the author)

The political message of BioShock 2 is thus both simple and unsubtle: both extremes – objectivism and collectivism, and by extension capitalism and socialism – are equally dangerous. A tantalisingly and plausible truism that we encounter increasingly in the supplementary sections of our newspapers: the horseshoe theory that left-wing and right-wing politics converge at the extremes. The term was first coined by sociologists from the Nazi milieu and taken up by ethno-nationalist and conservative political scientists after the War.

The butterfly (screenshot of the author)

Like BioShock before it, BioShock 2 conveys this discursive statement not only through the narrative, but also through the audio-visual aesthetics and game mechanics. The players encounter the dangers and threats of Lamb’s collectivism wherever they go. In the corridors of Persephone, they experience – also in their own virtual bodies – Lamb’s inhuman practices: Brainwashing, mind control and manipulation. It is impossible to reason with Lamb’s supporters, whether in the form of brainwashed zealots like “Father Wales” or the aggressive Big Sisters. Just as before with Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine, there can be no compromise, no mutual understanding. The only resolution is to fight constantly and destroy them. The horseshoe idea is not something Jordan invented for Bioshock 2. Rather, it ties in with a mythem that was already in place in the first game. Here too, we are shown that the popular resistance led by Atlas is just as despicable as Ryan’s individualism. This is a motif that we encounter again more forcefully in Levine’s BioShock Infinite, where the initially peaceful revolutionaries, the “Vox Populi”, turn out to be just as treacherous and inhumane as Father Comstock’s racist regime.

Mythem 3: Mad Science and evil psychiatry

In the first Bioshock game, mad scientists, or actually mad science (Görgen/Pfister), were already a dominant mythem, embodied by the deceased medical researcher Yi Suchong, the reformed researcher Brigid Tenenbaum, but above all, through the unethical biotechnology company “Fontaine Futuristics”. The mad scientist as the extreme of social deviance stands for untrammelled scientific research which crosses moral and ethical boundaries. This figure symbolises the “ambivalence between a belief in technological progress, and fear that technology might get out of control”. This portrayal insinuates, pars pro toto, that science harbours a not so secret longing for liberation from the corset of “petty morality”. (Pfister 2017). In the game, it is assumed that scientists – as soon as state control is removed – will throw all ethical concerns overboard or obey the “logic of the market”. BioShock 2 also directly picks up on this, although this time it is not about stem-cell research and genetic engineering, but about psychiatry and social engineering.

Recreational therapy (screenshot of the author)

Sofia Lamb’s goal – a more just, egalitarian society – may be well-intentioned, but the means are clearly amoral: brainwashing and neurological reprogramming: “But far more interesting is the program of compulsion bred into his child, coded ‘W-Y-K.’ (meaning “would you kindly”) It was some manner of verbal ‘trigger phrase,’ which the boy would obey as an order, unerringly. In a way, this sad thing, this… half-man had ‘escaped the self’. Highly intelligent, but devoid of so called ‘free will,’ with all its convenient blind spots. What if he had been instructed to uphold the common good? What if he were a volunteer?” can be heard in one of her audio diaries, in which she refers to Jack, protagonist of BioShock (audio diary by Sofia Lamb – Means of Control). By means of omnipresent loudspeaker announcements, short propaganda films, brochures and posters, Lamb tries to educate the inhabitants of Rapture to become better citizens (Schott 2018, 283). We can interpret this as a deliberate reference to socialist/communist attempts to educate people to become better citizens. However, Lamb goes much further than the social democratic governments of the interwar period, even further than the “education for a socialist personality” in the GDR, for example.

The children’s ward of Persephone (screenshot by the author).

The cells with their countless TV screens are a deliberate reference to A Clockwork Orange and the reprogramming of Alex in the film (US 1971). In the area of “Intensive Therapy”, all possible remnants of torture methods are evident: Restraint chairs, water baths, etc. After all, it is Lamb who coerces a desperate father to be reprogrammed and also physically transformed into a Big Daddy:

Intensive Therapy (screenshot by the author)
Intensive Therapy (screenshot by the author)
Intensive Therapy (screenshot by the author)

“Ask yourself, Mr. Meltzer… is it better to be summarily executed as an outsider caught within these grounds, or to be united not just with your daughter Cindy, but with the Rapture Family as well? The choice is yours… I urge you to accept the Protector program. You will live by her side, and remember nothing beyond your love for her.” (audio diary von Sofia Lamb – Meltzer’s Choice)

In order to achieve her goals, Lamb does not even shrink away from flooding the slum – the district where she won her first supporters. In the game’s narrative, Lamb uses her intellect and rhetoric in the fight against Andrew Ryan to win over the poor masses.

Siren’s Alley after the flood (screenshot of the author)

At the same time, it is not just the figure of Sofia Lamb who represents the dangers of psychiatry in the game. Even before Lamb’s arrival, unethical human experiments were taking place in the prison facility of Persephone to turn girls into Little Sisters. Both the architectural surrounds of this level and individual audio diaries give evidence of this: “Doctor: Name…? / Patient: Wha? Where am I? (Zap, Screams) / Doctor: Name…? / Patient: What the fuck did you do with my wife?! (Zap, Screams) / Doctor: Name…?/ Patient: Let me out of this chair – (Zap, Screaming in pain)” (audio diary by Edward Grimes – A Simple Question).

Intensive Therapy (screenshot by the author)

What the game conveys, is an image of a kind of psychiatry whose goal is not to heal people but to exploit and instrumentalise them. In this way, psychiatry poses the greatest danger to the freedoms of its citizens by way of social engineering (cf. Görgen/Krischel 296).

Mythem 4: Protective Father vs. Monstrous Mother

As well as the character of Sofia Lamb, the game reviews also praised the relationship between Eleanor and Delta, her foster father and Big Daddy, who role is taken over by the player (see Stang 2018, 37). The relationship between father and daughter helps to involve the players emotionally in the action. Indeed, the role of father (enforced through conditioning) gives the character Delta an emotional depth that was rarely found in first person shooters of the time. Since then, the role of the caring father has become less of a rarity in digital games. Whether in Fallout 4 (Bethesda Game Studios 2015), The Last of Us (Naughty Dog 2013), Telltale’s The Walking Dead (Telltale 2012) or the recent God of War reboot (SIE Santa Monica Studio 2018), we find broken, failing and yet caring fathers everywhere, willing to risk everything to protect their children. A phenomenon that has been christened “daddening” in the trade press (Stang 2018). Certainly, the emergence of supposedly fragile father figures in digital games –especially against the backdrop of the earlier superhuman characters in games such as Halo (Bungie Studios 2001) – may appear to be progress towards more balanced male/female roles. However, Sarah Stang, John Vanderhoef and Matthew Thomas Payne, for example, have conclusively argued that daddening can also be understood as a post-feminist response, as the ‘daddy’ is always accompanied by either an absent or else monstrous mother (see our case study of The Evil Within 2), (Stang 2018, 29 and Vanderhoef / Payne 2018). This is particularly evident in BioShock 2, both in the narrative, but also in the audio-visual design and game mechanics: “The player, as an embodiment of violently protective fatherhood, fights against a villainous mother who must be punished for attempting to destroy the sanctity of the father-daughter bond” (Stang 2018, 29).

In Persephone (screenshot of the author)

And in terms of Barbara Creed’s “Monstrous Feminine”, Sofia Lamb perfectly embodies the monstrous mother (cited in Vanderhoef/Pane 2018, 52). The perfidious issue here is that Lamb consciously enacts her role as Rapture’s mother in the game, while at the same time she is a bad mother to her own daughter (Vanderhoef/Payne 2018. 61). Not only is she willing to sacrifice her daughter to the collective – as “Rapture’s Child” Eleanor is supposed to absorb the consciousness of all citizens – but her attempts to separate Eleanor from her foster father Delta are experienced to be even worse from the players’ perspective. As an all-powerful mother, Lamb represents, according to Vanderhoef and Payne, E. Ann Kaplan’s model of the “fusional mother”, who achieves satisfaction by exerting control over her daughter (Ebenda). The struggle over the control of Eleanor is also reflected in the mechanics of the game, where towards the end of the game in Persephone, Eleanor has to be freed and can then effectively be controlled/used by the players. Apart from Lamb, there are two other mother figures in the game, neither of whom has a very positive connotation. On the one hand, there is the foster mother Grace Holloway, who – in keeping with the highly problematic “mammy” stereotype – builds up an emotional relationship with Eleanor in contrast to Lamb, but ultimately does not succeed in protecting her foster daughter. Moreover, there is a curious moment in the game when players can decide to kill Holloway or to spare her life, and neither of these options elicits any perceptible reaction from Eleanor.

Finally, that leaves Brigid Tenenbaum, who as a Jewish teenager survived the concentration camp, by assisting the camp’s doctors with their experiments on human subjects through her prodigal scientific knowledge. It is only later in the story that she begins to feel remorse for her actions, and, develops maternal feelings for the Little Sisters which she had neither expected or wanted. In Bioshock 2, she lovingly tends to the rescued Little Girls, but doesn’t defend them if the player decides to sacrifice one. At some point, she disappears completely from the game without the players knowing what has happened to her.

Thus the image remains of the monstrous mother, who is either too weak or too strong, compared with the protective father, even if in this case Delta did not choose this role willingly, but was conditioned to enact it.

Mythem 5: The brute Splicer and the criminal mob

With the Splicers of Rapture, we encounter a widespread – but rarely scrutinised – myth of digital games, and more generally dystopian settings. The eternally aggressive and instinct-driven Splicers are just one example of the trope of the dangerous mob, the angry mass that I explored a few years ago but within a totally different game setting, – namely in Assassin’s Creed Unity (Ubisoft Montreal 2014) “They represent an aggressive, atavistic and uncontrollable pack. They cannot be negotiated with, they attack everyone. Their representation is reminiscent of the pessimistic theory of the masses from Scipio Sighele’s work “La Folla delinquent” (the Criminal Crowd: An Essay on Collective Psychology), published at the end of the 19th century.” (Pfister 2016). Sighele’s work, which today has once again fallen into obscurity, contributed considerably to the development of “crowd psychology” at the beginning of the 20th century (Lück 2009, 44). Not long after, Gustave Le Bon published “Psychologie des Foules” (Psychology of Crowds) where we encounter even more forcefully this negative perception of the crowd, which is still widespread today. Here one reads, for example: “The crowd resembles a headless animal […], lower instincts are activated in the crowd, the crowd disinhibits man, etc.” (quoted after Lück 2009, 44; see also Jean Baudrillard, Die Stadt und der Hass from: Perspektiven metropolitan Kultur, Hrsg. Ursula Keller, 2000 and Elias Canetti, Masse and Macht, Hamburg 1960. Thanks to Arno Görgen for the latter two references). Since then, at least in research, this kind of elitist view  – “the masses are always the others” – has been rejected again in psychology (Lück 2009, 44).

Brute Splicer (screenshot of the author)

In Bioshock 2, as in the first game, this perception of the masses is communicated, in particular, in contrast to the superhumans Andrew Ryan, Frank Fontaine and Sofia Lamb. The masses have degenerated into mindless Splicers because of greed, envy and lack of self-control. Their attempt to become superhumans has, conversely, condemned them to become mindless animals, shadows of their past selves. The only remaining signs of their humanity are certain phrases from the past that they repeat over and over again, now without any sense at all. In terms of game mechanics, they are naturally similar to other NPC opponents, especially zombies. They have remnants of tactical intelligence, can cooperate to a certain extent, but communication is not possible. They are not victims of a plague, but victims of their own weakness and addiction. Superior humans like Ryan, Fontaine, Lamb but also the protagonists Jack in BioShock and Delta in BioShock 2 are surprisingly immune. Consciously or unconsciously, a very negative image of the crowd has been constructed: a bunch of greedy, aggressive animals who instantly fall under the spell of stronger leaders and can only be redeemed by the players through death.

Mythem 6: The inescapable cult of the individual

Looking a little more closely at the mythems communicated shows how BioShock 2, and BioShock before it, ironically convey statements in part that they originally – and according to Ken Levine’s statements – intended to criticise. While Rand’s Objectivism is criticised, the counter-example shows that altruism and cohesion also quickly degenerate into inhuman modes of governance. The game mechanics of the FPS also leave no doubt of what the only salvation can be: the ethical or even unethical player. In their hands alone lies the solution – due to the choice of the FPS genre – in the form of weapons.

In Persephone (screenshot by the author).

Above all, the unconscious staging of the dumb masses actually supports Ayn Rand’s worshipping of genius – the so-called Atlases. The masses have no opportunity to free themselves from servitude because they are instinct-driven and incapable of organising themselves. The masses wait for strong personalities to lead them or redeem them. While the game teaches us to sympathise with the fates of individuals, and to a certain extent instils compassion, it also shows us that there is no other solution than death. We cannot negotiate with the Splicers. By their own actions, they have become non-humans (see also Görgen 2018). The innocent Little Sisters can be “saved”, but not the populace of workers, artists and scientists in Rapture. The apocalypse is not only inevitable, it is also man-made.

Recommended Quotation : Eugen Pfister, „Avec les anges si purs / La mer / Bergère d’azur, infinie (BioShock 2)“ in:  Horror-Game-Politics, <http://hgp.hypotheses.org/1621> 30.11.2021


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  • Arno Görgen und Eugen Pfister, „Wahnsinn mit Methode – ‚Mad Science at Play!‘ Zur räumlich-strukturellen Externalisierung des Verrückten Wissenschaftlers im Digitalen Spiel“, in: Christian Hoffstadt und Sabine Müller (Hg.), Bösewichte/Villains – Bad Asses von Antike bis Moderne, Freiburg 2021 [= ekbasis.band 1]
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Quoted Games:

  • Assassin‘s Creed Unity (Ubisoft Montreal 2014)
  • BioShock (2K Boston 2007)                                                                                 
  • BioShock Infinite (Irrational Games 2013)
  • Fallout 4 (Bethesda Game Studios 2015),
  • God of War (SIE Santa Monica Studio 2018)
  • Gone Home (Fulbright 2013)
  • Halo (Bungie Studios 20019
  • System Shock 2 (Irrational Games 1999)
  • Tacoma (Fullbright 2017)
  • Telltale‘s The Walking Dead (Telltale 2012)
  • The Last of Us (Naughty Dog 2013)
  • Thief: Deadly Shadows (Ion Storm Austin 2004)

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Eugen Pfister (2021, 30. November). Avec les anges si purs / La mer / Bergère d’azur, infinie (BioShock 2). Horror - Game - Politics. Abgerufen am 12. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/piq5

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