Monday, August 2, 2010

The Sensationalist: Guilt and Responsibility in Bioshock 2

This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries. As always, we welcome your thoughts on all the matters we discuss, and look forward to analyzing one of gaming's most powerful, yet intangible, abilities.

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Bioshock 2.

My first venture into Rapture revealed the dangerous affects of unmitigated self-interest. The denizens of Andrew Ryan’s underwater city cared only for themselves, and it caused the Libertarian paradise to eat itself alive.The protagonist of the first Bioshock is an automaton within this decaying world. While the decision to save or harvest little sisters has a narrative affect, their presence seems more environmental than personal. Bioshock 2 offers similar binary decision points, but by creating an intimate relationship between the Big Daddy protagonist and his Little Sister all grown up, the game evokes sensations of guilt and responsibility the first title could never have achieved.
Guilt is a difficult emotion to evoke in games. In order to feel guilt, you must in some way feel responsible for unfavorable actions. Choice in many games is superficial and largely meaningless. When choice does have an emotional element, say in Mass Effect 2 for example, it may also merely present two justifiable options. Shepard’s decisions can be well defended, regardless of consequences. To create a sense of guilt, players must feel responsible for not necessarily ideal circumstances, all without feeling cheated by the game designers into selecting sub-optimal outcomes.

The Big Daddy from the first Bioshock is a clockwork monster, mercilessly protecting Little Sisters. They seem to have less agency than Jack, who himself is controlled by Fontaine’s “would you kindly.” Sophia Lamb in Bioshock 2 paints Delta as a monstrous creation, ruining his beloved Little Sister Eleanor with his mad pursuit. The first character to test that theory is Grace Holloway, a woman who attempts to stop Delta by sending an army of splicers at him. If the player decides not to kill her when given the option, Grace tells him a monster would never show mercy. By choosing to let her live, Delta shows agency and moral intelligence. Thus, the responsibility for future actions are his.
Similar reminders occur when players are faced with the decision to kill Stanley Poole and Gilbert Alexander. All these decisions influence who Eleanor will become.When I killed Gilbert’s mutated splicer form, I still felt a sense of guilt, even when I felt justified in my actions. Likewise, finishing off the Big Daddy version of Mike Meltzer, a man trapped in Rapture to be with his daughter, I could not help but feel remorse. How would Eleanor interpret these actions? In an excellent article on a similar theme, Michael Abbot of The Brainy Gamer had this to say:

This game makes me feel the weight of compassion and responsibility. I won't soon forget confronting the rat-like Stanley Poole in the train station, every bit of me itching to kill him and make it painful. He stood there cowering, defenseless, bent at the waist, gripping his head. I watched him for a moment, savoring his suffering. And then I realized that she was watching too. Eleanor was there with me, just as she was 10 years before, when her mother faced a similar opportunity to kill a man. I turned and walked out the door. Near the end of the game, some 15 hours later, I discovered I was right. She was watching; and she learned.

Eleanor ultimately becomes the type of person Delta appears to be. If Delta seeks vengeance, so will Eleanor. If Delta harvests children to survive, Eleanor too will commit herself to survival, regardless of the sacrifices. Being responsible for another person’s identity goes beyond responsibility for a few disparate outcomes. My version of Delta would probably not have let Sophia Lam live. When Eleanor forgives her and saves her life in the “good” ending, it evokes a sense of responsibility for something greater than the self. She becomes a better person than those before her.
The player earns this outcome by saving Little Sisters rather than harvesting them. Protecting the children while they collect ADAM is both difficult and time consuming. Bioshock 2 asks the player to make a sacrifice by choosing to become responsible for the safety of another. Although the Little Sisters cannot actually be harmed, the game evokes a sense of guilt when the player dies during ADAM collection. Failing your responsibility can be an emotionally powerful experience.

I felt this same sense of guilt when I gave Eleanor a Big Sister outfit, and again every time I called her to aid me in battle. From beginning to end, Bioshock 2 is about taking responsibility for your own actions and accepting responsibility for Eleanor’s fate. The statues of Delta in Persephone, visible through the eyes of a Little Sister, emphasize the weird of these decisions. While the circumstances in Rapture are out of your hands, Eleanor’s destiny is not. When saving Eleanor means harming others and potentially harming her, justifiable actions can still engender a sense of guilt and remorse. By exploiting these emotions, 2K Marin makes even a Big Daddy feel remarkably human.


  1. I'm guessing you liked this game far more than I did. I know that moral choices are becoming really popular in games these days but I'm not quite sure anyone has really gotten it right. I'm always thinking, when confronted with these decisions, how will this affect the ending? Will I get the "good" ending or the "bad" ending? Because of this, the moral decisions become merely a series of options necessary to acquire a specific goal. They are not moral choices, they are simply check marks on a list of options.
    Maybe a moral choice would be better if the final outcome remained the same.
    I think Bioshock 2 got it wrong. Guilt was a game mechanic. It was transparent. The desire to get a better ending or more adam was always more important than the morality.
    Conversely, Shadow of the Colossus actually made me feel guilty. As the game progressed, the exhilaration of the first few bosses started to give way to something else. I started to feel that what I was doing was wrong. It was against nature. I was destroying magnificent beasts and it was eroding the soul of my character. What's worse is that I felt compelled to continue doing it.

  2. @ Radewagon

    I think you're right about liking the game more than you did. I go back and forth on morality as a mechanic. At times, I think its fantastic, at other times not so much. I'd actually recommend listening to our Morality Dilemma podcast for a huge discussion of that topic (

    It's hard to talk about the game with the idea that end goals trump perceptions. I didn't care one way or the other about maximizing my ADAM consumption. And while I do like "good" endings, that doesn't mean such a conclusion would be the most compelling. Different players weight these considerations differently. I appreciate Bioshock 2 for having a game mechanic that created disincentives for saving the little children, and then had a narrative outcome tied to player choice - especially when the outcome is anything but ideal.