Wednesday, January 5, 2011

EXP Podcast #111: BioShock 2 Debrief

This week, we board our bathyspheres to revisit Rapture. BioShock 2 was faced with the monumental task of following one of gaming’s most revered titles and it was initially met with trepidation from fans. However, the game is much more than a cookie-cutter sequel, and we spend this episode discussing the significant systemic and narrative changes it brings to the series.

Some discussion starters:

- Did BioShock 2 alter your feelings towards the original game?

- Did the moral choices in BioShock 2 carry weight for you?

- How did the game’s emphasis on defending Little Sisters impact your play style?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
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Show notes:

- “Groping the Map: Pauper's Drop”, by Justin Keverne, via Groping the Elephant
- “On My Shoulder, Whispering,” by Michael Abbott, via The Brainy Gamer
- Run time: 38 min 04 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks


  1. This game was quite the ride. Best of 2010 if you don't count Minecraft as playing in the same league.

    It's little improvements to Bioshock's gameplay, the twists of mission structures, the new enemies and the outstanding level design make this one a truly remarkable game and a very worthy sequel.

    The narrative side is also very strong, maybe not as daring as the Original, less crucifix smuggling, bible-thumping, hopping mad splicers, no real "would you kindly...?" twist, but still a compelling, gripping, moving tale that's told.

    Also, this tale proves to be a little bit more interactive and personal than the one of the original. Eleanor's actions towards the end mirroring your own had quite an emotional impact well beyond a good or a bad ending.

    Although in this game it seemed even worse harvesting Little Sisters after carrying around with you. Even in my second (unfinished... dammit! gotta go back to that some day.) playthrough I couldn't get myself to do it.

    So overally I do prefer this sequel to the original, although the place in the history books clearly goes to the first game.

  2. I enjoyed the game quite a bit. However, something that struck me about half way through playing: I could not remember any of the 'recorded messages' that I had listened to. Either I wasn't paying much attention to them, or they were entirely forgettable.

    When I played the first bioshock, I lived to collect and enjoy those little tape recorders. In this game, I stopped caring when I realized that I had no idea who anyone was (other than sophia, eleanor, and the other few main characters).

    Much like was mentioned in the podcast, even the main characters (like sophia) had entirely forgettable dialogue. All you're left with is a feeling. I doubt that is intentional, as it is something that definitely did not improve from the first bioshock.

  3. Both installments have their strengths and weaknesses. The first Bioshock is more memorable simply on account of its being first, but I also agree that the characters were more memorable. Ryan, Fontaine, and Tennenbaum all had very memorable voices. The characters in B2 were not only less memorable in terms of the sounds of their voices (Sophia Lamb's preachy intonations got on my nerves pretty quickly) but also because the content of their utterances had even more repetition than the first. For example, I felt like B2 kinda beat me over the head with certain things--like the whole "the family" idea.

    But whereas B1 had characters with very strong personalities and presences, it was very impersonal. B2 did a much better job of making things more personal as far as little sister interactions and the effects of your choices. I agree with you two on the power of how your choices affect Eleanor's choices. That was just a brilliant idea. But another thing I think worth mentioning is the way the little sisters reacted to your actions as you carried them around between harvest locations. I'm not even a father, and I loved carrying the little sisters on my shoulders, hearing them yell "Marshmellow!" whenever I torched a splicer, or "Nobody messes with MY daddy," when I shot one down. Part of the appeal of being a big daddy is feeling like Rapture's superman, and kids think their dads ARE superman, and so it was a more emotional way to get that feeling rather than from literal power. Aspects of gameplay that had become commonplace for me--such as the incineration plasmid--became cool again by the fact that I had a pair of eyes to impress.

    (spoiler alert)B2 also took Rapture to new visual heights, though. I wasn't expecting B2 to bring anything new to the table in that department, but when I stepped out onto the cliff of the first underwater area, I was enthralled. I also loved when Sophia flooded one of the levels completely.

    There were aspects of the B2 narrative that just made me cringe, though. Like the whole Sinclair mind control thing. "Help! They're controlling my mind!" I was just like, really? Is this supposed to be funny? I know I'm in a fantasy and all, but this is pretty damn ridiculous. Suspension of disbelief totally broken on that one. Sorry, bioshock team.

  4. Great thoughts all around, folks!


    Agreed on all accounts, my friend. It seemed that there was a subtle shift in how characters were portrayed; in BioShock 2, characters seem more human compared to BioShock 1. I loved the characters as stand-ins for ideology the first game used so well, but BioShock 2 succeeds at a more personal portrayal.

    @Taking it like a man

    Thanks for stopping by! I think you bring up one of the major shortcomings of BioShock 2's choice to have less imposing characters. If you haven't had a chance to do so, I highly recommend playing Minerva's Den. It had a few dialogue moments that continue to stick with me.


    Thanks for listening and for all the great thoughts. I like your point about "impressing" the Little Sisters. It felt quite different to be in the presence of other characters, as I usually think of Rapture as a solitary place. The underwater stuff was neat as well and I'm glad they didn't try to do too much with it as far as combat. That could have easily gone south. Lastly, I hear you on the Sinclair thing. I was hoping for a final moral dilemma or maybe having the option of trying to rehabilitate him somehow. Unfortunately for him, he met a somewhat inglorious demise as a end-of-level boss with a wacky voice. Too bad, as I was constantly trying to figure out whether he was actually on my side or not...

  5. @Scott Juster

    I was interested in him in the same way. I liked being uncertain about how interested he was in my welfare aside from how it affected his own agenda. I'm glad they didn't decide to reveal Sinclair as having a secret agenda, though, considering the way Atlas became Fontaine in the first Bioshock. If they had done that, we would have justly called him an unoriginal/uninspired Atlas knock-off. So they couldn't take the hidden agenda route with him.

    At the same time, I can understand why they might want to kill an honest Sinclair before the end of the story. How would the Delta/Eleanor duo have felt with Sinclair playing third wheel?

    Still, I think they could have handled it better. The whole thing felt very ad hoc. A sad fate for his character.

  6. I really enjoyed BioShock 2, and I think it got short shrift in general. Most game sequels are far less creative, make far fewer mechanical improvements, and take their charge to live up to their predecessors far less seriously, but BioShock's truly special place in history (and hearts) meant that its sequel was bound to be judged by different standards.

    Overall, it's a far better game on a mechanical level. I do not understand the common complaint about linearity (train vs. bathysphere) given that no one likes backtracking in games that do allow or require it. I did hate the harvesting sequences, but the unusual section at the end redeemed all missteps.

    @Taking it like a man
    For me, the problem with the audio logs was not so much with the writing or characters, but with the narrative format. I think the depth of the world in BioShock was such a novelty that it was hard to take a critical look at some of the ways that depth was conveyed.

    Audio logs are ostensibly diegetic, but in fact the premise is so absurd that they take me out of the experience. To the extent they work in BioShock and BioShock 2, it's a testament to Rapture; compare their execution in Doom 3 for a counterexample.

    That's not to say that telling stories through chunks of audio is a bad idea. It has all kinds of advantages, not least that it doesn't interfere with gameplay. It's just the hunt-for-dubious-tape-recorders narrative device that stopped working for me.