For the second feature in my series about looking for the plot details that developers hide in their video games, I wanted to introduce a franchise that I have no doubt will be the focus of this series time and time again. I’ll be looking at radio messages again, this time in Bioshock 2. This game, the second in the trilogy, is what I might call the unsung hero of the franchise, to be quite honest with you. It is not as famous as the other two games, lacks the iconic twists of the first installment and the Baker-voiced protagonist of Infinite and, when I began my playthrough of all three games, was the one I was least looking forward to.
I must confess, however, I enjoyed it more than the first game.
What is Bioshock 2 all about, and why should I care?
With a prologue set in 1958, two years before the first game and about a year before the civil war, Bioshock 2 can be viewed as the resolution of the Rapture storyline. In many ways, it is a game that didn’t need to happen and yet still released to critical acclaim and managed to solidly develop the story of the first game. Many, however, find it disappointing in some way or another, which I completely understand, but that doesn’t stop it from being a great game. You play as Subject Delta a Big Daddy who was part of Alpha Series alongside Subject Sigma, the protagonist of the Minerva’s Den DLC, whose story plays off the main game as an interesting parallel to Delta’s. In 1958, before the fall of Rapture, Subject Delta had a strong bond with a Little Sister called Eleanor. Eleanor Lamb, daughter of the antagonist Dr Sophia Lamb.
I should clarify my earlier statement by saying that I do not think this is a perfect game, nor do I even think it is better than the first. I was shocked to find that not only is Bioshock a horror game, it is a really good horror game, as well as everything else it accomplishes. Comparing the two in that way, for example, is one way of showing how Bioshock 2 doesn’t stand up to its predecessor. However, I still enjoyed it more, despite liking playing as Delta less than Jack Ryan. One thing I love about it that many overlook is how it complements the story that so intrigued us in the first installment. We learn so much more about Rapture and the past as well as what happened to some of the characters we met.
My favorite example might be the fact that we thought we saved/killed every Little Sister, but learned in this game that there’s a second generation and that the first generation had grown up and become the Big Sisters. A highlight of the game for me is early on in Ryan’s Amusements, in which the story of Rapture is further explored through Andrew Ryan’s propaganda. It’s truly a great example of the franchise’s unique storytelling.
But to go back to how I described the game, the “unsung hero”, I should say this: The game is not better than its predecessor. In fact, the new director Jordan Thomas achieves something tremendous but ultimately fails to capture what Ken Levine does in Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite. The game itself, without the extra storytelling and the added context, is quite boring and the gameplay felt, in my opinion, altogether stale. However, the game is vastly underappreciated for what it does achieve and that is flesh out Rapture’s underground workings and build upon what I consider to be Bioshock’s flaws. Retrospectively, the Atlas twist is quite obvious, even more so with the tapes, but it is still a fan favorite memorable moment. This game mocks that twist with Sinclair, his Southern accent being particularly significant.
Bioshock’s ending was also quite lackluster with an incredibly easy final boss and pitiful excuses for multiple endings. Bioshock 2 follows the same template for its six slightly different endings but handles them much better. It knows what it wants to be and maintains the tone it wants. There is no final boss because there is no place for it in the story. Furthermore, a sense of morality is much more present in this game and I was deeply satisfied completing my first playthrough without earning the Saviour trophy. I wasn’t trying to be a goody two shoes, I was making the choices I wanted to make. I felt compelled to spare Grace and was rewarded for it, but I did not hesitate to shotgun blast Stanley’s face off and honored Dr Alexander’s pre-metamorphosis request to put him down. This was a game deeply concerned with its own values, not with convention or even mimicking the first game. I admire how it was able to create an experience that was not innovative but that I found much more pleasurable than the first.
What’s so great about the audio diaries?
One of Bioshock’s instantly recognizable plot devices is the audio diary. It is a staple of the franchise and a genius way for providing a narrative dump while letting the player control when and where they receive that information, while also letting them replay tapes however frequently they need to. Like the first game, this one uses those tapes masterfully, building the world around you and giving you great insight into what happened in the prelude to the games, while also exploring each of the unique characters that are either referenced or directly encountered throughout the game. They provide a contrast to the main plot while also supplementing it by expanding on ideas and contradicting things you thought or at least assumed to be true. They play a pivotal role in the games as they are informative and entertaining ways of conveying vital plot points.
It is fairly safe to say that the majority of Bioshock’s plot (that’s the first two games) down in Rapture is made up almost entirely in the audio diaries. In other words, almost all events take place outside the main plot, have already happened and are described in the tapes. After all, both games take place after the fall of Rapture, after its civil war in 1959, and so really everything we know about the city, the people in it and what went on is completely outside the game we played. In fact, the games themselves are simple A to B plots with a silent protagonist running errands while following a relatively straight line laid out by a guiding voice or two. Almost nothing actually happens. Don’t get me wrong, however, the main plots aren’t boring and are certainly still intriguing. They have their moments, namely the Andrew Ryan encounter in Bioshock, and they are both deeply philosophical games, but you can’t deny how much of the story is history.
Mark Meltzer, Fan Favourite
There are many unique and interesting audio diaries in both games, so many that it would take me multiple articles to unpack even the most interesting ones. However, for this feature, I’d like to turn your attention exclusively to the series of audio diaries in Bioshock 2 chronicling Mark Meltzer’s investigation of Rapture. Meltzer was a character from a small PR stunt called There’s Something in the Sea. It was only meant to set up Bioshock 2’s Little Sister-centric story through Meltzer’s investigation into the kidnappings and his interactions with other new characters such as Jeremiah Lynch. It ended up being so popular with the fans that his subplot was implemented into the main game. Keep this detail about his story in mind though, as it will be relevant in my next feature covering The Last of Us.
Anyway, Meltzer’s investigation is told over six audio diaries and a removed seventh that can be found online, and follows the investigation after the surface events of There’s Something in the Sea, beginning with his arrival at Rapture. I personally never experienced Meltzer’s prologue to the game and was instead introduced to him with the audio log you find in the first station. It wastes no time with what has already been told and dives straight into Meltzer’s first impressions of Rapture, entitled ‘They Called It Rapture’. Even without the context of the initial investigation, the audio diary does a fantastic job of setting up the conflict. We understand that Meltzer has undergone an arduous journey from the surface in search of “that thing” which took his daughter, Cindy Meltzer.
Following each individual log as you progress through the game creates a strong intrigue in a suspenseful subplot that is explored at just the right pace to keep you interested but always one step behind. Meltzer’s lack of knowledge mirrors that of the player’s such that we can also learn from his investigation just as much as we can fill in the blanks where he is quite confused and horrified. The progression of the audio diaries creates a strong, compelling story so vivid that one can look back on it and almost remember it as if it were told visually in a cutscene, drawing to a climax that is just as emphatic and impactful as the ending of the main game, despite just being an audio log. This is all complemented by the twist at the end of the story that subverts the player’s wish for a happy ending, or at least one with a resolution full of answers, in the player’s encounter with Mark Meltzer, which I will not spoil for you here.
Ultimately, the Meltzer storyline is not one that goes unparalleled in gaming, but it is a strongly-developed mystery that adds flavor to an already rich experience.
That’s all for this edition for In Search of Truth. If you missed out on the Bioshock games, you can buy the complete collection on Amazon for around $30