They Just Don’t Tell ‘Em Right Anymore.

I uninstalled Bioshock 2 today. I haven’t finished it, I got roughly (if the list of story-related achievements on GFWL is anything to go by) 65/70% of the way through. Why did I uninstall it? Because I was bored. Not with sticking my massive drill through another poor splicer, or with launching fire bombs and telekinetically manipulated boulders at Brute Splicers and Big Daddies, no, that was all well and fine: I was bored with the plot.

I’m as willing as the next average gamer to accept minor holes in the plot if they facilitate gameplay, but Bioshock 2’s plot was, frankly, awful. A city that was falling to pieces during the first game has somehow not only held together in almost identical condition, 10 years later, but the Splicers (and those few inhabitants who appear to retain the majority of their humanity) have willingly swung about face from Andrew Ryan’s Randian city-state to an almost anarchic, collectivist unit, bound together by Wales’ and Sophia Lamb’s “Rapture Family” – religious zealotry where none was ever even hinted at before. Not only that, but the protagonist is now “Subject Delta” – the first successfully paired Big Daddy. Of course, the existence of these prototypes was never mentioned once in the first game, and yet we’re expected to acknowledge and accept their place in Rapture’s timeline. Oh, and the first successful Little Sister just happens to be Lamb’s daughter. In short: it sucks. The writing of the first Bioshock wasn’t hugely better, but it was tolerable, and it made some small sense because the city was clearly on the very edge of collapse.

Similarly, we have the 2 Modern Warfare games. In the first, you chase down Al-Asad, after he desposes the rightful leader of some Middle-Eastern fundamentalist hell-hole (or at least that’s how it’s painted), then chase down Zakhaev and his Ultranationalists through Russia. You kill him, the nukes he launched “only” take 30,000 lives instead of tens of millions, world is safe. Except when we start Modern Warfare 2, it turns out the naughty Ultranationalists won the war and now control Russia, regardless of having their entire leadership except one man, Makarov, decimated. We then go through the improbable ability of a US Marine to successfully (or not…) infiltrate Makarov’s leadership circle, US-sanctioned acts of terrorism (IN THE NAME OF FREEDOM), and a full-blown war between Russia and America where the only nuclear casualties are a few poor mooks on the International Space Station, and some Russians who just really wanted a burger. (Incidentally, the ISS is just about the only place the player is NOT ordered to go by some other bugger throughout the game – there’s a “RAMIREZ! PERFORM ACTION X!” meme floating around 4chan and meme-generator for a reason…). And then * SPOILERS AH-oh, fuck it, everyone who’s actually interested has played it anyway, it turns out the mastermind behind the whole plot was the guy giving your Task Force 141 orders, because he didn’t like America not being able to play World Police without getting a smacked bottom any more. It was shit, and the only reason I finished it was a) I was at a friend’s house, playing his copy on his 360, and therefore losing nothing, and b) It was SHORT. 5 hours, all the way through, on Veteran.

Video game stories have always been… leaning to ludonaucy, but it’s getting ridiculous, guys. We’ve reached a point where a 5 hour long singleplayer campaign with one “shocking” (Your mileage may have varied, I certainly didn’t give a toss – IT’S NOT REAL, DAILY MAIL) scene and every single Tom Clancy wet dream crammed in is praised as “one of the best video games released all year” (Daily Telegraph), and “hands-down one of the best first-person shooters out there,”(IGN UK). When I play God of War 3, I know what I’m getting into – I’m a guy with swords on chains that have been seared onto my flesh, and I’m going to fuck the Greek Pantheon over like Sasha Grey in a porno where she was being paid by the orgasm. But a title like Modern Warfare 2 implies some vague stab at realism, to me at least – that’s what the Call of Duty games set in good old World War 2 had going for them, they were massive setpieces with improbable victories, but THEY ACTUALLY HAPPENED. Open a story up to games developers these days, and it becomes “how many TOTALLY AWESOME EXPLOSIVE CINEMATIC MOMENTS can we fit into this without having to put too much effort in?”

And then, amazingly, when we lean towards realism, game stories are denigrated for being “too depressing”! Grand Theft Auto 4 wasn’t true-to-life, but it was a hell of a lot closer than most games have come recently, and it’s tales of backstabbing, gang intrigues, loss and revenge were, for me, far easier to connect with than the plight of Ramirez, Soap, Price et al.

I’m not saying the ludicrous is bad. But at least make it contiguous within the universe you’ve created, guys. That, or invent a universe, like we used to do. Sam and Max! The Day of the Tentacle! System Shock! All their fictional tales are so much better for being in an original, well-crafted universe that their stories fit into, where they make sense – because they’ve been developed around the story. Nowadays, we take our AAA franchise, we see the world, and we shoe-horn stories into it – look at poor Sonic, or the dying embers of the once great Crash Bandicoot series. They, like Bioshock 2, are proof it doesn’t work. Bioshock 2 is what is wrong with modern video game plots. Good stories need to be in the right place, at the right time. Subject Delta was in neither.

  1. Bioshock 2 is on my to-play list, and I really want to play it. Though having just finished Darwinia it’d be a good time. Or I could try and get a golden wrench. Guess which I’m going to choose…

    Plot in games has always been very bad. If you read the Wolfire blog, a couple of months ago they had a post about how these stories are crafted. They themselves told us that the story was written second for their game. It isn’t a good thing at all.

    I think the issue here relates to the fact that the story is put in because people need a reason to keep playing. As opposed to a story being written and a game put in to keep the player interested. It’s a subtle difference, and one that needs to be recognised.

    Finally, I wrote a feature for Gaming Daily vaguely related to this topic, so I’ll shamelessly plug it here:

  2. Can’t help but feel you’re being a bit heavy handed on Bioshock. I mean, yeah, it wasn’t the best game story ever, and it could have been better executed, but it’s far more substantial and interesting than most of the dross out there.

    In regards to your examples; It wasn’t quite as simplistic as “the first sister happens to be Lambs daughter” – there is a whole subplot of Eleanor being kidnapped from Grace because of Lamb.

    And the splicer following Lamb has was actually starting up at the same time as Ryan was in charge – she brainwashed people that came to her for therapy. Also, surely the existence of Big Daddies in the original is acknowledgement enough of Big Daddies existing in one form or another before that time – just a slightly different model; surely you can’t condemn it for introducing a bit more variety?

    And with “make it contiguous within the universe you’ve created, guys. That, or invent a universe, like we used to do” – Was Rapture not enough?

    Sorry, but to compare Bioshock to Modern Warfare and end with “Bioshock 2 is what is wrong with modern video game plots” is just wrong. Completely agree with your points on MW and GTA though.

    • RE: Rapture, It’s a brilliant place, and I’d love it if I could explore it myself at my own pace. But of course, that will never happen. Unless someone makes a mod for it? Imagine that, Rapture without any missions…

      Also, I agree with Craig that it isn’t the worst story out there. But you already put MW in your list. Though whether you dislike it because it isn’t as good as most people say it is is another matter.

      Here’s a something to ponder: A brilliant plot or a brilliant world? Imagine if Dragon Age had no plot. Would that be better than Farenheit (If it didn’t turn rubbish near the end)?

      • Kid A
      • July 7th, 2010

      In the first game, Lamb, Wales, Subject Delta, and the Rapture Family are never mentioned. If this was all going on at the same time as Fontaine and Ryan’s locking horns, I would have expected some hint of this during the first game. No such thing.
      Perhaps I am a little heavy-handed on Bioshock as opposed to other games, but Bioshock is selling itself to a lot of PC gamers on that “-shock” suffix: and System Shock and System Shock 2 had stories that logically fitted into their universe, and tied together. The issue I have with Bioshock 2 not being contiguous within the universe is that, suddenly there are ALL THESE PLACES WE’VE NEVER HEARD OF BEFORE, ready to be explored as new levels, conveniently cut off from each other because of the train system (which was also never mentioned in the first game) and there’s this huge brainwashed Splicer army that suddenly springs up once you take out Ryan and Fontaine.

      If this had happened in a second Rapture, where Lamb had taken Ryan’s ideas and turned it to her own purpose, it would make sense. But for it to spring up, fully grown, in the middle of a city the player has presumably already spent a lot of time in, makes little sense.

      tl;dr – Bioshock 2 does have gaping holes in the foundation of it’s plot, in my opinion, and while comparing it to Modern Warfare might be a little harsh, a game like Bioshock, unlike MW2, should be about the plot foremost, and the fact it’s a sequel for a sequel’s sake, shoehorned into this universe, does make it what’s wrong with video game plots.

      • It’s plausible though that none of it would be mentioned because none of it was relevant to Jacks story at all. Do you expect Ryan to say “oh yeah, before you cave my face in, there’s this woman called Lamb….” or to leave stuff about it in audio diaries even when it doesn’t affect the plot in anyway?

        And to extrapolate your logic, admittedly extremely, Ents, Saruman and Uruk Hai shouldn’t be in Lord of The Rings because they aren’t mentioned in The Hobbit.

        • Kid A
        • July 7th, 2010

        Saruman is mentioned in the Hobbit. Ents were hardly known of, being legendary if not mythical until their awakening in the Two Towers. The Uruk-hai were created by Saruman between the Hobbit and the Fellowship of the Ring. It’s not that it has to be foreshadowed, it just has to make sense. If there’s a Rapture Family out there during the events of Bioshock 1, there should have been some hint of that, because it doesn’t make sense for it to absolutely NEVER be mentioned. The examples you’ve given are either incorrect (Saruman) or make sense given the nature of those creatures.
        Bioshock 2 was inevitable – if you’re going to create a second story, ostensibly linked by being in the same city, there needs to be some link. Rapture is a pretty small, claustrophobic space. The idea that the player would never hear of the Rapture Family in Bioshock 1, and that Jack’s actions would never be mentioned in Bioshock 2, not to mention the miraculous preservation of Rapture until Delta’s re-emergence, is implausible within the setting.

  3. I respectfully disagree, and my examples might have been slightly out, but you get the point.

    Basically, I don’t feel that a sequel shouldn’t be made because they never thought about it when they made the original. And a lot can be said for stripping out narrative that doesn’t affect the story that you’re on for the sake of setting up a sequel or calling back to the original.

    And Rapture is a big place, it’s a city, you can see that from the very first bathosphere. And it wasn’t just linked by the same city – it linked through little sisters, big daddies, Tenenbaum and Ryan which were the major parts of Bioshock 1 par it’s message of control and Jack which no one would need to mention 10 years on.

    I’m not saying I don’t get your point, I do, it could have been better – but as I say, it’s no where near what’s wrong with video game plots.

  4. Also, well done for taking this site to 100 posts!


  5. Bioshock 2 deals with an entirely different class of people than the first game. Lamb operated in the slums and poverty-stricken areas that Ryan doesn’t care about (Grace for instance lives in part of town constructed from a water pumping station, not a planned district).

    The Rapture Family – as far as I read it – isn’t the entire population of the city going over to her perverted form of collectivism but a particular group who’ve followed her for a while who managed to take control of at least the parts we see. We’re very much in her part of the city.

    As for why she’s not mentioned in the first game, that’s explained – she’s in jail during the chaos, while Ryan is locked in his war with Fontaine. As far as he’s concerned, she’s a problem he’s dealt with and not worth mentioning. Of course, the real reason is that she didn’t exist yet, but nothing in Bioshock 2 contradicts the first game.

  6. Jack’s actions would never be mentioned in Bioshock 2, not to mention the miraculous preservation of Rapture until Delta’s re-emergence, is implausible within the setting.

    Jack is mentioned. The Rapture Family reveres him as the almost angelic figure who killed Ryan. As for preservation, the city’s falling to pieces, and the only bits in remotely good repair are the ones where people are actually living (although they’re always on the attack when we meet them, the temple-like vents, housing and so on indicate that the Rapture Family at least has some degree of civilisation going when they’re not dealing with intruders.) We also see the Big Daddies repairing the city at a few points, at least as best as they can given the circumstances.

      • Kid A
      • July 11th, 2010

      Throughout the course of the two Bioshock games we see… maybe 50 or 60 Big Daddies spread across the city? And a third of those are armed with Rivet Guns, the primary repair tool (we see them using it to seal leaking windows and tunnels during Bioshock 2)… it seems odd that such a limited force could maintain the area as is. The Splicers are generally utterly insane, or nearing it, so they’re hardly likely to form a cohesive repair unit, even with pheromone or Family control.

      The Rapture Family may not be a city-wide phenomenon, but the war between Fontaine and Ryan is strongly implied to be such in the first game. Ryan controls all the Splicers until his pheromone control is loosened – and the Rapture Family never reaches his ears? By the events of Bioshock, Ryan is something of a megalomaniac, and refuses to die in any manner but his own choosing – the idea that he would ignore even seemingly trivial schemes, even with Lamb in jail, seems out of touch with the character.

      And the issue isn’t that Bioshock 2 contradicts the first game – it’s that the first game doesn’t ring entirely true in conjunction with the second. Plasmids that happened to not be on sale in the first game’s area of the city? Video cameras when the first game was limited to simple snapshots? Bioshock 2 was pretty much a dead cert – but in going for “BIGGER! MORE!” sequelitis, instead of a more perfectly aligned universe, 2K creates a jarring split between two parts of Rapture that cannot be hand-waved away.

      • “Ryan controls all the Splicers until his pheromone control is loosened – and the Rapture Family never reaches his ears?”

        Lamb sits out the Rapture Civil War and only really kicks the Rapture Family project into gear after his death, so no, they’re not a problem for him at that point. Stanley largely neutered her power already, and once he disappears her, the only people who really care are the disenfranchised poor who Ryan has absolutely zero respect or regard for, especially when he’s fighting a losing war against Fontaine.

        Plus, her real power in Bioshock 2 doesn’t come from winning the war, but filling the power vacuum after Ryan’s death and organising the Splicers.

        “The Splicers are generally utterly insane, or nearing it, so they’re hardly likely to form a cohesive repair unit, even with pheromone or Family control.”

        Generally, but not exclusively. We see that they have some degree of order to their lives in Bioshock 2, and they’re not exclusively insane howlers. Grace for instance lives quite comfortably amongst them. They also obey Lamb willingly, go to church, and have the intelligence to set up traps. They have a culture which we only glimpse, but is definitely there and has been ticking on – probably on the ragged edge of chaos, but still ticking on – for a few years already.

        “Plasmids that happened to not be on sale in the first game’s area of the city? Video cameras when the first game was limited to simple snapshots?”

        Eh, I really don’t see how that matters too much considering we’re talking about a world with vending machines that contain magic potions that let people shoot bees out of their hands. Not every shop sells everything, after all.

        • Kid A
        • July 11th, 2010

        So, in other words, because I’m suspending belief in order to enjoy Plasmids, Big Daddies and such, I should also ignore continuity issues.

        I don’t think we’re going to agree on this one, somehow.

  7. No, I’m saying that just because you didn’t see something in the first game, it doesn’t mean it couldn’t have existed, and on a wider level, Rapture’s toys aren’t built with an eye for plausibility in the first place.

    Now, if the first game had flat-out said “Big Daddies can’t survive underwater” or something, then sure, there’d be a continuity issue with Delta being able to do it. I don’t remember any new plasmids or tools that are an issue though.

      • Kid A
      • July 11th, 2010

      The Hack Dart/Mini Turret Deployer? The switch from the 4-round shotgun to a 2 round one? The Speargun? The sudden lack of Chemical Throwers or the Crossbow?
      The Scout Plasmid? The Houdini Plasmid that is still available to Houdini Splicers, but never to the player in either game’s singleplayer? The Geyser Trap that only exists in the pre-war setting of Bioshock 2’s multiplayer, but has mysteriously disappeared from circulation by Jack’s arrival? The Turret and Launcher Big Daddy? Brute Splicers?

      • Nothing stopping the first set from existing in the game but Jack not finding them, or conversely them not lying around for Delta’s journey. You’re not seriously saying your suspension of disbelief was broken by scavenging a two-round shotgun rather than a four-round one, are you? It’s the same type of tech, just different forms.

        The Houdini plasmid – no idea what you’re getting at there. It’s in both games, you just don’t get to play with it. There is an unstable version in BS2, but only for the sake of an Easter Egg.

        As for the Big Daddies and Splicers, it’s stated clearly that both sides were locked in an upgrade war. Lamb still uses the Big Daddies as protection (and is still making them, as seen with (SPOILER) and (SPOILER)) which implies that there’s something to protect them from – whether her own people feeling cocky or non-Rapture Family members out hunting. Her people could easily have strapped on extra bit of plate and guns, just as the Brute Splicers are just another level up of genetics benders. No continuity issue there at all.

    • JackShandy
    • July 16th, 2010

    The last paragraph is pretty weird, dude. Surely Bioshock DID invent it’s own universe, just like system shock et al? And I don’t think Crash Bandicoot and Sonic have much place in an article about bad storytelling. No-one’s ever suggested they’ll win a bafta.

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