Recently, I polished off the new DLC for BioShock 2, Minerva’s Den, and as I finished it, I was immediately struck by how much I preferred its story to that of its parent game. It’s not that I didn’t like BioShock 2’s story, it’s just that I felt it was missing something. It wasn’t until playing through Minerva’s Den that I realised what that was: a compelling antagonist. (WARNING: BioShock 1, 2 and Minerva’s Den spoilers after the jump).
Okay, maybe that’s over-simplifying things a little. There were a lot more things wrong with BioShock 2 than the fact that the villains in it were lousy. The Big Sisters were a terrible idea. It almost seemed like the Big Sisters were an idea that was brought in at the beginning of the game before the plot was thought up, and then, once the plot was written, the developers realised they made no sense but it was too late to take them out. Who were they? Why were they created? Who created them? Why did they attack Subject Delta regardless of how he behaved towards the Little Sisters, and no other Big Daddys at all? And if, as the BioShock Wiki points out, they were Little Sisters who had become unstable, why was it morally permissible to kill them without so much as a backward glance when saving Little Sisters was supposed to be one of Delta’s main directives? (And yes, there is a BioShock Wiki and I read it frequently. Shut up.)
However, I could live with the nonsensical Big Sisters. After all, the Little Sisters from the first BioShock were a concept I hardly warmed to in the beginning. I initially thought they looked out of place in both the story and the environment. I didn’t completely understand the process of ADAM gathering – slugs? tummies? blood? syringes? Explain please? – and thought they’d been shoe-horned into the proceedings to provide a very thin moral choice mechanic. Then I remembered I was running around an art-deco city at the bottom of the ocean, shooting people with lightning bolts and wasps and fending off the attentions of disfigured mad men who had a pechant for bunny rabbit masks and late 20s jazz and so I just decided to run with it. Besides which, the game had atmosphere to burn, a story which made more sense the more bonkers it became, and the characters which were spilling over with depth of personality and macabre appeal. This last asset can’t be overemphasised as while BioShock’s narrative was layered with some high-falutin’ ideas which were both informed and critical of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophies, it was a character-driven piece, and interestingly enough that character wasn’t the protagonist. It was the game’s antagonist, Andrew Ryan.
There’s the argument to be made that Ryan isn’t the game’s main antagonist – and that this title belongs to Frank Fontaine – but Ryan is the engine that drives the entire story. While his position as main villain is hijacked at the game’s half-way mark, Ryan is the entire reason Rapture exists and thus is the reason that some of the world’s best and brightest found themselves splicing up and shooting it out in a leaking metropolis at the bottom of the ocean. Furthermore, the fall of Rapture is directly tied to Ryan’s failings, both as a human being and as a purveyor of capitalist, elitist, objectivist claptrap. Both Ryan’s one-way conversations with the player and his audio diary recordings reveal a great and tragic character; he’s a man of immense vision and driving ambition, yet he’s also a self-deluded hypocrite, a petty cut-purse and a lying murderer. The most compelling part of Ryan’s character, though, is that he frequently reveals to the player that he’s plagued with doubt. It’s almost like he knows, deep down inside, what an utterly despicable character he’s become – and this in part, explains his willingness to check out at the hands of the player, albeit on his own terms.
One of BioShock 2’s biggest failings, is that it didn’t have an antagonist that stacked up against that of its predecessor. Sofia Lamb couldn’t hold a candle to Andrew Ryan; compared to him, she’s a boring and one-dimensional nutcase. There’s no indication in either her conversations with Delta or the audio diaries which reveal her back-story that she’s anything other than a bland and ignorant psychopath. Lamb has no doubts her opinions about every single thing in existence are absolutely correct. She’s so utterly convinced of her own self-importance that her supposed intelligence had been channelled into an extremely narrow world-view. What’s more, she’s extremely smug and her dull, verbal pontificating makes her painful chore to listen to for most of the game. Ultimately, the villain of BioShock 2 offers little interest to the player beyond the possibility you might get to ram Delta’s drill through her smarmy, bespectacled face (and you don’t even get to do that – in fact you’re even denied the moneyshot of her colossal ego shattering to pieces when she realises that the gigantic trail of bodies she’s left in her wake was all for nothing).
One of the things that makes Minerva’s Den a much better story that its parent game, is that the antagonist, Reed Wahl is superb. I don’t want to give too much away because Minerva’s Den is really worth playing, but Wahl’s back story presents a picture of a man whose obsession with technology and chemically-induced delirium has prompted him to commit some pretty unspeakable acts. Initially, Wahl’s audio diaries make him sound like his crimes were carried out in pursuit of a higher purpose, so he’d completely justified in what he’s done, but as the player progresses through the DLC, it become increasingly apparent that the engineer has become his own worst enemy. Like Ryan, Wahl is full of it and it’s hinted at that he knows this. As the story unfolds, Wahl, is toppled form a position of supposed superiority into a chasm of self-doubt and, eventually, crippling fear in which his only defence is to shriek declarations of his own genius. By the end he comes across as a barely contained coil of paranoid spite and in the final battle, his mask slips completely; Wahl’s final exchange with the player is a delightful cocktail of dejected venom and bloody-minded defiance.
To be honest, the only downside to Reed Wahl is that he didn’t feature more prominently in BioShock 2’s main story. I would have paid good money to hear an exchange between him and Lamb on the day he closed off the Den from the rest of Rapture. Incidentally, my favourite Audio Diary is this one – the Den’s former head, CM Porter retorting to demands from my least favourite ice maiden: The Wager.