The first time I played BioShock 2, I was a little disappointed with it. It wasn’t just that the game didn’t live up to the lofty standards set by its predecessor – I was expecting that. It was the fact that by the time the credits rolled I really felt that the developers and writers had completely squandered the best character in the entire game: Augustus Sinclair. [Here be BioShock 1 & 2 spoilers]
If you’ve never played BioShock or BioShock 2, then stop reading now and go and play the former. Once you’ve done that, decide whether or not you’d like to play the same game again in some new – and funnily enough, better lit – environments, with new weapons, a couple of new enemies and story that promises a lot but delivers very little. If so, have at it, but be warned, the arch-villain’s glacial smugness may cause you to start swearing uncontrollably at your TV towards the end of the game.
If you have played both games then you’ll know that Augustus Sinclair plays the role occupied by Atlas in the first game. He’s both the player’s guide to Rapture and the devil who sits on their shoulder, prodding them ever so gently towards their darker impulses by making amorality seem like a logical prerequisite for survival. It’s a pretty thankless task, in all fairness; because Atlas turned out to be less pure than he was presented at the beginning of the first BioShock, players returning to Rapture immediately expect Sinclair to double-cross them at some stage. It’s a good thing, then, that the writers and developers quickly worked this out, and made no attempt to obfuscate this possibility. To wit, players are told by Tenenbaum to be on their guard from the moment they’re introduced to Sinclair, who is presented as a duplicitous individual right from the get-go.
But here’s the juice: Sinclair is the best thing in BioShock 2. From the moment his oily tones dripped through the one-way radio, I knew I was going to get on with him. As BioShock 2’s developer Jordan Thomas pointed out in an interview with him I did a while back, Sinclair is a good example of moral relativism, who continually redefines his rules on the fly. He’s not a believer like Andrew Ryan, or a misanthrope like Frank Fontaine. He’s neither a psychopath like Sander Cohen, nor is he a smug, insane psychotic like Sofia Lamb. Sinclair is a hustler. He’s a slick, used-car salesman who punches way above his weight. He’s both a profiteering scumbag and a sly, double-dealing schyster. As a businessman, he demonstrates a canny eye for potential and an unscrupulous attitude towards the well-being of others. As the multiplayer levels in BioShock 2 make clear, Sinclair is largely responsible for the proliferation of the unstable plasmids which resulted in the rise of the Splicers. He essentially gave Rapture’s citizens the means with which to turn themselves into monsters and tear the city to pieces and as far as he was concerned, it was just another day at the office.
But in spite of how monstrous he is as an individual, Sinclair is actually likable as a character. It’s not just that he’s a charming good ol’ boy from America’s deep south, it’s that he’s honest with the player. He may operate with a certain fish-eyed pragmatism but he’s very upfront about his motivations and desires and this lends the game’s plot a powerful amount of intrigue until the final act. By having Sinclair be honest about his own dishonest nature, the writers flip the role played by Atlas in the first game on its head.
When Atlas turned out to be Fontaine in the original BioShock, the rug was completely pulled out from under the player’s feet. This is a trick that would be impossible to replicate in the sequel, since the player would be expecting it, so BioShock 2’s developers came at it from another angle. Instead of having a seemingly decent character betray the player, they opted to create an ally who would, in all likelihood, sell the player down the river once they ceased to be an asset. In Sinclair, they had a character who was charming and affable and openly treacherous. It wasn’t a question of if he’d stab the player in the back, but a question of when. Once that relationship had been established, it hovered over the rest of the plot like a guillotine blade, waiting to fall.
So imagine my disappointment when that never happened. Instead of a decent boss battle, or deathtrap puzzle for the player to solve, or a betrayal of epic proportions – or in fact any of a host of possibilities thrown up by the murky nature of Sinclair as a character – I was greeted with the most groanworthy of scenarios. The best idea the developers could come up with for the most intriguing character in Rapture was to stick him in a Big Daddy suit and have him try to kill the player. Not only that, Sinclair is forced to do this against his will, under Lamb’s control. Turns out that Sinclair had grown to like the player, presumably because the their Big Daddy character had proved to be such an worthy and noble character – as conveyed by his series of grunts and moans. That 2K couldn’t come up with a better end for such a great character leaves a bitter taste in the mouth and all of Sinclair’s potential scattered to the four winds.
It’s not the end for the game’s greatest asset that I would’ve picked. A character as smart, as cunning and as dangerously disarming as Sinclair deserved better, in my opinion. Something involving a submarine. And a bomb which needs to be disarmed quite quickly. And maybe some amphibious splicers.
Hang on, I think I might be getting an idea here…