BioShock 2: An Objectivist Review

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BioShock 2: An Objectivist Review

by Andrew Russell

Warning: Contains spoilers for the first BioShock.

The video game "BioShock" was set in an underwater Objectivist utopia gone horribly wrong. As such, the game generated a great deal of interest in and commentary on Objectivism.

Much of this commentary was more akin to insults. Apparently, BioShock was a criticism on Objectivism when in fact it was nothing of the sort. The game argued that humans were too flawed to be perfect Objectivists; Ken Levine (the creator of the game) decided to use Objectivism as the basis of the setting because he likes Objectivism and considers its vision of humanity beautiful (and thus its failure tragic).

Of course, the first game was like a Rorschach test that brought out what everyone thought of Objectivism.

Regardless, the first game ranks as one of the best pieces of Objectivist literature ever produced. Rapture; an undersea city that functioned as the game's setting, was a work of art dedicated to human greatness. The game's ultimate villain was not Andrew Ryan; a hypocritical Objectivist that became a dictator, but rather Frank Fontaine; a power-luster mob boss that acted like Cuffy Meigs meets Ellsworth Toohey. Fontaine, in his lust to control others, used a charity as a front to recruit soldiers in his war against Andrew Ryan.

It doesn't hurt, of course, that the game's gameplay was very well designed. It played like a faster and more streamlined version of my favorite game of all time: System Shock 2. The atmosphere of shattered idealism meets hideously gruesome horror in a colorful, art-deco world surrounded with a surreal soundtrack of 50's music is truly without any compare.

Regardless, the game's narrative stood out. A sympathetic deconstruction of Galt's Gulch combined with a ruthless and scathing deconstruction of the role of choice in video games provided a relentlessly compelling narrative that was soured only with a truly pathetic, sap-filled (or miserable, downer) ending.

Flash forward three years. Debates still rage on about what the original game said about Objectivism, regardless of multiple statements made by the game's creators. And a sequel has been made.

BioShock 2 places the player in the role of a Big Daddy; a lumbering protector of the young girls that spend their time gathering a precious genetic serum known as ADAM. First, let's make it clear: the game plays well. Some enhancements over the original game have been made (dual-wielding of Plasmids and Weapons, a better hacking mini-game), and the game revolves not around taking out Big Daddies but around defending Little Sisters (the young gatherers) from being attacked. This means the game generally has a slower pace in some respects; you'll often spend time setting up traps and defensive positions before you allow your Little Sister to gather. Then you'll be defending her from attacks.

This is an interesting twist to the formula; it rewards strategic play. However, the restrictions on one's upgrades are further loosened up, meaning the RPG elements of the game have been diluted a bit more.

Regardless, the game remains a truly intelligent first person game. It gives players a hell of a lot of freedom to manipulate the environment as they so wish.

The only real problem I can see with the gameplay is that it is, well, more of a BioShock 1.5 than a BioShock 2. There are very few changes; mostly incremental evolution and tweaking rather than genuine novelty. Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing given that the gameplay is still very enjoyable.

The part of the game that will be of most interest to Objectivists is the game's narrative. And in that, BioShock 2 is definetly worthy of your attention.

The player protagonist is a Big Daddy; his Little Sister happenned to be Eleanor Lamb. Eleanor was the daughter of Rapture's foremost Psychiatrist; Dr. Sophia Lamb. After the death of Andrew Ryan in the first game, Sophia has become Rapture's new ruler.

And, us Objectivists will be happy to hear that Sophia not only believes in the exact opposite philosophy to that of Andrew Ryan (literally embracing emotionalism, original sin/misanthropy, altruism and a loathing of the self), but has unsurprisingly become a psychotic dictator that runs a religious cult. And over the course of the game, Lamb's overall plan is revealed.

Whilst I cannot explain the details of this plan without spoiling the ending, Objectivists might find it predictable. This is because said plan is a perfect deconstruction of altruism from an Objectivist perspective. Every single consequence that Objectivists argue will come from altruism is present in Lamb's plan. Every single philosophical assumption that Objectivism argues altruism requires is present in Lamb's philosophy. If anything, BioShock 2 settles the debate on whether or not the game is pro or anti-Rand quite clearly; the criticism is sympathetic and the "other side" is just as bad as Rand alleged.

The game, moreso than the original, manages to keep your interest until the very end. The final levels are very exciting; whereas the original BioShock seemed to peak mid-way through. So the pacing is indeed improved.

Additionally, the game's narrative is in many ways more personal. Rather than criticizing the role of choice in video games, the plot focusses on the bond between a Little Sister and her Big Daddy (you). The sick, tragic cuteness of the relationship is played for all it is worth. The plot does indeed manage to be even more disturbing than the original BioShock; a true feat to put it mildly.

However, there are some flaws in the story. For one, Sophia Lamb is not as compelling a villain as Frank Fontaine. She's undeniably worse, no question, but Fontaine's status as a Randian villain was only discovered later in the game. Additionally, Fontaine felt realistic; his lack of philosophical bent made it possible to speculate a person like that could exist. Lamb's own status is so bleedingly obvious and utterly extreme that she becomes an almost platonic embodiment of her ideas. This works in romantic literature like Rand and Dostoyevsky but it clashes with the tone of BioShock; the political point the first game tried to make is that people cannot live up to their ideals. Sophia Lamb does. That said, she is a very effective villain; one cannot help but truly loathe her for her actions.

For two, I felt the endings fell into the same trap as the previous game. Whilst yes, BioShock 2's story is much more personal, the "good" ending tended to emphasize the traditional view of affection and care as "sacrifice" and "sufferring for someone else." However, I would like to mark this conclusion as tentative; the first time I played the game, I got the evil ending (due to an accidental harvesting of a Little Sister (damn missed keystroke!!)), and my second playthrough has not yet been completed owing to bugs in the game (and my patch download refuses to work). So I only have a single viewing on YouTube to go by. Perhaps I will revise my opinion in the future.

In spite of these flaws, the story is genuinely compelling and detailed. It is truly emotionally engaging and utterly shocking at times. Whilst it does not pull the rug out from under the player like the first, it is clearly better than the vast majority of stories seen in video games generally. And finally, it is clearly sympathetic to Objectivism and concurs with the Objectivist critique of altruism.

Overall, I am hesitant to claim that BioShock 2 will be as important as its predecessor. It doesn't make many changes and it honestly feels like an expansion pack for BioShock rather than a whole new game. Its narrative, whilst intelligent and competent and engaging, is not as brilliant as its predecessor. That said, none of this stops the game from being an intelligent, engrossing, engaging game that gives more detail to the world of Rapture. It displays Ayn Rand's ideas, especially her critique of her antithesis, in a relatively sympathetic (if at times critical) light. And finally, it manages to give more of the bizzare and inimitable atmosphere that BioShock is known for.

OVERALL SCORE (out of 5, no half stars allowed): 4 Stars


+ Intelligent, dark and engaging story that is sympathetic to the Objectivist critique of altruism

+ Improved pacing and graphics

+ Utterly unique aesthetic and atmosphere that no other series can match

+ Gameplay has been improved and tweaked, the strategic flavor is interesting


- Feels like an expansion for the first game rather than a new game in its own right

- Narrative is not as good as the first game's

- Endings still leave something to be desired (tentatively)

- The increase in strategy elements comes at the cost of RPG elements


Whilst standing in the shadow of its predecessor, BioShock 2 is a legitimately excellent game that Objectivists should be interested in. The gameplay is great, the atmosphere is amazing, the story is smart and the Rand references are well-researched and non-Strawman. However, one should not play this game without having played the original BioShock, which this game is by no means a replacement for.

Edited by studiodekadent
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