During the initial hype cycle for BioShock 2, the game had the subtitle “Sea of Dreams”. The player can find a recording in Siren Alley that ties this name into Dr. Sofia Lamb’s view of Rapture itself. The world’s brightest and most creative minds were drawn to Ryan’s underwater would-be utopia, each trying to remodel its world to fit their own desires. BioShock drew much of its power from depicting the ways those dreams could grow out of control and become malignant obsessions. The sequel, in contrast, builds its world from the dreams that died. In many ways, the subject of BioShock 2 is failure.
The game begins in failure. As main character Subject Delta plods through a restaurant with his paired Little Sister, Eleanor, he loses sight of her, then is defeated by splicers under the control of the game’s overarching antagonist, Sofia Lamb. Under the spell of a hypnosis plasmid, he is forced to kill himself. Death isn’t always permanent in Rapture, however, and Delta returns ten years later to find Eleanor.
The areas he must traverse to reach her reflect many different kinds of failure. All of Rapture, of course, is the ruined dream of Andrew Ryan, but the levels get more specific. Early on, for instance, Delta explores the mechanical facility of the Atlantic Express, Rapture’s original transportation system. The rise of personal bathyspheres sank the business, however, and the rail line folded. A recording by the Express’ owner suggests that he committed suicide after he got bought out. Although Delta has the ability to walk across the sea floor, much of the movement through Rapture in the game uses this train, a constant reminder that even dreams that seem to be fulfilled can be taken away. A similar theme emerges in Siren Alley, once home to the firms that built Rapture. Now this area has become debased and degraded, a rickety red-light district dominated by brothels and bars on one end, and a cult headquarters on the other. The men who designed Rapture now rule these scraps.
Of course, not everyone even reached the lofty heights of early success. Fairly early on, Delta must explore Pauper’s Drop, an area that started off as flophouses for penniless rail workers and went downhill from there, becoming a catchall for those whose Rapture dreams failed. It’s here that we learn of Mills’ unhappy fate,and also that we meet Grace Holloway. She came to Rapture, as she says, “to sing, and to start a family”. But her only singing gig was in the Limbo Room down in the Drop, and she found out that she was barren. When given a chance to raise Eleanor while Lamb was imprisoned, she couldn’t keep the girl safe.
Not every level is so grim, however. The inaptly-named “Ryan Amusements” seems like a mistake in many different ways. The whole area, of course, is a ludicrous exercise in ham-handed propaganda. Its creator, aware of these shortcomings, deplores the theme park and its horrible “Journey to the Surface” ride. Andrew Ryan, on the other hand, detested the animatronic puppets (as well he might, given his philosophy) and thought them “antiquated”. Of course Ryan could never succeed as an amusement park developer, given his dislike of leisure and his limited ideas of the scope of art.
Ryan believes that art should depict “the world as it ought to be”, an opinion he shares on a recording left in Dionysus Park, once Sofia Lamb’s artistic commune. Whatever her goals, the commune did not fulfill them; in her absence it became little more than a bacchanal. When Lamb managed to escape her imprisonment, the man who led this descent and also betrayed Eleanor flooded the area in order to cover his misdeeds.
The only character who seems to be real success in all of this is Augustus Sinclair, the man who, from the beginning, bet against Rapture. The final levels of the game are set in a secret prison called Persephone that embodies this bet. In a real utopia you don’t need a secret prison (or secret police, for that matter). Sinclair saw an opening for himself here, as well as in Pauper’s Drop, where he built cheap housing for those whose dreams would come crashing down. He managed to survive by betting on failure, where others died (or worse, considering Gil Alexander’s fate) by betting on success.
The enduring characters of the original BioShock were tremendous successes, albeit almost universally demented, and the game was mostly set in their various empires. For those characters, success became a kind of disease, and cut loose from their moral bonds they had no defense against it. Some of the characters and locales of BioShock 2 concern the aftermath of that malignancy, what happens when the tremendous hubris of success vanishes. For others, the dream never got off the ground, and their hopes landed at the bottom of the Drop. BioShock was about what happens when things go too right. BioShock 2 is about what happens when they go wrong.