How will she remember us, after this moment? I have placed my pieces on the board, as expected—as have you. Is this what she hoped for? Mother and father, locking eyes ... yet, still we are blind. Goodbye, Subject Delta. And take heart, for you at least have escaped your legacy.—Sofia Lamb
In its final act, BioShock 2 became a tour de force that remains my favorite and most vivid experience from last year.
Earlier, it seemed a slightly impoverished tale of utopianism run amok in the underwater city. Sofia Lamb, the sequel’s antagonist, lacked the intellectual heft and charisma required to stand as an ideological counterweight to Andrew Ryan, and her vision for Rapture was thoroughly unimpressive. History provides us with far more horrifying visions of collectivism and social engineering than Lamb's undergraduate-level utopia. It lacked either the ruthlessness and treachery of Stalinism or the terrifying conviction of Mao's Cultural Revolution. As long as the game centered on her half-conceived attempt to end selfishness, it was hard to take her seriously as a villain.
But Lamb's pseudo-intellectual posturing is a red herring—BioShock 2's true themes are frailty, family, and forgiveness.
Spoiler Warning: Discussion of significant plot details follows
Lamb and her acolytes are the perfect characters for BioShock 2 because they are children playing in the halls of slain giants. BioShock's appeal was grandeur, from the moment the city burst into view alongside Ryan's messianic snarl: "I chose Rapture." BioShock dealt with the high-drama and court intrigue among the rulers of Rapture. These were the people who made and unmade the city through their ambition and ability, and while their failures were catastrophic, they were matched by the size of their character.
BioShock 2 takes place after they have vacated the stage. Those who remain are victims or hapless followers, exactly the sort of people who would get caught up in Lamb's warmed-over communism. As we players rediscover Rapture through the eyes of Delta—the alpha Big Daddy—we see how little justice is left to serve, and how stillborn is this new social experiment. BioShock 2 becomes a journey toward understanding and mercy as Delta ties-off the threads left dangling after his untimely death.
BioShock 2 introduces a great many adversaries, but is strikingly devoid of villains. Delta was always the screen onto which the creatures of Rapture projected their wishes and dreads. Ten years ago, Delta was the first Big Daddy successfully bonded with a Little Sister, Eleanor, who happened to be the daughter of Sofia Lamb. The story of their bond and separation is hopelessly tangled up in the politics and warfare that tore Rapture apart.
After his ten-year absence, Delta can only judge the survivors based on how they remember him and the role they played in his death and in the fate of Eleanor Lamb. He finds Grace Holloway, a former singer and anti-Ryan activist, bitter and broken after a life of victimization. First there was Jim Crow, then Andrew Ryan, then infertility, and finally the loss of the little girl she was charged with raising. For her, Delta was just another monster come to take what little happiness she had.
My favorite character was probably Stanley Poole, a corrupt newspaperman who moonlighted as a spy for Andrew Ryan. Of all the characters Delta meets on his way to confront Lamb, Poole is the most morally culpable. He destroyed countless lives for his own comfort and safety. There is no reason to spare him, no redeeming character trait. Still, his cowardice, greed, and guilt are so pure, so undiluted by happiness or pride, that Poole is the most pitiful character in the game. He is already a shattered man, and ultimately Delta must decide whether or not to spare him as he grovels for his life.
Finally, there is Gil Alexander, the diffident genius whose guilt and insecurity Lamb exploited during her takeover of Rapture. A technician rather than a visionary, he continued the work of Rapture's greatest scientists, Suchong and Tenenbaum, and enabled Rapture to continue functioning in their absence. He experimented on children, and transformed men into armored husks. Guilty over his unholy work, and lacking any sense of larger purpose, Alexander was easy prey for Sofia Lamb. Lamb gave him a destiny, and so Alexander took part in an ill-conceived experiment that left him disfigured and crazed.
By the time Delta reaches him, Alexander has been abandoned and resides in the labs where he damned himself. Now he plays the part of a sadistic king, tormenting the denizens of Fontaine Futuristics for sport. But before his sanity deserted him, he left directions by which Delta can destroy his lunatic form, explaining, "The man whose voice you hear now is long gone. ... Now please, I ask that you grant me peace." Delta finally faces a choice between pardoning Alexander in his madness, or obeying his earlier request for death.
As good as these stories were, I did not yet understand that their real significance was for Eleanor Lamb, not Delta. Only after Delta's failed attempt to rescue her did BioShock 2 finally make clear that Delta's journey was actually the education of a child. Eleanor, who never had the chance to be fully human, does not know what to think of her mother, or most of the events of her life. So she watches Delta move through Rapture, through her past, and observes the judgments he passes on it.
In the greatest passage of any game I played last year, you take control of one of the Little Sisters that Eleanor has turned to her side. She pads through Rapture and lets you see Rapture as the Sisters see it: a dollhouse full of elegant ladies and their handsome men stepping out across marble floors, and angels laying in repose at the foot of white-satin walls. Throughout this Pearly Gate fantasy, there are monuments to Delta and the way Eleanor has seen him. In the main room there is a statue of Delta, battling the monster that Gil Alexander had become. In the hallways, there is a statue of Delta carrying Grace Holloway in his arms, her arms fasted around his neck as she gazed up at him adoringly. "Daddy meets Aunt Grace" it said, and the simplicity and childishness of the legend is heartbreaking. At the end of the arcade, "Daddy meets Uncle Stanley" shows Delta extending a hand of friendship as Stanley Poole whimpers before him. To Eleanor and the other Sisters, Delta had been merciful and brave as he fought to save them. All these choices suddenly assumed heroic proportions.
Games are full of damsels in distress, people who must be saved because they are prisoners or imperiled. They lack agency, and salvation is almost always physical. But in BioShock 2's unforgettable denouement, Delta and Eleanor share their burdens equally. She saves him and then fights alongside him, and indeed it is her need for him that has brought him back from the dead. Yet Eleanor does need rescuing. What makes BioShock 2 so unusual is that this rescue is moral and emotional, and the conclusion is all the more resonant because of it. The last image of BioShock 2 is of Delta's courage and mercy reflected in the young woman who chose him to be her father.