In BioShock 2, you play a character named Delta, who has apparently resurrected after having been dead for 10 years. When you wake up, you find yourself in a heavy sort of diving suit. And you don’t know anything. Though your suit seems to. It almost feels like the suit makes you move, rather than you wearing it. It kills, almost accidentally. It is very strong. And very rough. And rather dumb.
Numerous voices in your head. They tell you what to do. “You”? Me? They tell this “Delta” character, whose empty shell you seem to be inhabiting. This brute. He’s not alone. There’s others like him in this underwater nightmare. They are equally clumsy as you. Melancholy shuffling along as the vaguely robotic protector of some ghostly child. He could be you. He is you. Sometimes the voices in your head make you kill him. You don’t want to. But you do anyway. It is your instinct.
The game tells the player what to do. The leading characters in the story tell the Delta character what to do. The diving suit you wear, tells you what to do. Never before has a game’s narrative expressed so adequately the feeling of being trapped and forced to do things beyond your will. You’re stuck in a city under the ocean. You’re only vaguely conscious. You’re being manipulated from all sides to aid in a conflict that you know nothing about, that you cannot choose any sides in for lack of information, lack of memory, lack of raw brain power.
You get visions of somebody who calls you her father. I don’t remember her. What happened when I was dead? Am I really alive? She seems nice, though. Helping me. Helping me kill…
I’m a dumb brute force. A kind of human mammoth, used and abused by whomever comes along to trample whichever of their enemies. I tread on their heads. I don’t feel. Their blood splashes onto the glass in my helmet as I ram my massive drill into their scrawny bodies. I don’t seem to be able to stop my suit from doing this. And they know it. The fear in their voices as I approach. I know how they feel. I have shivered at the sound of the stomping tread of my brothers. Their wretched metallic howls in the dripping night. Such intense despair, so deep under the ocean. Where nobody hears.
I have been one of them. I have been there. At the bottom of the sea. A coffin could not be tighter. Am I really alive? Or is the suit just moving around carrying my corpse along?
BioShock 2 presents one of the most convincing narrative contexts for a First Person Shooter game. You’re not a hero. You’re not smart. You’re not cunning. And most of all, you have no say in the matter. What you want is irrelevant. You do as you’re told. Not out of a sense of duty. Not out of some aspiration to honor, or a challenge of courage. No. Out of raw animal instinct. With ease. With brute force. You’re even too dumb too be invincible. And when you die, you die like a beaten lice-ridden dog who just happened to be scrounging for food in the wrong places.
It’s a strange experience. To not be the puppet master or even the person immersed in the story. Instead you are immersed inside of a narrative vessel. It has a home in the fiction, not you. This vessel is appropriately rendered as diving equipment: you see the world through a window of a device that you have no real control over, like some kind of morbid tourist on a sightseeing trip. But it makes sense. Because of the character of your avatar, the Big Daddy: a sad lump of superhuman strength with the brain of a shrimp. The hands-holding interface of the game supports this feeling of helplessness. Even the few almost mockingly simplistic choices to either save or destroy an opponent are made with a kind of sullen desperation. It doesn’t matter to you whether they live or die. You’re tired. Tired from dragging these tons of metal around. Tired of being manipulated like the dumb schmuck you are.
In many other FPS games, the sensation of being told what to do and having no real choice, makes me feel rebellious as a player and makes me hate the abuse by the game’s designer. But in BioShock2, it was a moving experience. Delta is not smart enough to be rebellious. And he’s so big. He kills humans like we would ants. He can’t help it. And that helplessness gives this powerful dullard a saddening air of endearing vulnerability.
Perhaps reminding us of our own clumsiness sometimes, of how each of us sometimes just does things because of who and what we are, disregarding what we might want or feel or think. Helpless captives of a body we did not choose to inhabit, and dealing with its imperfections on a daily basis.