Bioshock: Little Sisters and Tenenbaum

This is the last of my negative posts about Bioshock 1's storytelling, but it's a pretty big doozy.

Let's start from the culmination of failure, and work backwards from there.


Toward the end of Bioshock 1, there's a sequence involving a series of doors that can only be opened by Little Sisters. It's an escort mission after you've dressed yourself up as a Big Daddy, and in concept I like the idea of it.

In execution, it's possibly the most disastrous single setpiece of the entire game.

Before considering that many people hate escort missions by default.

Everything about the handling is a mistake. Escorting a Little Sister shouldn't be an escort mission at all, not in terms of having to protect an HP meter, since they're immortal -what should be happening is Splicers trying to kidnap the Little Sister, not kill her.

Except hold on, you're not escorting a Little Sister at all. You're escorting a little girl who used to be a Little Sister, but is now an ordinary little girl with no glowing eyes and no Adam at all. This explains why she has an HP meter, but... the Splicers should have no interest in her, since she's not a source of Adam and any idiot can tell this at a glance. Again, this escort mission shouldn't be an escort mission in the first place. For purely narrative reasons.

But wait, it gets worse. I mentioned earlier you dressed up as a Big Daddy. Why did you do that? Because Little Sisters will only trust Big Daddies. When... this little girl isn't a Little Sister. She's a regular girl. Which makes the entirety of the chunk of gameplay where you ran around looking for relevant materials to Big Daddy-ify yourself a nonsensical waste of time.

"But wait," I hear the optimistic among you who have actually played the game objecting. "The mental conditioning still applies, so it makes perfect sense you'd have to Big Daddy-ify yourself anyway."

To which I say that this objection is completely reasonable if you're en route for the Bad Ending. Fair point.

But... if you're en route for the Good Ending...

... in an earlier scene it was established that your actions have earned the trust of the Rescued little girls. That even though you're not a Big Daddy, they are happy and comfortable around you, possibly even a bit eager to please.

This moment where you Big Daddy-ify yourself should have been the moment the game's narrative and gameplay had you go down different paths based on your fate. The moment where 'evil' players find themselves forced to jump through additional hoops just to get to the endgame content, just to get a Little Sister to cooperate with them and get them through the doors. It should also have been the case that karma hits hard at this point -that the allusions made to the Big Daddy-ification you're undergoing being an irreversible process with unpleasant consequences should've been committed to, with Evil Jack actually being trapped as a Big Daddy for life, for real.

And meanwhile, Good Jack should've gotten to just call out an ex-Little Sister to help him and proceed fairly directly to the endgame. No need for the Big Daddy shenanigans. Body horror fate averted, they all lived happily ever after.

Consequences growing out of your own decisions. Consequences that matter.


Now, I described the not-actually-a-Little-Sister escort sequence as the culmination of problems, and I meant it. It's also a giant missed opportunity as I just outlined, but in some ways more frustrating is how it it emblematic of how Little Sisters -and, connected to this Tenenbaum- was handled by the later portion of the game.

See, the thing is, the process of Rescuing vs Harvesting Little Sisters is handled as the game's primary moral choice mechanic, and it's a pretty colossal failure of one from start to finish, with knock-off problems resulting from these failings.

In principle I like the idea of a game centering its moral choice system on one's relationship to children. That's a very solid idea with a lot of potential behind it.

In practice though...

First of all, the 'morality' of the choice is broken. The game implicitly assumes the choice is between kindness vs selfishness, that someone who Harvests a Little Sister is someone electing to murder a small child for their own benefit... and then makes it clear that Rescued Little Sisters still suffer from the mental conditioning, and has them trapped inside Rapture, a city that is dying and filled with crazy people who would sooner kill them than take care of them. Certainly, the Good Ending of Bioshock 1 involves ex-Little Sisters living happily ever after, but for one thing it accomplishes this in no small part by completely ignoring the hurdles involved in a single man trying to raise, what, more than two dozen little girls who have no legal identity on the surface world? What, is Jack independently wealthy on the surface world? If so, how did that happen?

But that's a bit of a distraction to my main point, which is that Harvesting could just as easily be driven by empathy, a desire to end their suffering even if it's through a mercy killing. This is a possibility the game completely fails to recognize, and it's a big hole in its attempt to make Harvest vs Rescue the central moral choice mechanic. If both choices can be motivated by good motives, then it's not a dichotomy of good vs evil, regardless of what the game may pretend.

Turning to broader matters is the issue of how disconnected from the main story the Little Sister choice is. The game seems to recognize that it screwed up right around the time The Twist happens, attempting to suddenly bind the Little Sister/Tenenbaum plot to the main plot from then on, but it's too late and the context is all wrong. A moral choice really needs to be making some kind of stand to have larger meaning. A Jack who Rescues all the Little Sisters isn't a Jack who refuses to participate in Rapture's ongoing abuse of little girls or anything of the sort: Rapture is already a dying city. Little Sister production is long over, the current ones a leftover population. What Jack does to these little girls only really matters to their personal fate (And if it weren't for the arbitrariness of the Good Ending glossing over all the problems, killing them would, I have to repeat, arguably be kinder than leaving them to die a slow death in a collapsing Rapture, which is kind of the default endpoint for Rescuing them, logically speaking) and to Jack's conscience: being kind to them is about personal satisfaction rather than about taking a stand and saying "You shall not cross this line in the sand, or else I will put you under it."

It's worth pointing out here that Bioshock 2 gets this and focuses the Rescue vs Harvest choice on the intensely personal relationship between the player (character) and the Little Sisters, the aspect of 'being nice feels good', instead of trying to pretend that a larger moral stand is being made. My heart melts a little bit for every Little Sister Rescue in Bioshock 2 in a manner that simply doesn't happen in the first game.

But returning to Bioshock 1: part of the knock-off consequence of how off-to-the-side the Little Sister choice is comes through the form of Tenenbaum's dialogue. Since the game hasn't set itself up so that you're actually doing anything of moral consequence in Rescuing vs Harvesting Little Sisters, it tries to overcompensate for the lack by having Tenenbaum constantly radio you up to signal how great or horrible a person you are.

Part of the problem right away is that Tenenbaum's character is centered around having started out as an amoral monster and ended up feeling very guilty about what she's done. Her words are cheap: of course she's praising or condemning you based on how you treat the Little Sisters. It's a direct reflection of her feelings, not a meaningful barometer of how awful or great a person you actually are. She'd probably keep praising you if you turned out to be a cannibal serial killer so long as you made her feel less guilty about how she's treated the Little Sisters, or keep damning you for exacerbating her guilt even if you did so in the process of magically solving the rest of Rapture's problems out of the goodness of your heart.

Then there's the way this intersects with the lack of meaningful moral consequence to your decisions. It shifts the experience from one about making personal moral choices to being one that's about basking in being praised for what a good boy you are yes you are that's a good boy go fetch, fetch boy, fetch goooood boy!

That's not me being obnoxiously demeaning to be a jerk, there. That's a pretty accurate summary of what the experience is like, and an encapsulation of how strongly it divorces it from the moral dimension it's trying to be about. It turns it too heavily into a pursuit of approval, instead of a decision about morality.

Again, Bioshock 2 gets this more right: Rescuing Little Sisters in that game gets the villain haranguing you, and while you're opposed to her anyway it's still the case that doing the right/kind thing involves going against the social tide, which of course means you can't possibly be doing it just to bask in praise.

But in Bioshock 1... Little Sisters are not handled well, as far as narrative elements go.


So that's the things Bioshock 1 did that really, really don't work, how they don't work, why they don't work.

Next time, we'll start talking about some of what did work, starting with the directly paired point to this topic: Big Daddies.


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