Bioshock 2: Connectivity

Bioshock 2 has a bit of an initial mystery: given the opening cinematic involved you shooting yourself in the head, why aren't you still dead? What happened?

To be honest, I figured the question would either never be answered, or that the answer would be unsatisfying and probably nonsensical to boot.

Instead, to my surprise it involved characters using established plot elements in a sensible in-universe manner, with sensible in-universe implications. Not perfectly so... but primarily because Bioshock 1 dropped the ball in the first place.

See, one of the mistakes Bioshock 1 makes I didn't touch on in a Bioshock 1 post is Vita Chambers. In broad terms, Vita Chambers are Bioshock 1 and 2's idea of a checkpoint system: instead of saving your game periodically and automatically loading the last checkpoint when you die, you immediately respawn at the nearest Vita Chamber, and absolutely nothing is done to the rest of the game state: enemies are all at the HP they were at when you died, loot remains looted, etc. Gameplay-wise, this is a dubious decision, as it undercuts any kind of skill requirement to the game -excepting the final boss, all hurdles can be overcome by throwing bodies at the problem until you win, no skill necessary- but the relevant bit here is the utterly inane decision to incorporate Vita Chambers into the world, making them explicitly a part of the setting.

In Bioshock 1, this is all downside. The Vita Chambers ought to completely break the story, making it so that eg killing Andrew Ryan fails to accomplish much of anything. The game tries to patch over this by claiming the Vita Chambers are keyed to Andrew Ryan's genetics in particular, but this makes it completely inexplicable that there's tons of these scattered throughout Rapture and doesn't work anyway since you kill Andrew Ryan in the main plot of Bioshock 1. In practice, Vita Chambers are one of many aspects of Bioshock 1 that are, when it gets down to it, a This Is A Video Game Don't Think Too Hard On It element while the game tries really hard to pretend you should take it seriously as a story.

Bioshock 2 actually does something sensible with all this: you were revived because Eleanor arranged for the Little Sisters to get the player character's genetics recognized by the Vita Chambers, thus reviving you ten years after you were originally killed. Not only that, but the villain reacts appropriately: she spends much the game trying to stall you and talk you into giving up, and when you finally penetrate her fortress she captures you and gives explicit orders to her people to make sure you don't die of anything other than 'natural causes' or else you'll be revived by a Vita Chamber.

This is a stark contrast to Bioshock 1, where nobody ever acknowledges that Jack is abusing the Vita Chambers. They really are treated like a gameplay element instead of a story element... while explicitly existing within the setting as a story element. Which is it, Bioshock 1?

This also touches on a broader principle: that even though Bioshock 2 is set in the same setting as Bioshock 1 and is a narrative sequel to some extent as well, Bioshock 1's major narrative problems don't hurt Bioshock 2's story.

The reason for this is that the stories root themselves differently -and Vita Chambers provide a particularly good illustration of the difference in action.

In Bioshock 1, Vita Chambers making no sense is impossible to ignore. The central plot hooks them in such that the problems are not only existent, but relevant: if all Vita Chambers are keyed to Andrew Ryan's DNA, the major plotpoint of Andrew Ryan's death sticking is completely impossible. There's no way to work around these flaws with headcanon short of sticking your fingers in your ears and singing that you're not liiiistening. (The Bioshock wiki notes that Andrew Ryan has a Vita Chamber that's 'disabled', but given the mechanics of Vita Chambers that should just cause him to respawn farther away, so it just raises questions like 'why did Andrew Ryan disable his Vita Chamber at all??' So... the only way to pretend this aspect of Bioshock 1 makes sense is to blatantly ignore reality)

In Bioshock 2, though, Vita Chambers are largely not touched by the narrative, and the problems Bioshock 1 produced are mostly not relevant or moderately ignorable. If Andrew Ryan's DNA is the only one Vita Chambers match to by default... that's fine. Eleanor hacked them to get them to work on the player character. Andrew Ryan himself isn't important to Bioshock 2's plot, either, except inasmuch as Rapture exists thanks to his efforts; Bioshock 2's story functions even if you assume Andrew Ryan did survive the events of Bioshock 1, you just need to also assume he abandoned Rapture afterward. The only problem from Bioshock 1 that's a bit difficult to work around is the part where Vita Chambers are conveniently all over the place, but it can still be worked around: for one thing, Bioshock 2's core plot is actually agnostic on the topic. There just needs to be one Vita Chamber for the primary plot to function. The rest can be ignored as video game checkpoints that aren't meant to properly exist in the narrative.

But even if you find that unsatisfying, the primary reason Vita Chambers being distributed everywhere in Bioshock 1 is a problem is because of the connected plotpoint that they're keyed to Andrew Ryan's DNA in specific, making such a distribution completely nonsensical. Bioshock 2's plot doesn't care what motivated the placement of Vita Chambers nor why, precisely, they're not used by every random Splicer, and its handling leaves plenty of room for a player to come up with explanations that aren't nonsensical, such as that Vita Chambers were something anyone could potentially key into but they charged huge amounts of money for the privilege. You can try to headcanon up such explanations for Bioshock 1 as well, but any such headcanon will be actively contradicted by the plot, so it's... really a whole different context.

Vita Chambers are the best example, in no small part because Bioshock 2 does something amazing with them while Bioshock was amazingly awful in its handling of them, but there's a number of elements like that where Bioshock 2 sidesteps the issues from technically inheriting Bioshock 1's narrative problems. That's quite an impressive trick, and a good illustration of how it matters not just whether a story contains nonsensical elements somewhere inside of it, but how they relate to the story proper.


Next time, I cover possibly my favorite element of Bioshock 2: Eleanor.


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