eleanor-lamb-bioshock-2-screenshot.jpg[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. Today, examining how the decisions of another made all the difference in 2K Marin's Bioshock 2.]

What I liked best about Bioshock 2 was that it ended before it ended.

In Mario, for instance, your Princess is in another castle until finally she isn't, and then you win. Rescuing the princess is the flag that lets players know they've won. Mario gets a smooch on the cheek and then the credits roll. It ends when it ends.

But in Bioshock 2, the game doesn't end when the player rescues Eleanor, the princess equivalent. Instead she decides to put on a diving suit and stomp monsters with the player for the last act of the game. During this short time, the player really gets to know Eleanor as a person, more than just a damsel in distress or a plot device.

Eleanor's daughterly affection and admiration of the protagonist is a rare thing when all other supporting cast members exist to nag the player. No matter how powerful the protagonist of Bioshock 2 gets, he's treated like a tool for Rapture's salvation or destruction by most of the cast, while Eleanor thinks of him as so important and good that she lives her life based on what he does. In doing so, she actually brings Delta--a faceless, voiceless, protagonist--to life.

Eleanor is the living embodiment of the player's choices. Despite the fact that Eleanor basically takes over the player's choices at this point in the game, I've never before felt like I had more control over a game than I did in this one, and it was because the choices I made came to define a person. That sort of power is almost frightening, and few games give it to you. I didn't find the choices in Bioshock 2 especially compelling on their own, but watching Eleanor come into her own was an incredible experience.

Talking Heads

Elenor is one of the few characters in Bioshock 2 that actually talks to Delta rather than at him. It is a tendency for support cast members to make players feel like an errand boy for whatever jerk picks up a microphone and starts babbling away. This tends to feel like maintaining radio contact with one's mother as she reminds you of things that you have not forgotten: Use the blue key on the blue door, your health is low, don't forget get your combat multiplier even higher.

Bioshock saved players from overdosing on this by injecting a lot of personality into those voices, something that Bioshock 2 lacks. I felt entertained by the plot of the first Bioshock because of the way Tennebaum, Fontaine, and Ryan interacted with each other. I didn't actually mind that much that my avatar was voiceless because this back and forth debate was so compelling. Even when they weren't directly speaking to each other, their individual voices contrasted strongly in ways that made each one distinctive, a dialogue that I enjoyed watching unfold.

Bioshock 2, on the other hand, lacks this dynamic. Sinclair, while engaging, doesn't burn with the same sort of passion as the characters in the first Bioshock, and Lamb's sanctimonious rambling rattles the player's radio without a shred of substance. Ryan advocated for objectivism against fierce opposition, but Lamb is only talking to herself.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Lamb is boring because no one's there to challenge her, and since Delta is a silent protagonist, he can't really interact with others except in extremely limited ways, and that frankly isn't enough to propel a whole game forward. This is part of the reason why silent protagonists are often more trouble than they're worth. Talking to the protagonist is pretty much the same as talking to a wall, and it doesn't create the sort of drama that can support a story.

It's really hard to create a dialogue with someone who can't speak, Eleanor is actually able to pull it off in the final act. Eleanor's behavior in this last part is a response to the player's actions and it creates a back and forth that extends to the protagonist as well. I never particularly identified with the Big Daddy avatar until the end, when Elenor became the mirror through which I saw him.

A silent protagonist can only be defined through other characters. Lamb thinks of Delta as a thing, Sinclair thinks of him as the brawn of a business partnership. But Eleanor responds directly to the player's actions. This isn't something that couldn't be done through dialogue, or without choices, but it uses what it has to create a dialogue between Delta and Eleanor without words.

Consequences

This all could have been saved until the very ending of the game, but in Bioshock 2 the whole last chapter of the game is played side by side with Eleanor. Unlike the smooch and credits we get in Mario, we actually get to see the relationship between Eleanor and Delta play out. It's also significant that she's physically by the player's side when none of the other characters are. Being able to see her when she's grown up and capable is a real contrast to how she is before that point.

I think what is so distinguishing about this situation is how player choices spiral out of control. Paradoxically, I felt even more in control of the game because Eleanor made all of the major choices for the ending. It's fitting for the themes of fatherhood that she decides to live her life in the same way as Delta. Deciding who lives and who dies seems someone not quite as significant compared to defining a person, and Eleanor's behavior is the proof that the player's choices matter.

It's the only game I can think of where the choices of someone other than the player determine how the game unfolds. Personally, although I forgave most of the characters in the game, I really wanted to kill Lamb. Eleanor, on the other hand, decided that she would choose forgiveness because I had. While in some ways this was frustrating, I appreciated the fact that she was now had the right to choose as well.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which channels the power of Lavos, and can be reached at AndrewVandenB@gmail.com]