Friday, January 14, 2011

Minerva’s Den, Another Taste of Rapture

minervas-den-3And you thought you were done with BioShock.

At least, I thought I was. When Irrational Games (or 2K Boston or whatever the hell they were called at the time) ceded control of a sequel to 2K Marin and a host of other studios, I joined the growing mass of skeptics. Promising that we’d get to play as one of the hulking Big Daddies didn’t seem like enough. And how could a bunch of people not working for Ken Levine produce a worthy follow-up to his seminal game set in Rapture - an underwater Art Deco Objectivist dystopia?

Turns out, they sort of did. Andrew noted in his review last February that 2K Marin successfully played it safe with BioShock 2. I wholly agree. They embarked on a second tour of Rapture, tossing in a few gameplay tricks and adding some new enemies along the way. The story held my interest, but it of course paled in comparison to the whiplash-inducing twist of its predecessor.  Besides, Rapture’s the star of the show, and Sophia Lamb’s reign did little to illuminate an environment I’d already spent hours poring over (save one stunning Little Sisters chapter).

BioShock and its sequel both dealt with Rapture on the macro level. Thus, the stories told feel similar. A leader exerts his or her philosophy upon a populace. A player-controlled protagonist arrives. Shit hits the fan.

Minerva’s Den, a downloadable add-on for BioShock 2, follows a similar pattern but on a micro scale. It’s a tighter tale with a smaller cast of characters. It may also be one of the best pieces of downloadable content I’ve ever played.

subject sigmaSimilar to its parent game, Minerva’s Den puts you in the boots of a prototype Big Daddy. This time it’s Subject Sigma. (By now, the plausibility of there being hordes of prototypes running around Rapture is wearing a bit thin – but it is a crucial conceit, so it’s worth accepting.) Subject Sigma regains consciousness just outside of Minerva’s Den, the hub for Rapture’s central computing system: The Thinker.

Sigma’s quickly contacted (by the familiar BioShock magical intercom system) by Charles Milton Porter, The Thinker’s designer, and Dr. Brigid Tenenbaum. The duo need help liberating the supercomputer from Reed Wahl, a former colleague of Porter’s. Wahl, delusional as a result of genetic splicing, believes The Thinker capable of a “predictive equation” – that the machine can essentially see the future. He’s sequestered himself in Minerva’s Den, and that’s bad news.

To further discuss the story is to spoil it. Suffice to say the interplay between Porter and Wahl is the heart of the game. Their demands and attacks pull Sigma in opposite directions, even though it’s clear who’s angel and who’s the devil, as it were. It’s not unlike the rivalry of Fontaine and Ryan, but Wahl is more unpredictable and Porter more mild-mannered. Over the course of the five-hour campaign, Porter emerges as one of Rapture’s more intriguing characters.

His arc raises questions previously unasked in the BioShock universe. In one audio log (found in a water-logged cabinet or something, where else?), Porter, a black man, remarks that someone once asked why he never spliced white to get ahead. Porter’s response: “First of all I AM ahead. Second, in Rapture it's your WORK that's supposed to matter, not your skin!” Tiny notes like this allow Rapture to function as the warped looking glass it is, displaying societal tropes and flaws mutated by unbridled ambition.

250px-ThePorters_london_(Cut)Porter’s ambition also gets the best of him. He came to Rapture following his wife’s untimely death and devoted himself to computing. He designs The Thinker so that it can reason for itself – all the easier to manage Rapture’s complex security systems.  That autonomous thought allows it to synthesize personality data – audio recordings, documents, etc. – into an approximation of a human being. Hungry for companionship, Porter begins feeding The Thinker information on his deceased wife Pearl. A haunting audio log shows Porter switching on the personality duplicate only to then beg the machine to abandon its freakishly accurate depiction of his late love.

BioShock do what BioShock do, so there’s no text scrawl or opening cinematic through which to absorb all of this information. Scattered throughout the various crevices of Minerva’s Den are oversized cassette-players, personal recorders each containing a fragment of the overall story. Does the device feel contrived the third time around? Maybe. But the writing and voice-acting are of such high quality that I quickly forgot any hang-ups I had about the logic of people recording themselves and then just dropping the little machines wherever.

Speaking of BioShock standards, the combat in Minerva’s Den is largely unchanged from that of BioShock 2. Superpowered plasmids still serve as a mighty alternative to more conventional weaponry. Various types of splicers will attack you, along with the occasional Big Daddy should you set your eyes on harvesting (or adopting!) his Little Sister. BioShock 2’s Big Sisters also appear, though that feels extra contrived. After each set of three Little Sisters you resolve, one of these ninjas will appear and attempt to end you. It’s a minor structural annoyance within an expertly paced experience.

One of the reasons Minerva’s Den feels so smooth is its artful (and generous) doling out of plasmids and weapons. In five hours, you are equipped with the full complement of weapons and abilities from BioShock 2, which was at least twice as long. Steve Gaynor and the development team also inverted the plasmid tree a bit, frontloading the game with more passive abilities like Telekinesis and Security Command. These force the player to think outside the “Electrobolt-Melee” box that has dumbed down combat since the first BioShock. Never did I once feel underpowered, and by the end I felt myself drifting back toward my old incinerating habits, but it was nice to see them try to mix things up a bit.

Minerva’s Den does not revolutionize first-person shooting. It doesn’t take BioShock somewhere outside of Rapture. It does, however, rise above mere Rapture fan fiction and restore the franchise back to its strong storytelling roots. Subject Sigma’s journey to help Porter functions best as a standalone adventure, as well. Mixing it in with the larger events in the BioShock series would have easily overshadowed Porter’s understated intelligence and drive.

Rapture’s worth another visit. Make sure you pop into Minerva’s Den.