BioShock 2 was by no means a bad game, but for long stretches of play—the middle, mainly—it was a very boring thing. There were forgettable environments with no lasting mark, characters whose presence felt mechanically contrived and slightly better combat rendered limp by repetitive Little Sister protection missions in pursuit of more Adam. And this comes from someone who, all told, enjoyed BioShock 2, a game whose narrative end held proper payoff. For Rapture fans, it’s worth playing.
It’s also worth buying—only $19.99 at GameStop, as of last week—for something even better: Minerva’s Den. It’s little surprise the downloadable content’s writer/designer, Steve Gaynor, was picked up by Irrational Games to work on BioShock: Infinite. Minerva’s Den captures the magic of Ken Levin’s original in a way the sequel didn’t, channeling the familiarity of Rapture’s iconic world to spin a tale that’s more emotionally charged than anything in BioShock 2. That’s less of a knock towards BioShock 2 than it’s a compliment to what’s been achieved in Minerva’s Den. It’s impossibly fantastic story grounded in an unreal world, and by the end, you’ve bought in, you’re invested—and touched.
I couldn’t help but start comparing Minerva’s Den to LOST. A broken, manipulative and downright magical paradise filled with wide variety of engorged egos jockeying for power over something they can hardly comprehend. There is a Chosen One, an individual that all others are watching with a close eye—and a knife in their back pocket. The comparison is even more paramount in Minerva’s Den, which may as well reflect a subterranean partnership between Andrew Ryan and the DHARMA corporation. Anyone who knows me can understand why Minerva’s Den would strike a chord.
BioShock’s twist stuck thanks to its simultaneous commentary on the nature of game design and how little say players actually have in the experience. You were shocked because Ryan—Levine—had been playing you like a fiddle all along. You felt betrayal, anger, and probably a pang of respect, too.
There is a twist to Minerva’s Den, one as grand and shocking as the one in BioShock, but one that doesn’t rely on the same parlor trick. Sure, you played a “character” in BioShock, but the story was ultimately the player’s own, altered by their interactions with the Little Sisters. The Little Sisters are present here, but simply as a gameplay mechanic. Minerva’s Den is the tragic story of one Milton Porter, mathematical genius. When the true nature of your mission in Minerva’s Den is revealed, the surprise meant so much more because I could step back and sympathize with the events I’d played a part in. The tragedy of Minerva’s Den is not yours, it is that of Milton Porter and The Thinker.
Something much more subtle is at work, too.
BioShock is a stressful game; Splicers and Big Daddies are always appearing, often from unseen shadows. But when Minerva’s Den transitions to its emotional payoff, the interface quietly disappears, a masterful nod to the player that it’s okay to move a little slower from now on, pull your sweaty fingers off the triggers and pay extra close attention to what’s hanging on this wall or laying on that desk.
I wish I’d played Minerva’s Den earlier. Take-Two should release the story and not require BioShock 2’s disc. Even gamers who consider BioShock 2 blasphemous should seek out Minerva’s Den. If there are no more tales from the murky and treacherous Rapture, Milton Porter’s provides closure.
(That said, I wouldn’t mind a series of Ratpure-set short stories like this. Would you?)