The following is an essay I wrote for a gothic literature class in college, a discussion on Bioshock 2 and how it follows classic gothic conventions. It is here in its original text with original images–one has been lost and replaced. While a bit stiff, it remains an excellent example of my academic work .
2K Marin’s first person thriller Bioshock 2 uses the relatively new medium of video games to express the same aspects of the Gothic novel that were introduced in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.Otranto, considered by many the first true Gothic novel, provides a standard against which the video game can be compared. The narrators of these narratives are not easy to trust: just at the beginning of The Castle of Otranto, the author describes how the story came to be and then admits less than five pages later that his first few statements were lies, while Bioshock 2 is seen through the eyes of a man whose mind can easily be altered by drugs and those around him. Throughout the story, a critical mind must be kept, questioning the verity of every event that unfolds. Each piece takes place in an unstable, crumbling location that is isolated from the rest of the world–places that occupy such an important part of their plots that they almost become characters themselves. Through the use of unreliable narrators and unstable environments, both narratives throw the lives of their characters into chaos and terror, a mental state fueled by the internal monsters that they have created. Contributing to the unstable nature of these locations are their leaders, usurpers who never had a right to the power they now wield. These ‘fake’ leaders are then challenged by a hero, one who truly belongs and has returned from exile to remove these new powers from office. Despite having been created nearly three hundred years ago, these four aspects of the classic Gothic novel–unreliable narrators, unstable settings, false leaders, and disgraced heroes regaining their humanity–have remained within the genre, still presenting themselves in media today.
The preface to the first edition of The Castle of Otranto claims that “the following work was found in the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England,” an original text that was then translated by the author of the preface for a wider audience ( Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, 3). He continues to praise the original author’s craftsmanship and prose, and admits to his belief that the original work is based on original events, with only the names having been changed for anonymity. Four pages later, in the preface of the second edition, the author–now shown to be Horace Walpole– reveals that he lied in the first, and hid his authorship as a way to protect himself if the novel proved unpopular. Before the primary story has even begun, the author has exposed himself as untruthful, unreliable, changeable–how can the reader trust that he will not continue to fabricate the truth throughout the rest of the novel?
This uneasy relationship between author and reader affects how different characters and events are seen within a narrative. Manfred, leader of the titular castle in The Castle of Otranto, changes his behavior throughout the novel. The death of his son at the beginning of the novel invites pity, but his reaction to this–that he must marry his son’s former fiancee–appears irrational, a behavior seemingly void of the grief that is expected from the death of a leader’s firstborn son. Changeable as Manfred may be, nothing he does can be truly taken as genuine–the narrator of this novel, its author, has already admitted to lying to the readers before the story even began. So much of this narrative involves Manfred’s own internal thoughts, but these thoughts could themselves be lies since the author is the one transcribing them, not Manfred himself. This man is just as unstable as the one who narrates him, as he regularly lies to those around him, his claim as leader of the castle is even itself a lie.
Subject Delta is the character in Bioshock 2 that the player takes control of; it is his experience of the narrative that dictates how the characters and story are perceived. In similar form to the admitted lies of the preface in Otranto, the game opens with a scene in which the player character is convinced, through a mind controlling spell, to kill himself in front of Eleanor, the little girl he was created to protect. If this man is so easy to control by others, it is possible that his view of the city of Rapture (and the events that unfold there) are tainted as well. In the most literal sense, this is true: Delta is part man part machine, a creature known to Rapture as a Big Daddy, and he does not remove his helmet during the game. This helmet partially obscures his vision, and forms a thick black frame around everything Delta sees.
One level of Bioshock 2 gives Delta control of one of those little girls, known as Little Sisters in the game, creating a scene that further questions the authenticity of Delta’s vision. Through the eyes of a Little Sister, this crumbling city under the sea, its halls full of seawater and crazed drug addicts, is a bright and happy place.
[Rapture through the eyes of Subject Delta]
[Rapture through the eyes of a Little Sister]
Dead bodies are seen as beautiful angels, sleeping on the ground. What Delta sees as dirty, broken buildings are clean and new through the Sister’s eyes, red silk and roses lying where the other saw trash and weapons. Whose vision is the truth? The little sisters are possessed and brainwashed from a very young age, and probably do not see the world as it is–but at the same time, Subject Delta was created by man to serve one purpose, himself brainwashed to care only about one thing: the safety of his assigned Little Sister. As story as inundated with mind control, the narrator within Bioshock 2–taken to be Subject Delta–can be trusted as honest no more than Manfred and Walpole.
Through the experience of a video game today, the player experiences narration through the eyes and experiences of the character that they play, no longer tethered to an author’s written word. Walpole, whether intentional or not, introduced the concept of a narrator who can not be trusted, a narrator who lies and admits that he has lied, a narrator who narrates characters who do the same. The video game takes these same problems, and brings them closer to home–the player assumes that their character sees the world as it truly is, that their character is “right” in what they do and believe, that they have a choice in what happens. When the character they play is revealed to be a brainwashed individual that is easily controlled by the wills of others, such as Subject Delta in Bioshock 2, that trust is lost in the same manner that it was lost in Otranto. An unsure, untrustable narrator can only tell a story that evokes some level of stress in its viewer.
It is through the unsure eyes of the narrators that the settings of these stories is described, and as a result, the landscapes themselves are unstable. These locations inspire so much of the action in their narratives, yet take so much abuse in the process. The titular castle in Otranto is damaged right at the start, with the massive helmet that kickstarts the plot landing square in the castle’s courtyard (and square on prince Conrad’s head, to his misfortune). Similarly, the first level of Bioshock 2 ends with a violent, mysterious enemy destroying a massive window that leads into a ballroom in an attempt to drown out Subject Delta–flooding the entire area with seawater. Both of these locations are isolated from the rest of the world, far away from anyone who could help the victims or even hear their screams. When Isabella flees the castle to get away from Manfred, she never has the time to reach external help–Theodore finds her within a matter of hours, and brings her back to the castle. Running away from a city trapped under the sea is not so easy–Bioshock 2 takes place in such a city, a city that no one escapes alive.
In The Castle of Otranto, the castle itself is the setting. Walpole never takes the time to describe the structure’s plan or details, only explaining parts of the castle as they are encountered in the narrative. A crypt only appears when Isabella flees towards it, a courtyard when it needs to exist for Manfred’s first born son Conrad to be crushed to death by a massive mask. As a result, the castle itself seems unsure of what it is, and possesses the illusion of constantly moving, changing, growing. Given Walpole’s previously discussed insecurity as the narrator, it is wholly possible that the castle truly is changing, alive with a mind of its own, and the author simply has not addressed it. Regardless, it is this vague description that assists in the mysterious quality of the Castle. With so much mystery surrounding the events that go on within it, why must the structure be anything less?
Rapture is a city that lies alone at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, cut of from the rest of the world by countless gallons of seawater, by miles and miles of ocean, and is the setting for Bioshock 2. A very small part of the city is experienced through the game–as in Otranto, the city is seen through the eyes of the easily manipulated Subject Delta, and changes appearance depending on who views it, as seen with the previously mentioned scene of Rapture, through the eyes of the Little Sisters. Much of the city has already been destroyed by its inhabitants, and entire areas are already flooded with water, their new tenants the sharks and schools of fish that reside at the bottom of the sea. Perhaps there are parts of the city that remain safe from Sofia Lamb’s army, locations that were well maintained and never allowed to fall apart, but if such places exist they were never shown. As Walpole neglects to give the full view of his castle, so does Bioshock 2 its city. It is this element of the unknown, unreliable setting that fuels the fears of so many within these stories–an element that still remains just as potent a tool today.
On their own, these mysterious locations can only contribute so much–they are never described or shown in enough detail to get a full picture, a full idea that they move or have minds of their own. But when these places are given leaders who never had the right to them, they take on a new life. Things do not seem to go the way these false leaders plan, as if the places they lay claim to are fighting back, rejecting the leaders like the human body rejects a foreign organ. Many of the horrors of these locations are caused, often directly, by the actions of these individuals, and the stories focus on their fall from power at the hands of the true leaders and heroes.
The problems that plague the inhabitants of the castle in The Castle of Otranto begin with an oddly specific and confusing prophecy “that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.” Most who live within the castle do not understand what it means, as they have no reason to think that Manfred, their current leader, is not the rightful leader ( Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, 14). Manfred’s ancestor stole the lordship of Otranto from a man who fought in the crusades alongside him, a secret that was lost to all but Manfred himself. Once his first and only son was killed by a massive helmet that fell from the sky–that was later revealed to be that of the original lord of the castle–he strives to marry Isabella in his son’s place, in hopes of a son to secure his control of Otranto. His efforts to keep control of the castle fail at the hands of Theodore, proven by the ghosts that run through the halls as the true lord.
By fighting to keep a position of power he does not have a right to, Manfred destroys his family and home. His son is killed as a warning to him that he must give up his lordship, but he chooses to ignore this message and further fuels the rage of the ghosts within the castle. These spirits cause him to go mad, and results in his accidental murder of his daughter Matilda. His efforts to marry Isabella to save his lordship alienate his wife, his refusal of Theodore destroys much of the castle. It is Manfred’s own stubborn fight to cling to his power that ultimately destroys him.
Doctor Sofia Lamb’s rise to power as the new leader of Rapture took a bit more time. While Manfred was born into his lordship, Lamb spent years planning her own way to the top. While Rapture was still a functional city, ten years before the events of Bioshock 2, she was a psychologist, planting ideas of dissent and a desire for revolution in the minds of her patients. She formed what would become “The Rapture Family,” in reality a group of people gone mad with excessive drug use, who then ripped the ruling powers of the city apart with their civil war. While she was fighting to gain her position as the new leader of the city, Lamb’s daughter Eleanor was stolen from her and made into Subject Delta’s Little Sister. Lamb’s struggle to regain control of her daughter–whom Lamb plans mold into a leader exactly like her–while keeping control of the city fails miserably. She cannot hold control of both a city of insane drug addicts and a powerful teenage girl, and resorts to killing Eleanor in an effort to stop Subject Delta (Delta and Eleanor were biomechanically linked together as a team, and as a result if the Little Sister’s heart stops, so does that of the Big Daddy).
This woman, while she may love her daughter, let her desire for leadership and control of a city that can probably never be properly controlled consume her mind. She wanted to rule Rapture totally and completely, and Subject Delta was in the way–she saw that her only tool to remove Delta was her daughter, and by killing her, Lamb lost what trust her daughter had in her to begin with. Once revived from death, Eleanor works with Subject Delta to remove her mother from power–a benefit that Matlilda from The Castle of Otranto never had.
Both leaders are false, usurpers in roles they were never meant to hold. In their vain struggles to keep this stolen power, they kill their daughters and nearly perish themselves–yet still lose this power they held. A common theme in many older Gothic stories, the role of the usurper is not often recognized in newer media; some may claim that Sofia Lamb is not a false leader, as there is no true government within Rapture to compete with, that no one truly has a claim to the city’s leadership and therefore there is no right or wrong. As lamb was planning her takeover of Rapture while the city was still standing and well-governed, it can be argued that she is still an usurper–she was simply a bit late in her success.
Manfred and Lamb share in their struggle for false power. This power is passed on to those they defamed to get it: the tarnished heroes Theodore and Subject Delta. He may be the protagonist of The Castle of Otranto, but Manfred is not the hero. This title belongs to Theodore, a role that is only revealed towards the end of the story. Throughout most of the novel, Theodore is hidden as a commoner, a man who seems to benefit from the castle’s many moods, impervious to the angry spirits who reside there. Once he discovers who Theodore really is–the true lord of Otranto–Manfred does all he can to kill him, banish him, imprison him. He fails at every turn. When imprisoned under the massive helmet that killed Conrad, Theodore is released by the castle, allowing him to save Isabella. Eventually, a massive spirit towers over the castle, confirming Theodore as true leader and Manfred as usurper.
Subject Delta, created by Rapture to protect Eleanor from harm, was unlucky in that his Little Sister happened to be the stolen daughter of Sofia Lamb. She kills Delta right as the game begins, in a gesture she feels will protect her daughter from harm. However, the man is revived by Eleanor ten years later, to save Rapture from her mother, now wrongly in control of a city destroyed by its own internal war. The city, unlike Otranto, does not care for Subject Delta, and makes no effort to assist in his destruction of Lamb. It is only through his actions that the man gains the trust of those within the city, in the end regaining his humanity and respect by saving the Little Sisters, including Eleanor, from the cruel rule of Lamb.
Theodore and Delta, seen at the beginning of their stories as simple men and monsters, are only seen as respectable, as human, through their actions. These uncommon heroes have their humanity and power stripped from them by the false leaders, and can only become what they once were through the destruction of these leaders. The role of the forgotten and disgraced man becoming a hero through his behavior and battles won is now common, and remains the strongest element of classic Gothic literature that is still used today.
Bioshock 2 may share many classic elements of the Gothic novel with The Castle of Otranto, but most popular video games today do the same, regardless of the genre they are classified as. The unreliable narrator has been transformed from lying author to easily brainwashed protagonist, going so far as to lead the players to question the verity of what they see. False leaders have evolved from lying lords to enterprising individuals, intelligent people who take advantage of failing governments and institutions to gain control for themselves–leaders who still destroy those close to them to get what they want. And if there is one aspect of the Gothic novel that has not changed since Walpole, it is the tortured character of the disgraced hero, and his fight for redemption through moral battles. Whether the writers of new stories are aware of it or not, they continue to use these elements that Walpole introduced, regardless of the media used.
2K Marin/Australia. Bioshock 2. 2K Games, 2010. Computer software.
Note: There are three different endings to the game, which depend on how “good” the player was, morally. This essay is written using the “pure” good ending, in which all choices made within the game were “good.”
All screenshots shown within text are my own.
Sayre, Henry M. Writing About Art. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002. Print.
Walpole, Horace and Henry Mackenzie. The Castle of Otrantoand The Man of Feeling. Pearson Education, 2007. 1-102. Print.