End Function, Thinker: Why Minerva’s Den is the best Bioshock Game

(This is a rehost of this article from my now-dead tumblr. Original publication was 1 April 2014)

**Warning: Major Bioshock spoilers ahead. For like all the games.**

I think I’ve never had quite a turnaround in my view on a game in the way that I’ve had one with Bioshock: Infinite. I beat it in about 9 hours, and did it probably in one day. I can’t remember really. I remember that I really, really liked it as soon as I finished it, and that was that.

But then I started thinking about it again. I started realizing that there were some serious issues with the game’s plotline, both in a mechanical sense and in a narrative one. The treatment of the Vox Populi irritated me, and that irritation turned to frustration as I found myself realizing that the issue of race in the game is, at best, touched upon as set-dressing and never confronted. And for non-males, the character of Elizabeth is… not very well done. We see her as a capable, powerful fighter… but only when Booker is around her. Otherwise, she’s just a meek girl who was locked in a tower. Not a great portrayal there, Irrational.

But I don’t want this piece to be all about Infinite. If you’re interested, this GameSpot review pretty much hits the nail on the head as to all my issues with the game are, more or less.

No, I want to talk about the real best Bioshock game. The one you should tell everyone to play. I’m talking, of course, about 2K Marin’s DLC for Bioshock 2, Minerva’s Den.

(Major plot dump begins here)

Minerva’s Den takes place 8 years after the events ofBioshock 2, and it again is in the underwater dystopia of Rapture. You play as an (originally) unnamed Alpha Series Big Daddy (the same model Big Daddy as the protagonist from B2), referred to only as Subject Sigma.

Sigma’s purpose, as understood from the initial scenes of the game, is on his way to Minerva’s Den, the destroyed zone of Rapture that houses the supercomputer known as the Thinker (namesake courtesy of Rodin). The Thinker, before the fall of Rapture, acted as the digital brain of the city. As Subject Sigma, your goal is to infiltrate Minerva’s Den, steal the source code for the Thinker from the corrupted splicer ex-engineer Reed Wahl, and bring the code to the overworld.

Throughout the game, you as player are being guided by the voice of Charles Milton Porter, the other primary engineer on the Thinker. A black University graduate, he moved to Rapture after his late wife Pearl’s death in the WWII bombings of London. In traditional Bioshock fashion, much of the character background discovery of Porter is done via a combination of voice-over monologuing to Sigma, and the player discovery of audiologs hidden throughout the world.

You learn about Porter’s life. He’s a gifted mathematician, and a budding programmer in a sci-fi world that accepted that ‘programming’ as we know it began in the 1940s. The machine that we call the Thinker is in fact a very advanced AI, running on Porter and Wahl’s programs and ADAM (the magic juice behind plasmids and the Little Sisters in Bioshock). As such, it’s much more powerful than any other rudimentary AI device in rapture, like the autocannons or buzzing helicopter drones.

In an early chapter of the game, it is revealed that the reason that Wahl controls the Thinker now is due to his supposed discovery of a ‘predictive algorithm’ that can, in typical video game fashion, see the future. Because of ADAM. Don’t worry about it.

Basically, Wahl wants the Thinker to see the future, and basically only for him. Porter wanted the Thinker because over time, he became close to obsessed with the concept of using the Thinker to take on the personality of his wife, at least for a moment.

In the final moments of the game (this is the major spoiler part), you find out that the Subject Sigma that the player has been playing as is, in fact, Charles Porter himself, and the ‘Charles Porter’ you had been speaking with the entire game was actually the Thinker, running a program to simulate Porter’s words and mannerisms in a familiar-enough way that Sigma (read: real Porter) would find persuasive.

With me so far? I know that last part gets pretty video-game-y.

(Major plot dump over)

The Bioshock series has often been characterized by its usage of plot twists. The singular line in Bioshock, “A man chooses, a slave obeys” still is one of the (only?) most famous lines in video game history. The twist in Minerva’s Den, like in Bioshock, is one of player deception- but unlike Bioshock, Minerva’s Den goes much farther with the plot device.

If looked at on its face, the twist in Bioshock is rather uncomplicated. The player did not crash a plane into the seas around Rapture, he was born there. He is the son of Andrew Ryan, genetically modified to age rapidly, and all throughout the game Ryan acted as a false narrator to the player. The more intriguing aspects of the twist are buried in its implicit perversion of the player-game relationship. “Would you kindly” was the trigger phrase for the character, but due to the game’s inherent design, it was also the trigger phrase for the player, adding to the immersive shock present in the final twist reveal. The player is reacting just as the character would in that scenario (more or less), because the player is experiencing very near the same frustration. Just like the character, the player is realizing that everything they knew from the plane crash was false and fabricated. It’s a powerful scene.

In contrast, the twist in Minerva’s Den might seem simple. The same tactic of false narration is used, but in this case it takes on a different tone. As Porter, you are not the son of the false narrator, you are closer to the ‘father’, having created the Thinker before the events of the game. The circumstances do share certain similarities, however- both Porter and the protagonist of Bioshock are previously unaware of their identity, and both implicitly trusted and understood the narrator before the twist.

The primary difference between the twist scenes, and why I think Minerva’s Den’s reveal is so much more than a simple rehash of the Bioshock twist, is in its surroundings. Andrew Ryan in Bioshock is rather simplistic in terms of player character motivation. Ryan is the bad guy. He did bad things. You kill him. Good job hero.

The Thinker isn’t quite like that. The Thinker, as you could imagine, is really more out for their own survival over anything else. It’s not a hard thing to figure out that the primary reason for Sigma’s quest is, really, the Thinker trying to find a way out of Rapture, and reaching out to the more sympathetic (and not splicing) of their two parents to find a way out. The relationship that the Thinker has to the player character is far less black and white than that between Ryan and the player character.

Porter, as well, is a much more interesting character than the protagonist of Bioshock. Whereas in Bioshock, the player character, due to circumstance, did not have much backstory; Porter’s life story is almost completely known to the character by the end of the game. The character’s motivations are fully fleshed out through audiologs and the Thinker’s approximation of his character. He’s smart. He’s emotional. He’s more idealistic than his partner Wahl, and he wants to actually help people with the Thinker, instead of using it just to further personal power or societal control.

So when you finally reach the end of the game and hear the final audiolog, it actually feels like you got there. After the reveal of The Thinker and Porter as the narrator and the player, respectively, there is a walk through Porter’s office. The scene conveys much in silence that many games fail to do in full-voiced cinematics, having the character forced to walk by souvenirs of Porter’s life, pictures of his marriage, and various artifacts of his human life. The narrative is paced in such a way that the tidbits of info you receive throughout the chapters of the game have all come together for this final moment, this final exploration into a character you never thought you were. Like in the office of Andrew Ryan, it’s a powerful scene.

Unlike the killing of Ryan, however, the transformative moment in Minerva’s Den is one of rebirth- of a sobering understanding and a cold realization of what the world is. The last audiolog of the game is in this final room, and it tells of the first and last time that Porter switched on the ‘Pearl’ program in the Thinker. The shock of his wife being there, but not there, scares him. He has awoken something he didn’t mean to. It’s a very scary moment. For the first time since starting the Thinker, you hear Porter scared about what he has created. That’s not his wife- that’s something he created. A facsimile of a person, something that he never should have created.

In that sense, it’s a player deception on more than one narrative front- first there is the discovery that the player is not who they expected to be, and then there is the discovery that the goal that Porter (the narrative focus) had been working toward was, in the end, something that probably should not have been done. It’s a twofold strike on the assumptions of the player.

Minerva’s Den did more in 3 hours than I believe any other Bioshock game did in 8. It established a character, built the spooky atmosphere of the environment, had just enough combat and puzzles to keep the player satisfied, wove in multiple storylines, and ended in a killer twist. It’s the essence of Bioshock, in a bite-size form. Well worth a play.