∑: The Sum of Its Parts
Irrational Games invested the name ‘Bioshock’ with a host of expectations drawn from all the brilliance and flaws of a single game. Despite it being a franchise of one, the name now had the expectations of a much older series. So Minerva’s Den, as a Bioshock game (attached to a flawed parent), had a single challenge to overcome: Expectations. Not just within its gameplay, the condensing of a Bioshock experience in 40% of the time, but in its narrative. That’s the hard part. Going in, miraculously without spoilers, I was immediately suspicious of everything. I knew there was something fishy going on, especially when I’m given no context as to why Subject Sigma is stomping his way into Minerva’s Den. I’m once again told what to do by a voice on the radio. I know better, this being a Bioshock game, and all the possible permutations of a twist sprang to mind.
What do you do when your entire story is weighed down with expectations before the first minute of the game? How do you change that assumed structure?
Minerva’s Den (and post-Infinite, the entire series) is about taking initial conditions and seeing how they diverge. The game knows it has a checklist to mark off, and does so. In this case, you beat expectations by meeting them, and then dig around in the margins and seek to score points elsewhere.
The game’s path weaves through Minerva’s Den at a much slower pace than the locations in its parent games, lingering and focusing on the scale of this city-running computer and the people bustling within it like worker ants.
It makes call outs to the greater power structure of Rapture without being overbearing with the references. It uses Ryan and Fontaine and Lamb and Tenenbaum without depending on them. It would be easy to lean on readily available crutches, something Minerva’s Den consciously stepped away from.
Within the story itself you have two men taking wildly different paths from the same initial conditions: what do you do with a vast amount of computational power, a new source of power? It’s an easy parallel to the series as a whole. Given unrestricted power and freedom, where does ambition go wrong? Because it will always go wrong. Porter and Wahl only differ in when they turn back: before or after they go too far.
Porter is handled with a deft touch, a rare black character, doubly so being not martial in any way. A single, precisely tuned mention of race is all you need to get a nod of respect from me.
The game’s reveal adds up from all of its component parts and is coldly logical, fitting with the vast computer you’ve been running around and through for the last six hours. Yet the game doesn’t caper about on top of its cleverness. It merely presents the facts, drops in a boss encounter, gives you a closing walkthrough of a few environments, and takes a bow. In the end, it pulls off something still quite rare in video games: Genuine emotional resonance. It’s almost classy for a DLC pack to a wholly unnecessary sequel.
Minerva’s Den accomplishment lies not only within its ability to weave through expectations, but its restraint in meeting and exceeding them.