There’s a lot to love about BioShock. Released in 2007, the game was praised by critics and seen by many as a spiritual successor to System Shock 2. The city of Rapture, the underwater dystopia where BioShock is set, is filled with fantastic world building and some gorgeous water.
One of the big reasons BioShock is so beloved and praised is the amount of options the game offers players. From which plasmids you will pick, to what weapons you will upgrade or even if you will spare or kill the little sisters, BioShock is always throwing new and interesting choices at the player. My favourite example of a choice in BioShock has also become one of the most iconic elements of the franchise: The Big Daddies.
These slow moving hunks of metal and man can be found throughout most of Rapture. Often they are protecting a Little Sister. Outside of a few moments where the game forces players to confront Big Daddies, BioShock allows the player to decide how or even if they will take on these massive guardians.
At first players will be fearful of the Big Daddies. Hearing their loud, bass heavy whale like moans in the early hours of BioShock will make you freeze with fear and quickly pull out your best weapon. But Irrational Games didn’t make the Big Daddies relentless predators, hunting the player down the moment they get too close. Instead, Irrational Games designed the Big Daddies to be more sympathetic and interesting to fight. You can almost always avoid these underwater giants.
If you do attack them or annoy them, Big Daddies explode into a murderous rage unleashing powerful attacks that can easily kill players in only a few hits. And they are quicker to attack if they are with their Little Sister. Like a mother bear and her cub, you don’t want to get too close to a Big Daddy’s little sister. But even with a little sister, they aren’t mindless killers looking to destroy everything. In fact you can usually walk a few feet next to them and rarely disturb them. As long as you stay calm and don’t start shooting.
And this is the key to the Big Daddies success. They are basically, walking boss fights that are also totally optional. As players spend more time in Rapture and gain better weapons and plasmids, Big Daddies become less scary and begin to feel more like challenging combat puzzles. You can observe these giant metal men without fear that they will attack you. Players can set up ambushes, wait until the Big Daddy is cornered or lure the big boy into a fight with splicers. Irrational Games allows the player to fully control when, where and how the boss fight will happen.
This freedom of choice allows the player to experiment more with new weapons or underused plasmids. Because Big Daddies stay injured, even if you die and respawn in a vita-chamber, players can try out another crazy plan and see how that works. Maybe this time I’ll use bug swarm and my crossbow? Or maybe I’ll hack this turret and lure the big guy into its line of sight?
Another bonus: Big Daddies allow players to make BioShock as challenging as they want. If you avoid all of them the game will be more difficult as you won’t have access to better powers or skills. Kill a few and deal with some Little Sisters and you’ll have more Adam to upgrade and unlock plasmids and skills. But if you fight them too often, while unprepared, you might waste resources, making future fights harder. Players are free to choose how many Big daddies they want to engage or skip.
I even know some folks who stopped killing Big Daddies in the latter half of the game, because they just felt sorry for these bulky guardians.
And that is a huge accomplishment. Making optional bosses, that are exciting to fight, that move around the level and then making players actually feel bad about killing them. While future games and DLC in the BioShock franchise expanded on the idea of big armoured bosses that are sympathetic, the franchise never captured the same magic as the original Big Daddies.