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Bioshock’s Brilliant Big Daddies

I first played Bioshock when it released and then never replayed it until recently. I just picked up the remastered collection and am nearing the end of game one. So much of the game feels fresh and new to me. I remembered a few key cinematic moments and my frustrations with the hacking, and so many of my Big Daddy fights. It is the Big Daddy's presence that I want to visit in this post. I think the Big Daddy and Little Sister duo is one of he most interesting, engaging, and brilliant pieces of game design. I want to share my thoughts and I'm interested if I can find a similar feature in other games.

Three elements make up their brilliance – Presence, Threat, Reward.

I would wager that anyone who has played Bioshock for a significant length of time knows the sound of those diver's boots slamming to Rapture's floor. The thud, thud, thud letting you know that a Big Daddy is near. Then the small voice of the Little Sister. Then the moment you realize they are coming down the narrow stairway you are trying to go up. So you turn and make way. You aren't ready.

Or you remember the sound of those thuds in quick succession as those blazing red lights emanate from the Big Daddy's helmet.

Big Daddy's have presence. Their look and sound is wholly their own and when you are low on supplies it is terrifying. This is only reinforced by the deference you can show them to have them leave you alone.

I think a key to their presence is that they are not hostile on sight. So much of Rapture wants to kill you just to see you dead, but not this lumbering, hulking, terror of the deep. As long as you give him space he'll leave you alone. It isn't stealth that matters, but deference and that conscious choice to be deferential shapes so much of their in-game presence.

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This deference stretches beyond exploration and into combat, which makes it all the more interesting. Maybe you've experiences that moment that you pee a little because you realize there was a Big Daddy in the same pool of water as that Splicer that you just electrocuted or that a Big Daddy just turned the corner into your machine gun fire. Turning a Big Daddy hostile during a fight is a force to be reckoned with. In my current play-through I nearly died because I left a trap bolt hanging in a corridor and when I returned from a hard fight with low supplies I stepped into the open only to have a Rosie shooting at me. I forgot to clean up after myself.

The constant threat of these lumbering mini-bosses adds an intensity to the game without it necessarily becoming annoying. I hate being rushed by sentry bots flying all over and making a racket, but I don't feel that way about the Big Daddy. I didn't play by his rules so now I'm in trouble.

I'm in trouble because without proper preparation, a Big Daddy fight can burn through hard earned supplies in no time at all. Whether it is getting slapped around by a Bouncer's drill or retreating backwards over a Rosie's proximity mine, these monstrosities are hard to just throw down with on a whim. They fight differently than Splicers and Turrets. They have a ton of health. They have powers to slow you down and they are uncannily accurate. Sure, an experienced player can set up their go to strategy for how to bring one down, but every strategy I've seen is an investment, which makes these fights meaningful.

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Finally, the reward. There are a few rewards for dropping a Big Daddy. The strongest game play reason is the Adam. After slugging it out with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea you get to make one of the few player choices in the Bioshock and you secure some delicious Adam. Savior or slayer this reward is a huge part of fighting Big Daddies. The smaller in-game reward is the loot from the Big Daddy, which often isn't worth the resources invested in the fight.

I would venture there is one more reward we seek. I enjoy everything about Big Daddy fights. I like the setup. I like the feeling of, "Well, its now or never because the Little Sister might climb back in the wall." Or conversely, the tense realization that a roaming Splicer is about to take down your trap bolts and ruin all your setup. I like the frenetic few moments of battle where you are either watching the plan unfold perfectly or doing your best to adapt on the fly. I love that the chaos of it doesn't have the twitchy panic feel of fighting a relentless horde of splicers dropping our of holes in the roof, but is the duel between two powerhouses that sized each other up first. And I love the calm that settles when the fight is won. The meticulous reloading and evaluating how many resources were used.

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Most of all I love that I chose the fight. When the game has this theme of obedience vs choice, I love that I chose the Boss fight. I chose to throw down and put it all on the line. I chose and I won. Looking at that fallen frightening nautical menace that is all presence and threat, I feel like I have actually achieved what Rapture was supposed to be. I chose to face it, I brought it down, and with that, I brought freedom to the Little Sister.

Without Big Daddies and Little Sisters, Bioshock would not be nearly as good as it is.


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