The surreally outdated diving suits. The massive metal helmets that seem too heavy for any normal human being to wear without snapping his neck. The glowing mechanical eyes that switch from yellow to red, indicating an even scarier switch on the inside, from a temperament of indifference to one of homicidal rage. The crushing footsteps and echoing moans. The drill.
Big Daddies were instantly iconic monsters even before we first played BioShock – the early concept art alone was enough to disturb our dreams – but they were still only that. Monsters. We feared them. We maybe felt a little sorry for them. Until BioShock 2, though, we didn’t understand them.
Darth Vader should serve as a warning: The more you know about a villain, the less frightening and interesting he becomes. Somewhat miraculously, however, the opposite is true of Big Daddies in BioShock 2. Discovering exactly how these pitiful creatures are created, trained and bonded to the Little Sisters, as well as what kind of undeserving people are chosen for transformation – prisoners, political dissidents, whistleblowers – intensifies the terror and tragedy you experience when killing them.
These aren’t monsters. That Big Daddy is Mark Meltzer, a devoted father who traveled to Rapture in search of his kidnapped daughter, only to be captured himself and offered a choice: die now, or live forever as a mindless slave bonded to your corpse-harvesting child. That Big Daddy over there is Augustus Sinclair, a former friendly guide who fights the genetic brainwashing long enough to help you one last time, then begs you to put him out of his misery. And that Big Daddy in the water’s reflection? The Big Daddy who, despite years of mutation and mutilation, possesses the free will and moral code to take down Rapture’s new tyrant? That’s you.
Marcus is the gruff one. Baird is the cocky one. Cole is the black one. And Dom is the nice one. That’s about as deep as character development goes in 2006’s Gears of War – a couple of unique details for each macho meathead to guarantee that players can tell their identically, freakishly bulging bodies apart. We do hear a lot about how Dom has a wife and how Dom is searching for said wife, but apparently the quest is never urgent enough for him to abandon his military duty or stop following Marcus around. After all, Dom is just a sidekick.
What do you remember most about the story in Gears of War 2? What scene stands out the clearest in your mind? For us, the answer is obvious, and has nothing to do with Lightmass bombs or Riftworm assholes – it’s the long, quiet and heartbreaking moment when Dom finally finds Maria. Her condition and his reaction to her condition are a shock, but what’s equally surprising is that the game tosses Marcus Fenix aside in order to focus on them. Dom and Maria are the clear heart of this sequel’s narrative, the charged emotional core that sets Gears apart from other shooter franchises. At one point, the protagonist is even following the sidekick through missions.
Perhaps Marcus will regain narrative dominance while searching for his father or vaguely romancing Anya in Gears of War 3. Then again, have you seen Dom’s epic mega-beard? We know who we’re picking in co-op.
Muppet. Fucking New Guy. Bravo Six. Soap. How else are we supposed to describe Sergeant John MacTavish in Modern Warfare, when he’s nothing more than a pair of weapon-wielding hands for the player to control? All that really defines our protagonist are the reactions (or nicknames) he inspires in other characters like Captain Price. And if gaming’s greatest mustache views Soap as a reliable rookie – but a rookie, nonetheless – then so do we.
What a difference five years can make! By the time Modern Warfare 2 begins, Soap basically is Captain Price. He’s risen to the same rank. He leads an equally secretive and selective team, to whom he assigns equally random call signs like “Roach.” He even has a signature hairdo, trading the traditional mustache and muttonchops for a fashion-forward mohawk. The developers definitely want you to draw this comparison, too… just like Price, Soap smokes before your first mission together, and just like Price, Soap saves you from a lethal plummet before that mission is complete.
Filling the void left by Captain Price’s assumed death in Modern Warfare 1 would have been cool enough, easily worthy of inclusion on this list, but then Captain Price returned and we got two Captain Prices in a single game. Bliss.