So I still haven't finished Bioshock. My motivation ran out somewhere around Arcadia, where I got sick of the gameplay repetition. But I recently had cause to revisit it, and I found some things to appreciate.
First, easy mode. Maybe it makes me a wimp, since the game was quite easy anyway. But maybe it just means that the game comes down more on the story side of things than the gameplay.
The second was the philosophical underpinnings. Philosophical underpinnings generally just turn me on (oooh, baby), even when a game tries and fails to get a point across. But in my first playthrough of Bioshock, I was fixating too much on the (disappointing) mechanic of saving/harvesting the Little Sisters to really analyze the game's take on Objectivism and some of the other things it does well. In short, I approve of the great job they did setting up the world and the characters to expose the triumph and eventual failure of Galt's Gulch... I mean, Rapture.
But the other thing that struck me, philosophically, is that I felt bad for killing characters. Not the Little Sisters, I frankly just viewed them as creepy. But the Big Daddies. At one point, I had cleared a level of Little Sisters without realizing it. The next time I saw a Big Daddy, I attacked and killed it. When I failed to find the girl he guarded, I realized that there was no reason to have done so. And I felt guilty!
Another time, I rescued the sole Little Sister available, then found another Big Daddy wandering the level. He would go into a room, walk over to the vent, and knock on the wall, summoning his partner - who never came, and would never come again. He kept wandering, making mournful, whale-like calls, totally without purpose. And unlike a Little Sister, who has hope of redemption, the Big Daddies can't be saved. They can only be killed, or left in their purgatory.
It reminded me, most of all, of the Colossi from Shadow of the Colossus. That game did it better (which is to be expected, since that was the entire focus of the title), but they both had this idea of frequent boss battles, against large foes who are no threat to you, but must be hunted for your quest to continue. Both the Colossi and the Big Daddies are tragic figures, behemoths brought down for little reason, and whose death ends up making the player feel complicit in something like genocide. Of course, the Big Daddies must be killed to save the Little Sisters, but on the other hand, they are the Sisters' guardians, seemingly wanting nothing more in life than to see them safely about their business.
Perhaps there's something there, too. A theme about the girls remaining safe, but trapped. A theme about needing to give up their guardian in order to truly evolve and grow. Perhaps it says something specific about parenting, and letting go of your children in order to see them reach their true potential. Perhaps it's more general, along the lines of "if you love something, set it free."
But either way, the game has something to say, and I'm sorry that I didn't take the time to appreciate it before. I feel better about all the awards it's garnering now.