To Infinite and Beyond

BioShock is a franchise still very much in its infancy. With only two titles so far, each made by a different team, the series has a long way to go to determine exactly what defines a BioShock game. But with the recent trailer of Bioshock Infinite we are starting to get a better sense of the direction which the Bioshock brand is taking. Although there is little chance that the game will be anything less than excellent considering its heritage, there is a concern even at this stage as to whether the series will back itself into a creative corner, or whether the journey to the skies will open up whole new realms of artistic freedom.

Despite it being an entertaining and engaging game, BioShock 2 was a creative misstep for the BioShock brand. It somewhat pains me to put it so bluntly considering that I enjoyed the game so much, but BioShock 2 has tarnished my image of what the BioShock brand represents. It was a sequel in the most traditional gaming sense; new enemies, new weapons, better A.I. and multiplayer, but it lacked the fresh appeal of the location which made the first game such a distinctive experience. That isn’t to say that it didn’t have its moments, and indeed the scene in which you take control of a Little Sister and are able to see the way in which they perceive the world rivaled the impact of parts of its illustrious predecessor. But such moments were few and far between in a game which took too much from the first game and provided improvements that boiled down to bullet-points on the back of the box, rather than a meaningful evolution of the brand. Instead it came across as a pale imitation in which the wonderfully eccentric characters of the first game (such as surgeon Doctor Steinman and artist Sander Cohen) were replaced by rather less interesting antagonists in the sequel. The infrequent Andrew Ryan appearances via the audio diaries proved merely a poignant reminder that the magic of the first game could not be bottled and reproduced so easily.

The real concern though is that BioShock 2 has cemented what the audience assumes to be in a BioShock game. Perhaps I am saddling Ken Levine’s team with unrealistic expectations, but for such a creative team the idea of them being burdened with the weight of assumptions about their brand is unfortunate. The iconic imagery of the Big Daddy, the simplistic moral dilemma of how to deal with the Little Sisters, the evocative period music and the satisfying one-two combination of the ice plasmid and crowbar, are all a part of how we see the BioShock universe. Infinite is a chance for them to reset our perceptions of BioShock.

The concept of the BioShock brand representing chaotic dystopias is an intriguing one. The change of location from the seabed to the sky and the period from the middle of the 20th Century to its beginning might seem facile, but in fact it provides a wealth of creative opportunities and the chance to redefine what a franchise can represent.

Franchise games are usually tied down to an established formula. Most have to try to fit into a timeline which the previous games have established, which can prove limiting. The Metal Gear Solid series has managed better than others to prevent this from stymieing the creative range of the universe, but in doing so it did require the player to make some logical leaps of faith, as well as plenty of exposition in order to form some semblance of a solid timeline. Guns of the Patriots was a masterpiece of a game and much of that was due to the sheer amount of work they put into trying to tie up the masses of loose ends the series had accumulated over its previous iterations.

Other franchise games rely on recreating the distinct feel of their predecessors. If the multiplayer in Halo or Call of Duty deviates too much from its established style, then the game leaves itself open to alienating the people who made the game such a success. The fact that map packs featuring the most popular maps of previous games in the series sell so well is a testament to the enduring appeal of the familiar.

BioShock can be different. The first game was a fascinating exploration of Objectivism, and Rapture is very much a manifestation of the mountain hideaway to which all the most creative industrialists, scientists and artists retreat to in Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlus Shrugged’. Andrew Ryan was very much an advocate of the rational self-interest reflected in Rand’s book and of the desire to free mankind from the oppressive grasp of the government. Bioshock takes this Objectivist paradise and deconstructs it to the point where the utopia degenerates into an Orwellian dystopia. BioShock can be a kind of philosophical sandbox, in which various socio-political philosophies could be examined and deconstructed in a similar vein. Not all dystopias are the same, and it would be a fascinating direction for the series to go in by presenting what can only theorised about as a living, breathing world.

BioShock Infinite seems set to explore the results of an attempt to create a society based on an extreme version of American Imperialism and Exceptionalism. In much the same way that a Randian utopia should inevitably lead to an Orwellian dystopia, American Imperialism and Exceptionalism seem to lead to a Theocratic and Nationalistic dystopia. With hints already of the desire for racial purification and the jingoistic nature of the as yet unseen rulers of the floating city ‘Columbia’, it is clear that BioShock Infinite will be deconstructing social philosophies through the protagonist, the antagonists, and the environments in much the same way the first game did.

A franchise built on exploring philosophies. This should be the ambitious pattern for the franchise to allow it to stimulate and educate the player without doing so overtly. That would be a worthy legacy for the franchise to perpetuate. Rather than new multiplayer maps, more plasmids and bigger, more badass battles, BioShock Infinite can give us what sequels rarely manage; something truly different. I sincerely hope that there won’t be a BioShock Infinite 2.

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Written by Stevie L.

Stevie Lim is a man in Japan.


  1. If this excellent article has inspired you to hunt down a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlus Shrugged… don’t. It is an irredeemably terrible piece of work, expounding an ugly and fundamentally flawed philosophy.

    Ordinarily, I’d say read it and form your own opinion. Trust me on this one, though. It’s for your own good.

  2. Stevie L. /

    I will second that. Do not read Atlus Shrugged unless you are really tired of life.

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