I’m a huge fan of the BioShock franchise, and have been glued to the saga from the moment I first played the original, back in 2010. BioShock actually came with my Xbox 360, in 2009, and admittedly (also, ashamedly) I knew nothing about it…so I sold it on the spot, without ever playing it. It wasn’t until the following summer that I gave the demo a go, and the moment I’d finished it, I was downloading the full title.
Since then, I’ve become somewhat obsessive. I’ve played all of the games to death, read the novel, scheduled a Big Daddy tattoo for my left calf (Rosie, if you’re interested), invested hours of my life into reading the work of Ayn Rand, in particular Atlas Shrugged, a senior inspiration in the founding fabric of BioShock and the concept of Rapture. I’ve even traveled thousands of miles to stay at the Biltmore Hotel and drink in the Engine Room of the Edison in Downtown LA; simply to immerse myself in the closest, real to life, art-deco/diesel-punk experience that could in some way hold semblance to life in a pre-crisis Rapture on Earth. The entire franchise had me wrapt, like it had many, and will forever hold itself in my rogues gallery of games that have struck me, and disturbed me to my core.
That said, I think we, the fans, have some significant responsibility in the recent demise of Irrational Games and BioShock as we know it.
I remember playing through BioShock, and the excitement that followed. I remember when the official Xbox webizine, SentUaMessage featured preliminary footage of BioShock Infinite, complete with Vigor descriptions and even props. I promptly cracked my knuckles and prepared for the most avid PR hunt I’ve ever embarked on.
Not a scrap of footage, not a screen-shot, not a single interview slipped, unseen, through my grasp. I remember Ken Levine proudly showing off Columbia, describing Tears for the first time, explaining the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth and how their roles would affect the very way in which the new, uncharted territories of Infinite would play out. Then, I remember seeing the follow-up interviews, and the looks of sheer confusion, disappointment and alarm on Levine’s face as the questions poured in; he had lovingly crafted an entire new lovechild in Columbia, and, time after time, the journalists and fans kept asking the same questions:
What’s happened to Rapture?
How does Rapture fit into the new game?
Will we be seeing more of Rapture in BioShock Infinite?
Have you given up on Rapture, Ken?
Granted, Rapture was very much a feature character in the first two BioShock Games, as much as the Little Sisters and Andrew Ryan himself, but Ken had created a brand-new character, inspired by the fan reactions towards Rapture, and was keen to show the world what it had to offer.
With the original BioShock, Ken Levine and Irrational Games created an intelligent videogame. It provoked questions and learning, philosophy and debate; springing forth gamers, who not only enjoyed the game, but lived it, and continued to live it long after the game had finished; in discussions of morality, art, creative freedom and the concept of a true, limitless, industrial revolution. Levine created the game, probably feeling alone with his thoughts, and in needing of a canvas to express them. What he found with BioShock, was that he infact was in the center of a harmony of like-minded people, and he’d inadvertently created a collective of keen, equally inspiring fans. Cosplays and fan-fictions roared across the internet. Artwork, concepts and speculation ran amok within every cobwebbed corner of the gaming community and a true, cult game was born.
Irrational Games surely had big plans for BioShock, but nothing quite like the movement that followed. Out of nowhere, adolescent gamers, were enjoying the sounds of The Ink Spots, discussing the objectivist movement and libertarianism, and learning the grotesque truth about early, wartime, experimental plastic surgery; minds had opened.
Overwhelmed by all of this, Levine would have been inspired to the core and ignited with ideas to create his next big endeavor, and a new BioShock was imminent. In the same way that Dagny Taggart named her John Galt Line; as a way of promising the unobtainable, Levine named his new fable, Infinite. In naming it Infinite, he was promising his fans the world, and he had every intention of delivering it. It was to be a statement, to the fans, of, “Okay, you got BioShock, now, try this.”
His previous success and the community behind it both inspired him and alleviated any inhibitions that tied down the original. Infinite was to be bigger, more complex and more personally demanding; pushing the player’s decision making and morality in a way that a videogame had never managed. The sky was literally the limit, and Columbia was a testament to that, towering leagues above it’s predecessor, in ambition and in altitude.
After months and months of work, Ken and the team presented their master work, complete with gameplay footage and a battery of concepts, and, you know the rest. Instead of being embraced with enthusiasm, the communities faces twisted…where was Rapture?
Levine, at no point, considered that fans of BioShock would doubt, or even resind him for trying something new. In the minds of Irrational Games; visiting the same territory over and over again would be the most damning thing, not pushing the game forward!
Ken Levine learned a harsh truth that day; that his perception of the BioShock nation had overshot. As much as players willfully bathed in the new with BioShock, they were still slaves to the familiar, and weren’t ready to let Rapture go. Even though Rapture presented an aggressive, unnerving and inhospitable environment, gamers were afraid to take the leap, and fly from its thorned and twisted nest.
Stunned, unsure of what to do, and with the floor crumbling away beneath their feet, Irrational Games faltered, and returned to the drawing board. Ken Levine, BioShock Infinite and the entire Irrational Games family retreated into the shadows. Milestones were pushed back, previews were delayed and, for months, nothing else was said. Just as fans began losing hope, a new Infinite, and a very tired looking, seemingly disappointed Levine emerged.
In many ways, it was the same game, but somehow, even in early footage, it felt more nostalgic, more linear and more like the Rapture-bound original. Homages and references were already appearing, and, incidentally, due to the huge leave of absence, interests were at an all-time high.
Spurred on by their new lease of life and final acceptance from the fans, Irrational Games powered through with their adjusted, compromised Infinite, and on March 26th 2013 it was released into the wild.
BioShock Infinite was, and still is, incredible. Accruing widespread popularity and critical acclaim, the game has achieved almost a year, so far, in the upper echelons of modern gaming; awards galore. It is, however, unmistakably different from the originally proposed Infinite. After playing the game through entirely and comparing it with the original gameplay trailers, you can feel a sea change in tone.
BioShock Infinite is, without a doubt, a magnificent game, and a game to be proud of, but I think that Levine may have been disappointed; both for compromising on his ambition and in his discovery of the resonating needs and demands of his fans. Like the inhabitants of Rapture, Levine doctored and spliced his creation, with the best intentions (and in the image he perceived in the expectations of his fans), but in reality, he was creating, what would always be to him, a monster.
I feel that despite the beauty of the game, Levine saw the deranged splicer that shouldn’t have been toyed with underneath its shell. Even though we didn’t see it, and fearing a second Rapture uprising, he stepped into his Bathysphere, leaving BioShock deep beneath the ocean, to fend for itself.
Afraid to fall into the pattern of so many other developers; of succumbing to a crowd-pleasing formula, whilst never pleasing yourself, or trying anything new, Levine and Irrational had to step away, for the sake of their own reputation as leading developers. Their own “Rapture” was lost, and they could only hope to leave unscathed and try again elsewhere.
I can only wonder if things would have been the same, had fans been more trusting, more faithful and more positive when Infinite first emerged. Would we still be looking at only two, roughly circular, Levine titles?
Sadly, that answer is beyond another Tear.