Posted by thatpinguino (2127 posts) -

Spoiler Warning!! I am going to discuss the end of Bioshock Infinite in this post so steer clear if you don't want it spoiled.

A man is trapped in an endless cycle, running through seemingly infinite dimensions-- all the same yet different, all variations on the same unifying theme—without a clear end in sight… now am I talking about the protagonist of Bioshock Infinite or its creator? Ken Levine recently stepped away from Irrational Games and the Bioshock franchise after 17 years with the company and almost a decade on the franchise. Levine’s departure either precipitated or necessitated the dissolution of Irrational Games, and perhaps the Bioshock franchise as well. I have read plenty of negative sentiments on the internet towards Levine’s decision: why leave a large successful team? Why leave a franchise you spent so long building? How could you uproot so many developers for your own freedom? I don’t know exactly what happened to close Irrational Games and I don’t know exactly what drove Levine to leave, but I think that Levine’s decision makes some sense when framed against the ending of Bioshock Infinite, his last game at Irrational.

Both Bioshock games are joined in both narrative beats and meta-narrative significance.

Infinite is a game with many faces; it is, at first glance, about a megalomaniac creating the most extreme example of an American “city on the hill.” Columbia is a microcosm and exaggeration of turn of the 20th century American politics and conflicts: racial strife and labor unrest simmers in Columbia’s backrooms and boilers while wealthy whites live in a self-righteous, Christian paradise. The original Bioshock (the last game in the series made by Irrational) was also, on the surface, a game about extremist ideologies and the people who extol them. Rapture was a flawed objectivist city under the sea created by the eccentric genius Andrew Ryan and brought down by its own excess and fundamental hypocrisies. Yet, the original Bioshock also had a meta-commentary about the nature of modern game playing. Through Andrew Ryan, Ken Levine and the developers of Bioshock were able to foreground how little agency modern videogames afford their players; in the words of Ryan, “A man chooses. A slave obeys.” I think that Infinite contains a similar meta-narrative; however, in this case I think Infinite is enumerating the issues with modern sequel driven game development, rather than linear game design.

One of those lighthouses might have been the next entry in the Bioshock franchise. Who knows?

One of the central themes of Bioshock Infinite is the never ending cycle: multiple universes with infinite slight variations, but whose beginning and end are fixed in place. The game’s ending goes to great lengths to show the infinite possibilities that Infinite’s story could have taken, yet there are three constants: “there is always a lighthouse. There is always a man. There is always a city.” In this one statement Elizabeth both connects Infinite with its predecessor and enumerates exactly what makes a Bioshock game a Bioshock game. There are infinite ways that these three conditions can be met and there are infinite lighthouses, men, and cities that could be created as the next entry in the series. So long as there is demand for more games, the cycles can theoretically continue forever with a new lighthouse, a new man, and a new city. In the modern sequel driven game industry, development studios can find themselves locked into their own cycles, making slight changes and iterating and iterating, always getting somewhere different, but never getting anywhere truly new. In Infinite, the only way to end the cycle is for Booker to end himself before the cycle can begin in the first place, and I think that Ken Levine’s choice to leave Irrational represents a similar form of escape.

In Levine’s farewell post he wrote, “Seventeen years is a long time to do any job, even the best one. And working with the incredible team at Irrational Games is indeed the best job I’ve ever had. While I’m deeply proud of what we’ve accomplished together, my passion has turned to making a different kind of game than we’ve done before. To meet the challenge ahead, I need to refocus my energy on a smaller team with a flatter structure and a more direct relationship with gamers. In many ways, it will be a return to how we started: a small team making games for the core gaming audience.” I think that in this move Levine is mimicking his latest protagonist; he is escaping the Bioshock development cycle by leaving the studio. He is leaving behind the known and venturing on to a new project with new goals. As a result, a studio that many people love is shuttering; Irrational closing is the end of one of the premier studios in game development and one of the strongest voices in the industry when it comes to narrative. However, I hope that Irrational’s ending also mirrors Infinite’s ending in that it opens up some new, potentially brighter future. The world of Infinite without Booker Dewitt/ Comstock might not be as exciting or grandiose, but at least it opens up the possibility of something new.

#1 Edited by Legend (2697 posts) -

I think Ken Levine realized that it would take him many years to make another AAA title that can top Bioshock Infinite, and he may or may not even succeed at doing that. This might be why he decided to move to a smaller development studio to work on small downloadable games.

#2 Edited by thatpinguino (2127 posts) -

@legend: I'm pretty sure that a combination of the time it would take to make and the form a triple A game must take forced Levine's hand. I mean he has been riding the same car for 17 years and sometimes people just need change.

#3 Posted by lethalsilicong5 (4 posts) -

Wow, I didn't realize that Irrational closed after Levine left. Guess he really did stop his own loop. His last two games both had an underlying meta theme about the player and the industry. Do you think he'll continue this trend on his next game? I wonder what it would be.

#4 Edited by gordian-blot (9 posts) -

I feel like the design of infinite was an acknowledgement from IG that there's more to a Bioshock game than a man, a city, and a lighthouse. There is also a set of mechanics. Magic powers felt pretty essential to the story in Rapture, but they felt like an obligatory concession in Infinite where they had no story justification. They were just there because gamers expect to shoot elemental matter out of our hands in a Bioshock game. More broadly, gamers expect first person shooting. The story may only need the first three things, but Bioshock was seemingly backed into some additional genre needs.

It's kinda sad because my favorite parts of Infinite were when you were just walking through the environments like in the beginning and ending. I suspect a Bioshock closer to that from the entire IG studio couldn't be justified without hours and hours of shooting. For that matter, I wonder how many more Bioshock games were interesting to Take 2 while being spaced out 3 years (that's including 2K's sequel).

It just makes me wonder whether it really came down to Levine choosing between hammering out endless sequels with IG and dispersing IG to make new games with fewer people. I doubt we'll ever really hear about that decision though.

#5 Posted by thatpinguino (2127 posts) -

@gordian-blot: So long as the games kept selling well and pulling in critical praise I'm sure Take Two could justify churning out Bioshock games. I'm not o sure that the choice was necessarily hammering out Bioshock games, as much as it was churning out big-budget games that are all encompassing and broad enough to justify an entire 200 person studio. Based on the current triple A output from publishers I don't think the industry is willing to invest tons of money into a game that is not firmly rooted in an established genre, and from what Levine said in his post it looks like he wants to get a little experimental. I wish Infinite played up its quiet moments a bit more, but I understand why it had to be made the way it was from a combat perspective.

@lethalsilicong5: I think that his next game, based on what he said in his post on leaving, is going to be focused on creating more replayable narratives.

#6 Edited by gordian-blot (9 posts) -

@thatpinguino: I guess we'll never know, but I got the feeling that IG was always going to be making Bioshock games. It just seemed like a given that Levine directed games were going to have some changes over the course of development and it takes a lot of time and money in a big studio to change directions. Expensive games need big sales and that's even more true for expensive games that take a long time to make (potential returns, blah blah blah). I just have my doubts that Take 2 would have wanted the added risk of bucking a popular name like Bioshock. Or if they were okay with it, they were definitely going to make some changes if that risk didn't pay off.

If you're saying that Infinite had to be as combat heavy as it was for financial reasons, I more or less agree. It's just a little disappointing creatively and it goes against the elegance of "a man, a city, and a lighthouse."

#7 Edited by thatpinguino (2127 posts) -

@gordian-blot: If Take 2 is ditching the Bioshock franchise name AND the monetary investment it requires, then perhaps this move will be better financially in the long term. It takes one multi-million dollar flop to damage a company and one single-million dollar hit to save one. With that said, I bet that Bioshock doesn't die with Irrational, but instead gets moved to a fresh team with a fresh approach. That franchise means too much to too many people to leave it idling.