A Question for the Readers #12: “…and Stay Out!!”

You don’t really review games and films on the side without amassing a sizable collection of both. As a rule, I typically keep a work around until I’ve experienced it in full. Once I have done so, I make a decision as to whether or not it’s worthy of remaining in my collection. If I decide it isn’t, that’s when I decide to place it up for sale; no need to keep total disappointment around, after all. Admittedly, I don’t have a cast-iron rule; for video games, it usually needs to get a passing grade for me to not want to sell it. I may sell old editions of a work if a compilation appears, but if I award it a passing grade, you can safely bet it’s still in my collection. Meanwhile, for films, I tend to only keep the ones I awarded (or would award) an 8/10. Every so often, however, I’ll come across a work that, for whatever reason, I just want out of my collection as soon as possible.

To be clear, this anecdote doesn’t concern instances in which I deliberately bought a stinker for the sake of bashing it. As such, you won’t see me mention films such as You’re Next or video games such as Ride to Hell: Retribution or Ninjabread Man. Instead, I’m talking about instances in which I was genuinely looking forward to experiencing a work, yet by the end, I wanted nothing more to do with it. Keep in mind that I don’t consider most of the following works bad per se; if I do, they have more redeeming qualities than the average effort on the tier in which I placed it (or would place it). Granted, the easiest way a work can accomplish this is by having a terrible ending. Despite this, I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but if you’re interested in seeing these films or playing these games, your best bet is to skip to the next subject.

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BioShock Infinite

Introduction

BioShock was released to a universally positive reception in 2007. Those who had been extolling the medium’s storytelling potential for years were particularly enthralled to see it move millions of units. It sold a many people on the idea that a game could have a cerebral plot rather than something akin to a mindless action film. There was only one logical thing for Irrational Games to do in the face of this commercial and critical success: keep the momentum going. However, director Ken Levine and the rest of Irrational Games opted against the idea of working on a direct sequel, leaving the development of BioShock 2 in the hands of Jordan Thomas, one of the original’s primary level designers, and 2K Marin. Mr. Levine, on the other hand wanted to set his sights higher by creating a BioShock game with a different setting. Thankfully for them, Take-Two Interactive allowed them complete freedom in this project.

The development of BioShock 2 was made known in 2008 before seeing its release in 2010. Unbeknownst to the public, Mr. Levine and many of the people behind the original began working on a sequel of their own, dubbed “Project Icarus”, starting in February of 2008. Only six months after the release of BioShock was the concept for this new game formed. In the cycle’s earliest stages, the team considered many different settings. Some wanted to reuse Rapture while others suggested setting it during the Renaissance period. In the end, they decided on a city named Columbia. In a stark contrast to Rapture, which rested on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, Columbia was to float in the skies above. The primary inspiration behind this setting came from The Devil in the White City, a non-fiction book written by Erik Larson in 2003. The book prominently featured the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was set in Chicago in 1893. The staff became interested in setting their game around the turn of the twentieth century and the historical events surrounding the exposition helped inspire the idea of a city in the sky.

With a setting and time period in mind, all Mr. Levine and his team now needed a theme. Rapture, the setting of BioShock and its sequel, sought to deconstruct the ideals of objectivism. They wanted to demonstrate why a society based on those principles would burn itself out quickly. Meanwhile, the World’s Columbian Exposition was considered to symbolize the concept of American exceptionalism – that is to say, the belief the United States is qualitatively different from other nations. Additionally inspired by classic films such as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the team now had a goal and would stop at nothing to see it through.

The development of this game proved to be something of an arduous process. The original game utilized a modified Unreal Engine 2.x, which was quickly deemed inadequate to support the ideas for Project Icarus. The team decided to work with Unreal Engine 3, and as a result, every single asset had to be made from scratch. As a likely consequence of this, the game ended up taking roughly five years to complete. Its official announcement in March of 2012 finally gave this project a name: BioShock Infinite. It was also given a slated release date of October 16 of that year. However, in May, the release date was pushed back to February 26, 2013. Nearing the end of the year, it was delayed again – this time to the following March – to allow the team to polish the mechanics further. After much speculation from the press and varied reactions to the promotional material, Mr. Levine proudly announced the game had gone Gold in February of 2013. It had been approved by Sony, Microsoft, and PC makers, allowing it to exist on all three platforms simultaneously. As promised, BioShock Infinite was released on March 26, 2013.

As highly regarded as BioShock was, the critical reception to BioShock Infinite achieved the impossible by surpassing it in some circles. The publications that gave it less than nine points on a ten-point scale could likely have been counted on one hand – and this hypothetical person would likely still have fingers remaining. BioShock Infinite proceeded to win the highly desired “Game of the Year” award from forty-two separate publications, including the Associated Press, CNN, and Forbes. Much like the original, critics praised its scenario, paying special attention to its striking visual design. It wasn’t just critics who were singing praises of this game, for it sold 3.7 million retail copies within two months of its release, eventually moving 11 million units overall.

With the success of BioShock Infinite, one would expect the sky to be the limit for Irrational Games. System Shock 2 flopped and was one of the causes of Looking Glass Studios’ bankruptcy only for Irrational Games to rise from the ashes and became a juggernaut among critics and fans alike. Unfortunately, such was not their fate. As a coda to this game’s success, Mr. Levine announced the dissolution of Irrational Games in February of 2014. The average AAA title of the 2010s had a budget that necessitated the company selling tens of millions of units just to break even. As a consequence, games from that era and scene rarely had a powerful, auteur voice, for any kind of experimental title could bankrupt a company instantaneously if it didn’t sell. Not only that, but because they had been working on the game for five years, the cycle took its toll on the staff. Mr. Levine himself would state in a 2016 interview that the stress of managing the development of BioShock Infinite adversely affected both his health and his personal relationships, causing him to opt out of directing an even larger sequel.  In its seventeen-year life, Irrational Games was only responsible for the development of a handful of projects. Was BioShock Infinite a particularly triumphant swansong for Irrational Games?

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BioShock

Introduction

With many alumni from Looking Glass Studios, game designer Ken Levine founded Irrational Games in 1997. Their first game was System Shock 2. Released in 1999, it was a sequel to System Shock, a first-person shooter released five years prior. Despite gaining a following, it fell by the wayside in favor of the more popular Doom. This seemed to foreshadow the fate of System Shock 2, as it had been released in the wake of Half-Life, causing it to disappear from the public consciousness rather quickly. Mr. Levine attempted to pitch a sequel to System Shock 2 to the game’s publisher, Electronic Arts, but they were ultimately rejected due to its poor sales performance. The subsequent dissolution of Looking Glass Studios in 2000 all but ensured the series’ abrupt end as the rights were acquired by Electronic Arts.

Irrational Games would go on to develop other titles such as Freedom Force, Tribes: Vengeance, and SWAT 4. Though these titles were modest successes, Mr. Levine desired to create another game similar to that of System Shock 2 – one with a free form and a strong narrative. In 2002, his team came up with a gameplay mechanic centered on three factions: drones, protectors, and harvesters. Guarded by protectors, drones would carry a desirable resource while harvesters attempted take it away from them. With a rough outline of what this hypothetical game entailed, all they needed was a setting.

The team unveiled a demonstration in 2002 built on the second Unreal Engine for the Xbox. This demo was set on a space station overtaken by genetically altered monsters. The protagonist was named Carlos Cuello, who worked as a cult deprogrammer – that is, someone charged with rescuing people from a cult, readjusting them to a normal life. They could be hired for much more nefarious purposes as well. As an example Mr. Levine gave, parents could use their services to deprogram their daughter who was in a lesbian relationship. The narrative was also intended to be political in nature with the main character having been hired by a senator. Unfortunately, the team ran into a twofold problem with this concept. They collectively agreed it was not what they set out to make and were having difficulties finding a publisher. They considered scrapping the project, but once their efforts to make a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 began appearing in various gaming publications, they decided to go forward and fully revamp the concept.

In a stroke of good fortune, 2K Games, a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive, offered to publish the game based on the core drone/protector/harvester concept in 2004. Even better, the team was allowed freedom to develop both the story and the setting. Both had changed considerably since the project’s inception. By the time Mr. Levine and his team found a willing publisher, they contemplated setting the game in an abandoned World War II-era Nazi laboratory unearthed by twenty-first century scientists. The experiments then formed the ecosystem centered on the three aforementioned factions. Many elements from System Shock 2 found their way into this project including psychic powers, a character relaying important information to the protagonist over a radio, and story elements delivered through scattered audio recordings.

Internal strife and communication problems brought about due to the team expanding from six to sixty people wound up making for a somewhat troubled production. To make matters worse, the environments they came up with were considered bland. Fortunately, these issues were resolved when the team’s artists realized the true importance of coming up with visions to meet the goals of the level designers.

This wasn’t the end of the team’s production woes, however. According to level designer Jean Paul LeBreton, Mr. Levine was distrustful of the more egotistical new hires. He often got into arguments with them to enforce his vision. Moreover, the executives of 2K Games were concerned with the project’s growing budget. As the mid-2000s saw an increase in popularity for the first-person shooter genre thanks to Halo and Call of Duty, they requested that Mr. Levine market the game in a way so as to compete directly with those franchises. This meant having to shift away from the first-person shooter/role-playing hybrid they set out to create in favor of placing more of an emphasis on the former half of that equation. As the targeted release date drew near, Mr. Levine ordered the team into round-the-clock development, only exacerbating the strife among themselves. Thankfully, 2K Games granted Mr. Levine’s team an extra three months, allowing them to fix programming errors that were otherwise difficult to catch.

January of 2007 marked a crucial moment for playtesting. Damningly, the feedback they received from players was mostly negative, as they believed the game to be too dark to see, causing them to get lost. They couldn’t even trust the man on the other side of the protagonist’s radio feed, describing him as a “lecherous Colonel Sanders”. Taking these criticisms to heart, the team addressed the problems. In a second late-stage playtesting session with the game being described as being ninety-nine percent complete, the feedback was still negative with the audience feeling no connection to the protagonist. The next day, Mr. Levine and his team decided to add an introductory cutscene to the game. He originally opted not to include any cutscenes, feeling ideologically opposed to them, but he and his team felt it was a good, quick way to respond to the criticism.

At long last, the game was released in August of 2007 under the name BioShock. While System Shock and its sequel wallowed away in obscurity for the longest time before receiving retroactive vindication, BioShock was a commercial success upon release. The Xbox 360 version sold nearly 500,000 copies. Meanwhile, critics adored the game, believing it to be a significant step forward in storytelling for the medium. On the subject of the best years in gaming, 2007 is popular choice with the release of BioShock being a common reason to cite for holding such a belief. Despite all of this, the game’s hellish production cycle ended up causing many members of the team to leave Irrational Games to pursue other projects once it was finished. Whenever one wished to extol the medium’s artistic qualities, BioShock was quick to be mentioned. Does it stand to this day as one of the medium’s greatest story-driven experiences?

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Start Strong, End Strong

Pictured - A better ending than that of The Last of Us

Introduction

Regardless of the medium, a bad ending is one of the worst flaws a work can have. It’s one of the few mistakes that the author cannot recover from without resorting to sequels and extensive retconning. I am, and always have been, a stickler for endings. Indeed, I’ve made it a rule when critiquing that any work with a lackluster ending is not worthy of being deemed a classic and the highest score it could ever hope to get is a 6/10, which roughly translates to a B- in my book. While discussing the nature of story progression with my fellow games enthusiast, Aether, he perfectly illustrated why I insist on holding this belief.

“A weak ending is one of the few things that can retroactively lower the quality of a story, turning sour all the good memories of what you’ve been reading, watching, or playing.”

–Aether

This is especially crucial for video games; you want to reward your audience for overcoming a challenge and having the tenacity to see your work through to the end. Depriving them of a good ending is one of the worst insults any development team can dish out. In all of the games I’ve played over the years, three stand out as having endings so bad, the good memories I had of them were almost completely erased. They should be studied by writers as what to avoid when crafting and structuring their stories. In order to demonstrate my points, I will have to resort to spoilers, so if you are at all interested in playing the following games, feel free to skip those sections. Don’t worry though, should I mention other games in the following sections, I will be sure to include spoiler tags if needed.

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System Shock 2

System Shock 2 - Box

Introduction

System Shock 2 is a PC game originally released in 1999. It was co-developed by Looking Glass Studios and Irrational Games. The former company would fold less than a year after this game’s release. Fortunately, the latter company remained intact and would go on to develop the BioShock series with many key developers of System Shock 2… and then that company would fold less than a year after the release of BioShock: Infinite and fifteen years after their original collaboration with Looking Glass Studios. Despite not initially making a significant impact in the public eye, System Shock 2 is now touted as one of the most original and scariest games of all time. It’s an impressive pedigree considering that this was only three years after Super Mario 64 was released, a commonly-cited benchmark in the medium’s history due to its pioneering three-dimensional environments and gameplay.

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