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Published March 18, 2010

I can understand the appeal of wanting to return to Rapture. Well, maybe not an actual Rapture, but the Unreal-powered, respawn-friendly Rapture pressed to so many millions of discs. The original BioShock did a lot of amazing things, but one thing it didn’t do so well is offer a satisfying resolution. After the pivotal golf club to the head, the game had trouble maintaining momentum, and I could see why fans would want a second volume of dystopian horrors. In many ways, 2K Marin’s BioShock 2 is that worthy followup, especially in the running/gunning department. Even so,  much of what made the original special – the mystery of Rapture and Andrew Ryan – has been washed away here. I’m just hoping this isn’t the start of a trend for 2010’s other big sequels, including Metroid: Other M and Portal 2.

Again, BioShock 2‘s stumbles are not for lack of trying. 2K Marin had the unenviable task of following up on Ken Levine’s monster hit, with its ambitious literary inspirations and macabre atmosphere. BioShock shouldn’t be put up on a pedestal as the perfect gaming narrative, but it did take great strides in interactive storytelling and world building. The sequel’s Lamb family drama doesn’t stack up, but I don’t think that’s the problem here. Rather, it’s the familiarity of Rapture that works against all of 2K Marin’s fine work.

In the original BioShock, the infrastructure and history of this underwater hell was left open to our interpretation. We didn’t really have a clear understanding of how Andrew Ryan came to be Rapture’s mad creator, and this never really mattered. But now we have a museum detailing the creation of your surroundings. There are numerous audio logs discussing the Little Sisters program, the creation of the Big Daddies and even little details like how the transit system was put in place. I realize that the first game incorporated some of these elements, and a more generous player might say that they’re merely “expanding” on this groundwork. But for me, I found that I was getting answers to questions I never asked.

The frequent déjà vu did not help matters. Though the look of the new areas is consistent with what we’ve seen before, they didn’t offer enough surprises throughout. The sinister splicers were apparently just hanging out in the intervening nine years. You would think that killing Atlas, the resident head honcho, would have had a more profound effect on the society. Though there were a few new baddies to battle, I think I would have preferred some of the more outlandish designs Irrational scrapped from the first game. Yeah, they’re a bit…different, but that’s entirely the point. By explaining away the mysteries rather than adding to them, the tension vanishes.

Frequent readers know that I’m a big fan of this kind of ambiguity. I was dismayed earlier this year when Mass Effect 2 felt the need to hold my hand through difficult decisions, and I’ve been championing Heavy Rain on the show recently for doing the exact opposite. I love it when a game keeps me in the dark. But as with BioShock 2, there have been a couple of aforementioned sequels that I fear might explain too much.

Portal 2 is a prime candidate. Unlike its predecessor, it’s a full-priced game, and that means that we’ll get a lot more of the Aperture laboratories. The first Portal worked in similar fashion to a good short film – light on plot, but still captivating and imaginative – but I’m not sure there is enough meat here to sustain a feature length production. I’m not sure if we’d want that, either way.

Valve has already altered the ending of the first Portal, rendering your actions to kill off GLaDOS futile and the complete experience a little less complete. (Not that big a deal, I suppose.) But no matter what surprises the writers have in store, we’re going to come in expecting a big twist. The rebellion against GLaDOS was a perfectly shocking conclusion to what initially seemed to be a big rat-in-a-maze experiment. We’ve already seen how “insane” Aperture’s A.I. can be. What more can the second game throw at us, even after a 100 year leap, that can top that?

I suppose this is where someone will jump in to tell me that we’re dealing with Valve. “Have a little faith,” you say. “Give them the benefit of the doubt!” Don’t worry, I’m not writing the game off. But I’ve seen what Nintendo, another world-class developer, has done and continues to do to Samus, another silent protagonist. I’m confident that these guys know how to make stellar games, but there’s precedent for sequelitis getting in the way.

Remember Metroid Fusion? Samus’ pining for Adam, her elevator soliloquies, her obnoxious A.I. pointing out every major item on the map – so much for the Super Metroid atmosphere. But that’s nothing compared to what Team Ninja appears to be doing with Other M. CG cutscenes with so-so voice work may have been alright for Ninja Gaiden, but Samus has always worked better behind the visor. I’m all for developers doing new things with old characters, but the character that we’ve seen so far in preview trailers bares little resemblance to the stoic bounty hunter of old.

That’s the big problem that these innovative sequels face, though – you can expand upon the novel play mechanics and concepts, but characters and stories only stretch so far. And it’s not as if BioShock 2 is some worst-case scenario. I love the plasmid swapping and multiplayer much more than I thought I would. I just want to see those creative teams working on new environments rather than trying to build on those that were pretty well-constructed to begin with. We’ve been down to Rapture twice now. I think it’s time to stick to the surface.


  1. Good article, chief.

    It really makes my heart go out to developers that are challenged with making sequels to pretty well-crafted, self-contained experiences – chances are, it’s never going to live up to the first go around.

    Of course, there’s counter-examples to this, like God of War 2. Kratos’ story could have definitely ended after he killed Ares, yet we were treated to a pretty stellar sequel. So there’s hope.

    But overall, I agree with you. One of the panels I viewed at GDC was entitled “Environmental story-telling”, a key component of which is leaving story “gaps” for the player to fill in for themselves. Allowing our imaginations to run wild a little bit just enhances our sense of wonder and accomplishment when we form our own theories without strict guidance.

    Here’s hoping to continue to get more of that, and little less “Return to Oz.”

  2. I know we’ve talked about this multiple times, but I think we’re finally at that point where lines can be blurred. Unlike you, I HATE being left in the dark. A little mystery is fine, I don’t need every question answered (and I certainly don’t need the story to be so vague that “codecs” are required to understand what’s going on). But I don’t mind being told about the history and backstory to an environment. Especially if it’s well crafted and consistant, then I have no problem following someone’s creative vision.

    As an aside, I think we’re at a point where unless the game is broken, it’s hard to really objectively say that a particular game is a “bad” game. Again, not in retaliation to anything you’ve mentioned above, but with respect to reviews and critiques we’re at a point where taste is really a major factor. So to wrap it up, I see where you’re coming from, but I respectfully disagree :).

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