Bioshock: Infinite was one of the biggest games of 2013.
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The irrational end of Irrational Games

I come here today not to bury Ken Levine but to praise Irrational Games. When they were good they were very, very good, and when they were bad they made <em>Bioshock: Infinite</em>.

So that’s it for Irrational Games. The plug is being pulled less than a year after releasing what for a lot of people was the best game of 2013, Bioshock: Infinite. Can’t lie, didn’t like it personally, but it was critical catnip and sold well. By any measure a successful game, but not enough to save the jobs of 485 of the people who made it; people who now face the search for new employment while Ken Levine plans his next project with a much smaller team of 15. So it goes.

Plenty will be said about Ken Levine, what he’s going to do next and so on and so forth. All I know is that if he was a character in one of his recent games and had chucked that many people under the bus because he thought they were getting in the way you’d probably get an achievement for ripping his face off with a set of steam-powered nose-hair clippers. On the plus side of course it is not like any of the rank and file who worked on Bioshock: Infinitecame out of the project badly. By assuming the mantle of Big Kahuna for the game Levine has, to his credit, essentially exonerated the staff for the game's flaws.

However I come here today not to bury Ken Levine but to praise Irrational Games. When they were good they were very, very good, and when they were bad they made Bioshock: Infinite. And I mean that as a compliment: if the worst game you’re ever going to make is Bioshock: Infinite you are in a much better place than most other developers.

Irrational Games made seven games between 1999 and 2013. The first and arguably the best of all of these was System Shock 2. This was an unapologetically grown up first person action RPG set on a space ship undergoing a period of technical difficulties. The game is not easy to play by modern standards, nor have the visuals aged particularly well, but it remains an absolute classic. As with other classics of the era, for example Vampire: Bloodlines or Deus Ex, the limitations of the PC as a gaming platform at the time forced the developers to be more creative, to squeeze more from systems that these days would be considered unfit to control a toaster. This manifests itself in great writing and in complex yet thoughtful mechanics; as such System Shock 2 has a detailed character building system allowing for many different ways to approach the game. It is nerdy, of course, and daunting to the uninitiated, but it is better for it. I could say more about System Shock 2, but I won’t. You should play it and find out for yourself.

Freedom Force followed System Shock 2 and this would be followed by Freedom Force vs The Third Reich. With reference to my earlier statement about Bioshock: Infinite being the weakest game in the Irrational Games locker, it would be these two which provide the competition. With the Freedom Force games Irrational made a pair of very solid squad based RPGs, based around a cast of comic book superheroes, not actual comic book heroes, but a convincingly cheesy cast of characters with a golden age of comics feel. The games feel a little stodgy, but for what they are they are great, it’s just that isometric strategy games about superheroes aren’t the sort of thing that get pulses racing like cities in the sky and beating people with wrenches. Despite this however like all of Irrational Games better efforts the Freedom Force games were both accomplished and original.

Sandwiched between the Freedom Force games is a return to the first person shooter genre, Tribes: Vengeance. This was a game which made up for what it lacked in originality, being part of an existing franchise, with speed and the addition of a grappling hook. You really can’t go wrong with a game that lets you fling yourself around a huge map like a human missile, occasionally swinging by to snatch at a flag or optimistically spray a few shots at your enemies. The pace of the Tribes series coupled to the size of the maps has always been such that you are not so much shooting at people as hoping to leave a projectile in their path at just the right instant for them to fly into it.

This brings us to the jewel in the crown of Irrational Games. Perhaps it is not as good as System Shock 2 or as popular as the Bioshock games, but SWAT 4 demands respect as being perhaps the only ever significant attempt to do for police officers what everything from Call of Duty to Arma has been doing for soldiers for years. It’s a first person shooter about being on a SWAT team and to this day it remains one of the best games in that entire genre. A few mods here and there to keep it current and it doesn’t even look too shabby. What SWAT 4 managed that no other game has been able to is achieve balance between intense action and also intense uncertainty. In most games, even fairly unforgiving tactical shooters like the original Rainbow Six, you would still be expected to kill everybody except hostages. Such games can become almost perfunctory, see a thing, does it move? If so click on its face until it stops. Repeat.

In SWAT 4 you could shout at the enemies to freeze and drop their weapons and maybe they would. You could hit them with beanbag rounds and Tasers, you could shoot the guns out of their hands if you were that good. Maybe if they were obliging enough to try to shoot you once you’d identified yourself as an officer you could kill them. Plenty of times I can remember hammering the key to shout freeze at a suspect, watching the bad guy slowly start to put his gun down, waiting for what felt like an age for him to either drop the gun or make a play as the AI weighed up his options. Every enemy taken alive felt like a hard won victory, every kill felt like a failure, because it was. Just like that, SWAT 4 changed the mind-set of its players. It sounds like a small thing but the capacity to do that, to completely change the way that a player has to approach an otherwise familiar situation through the use of mechanics, that’s great game design.

The last two games that Irrational Games produced, Bioshock and Bioshock: Infinite are without doubt their highest profile titles and most broadly popular, if their least exciting to actually play. Bioshock delivered as a rudimentary first person shooter with enough style and flair to make it stand out from the crowd, but where SWAT 4 put weight into every life or death moment, Bioshock would serve up the moral decisions in a more simplistic sense, by allowing you to kill children for a power boost, or not, for a power boost. Despite the simplistic morality the world and the characters were the real triumph of Bioshock. Where Call of Duty had shown us that the video game could be a theme park ride, Bioshock showed that it could be a theme park ride that wasn’t designed by a masturbating baboon in a combat jacket.

Bioshock: Infinite however was a mess. All manner of problems cling to it, with the story, the pacing and the way it plays. The setting just feels like more of the same but less good, the mechanics are more of the same but don’t fit into the new setting. The production values are incredible, and the game works as a corridor shooter so it’s no surprise that it was a success but from a developer that had delivered so much for so long it feels like a disappointing, though somewhat appropriate, end.

It can be said that it is better to go out with a bang than a whimper, although under the circumstances perhaps it would be better still to not go out at all when you’ve got the livelihoods of 500 employees at stake. It begs the question: just what is it going to take before games developers form a union?

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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