Phil Hartup on videogames

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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>.

Bioshock: Infinite was one of the biggest games of 2013.
Bioshock: Infinite was one of the biggest games of 2013.

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?