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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser