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The Sequel Effect: Part II, Bioshock and the Artform of Gaming.
Posted on Saturday, October 18 2008 @ 00:49:18 PST

Today I heard some news that I didn’t find surprising but at the same time was adamantly against. The sequel to the hit game Bioshock was revealed as a cutscene extra on the Playstation 3 version of the game. Yes, a sequel to a game that is the perfect storm of gaming, excellent story, sharp graphical design that really is considered art, and fun gameplay mechanics with few bugs; it is easily one of the greatest games ever made.

But a sequel? I know video games are essentially a commercial art, but I find it odd and somewhat underhanded to craft a sequel to a game that had a definitive end to it. Granted, the bad ending to the game is somewhat interpretational to a continuation of the story, but that is a stretch.

But this article is not about Bioshock; it’s rather what Bioshock represents to most gamers out there; an art form that is trying desperately to reach a plateau of acceptance. Games like Bioshock are a new crop of games that are pushing the boundaries of what can be done with the entire medium, and with some care and time, the medium can rapidly achieve the success that many wish it to, instead of being added onto the crumbling apex that sequels seem to do.

Firstly, Bioshock was a gorgeous game not only in terms of graphical detail, but also in terms of art design. It is rare that a game can feature great artistic measure and diversity for every level in the game. One of the levels in Bioshock has you running through a farmers market, lush with green trees and colorful wooden signs signaling the sale of various produce items, intermixed with a steampunk art deco design that towers throughout the fictional world known as Rapture.

Bioshock is not alone in the visual merits of an art form. Recent games like the downloadable Braid on X-box live, Dead Space, even older games such as Okami and Legend of Zelda, Wind Waker, showcase a degree of artistic measure and detail that can be varied and appreciated by gamers of all temperaments. Each of them has excellent level designs, vibrant environments, and a sense of wow, be it in space, along the ocean, or even under it.

The second ingredient to the tour de force was the story script. Bioshock was a game that had a thoughtful, well planned out storyline that question the very morals of the player himself. The good/evil concept has been used to death, but Bioshock was able to implement it in a way that made it almost invisible, intermixed with clever plot twists and strong dialogue choices. Few games can claim this prize; even the most revered franchises, such as Zelda, Mario, and Halo, have stories that are at best paper thin or painfully obvious. Heck, the games enemies had character, and that is something sorely lacking in most games today.

Lastly, the gameplay mechanics were polished and varied enough to keep the interest of the target audience. Great scare sequences within the game, smart gameplay using both the weapons and plasmid powers in conjunction with your current environment were well placed and thoroughly thought out.

While this ever-glowing praise is almost a rehash of what I felt about the game when I made a user review, the point is that each of these aspects can be seen as a form of art. Most gamers see all three together as a whole package, while a more casual crowd would focus on the main aspect to them, be it gameplay, graphics, or storyline, and make their claims there. What is important is to not lose sight of all three aspects, and any aspects in between, be it the voice over cast, the mini-games, or the graphical prowess. The possibilities for games to explore complex themes like Bioshock did are both endless and somewhat daunting.

Which brings me to my very problem with a sequel for a game like this. While I don’t discourage all sequels made for a game, it is important to first understand that some games don’t need a sequel. A game like Killer 7, for example, needs no second game to elaborate the features or the storyline, whereas a game like Gears of War is perfect ground to make sequels in, because they can continue the adventures of the main characters thanks to the environment created in it. Because of the designs Bioshock went with, a sequel would only mean two things in my mind, the pandering to the fanbase, and the chance to make more profit.

Most game franchises make billions of dollars from sequels after sequels of the same core game design. The EA sports games are the best example, since 2001 the game has been pretty much the same, with minor tweaks in the gameplay such as adding a new mode, updating rosters, or creating some arbitrary feature few people will likely not use. Legend of Zelda as well over the years has had minor changes to the core design, find a quest, go to a dungeon, get a special weapon, and use the weapon to solve puzzles and kill the boss.

While tired and true, sequels sell, and most sequels are designed not for the artistic merits of the franchise established, but for the chance to make more revenue for the corporations and developers of the game. There is a reason that Mario Party has 8 incarnations, or that talks of Halo 4 are abound right now. The games may have been good in their first incarnation, but the experience has slowly eroded into a former shell of itself, and it is self-evident. Halo 3 was one of the most hyped games of last year, and while a decent game, the hype was unjustifiable. The game is good, but not that good, and it’s clear to many gamers that the charm of Halo is losing it’s luster, meaning the game has almost ran it’s course.

Call me selfish, but I don’t want to see Bioshock fall into that category. Maybe a sequel will be a good thing, and this entire rant is all for naught. Maybe I am making a mountain out of a molehill, a non-issue to a bigger problem. But I do question what the commercial success of Bioshock will do for it’s own future. Firstly, the creators of Bioshock do not want to make a new game, saying that it is a standalone game for them. In fact, the only reason a sequel is in the works or even exists is Take-Two’s doing, with their chairman Strauss Zelnick coaxing 2k Marin, an offshoot of 2k Boston (the original development team for Bioshock) to make the sequel.

The game is a perfect example of what games can do as an art form, and while a sequel may continue this perfect example for the better, it has been a trend in the industry thus far to rehash older material in a shiny wrapper and pass it off for the sole purpose of commercial gain. The jury is obviously still out as to how Bioshock 2: Sea of Dreams will be; a continuation of a great artistic achievement is likely, and if it does happen I will be the first to say I was wrong, but I can't help but feel wary of a sequel to a game that really does not need one to continue, fix or change the gameplay mechanics or the storyline that was penned for it. Be that as it may, the sequel effect takes charge again, and like the Sword of Damocles, hangs upon a threshold that can lead to either the benefit or hindrance of the very argument that is represents.

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