This is a drastic statement, and I acknowledge that I am undertaking a dubious endeavor: criticizing a game that has not yet been released is a great way to look foolish. I only know what the previews reveal, so perhaps my fears will ultimately be unfounded. I sincerely hope this is the case. For now, BioShock Infinite represents video game culture’s tiresome devotion to the “franchise” at the expense of logic or artistic elegance.
What is a “BioShock?”
I’ve never liked the title “BioShock” because it always seemed to be an oversimplification of the game’s ambitions. An apparent nod to its spiritual (yet narratively unrelated) predecessors, System Shock and System Shock 2, BioShock carries the connotations of those sci-fi/cyber punk themes even though they do little to serve its fiction. BioShock’s treatment of biology and genetics is about as sophisticated as X-Men’s explanation of mutant powers. Push slightly on the concepts behind ADAM, EVE, or the plausibility of an undersea city, and you risk toppling the entire story. Whereas “Shock” was once a pleasing piece of alliteration that conjured up images of computer networks and hacking, its appearance in BioShock is a non sequitur. Either it is a holdover from old, largely unrelated games or it is a painfully literal allusion to the many “shocking” twists in the story. Either way, “BioShock” does little to represent the game’s strengths.
BioShock tells a millenarian story of the Objectivist rapture gone awry: instead of ascending to heaven, the most promising members of society followed their modern messiah, Andrew Ryan, to the depths of the ocean. What was supposed to be a utopia was instead rendered a hell by their avarice and indifference to anyone’s wishes but their own. It is a game about the End of Days played out in a confined area. The player acts as a divine, shotgun-wielding judge who metes out punishment for the wicked and salvation for the innocent. The city itself is a character and a metaphor for the events of the game. Experiencing it is at once glorious and terrifying. How better to describe it, and what better to name it, than “Rapture?”
If the previews are to be believed and if history is any indication, BioShock Infinite will be a game about large, complex, and serious ideas. Why not give it a name befitting of its tone?
Like Rapture before it, it looks like the floating city of Columbia will serve as both a character and metaphor for the game’s message. Columbia is a powerful symbol that represents both the optimistic ideals and historical sins of America. It embodies the triumphal spirit of Euro-American colonialism as well as the violence and destruction inherent in that ethos. In a game about patriotism, racism, and industrialism, what could be a more fitting name than “Columbia?”
Actually, I would suggest “New Columbia.” Naming both the city and the game “New Columbia” would evoke the faith in technology, democracy, and nationalism that defined the Progressive Era. At the same time, it implies an understanding that the ideal of Columbia is marred by the devastation it has left in its wake throughout history. “New Columbia” would then be a hubristic attempt to avoid those mistakes, an attempt whose ramifications would be experienced by the player.
The Franchise Problem
Instead, we have BioShock Infinite, a title that sounds more like a Michael Bay movie than a contemplative work about the dark side of Utopianism. Unfortunately, we are probably stuck with BioShock for the foreseeable future. The reason is made clear in this interview with Ken Levine:
In amongst many other interesting comments are numerous references to the BioShock “franchise.” The critical and commercial success of BioShock has doomed its successors to names that bolster the BioShock intellectual-property. As silly as the name might be, it is now a recognized brand and can thus be utilized as a sales tactic.
Thus, BioShock joins in a long tradition of games whose titles reflect their marketing rather than their message. John Madden has retired, he is barely featured in the games anymore, and EA has a monopoly on officially licensed NFL games, yet we still have “Madden NFL” every year. Gus Mastrapa asked whether we would have had a Final Fantasy XII if every prior game had been named something different. Personally, I doubt it as the series has a habit of coasting on fond memories. It’s hard to tell if Red Dead Redemption has anything meaningful to say about the concept of redemption (Jorge and I think it might), but what is certain is that its name is meant to leverage the notoriety of its predecessor, Red Dead Revolver, despite their unrelated stories. As if the word “Batman” wasn’t enough to get people excited, the critically acclaimed Batman: Arkham Asylum has spawned Batman: Arkham City. I’m sure the marketing department rests easier when a sequel’s title takes two thirds of its words from the original game.
I have no doubt that BioShock Infinite will be an impressive game. Levine and Irrational are highly skilled artists, and their willingness to incorporate thought provoking concepts in a genre best known for bullets and gore is admirable. It is exactly this that makes me disappointed that BioShock has turned into a franchise. What started off as an unfortunately-named masterpiece that told a carefully crafted, self-contained story now seems to be turning into a series of tangentially related games held together by a marketing phrase.
With BioShock Infinite, Levine and Irrational had a chance to break away from old conventions and create a work that alludes to the past without directly referencing it. Levine goes to great lengths to explain how different BioShock Infinite will be compared to the other two BioShock games. He stresses that there “are no sacred cows” in the franchise, but in doing so, he seems to ignore the most sacred cow of all: the name “BioShock.”
The trailer shows a first-person game set in an ominous utopia. There is a mechano-man, a damsel in distress, telekinetic powers, political commentary, and philosophical undertones. How meaningful is it to get rid of a sacred and then replace it with a similar one with the same name?