Friday, August 13, 2010

BioShock and the Infinite Franchise

This week, Jorge and I talked about the importance of character names. In a convenient coincidence, yesterday’s announcement of BioShock Infinite expands on this conversation about names by demonstrating the power of a game’s title. Simply put: Bioshock Infinite is a disappointing name, one that makes me worry about the game itself, the future of the series, and the medium as a whole.

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?


  1. Hey, Scott. I caught the last podcast. Good stuff from you and Jorge as always. Keep cranking them out. I'll keep listening.

    I hear you on the idea that Bioshock (and especially Bioshock: Infinite) is not a particularly good name. However, I think that I understand the reason for the retension of the name and even think that maintaining it is an even better idea given what you have said about Irrational and Levine.

    From a marketing perspective, it certainly makes sense to keep the "shock" in Bioshock: Infinite, but also from a consumer that is more interested in games that are interesting and thoughtful (like Bioshock is and was) and also fun, I also kind of want the name to reverbrate with fans. I want more Bioshocks made rather than Crackdowns. If that takes consumer awareness through branding, so be it.

    Video games might have some auteurs (like Levine, Kojima, Suda, Miyamoto, etc.), but I suspect that the vast majority of consumers don't know who made Bioshock or Metal Gear, etc. Bioshock was a critical success but also a financial success. Frankly, I want publishers to feel like they can get behind IPs that will sell (so that folks like Levine have the resources to continue to make great games), so I more than happy to see them cash in on the name if that means that the Levine can do whatever he wants. Certainly, this does put the games in some kind of "franchise" mode, but there's kind of a reason why authors of books can create new and original works, while film and games lean towards sequels and franchises. The author's name on the cover of a book can sell an "original IP," whereas films and games are so much less often associated with a specific "brand" like a director or creative directors name.

    Additionally, it seems like Bioshock: Infinite is (like Bioshock to System Shock) at least thematically related to the prior series. Utopia/distopias, probably more on power, control, and free will (if the political ideas and ideology of a place called Columbia are any indication), etc. Plus, we are looking at another isolated and fantastical city, some kind of steampunky robot that will (Big Daddy-like) serve as an important image, etc., etc. There are similar aesthetic choices. In that sense, I like the idea of tying all of these games together with a title that indicates a connection (I suspect that there will be more threads between this title and its predecessors than, say, the "connections" between games in the Final Fantasy franchise for instance.

    Finally, I totally hear what you are saying about the title New Columbia. It would be a better name, but I think it is an unfortunate reality that consumers would be confused--even thoughtful ones that are aware of Columbia's association with the Americas. If I heard of a game called Columbia or New Columbia in a vacuum, I would assume that it was either: a board game in the Eurogame tradition (a la Puerto Rico, San Juan, Cuba, etc.), an RTS, a shooter or some such concerning drug running, or a shooter about drug running in a near future ("New" Columbia). The word's contemporary associations are too greatly bound up with South America and cocaine I think to suggest anything to most folks about early twentieth century America.

    Again, I hear your distaste for the name. It is kind of silly sounding (though I like the "Infinite" portion of the logo), but it seems for the best for the sake of medium that needs to press hard for games like Bioshock, Portal, Red Dead, and the like. Sure sequels can go desperately wrong, but that's the beauty of just re-envisioning the ideas behind the "Shock" and not simply churning out Bioshock 3, 4, on to an "infinite" number of games that I really don't want to play.

  2. I think we can all agree upon "Bioshock: Infinite" being at best a weird choice of name for this particular game.

    However, I wouldn't say the Bioshock brand is inappropriate here. The very basic formula, despite the culling of so many sacred cows, is still similar enough to warrant that.
    Especially when you go into the marketing perspective, branding and naming games in certain ways makes sense, even if we as more critically minded consumers may not like that too much.

    On a side note to the whole "-shock" thing, remember Creature Shock? A weird cinematic on rails shooter that came around the same time as the original System Shock.
    Nothing to do with what later became the actual "-Shock" franchise. But weirdly similar enough.

    That said, I'm really waiting for the moment when we can have something like "From the Creators of Bioshock" on the covers / ad posters of our games on a regular base.

  3. Hi Christopher,

    Thanks for stopping by! As always, you make great points.

    You probably already guessed this, but I often write posts in which I make an argument I don't totally agree with. It's kind of a mental exercise to make sure I don't get too lazy. In this case, you saw right through the rhetoric!

    Like you, I think the reality is that the "BioShock" name will give Levine and Irrational the economic insurance they need to pursue their art. I still find it too bad that we're stuck with BioShock, but if that's the price we have to pay to get quality games that have ambitious themes, so be it. I'm a bit worried that what folks expect from a "BioShock" title (plasmids, audio logs, little sister-type figures, etc.) might get in the way of new ideas, but I guess we'll see.

    I also agree with your assessment of "New Columbia." In my other life, I study American cultural history, which means my perspective is skewed towards Americana. I'm actually interested to see how far they go with the ideas of Manifest Destiny and American patriotism. I could easily imagine the symbolism and references in the trailer losing some of their impact if I had grown up outside of America.

    Hey Tellurian,

    Nice to hear from you!

    I definitely appreciate the marketing perspective. If putting the name on the cover means we can get a creative, well-made game, it's a necessary concession.

    However, I am worried that the gameplay previews mentioned the main character drinking a vial of stuff and then getting a magical crow-summon attack. I would hope that "BioShock" can stay a franchise rather than become a formula.

    I think "From the Creators of..." or "Ken Levine's..." would be great. I think names are powerful in terms of shaping what people expect from a game. Even the name "BioShock" implies a certain kind of gameplay, and it would be a shame if they had to force that in at the expense of trying new narrative and gameplay ideas.

    By the way, I had never heard of Creature Shock before. Based on the opening cutscene, I was expecting a kind of Resident Evil/Myst game, but it looks more like a light gun shooter! Weird coincidence. I bet those visuals were mind-blowing back in the day! ;-)

  4. I actually agree with the name "Bioshock". In a way that "System Shock" had an "space-adventure gone wrong" setting because of some deranged AI controlling it's world, "Bioshock" follows the same concept by narrating an Utopian city going insane by the means of geneticaly-enchanhumans themselves, therefore, switching the "System" for the "Bio"...

    Also, as I started watching the trailer, I felt as if the "water city" theme was like beating a dead horse and found it incredibly interesting the concept of the air...

  5. @NickDX

    I was relieved to see the change in environment as well. This sounds ridiculous, but it makes me wonder what the next installment after Infinite will be like. Is a Utopia a requirement for a BioShock game?