It used to be easier to make video game sequels.
Back in the old days, a great game could almost invariably be reduced to two elements: neuro-mechanical design (how it feels) and visual presentation (how it looks). Beginning in the arcade era and until very recently, if a game looked good and felt good, a successful sequel often needed merely to provide more of the same basic concept. Viewed with a gimlet, if not entirely flattering, eye, you could even say that of keystone properties like Mario, Madden, and Halo.
The original BioShock, released in 2007, was perhaps the first title of the current generation to demonstrate that a rich sense of setting and an intellectually complex, provocative story could finally stand alongside graphics and mechanics as vital components of a mainstream gaming experience.
And that, naturally, makes creating a sequel a bit more challenging. BioShock 2, released recently by 2K Games for the PlayStation 3, Windows PCs, and the Xbox 360, feels great and looks absolutely dreamy. But it simply does not move very far beyond the first game. BioShock 2 is fun, but it is also a bit stagnant in its creative ambition.
Sadly, this is not entirely unexpected. The original BioShock was largely the vision of one man, Ken Levine, at Irrational Games. BioShock took players beneath the Atlantic to the underwater Art Deco dystopia known as Rapture in a fearless, mesmerizing depiction of Randian philosophy run amok. Rapture was built on the ocean floor in the 1950s by a tycoon named Andrew Ryan as a hyper-libertarian escape from the strictures of government, religion, and morality on the surface. As a banner in Rapture proclaims: "Altruism is the root of all wickedness."
Unchecked, scientists discover a substance that allows instant genetic modification of humans. Heralded as a boon, this discovery eventually turns Rapture into an abyss.
Propelled by this rich and exciting premise, BioShock was a sleeper hit, prompting 2K and its corporate parent, Take-Two Interactive, to declare that BioShock would become a franchise.
And that is precisely what happened. Levine was not involved with the sequel, and in the end BioShock 2 feels like a franchise game, if certainly a well-tended one.
Once again, we are in the ruined city of Rapture. It is now the late 1960s, and the mutants are still roaming about. Andrew Ryan is no longer on the scene, but now a psychiatrist named Sofia Lamb has taken over in the name of a collectivist ideal that stands in direct opposition to the radical individualism that Rapture was founded on.
At least that's the set-up. As a practical matter, Lamb's followers, unoriginally called the Family, are presented as little more than another cult of brainwashed freaks. The bigger gripe is that BioShock 2 takes place almost as if the events of the first game had never happened. In fact, the game opens with one of the hokiest of video game cliches: you have been in suspended animation for the last decade with no knowledge of the period's events. Seriously?
I will not be at all surprised if there is a BioShock 3, set in the 1970s with yet another unforeseen villain to take down. Unfortunately, Rapture is being turned into a backdrop rather than being portrayed as an environment that is shaped by the games' players.
BioShock 2 is as easy on the eyes as any Windows game I've played, and the AMD rig has been a champ. (The 360 and PS3 versions aren't any slouches either.)
Financially, sequels are inevitable. But creatively, I am not sure that every great game is served by becoming a franchise.