Lost at sea? why BioShock and Irrational could become victims of their own success

Burial At Sea

Every important game franchise starts off as something smaller. With Call of Duty, it was 2007’s Modern Warfare that ended its history with World War 2 and sparked this generation’s obsession with high-tech global war. Bethesda did the same for open-world fantasy with Oblivion, and Naughty Dog for third-person world-hopping with Uncharted. And Irrational did the same with BioShock.

BioShock’s success story isn’t unique, but like every super-successful series, there comes a point where the shine that made the original such a stand-out success – be that on new console, or in the world of games in general – starts to rub off. Innovation gives way to formula; novelties become familiar. The games become automatic purchases for a fanbase that knows what it wants and what it can expect to be given, and the studio becomes known as ‘those people that do that game’.

BioShock got hit with that criticism early on this generation, when instead of jumping off from the original to new horizons, 2K Marin developed a sequel once again set in the dank corridors of post-collapse Rapture. Infinite took the franchise further with Columbia, even while taking criticisms from fans and critics that the series’ staple mechanic – the interplay between guns and Plasmids/Vigors – didn’t make as much narrative sense as in Andrew Ryan’s congruously transhumanist Utopia. Now, with the release of its first piece of story DLC, Burial At Sea, BioShock is going back to Rapture for a third time, tossing another troubled hero with a murky past into the middle of a superpowered gunfight with enemies we’ve battled before.

At around two hours long, it’s a compact, challenging and typically well-written BioShock story. But as a fan of the series, there’s a niggling voice in my head that wants to know: is Irrational becoming ‘that BioShock studio’?

The Rapture you explore in Burial At Sea isn’t, to give it its dues, a simple copy-paste job of the city you’ve seen before. Speaking with the DLC’s producer, Don Roy, he explains that the sections of the city that Booker and Elizabeth can explore have been completely rebuilt.

“We do art completely differently to BioShock 1,” he says. “We can now have vistas; when you look out the window, those are 3D models [that you’re seeing]. Inside, we took lessons from Infinite’s town centre and fair – how we populate a world and how we tell a story through the people in that world. Now we can go back to Rapture before the fall and show what the citizens were like before things went bad.”

The new Rapture blends gameplay from the original and Infinite – although the balance is definitely slanted towards Infinite’s combat-heavy style. It’s also less claustrophobic, aside from its new open areas in which jarringly lucid and non-murderous citizens gossip and talk politics. It has also taken on Infinite’s vertical gameplay, thanks to the inclusion of freight hooks and sky-lines. Visually, Rapture feels softer and darker – just different enough to sell the idea that the story is playing out in one of Elizabeth’s alternate realities.

But the problem is that, for all those subtle pieces of visual storytelling, this is still Rapture. After the DLC’s opening, in which a decidedly prickly Elizabeth gives Booker a new case to investigate, he follows her out of his gloomy office and into the glittering brilliance of Rapture, all golds and reds and turquoise ocean views. It’s cleverly directed and beautiful. But all I could think as the scene played out was how much more breathtaking it was seeing the city for the first time, from the window of the bathysphere as it descended from the lighthouse to the sound of Andrew Ryan’s opening ‘Sweat Of His Brow’ monologue.

Burial At Sea’s opening is clearly designed to call the original BioShock’s to mind, and playing off that kind of nostalgia is a common theme throughout the DLC. Irrational producer Roy goes so far as to call the game an “ultimate love letter to the fans”. But that’s a double-edged sword. There’s always a thrill to revisiting an area you’ve explored before and seeing it in a new light – the brief jaunt through Rapture’s corridors in the closing moments of Infinite’s story produced a great fan response, according to Roy. But more than once, Burial At Sea strays from a tribute into pure fan-service. Of the two new weapons, one is the Tommy Gun from the original BioShock, and Booker only receives one new Vigor to fight splicers with, which leaves an awful lot of slack to be taken up by the new story and the backdrop of Rapture 3.0.

The next instalment of DLC continues the story and for the first time lets you play as Elizabeth, making use of her ability to create dimensional tears. But with such a focus on Rapture, even with Infinite’s new mechanics and a new protagonist, aren’t Irrational worried about typecasting?

“Our main focus is always ‘what compelling story can we tell?'” says Roy. “That doesn’t have to be a BioShock game; it really lives and dies with the direction that Ken [Levine] wants to go.”

When I ask if there aren’t certain things that fans expect from the studio – first-person viewpoints, guns, superpowers – and whether the studio could ever stray away from this formula, he is more evasive. “To be honest with you, I don’t know. The only thing I know is that we’re not bound by any rules. It’s what’s necessary to tell the story we want to tell, and that could come about in a lot of different ways. We’re not closed off to any options.”

I hope that turns out to be true. But I’ll throw down a gauntlet and say Irrational will never send its next Jack or Booker into a globe-spanning, third-person treasure hunt, and another to say that Nathan Drake isn’t ever going to topple the leader of a fascistic dictatorship with bees hatched from his forearms. Developers playing to their strengths is what gives gaming its most successful franchises – straying away from them and onto another series’ turf just doesn’t happen that often.

Burial At Sea is exactly what many BioShock fans will have wanted, but despite the studio’s reassurances it still raises questions about how bound Irrational already is by its past successes – and how that will affect its games in the future. No doubt, another romp around a retro-futuristic dystopia, gunning down human crazies with one hand and fire-blasting automatons with the other would reap a handsome return for the studio. But the same would have been true of Uncharted 4 – while Irrational has given us essentially more of the same with its latest story, Naughty Dog gave us The Last Of Us.

Most gamers will give Burial At Sea a free pass for wearing its fan service on its sleeve, and for being DLC rather than a full-release game. That’s fair. But as a fan of the franchise, watching it step, however briefly, backwards rather than forwards is uncomfortable. That tantalising set-up of countless worlds to explore at the end of Infinite makes a return to Rapture feel like wasted potential; a studio resting on its laurels, sticking closely to formula and declining to push boundaries in the way that earned the BioShock series the reputation it has today. That’s a familiar road for successful series – I just don’t want it to become BioShock’s.