So, right, it’s been a while. Since I last blogged I’ve done a number of things, such as finish up that research project I’ve been blathering about, babysit 75 teenagers while also helping a dozen or so of them learn philosophy and write papers, and I turned 22. Hooray! I suppose much of that could be used as fodder for any number of blog entries, but no, I am going to do something else because I am tired. You see, also since I last blogged, I played two videogames. I am going to talk about videogames, okay.
The two games I played happened to be sequels. They were Bioshock 2 and Mass Effect 2, and it should be noted that I loved the first installments in both of these franchises. Currently, of course, there are a lot of people complaining about whether or not games are art or can they be or BLOO BLAH BLOO BLOO. It’s beside the point. Question: Can games be art? Answer: Yes, I don’t see why not. Second question: Are they art right now? Second answer: No, ever so slightly, no.
I bring this up only because neither of the games I mentioned are art, but one of the predecessors — the original Bioshock — got so damn close to it that I was practically salivating. Other people have outlined it better, but essentially Bioshock is a tightly woven comic book-philosophy story about what happens when Ayn Rand is a dude who actually has money and gets things done. That’s standard videogame fare, but in its execution (and I abstain here from spoilers) Bioshock functions as an astounding deconstruction of its genre, the FPS, and of gaming pretty much as whole. Then, after this marvelous apotheosis, it stumbles around for two more hours, negating everything it’s achieved, and then putters away into whatever ending you’ve earned.
This sometimes obscures exactly how smart Bioshock actually is on the level of the plot, however — it’s basically a Greek tragedy, but with an underwater city and crazy-ass X-men powers. The weird thing is that, as a tragedy, you (which is to say, you the player) are not the main character. You’re peripheral. The tragic protagonist is someone else entirely, and once he’s off the stage, the game pretty much falls apart. Imagine a production of Oedipus Rex where Oeddie blinds himself and then spends two more acts trying to run Thebes like nothing’s happened.
This is why Bioshock failed. This is also why Bioshock 2 fails. Which is not to say it is a bad game, because it isn’t really. It’s just that the first game set such a lofty goal that, even though it failed to achieve it, there’s a lot for a follow-up to address; the difference is essentially that while the first game did indeed fail, it failed greatly. The second game just flounders.
I am not against the concept of sequels per se; even Oedipus Rex has Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, to stick to our models. So by all rights, Bioshock 2 should be the Colonus — except it isn’t. It’s hardly about the tragic ant/protagonist from Bioshock — hell, it’s not even about the actual literal no-kidding antagonist from Bioshock. For a sequel, there’s actually very little in terms of overlap — you don’t revisit any old locations and you only meet one old character, who promptly disappears into a dangling plot thread, never to be heard from again. The game’s mechanics are in place and certain currents in the story make me think that the new writers were at least a bit aware of what went on in the first game — specifically the themes of family, since almost all tragedies are about family — but in the end it just doesn’t work.
It’s like going to your old hometown, say, fifteen years after you moved away, and you meet a high school pal at the grocery store. Only you don’t recognize him, he recognizes you, and he comes up to you and says “Hey buddy how ya doin’ how’s it been” and you’re all like “What, wait, excuse me, who are you” and he tells you and you’re all like “Oh” but when looking at this guy (maybe he’s gotten bald or skinny or fat or prominent scars or hell maybe he’s now a she) there’s some sort of cognitive dissonance at work, and no matter how much he insists he cannot bring you to believe that he is in any way related to the person you once knew.
Mass Effect 2 is a sequel to Mass Effect. Duh. Neither game is art or came close, but the first one remains one of my favorite gaming experiences (even in spite of its ham-handed exposition) due to the sheer wonder its fictional world inspired in me. The second game is about as good, and overall a worthy successor. Why does it succeed as a sequel? Well, there are a handful of obvious reasons. The first ME was intended to have sequels — two, in fact — to finish the plot arc, even though the first stands reasonably well on its own. Bioshock, by contrast, is spectacularly self-contained and never really ‘needed’ a follow-up. ME2 also allows you to keep certain things from the first game: your player character, for starters, and a handful of environments.
The end product is much more successful as a sequel than Bioshock 2. Sure, it’s not art, it’s silly stupid pulpy sci-fi, but it’s fun and the story is solid without reaching for the stars. It is entertainment; it is what videogames are currently best suited to do. Does that mean we should make all games silly, pulpy fun? Well, no, we should try for art sometimes, at least. It’s what makes the first Bioshock so important, and in the future we’ll learn from the ways it and games like it stumble.