The news that Irrational Games is winding down has come as a surprise to many observers. Riding high on the critical and commercial success of the Bioshock franchise, Ken Levine’s decision to step back and focus on a smaller endeavour is a move that few saw coming.
The immediate concern is the welfare of the staff members who will be leaving Irrational Games. The economic recovery may be inching forward but the games industry continues to provide ongoing news of down-sizing and redundancies the world over. Fortunately, having Bioshock on your resume is unlikely to be a hindrance and it’s good to see Take-Two doing what they can to ease the transition for the talented staff affected by the change.
In his announcement Levine cites the original mission statement for Irrational being to ‘make visually unique worlds and populate them with singular characters’. Looking back at the studio’s body of work you have to agree that it was mission accomplished.
Irrational’s greatest achievement is undoubtedly Bioshock, rightly hailed as one of the defining games of the last generation due to its stunning narrative conceit, inventive gameplay and beautifully realised city of Rapture. Although Bioshock Infinite failed to have quite the same impact it still provided cause for much intellectual chin-stroking with its story and widespread appreciation for its multifaceted combat. Between these titles, and 1999’s genre-defining System Shock 2, the studio also produced a number of fondly remembered games including Tribes: Vengeance and Freedom Force.
And perhaps that’s just why Levine feels the need to move on. He seems driven by a new ambition that just doesn’t fit within the typical AAA studio model. The Bioshock series is no doubt close to Levine’s heart, but I’m sure it’s not a franchise he wants to work on continually, churning out iteration after iteration. The admission that he needs to scale back indicates that his next project will be more experimental, using the spirit of indie development, if not the finance model.
In his own words Levine’s new mission is ‘To make narrative-driven games for the core gamer that are highly replayable’.
It’s interesting to speculate what this means. It implies a game smaller in scale than Bioshock, but perhaps larger in thematic scope and narrative ambition. Further on in his statement Levine re-confirms that the leaner team will ‘focus entirely on replayable narrative’. The emphasis on the world replayable certain suggests a smaller experience, but one that can be repeated with differing outcomes and emotional impacts. A game based around story, action and consequence? (Yes, it does sound like The Walking Dead, but it’s unlikely that Levine will play it that safe.).
Levine also signals his intention to focus on a pure digital distribution model, whist fostering a direct relationship with fans, particularly the core gaming audience. This implies a strong connection between players and the development process, akin to the interaction we now take for granted with successfully funded Kickstarter games. The digital delivery model is a huge help in this respect, enabling a swift response in terms of game design and narrative based on audience response.
And what does this mean for the Bioshock franchise, now handed to 2K? Levine’s vision has defined Bioshock and it would be a shame to see the franchise rinsed dry in his absence. Personally, I hope it goes into stasis for a while until a fresh take can be found. The last thing the franchise needs is to mirror the career of M.Night Shyamalan, where each new release is met with the collective expectation of a narrative twist that ultimately fails to live up to the original. Down that path obscurity beckons.
Levine and his team can rightly be proud of what they have achieved. And if this change means that Levine can continue to surprise, intrigue and entertain us in new ways then it’s a move we should all support.