What makes a game necessary?

Bioshock 2. The poster-child for the “unnecessary sequel.”  Or so it was judged from the moment its existence was even hinted at. I’ll admit to being skeptical myself. Assuming for a moment (and I think it’s a valid assumption) that any game can be necessary, what makes a game necessary? More specifically, what makes a sequel necessary?

It’s difficult to say what makes a game necessary because I’m not sure any game is truly unnecessary. Not being the target demographic of oft-reviled games like Petz: Horsez, and without playing it, I can’t say that it wouldn’t provide some basic interactive and educational enjoyment for its audience. Not being the developer, I can’t say that the game wasn’t made with a sincere concern for its audience or its subject. It might be a “bad” game by my judgment or that of many others, but a bad game is rather like a bad opinion. I think it still has its place in the dialogue. I personally tend to prefer ambitious failures, but to deem something “bad” as in “of poor quality” and to deem it unnecessary seem orders of magnitude apart. One condemns it for what it is (and as a result, necessarily allows the game to exist), the other says it has no right to exist by virtue of what it is not.

An unnecessary sequel seems like it might be a little easier to define. If you had the perfect game, a game whose mechanics were so elegant, whose narrative and themes so completely expressed, whose art, both technically and stylistically was just exactly right, whose sound design created the perfect mix of atmosphere and functional design queues, then you might say a sequel is unnecessary. But even then, I’m not so sure. Would a sequel that took some risks with this so-called “perfect” design to enliven things, that found new thematic territory to investigate, etc., be unnecessary? Even if it failed? Let’s assume the answer’s “yes.”

The first BioShock was pretty close to that perfect game for a lot of people. The world it created was “complete,” its themes and story were fully realized. I think most people who condemned BioShock 2 as an unnecessary sequel were thinking mostly in narrative (and thematic) terms. The story of the Ayn Rand-styled utopian Andrew Ryan and his downfall had been told.  The utopia itself, Rapture, was ruined. There was nothing else to see or explore. Clearly BioShock 2 was only being made for the money. As if nothing of worth was ever made for money.

But I think the backlash against the first BioShock attests that as wonderful a game as it was, it had room for improvement. The utopian themes and question of free will that dominated the first half of the game disappeared for the second, turning to a theme of family that seemed largely inconsistent with the first half. The early game made a huge point of questioning the Player’s free will (A man chooses, a slave obeys), but the later game had no answer to that question. The Player gained his freedom only to take orders from Tenenbaum just as rigidly and unquestioningly as he had taken orders from Atlas. The gunplay and use of powers had been considered clunky all along, and the Vita-chamber respawn system broke the game for many. Even the world of Rapture, divided into neatly themed separate areas, didn’t seem fully lived-in, and the question of what happened to Rapture after the game’s protagonist left was pretty open. Finally the choice to save or kill the Little Sisters was as broad as they come; the game might as well have asked at the beginning “Are you evil?” and been done with it. BioShock 2 may not have been “necessary” in the sense of “we can’t complete the story without it,” but in that case, is any Final Fantasy sequel necessary? Was there enough of the original BioShock to improve upon and ask interesting questions about? I think so.

And I believe that playing BioShock 2 justifies my belief. For one, it is a better game. It lacks the one shocking twist moment of the first, but it is more fun and more cathartic to play. It seems to assume use of the Vita-chambers on normal difficulty and is balanced around them as a tactic, rather than turning them into a cheat, and even works to create regular moments where respawning from a Vita-chamber is not advantageous. More weight is given to the decision to save or harvest the Little Sisters in the world by adding genuine challenge to the act of saving them. The Player is given more freedom in his response to other non-splicer characters in the world. And finally, while the Player still takes direction from other characters, the Player isn’t accomplishing another character’s goals for them; the Player is fighting for his own survival.

As for the world of Rapture, there are still gaping incongruities, but BioShock 2 does work hard to justify itself in telling the story of what happens to Rapture after the fall of Andrew Ryan. Of what ten years of mostly anarchy does to increasingly decayed underwater world, and of the other voices of dissent that had been suppressed under Ryan. It’s not nearly as ambitious a narrative as the first BioShock, but it retains the first game’s themes of free will and family, taking them in a different direction, and integrating both far more elegantly than the original.

Coming second, BioShock 2 will never be the revelation the first game was, but if it had been made first, I do think we’d be deriding talk of its sequel as unnecessary. For my part, I was pleasantly surprised with what BioShock 2 had to offer, and I’m going to approach BioShock 3 with an open mind.

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