Farewell, Irrational Games

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Like Psygnosis before it, it seems Irrational Games is set to sail off into the darkness of memory. However, unlike the ill-fated G-Police studio, Irrational helmed some of the most beloved games of the seventh console generation, and was all set for a big jump to the eighth.

So, what on earth happened?

Co-founder Ken Levine said:

I am winding down Irrational Games as you know it. I’ll be starting a smaller, more entrepreneurial endeavor at Take-Two. That is going to mean parting ways with all but about fifteen members of the Irrational team.

Seventeen years is a long time to do any job, even the best one. And working with the incredible team at Irrational Games is indeed the best job I’ve ever had. While I’m deeply proud of what we’ve accomplished together, my passion has turned to making a different kind of game than we’ve done before.

Levine – one of the key brains behind such titles as Thief, SWAT 4 and System Shock 2 – ostensibly wants to return to a style of games he has had to put aside since his titles went ‘mainstream’.

Quoted across the internet, Levine said:

To meet the challenge ahead, I need to refocus my energy on a smaller team with a flatter structure and a more direct relationship with gamers. In many ways, it will be a return to how we started: a small team making games for the core gaming audience.

My question, however, is ‘weren’t you already doing that’?

Ulterior motives?

Irrational was hardly a video gaming titan, in team size at least – it wasn’t a sprawling operation. I think it’s far more likely that Levine was fed up of the pressure from on high (specifically Take-Two Interactive and 2K – the now sole-owners of the BioShock franchise), who no doubt wanted yet another title in the series ASAP.

A victim of its own success?

A victim of its own success?

If that is the case, it’s understandable that Levine might want to cut the strings a little, and focus on what he does best – creating enthralling games, which just happen to be blockbusters.

It’s just a shame that to do that, you have to lay off a number of staff – and all at apparently very short notice. That said, there have been promises that the staff will be helped to find news jobs both within and outside of parent company Take-Two and 2K Games.That may be little comfort to the staff, however. Having been on the redundancy line myself, I can sympathise.

So what now for the BioShock franchise? 2K already has the ability to make games in the series without Levine’s nod – BioShock 2 is testament to that.

However, that game is also a reminder of what can happen when you drag an IP away from the brains behind it. Far from being a worthy sequel to the brilliant original, BioShock 2 was merely ‘okay’. Sure, it was a fun shooter, but it didn’t exactly break new ground.

“I’m handing the reins of our creation, the BioShock universe, to 2K, so our new venture can focus entirely on replayable narrative,” Levine said. “If we’re lucky, we’ll build something half as memorable as BioShock.”

Whether this will be the right decision remains to be seen.

Universally loved

What was it that made the ‘Shock’ series so memorable and universally applauded, then?
In a word: imagination.

BioShock introduced gamers to the dystopian, underwater ‘paradise’ of Rapture, and had you traipsing through the abandoned hallways, gradually learning the truth behind the barbarism within.

The city truly felt lived in – despite the fact that it was now a wasteland of drugged-up psychopaths and wandering, murderous little girls.

The art-deco style grabbed the eye from the first moment – there were no cloned hallways and blown out buildings here (I’m looking at you, Call of Duty), and even the small touches added to the overall feeling of terror and isolation the game created so well.

I remember studying the placards left on the floor amid the blood and bullets of a brutal repressive regime as soon as I stepped out of the bathysphere: “Let it end. Let us ascend”.
The game had you asking questions from the first moment, and drew you into its narrative expertly.

As for the story itself, Levine and co-created a deep, disturbing tale that left you questioning your own motivation – and what you’d be willing to do, to do the ‘right’ thing.

Years later, Levine and Irrational once again achieved success with BioShock Infinite, creating arguably an even better game than the original BioShock – complete with mind-bending finale.

Creating worlds

They didn’t craft games – they created worlds, and let the gamers explore at their own pace. That’s something special, in this era of high-octane shooters and shiny racecars.

So, would you kindly all wish Irrational Games a fond farewell.

Whether you’ve been a die-hard ‘Shock’ fan since System Shock’s blocky wonderland, or you’ve only recently ascended to the heights of Columbia, it’s easy to respect a company which worked so hard to make games less about merciless slaughter, and more about the journey.

Thanks for the memories.