Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Curse of Episodic DLC? Brief Thoughts After Burial at Sea Part 2

So I just finished playing Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea - Episode 2. When I first heard that they would be doing episodic DLCs, I cringed a little. Valve made that same decision with Half-Life 2, and while HL2: Episode 2 was great, it didn't quite live up to the original game, and we're still waiting in indefinite limbo for Episode 3. I had hoped that maybe Irrational would have gone with DLCs that weren't directly related to the main plot of Infinite, and we might be delivered a conclusion to Elizabeth and Booker's story sometime in the more distant future, in the form of another stand-alone sequel.

Personally, I feel like episodic DLCs are flawed by nature and are an unwise move for successful game franchises. I can think of a number of enjoyable expansion packs and DLCs that don't directly continue the original game's main story, such as Half Life: Opposing Force, Skyrim: Dragonborn, Fallout New Vegas: Dead Money, and Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall. There are countless other examples. What I can't think of are many DLCs that continue the original story in a way that lives up to the game they're expanding upon, especially when they're as short as 2-3 hours in length.

If you've read my article on Religion in Bioshock Infinite, you probably picked up on the fact that I really admire and adore Infinite. There is so much to appreciate in it, on lots of different levels. The Burial at Sea DLCs are so tame by comparison that it's hard to believe they came from the same team. Sure, I found bits to like about each of them, but I feel like Infinite deserved a conclusion more fitting than it has received. I know it's all too easy to cast blame on the creators, on the pressure they faced from fans, or in any other direction. It's worth recognizing that part of the appeal of Infinite was its innovation - innovation you won't generally get from sequels. However, Infinite itself is a sequel, done in an extraordinarily creative way. It would have been nice to see another chapter in the Bioshock franchise take on a similar approach.

Burial at Sea Episode 2 drives home something that I've noticed about episodic DLC ever since the Half-Life franchise started using them. Episodes just don't allow for the kind of creative freedom that make outstanding games so outstanding. It was six years from Half-Life to Half-Life 2. It was also six years from the original Bioshock to Infinite (recall that Bioshock 2 was developed by another studio). It was five years from Oblivion to Skyrim. It was four years from Portal to Portal 2. My point is that all these great games had time to knock around ideas, to troubleshoot things, to revise and refine concepts, eventually coalescing into the landmarks that we know them as today. Episodes, on the other hand, are often rushed out to shelves under a year or two after the original game is released.

One of the things I find fascinating about games like Half-Life and Bioshock is how much they changed over the course of their development. There are all kinds of crazy ideas game designers come up with and fortunately abandon in the early stages of development. Some ideas are even better, it seems, than the finished product. A lot gets left on the cutting room floor for a multitude of reasons, but what's most important is that behind it all there is ample time to brainstorm. Time to come up with ideas, time to let those ideas sink in, time to test them against all kinds of battery, time to reshape them, time to contrast them with other ideas or with new ideas, and time to trash them. Speaking as someone who has done some non-professional game modding and designing in the past, I know that inspiration can often times come when you least expect it, not to mention from the oddest sources. This isn't only true of game development, either, it's also something I find in writing, creating YouTube videos, and playing music.

Of course, DLCs aren't starting from scratch, so they won't need four to six years of development time. Nonetheless, a more lax schedule undoubtedly provides for more opportunity to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is why I think the best DLCs tend to be indirectly related to the stories they're expanding on. So much goes into the main plot of a game life Half-Life 2 or Bioshock Infinite, whereas telling a different character's story in a DLC, or visiting a different location in one, doesn't require as much effort and doesn't attempt to force a conclusion out of characters and a setting that took so much time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears to develop. I tend to think of it like the suspension of disbelief that directors ask of their audience. We can tolerate variations on a theme, because that's what DLCs are supposed to be, but asking us to swallow a true sequel in the form of one or two short DLCs is asking too much. It seems like, by its nature, such a thing will feel contrived.

This is my initial impression after finishing the Burial at Sea DLCs. Both parts were fun and entertaining in their own ways, but they lacked that special ingredient, if you will. Infinite was epic as hell. I read a review somewhere calling Burial at Sea "fan fiction", and I think there is no better word for it. It ties together many threads that were already suspected by the end of Infinite, so in that regard it feels quite on-the-nose. New surprises seem to lack impact, and some plot details, like Elizabeth's relationship to Sally, feel forced and difficult to buy. By the end of Episode 1, I had hoped Burial at Sea would be just an alternate reality sort of tangent, but Episode 2 pretty well lays that hope to rest, as does Ken Levine's announcement of Irrational's closing, and handing over the reins of Bioshock to 2K.

Who really knows what the future will hold, though? I don't think most Bioshock fans expected Levine would return for a sequel until it was announced some three to four years after the original. Judging from the interviews I've heard, Levine didn't even expect it himself. Perhaps the Bioshock franchise has more in store and perhaps Booker and Elizabeth's story is not yet over. What seems likeliest, though, is that the gaming industry will not ditch the disappointing episodic DLC model anytime soon. With the success of titles like Half-Life 2 and Infinite, why not put out short little bite-sized expansions, both to satiate consumers and bring in more money for the company? If you want to see how a story plays out, you get to buy two or three additions instead of one that really gives you your money's worth.

I suppose the only people we can actually hope will listen to gamers are the developers themselves. The business executives certainly won't. It always sucks to see a beloved title become another Call of Duty, shelling out sequel after uninventive sequel primarily to capitalize on a booming market. Please, game developers, resist the urge and the pressure to cram resolutions to a story that you painstakingly crafted over the span of several years into the deathtraps that are episodic DLCs. The characters, settings, worlds, and atmospheres you've created deserve so much more than that.

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