Bio Mass The Importance of Original Thinking

Bio Mass The Importance of Original Thinking
The gaming industry thinks of itself in terms of generations. But though such talk promotes revolution, not evolution, each hardware jump is not necessarily accompanied by an equivalent leap in content.
This fall is the first with all three next-gen consoles out in the wild, but most of the big games are coming saddled with a numeral or slightly altered suffix. There’s the just-released blockbuster Halo 3, the upcoming Guitar Hero 3, Virtua Fighter 5, Fable 2 and, now delayed ’til next year, Grand Theft Auto IV. Meanwhile, the otherwise-innovative Wii is banking on Metroid Prime 3 and new entries from the Super Smash Bros. and Super Mario franchises, plus a Zelda DS game. And let’s not even get into the slightly updated sports titles.

While this seems indicative of a creatively bankrupt industry, the year’s most exciting game thus far was an unprecedented piece of "original IP” (that’s intellectual property, to us non-developers). Bioshock masterfully built-up buzz, sales and accolades — and lived up to advance hype — by introducing us to a brave new world. Bioshock is a thinking-person’s first-person shooter with Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism (see: Atlas Shrugged) providing the story’s subtext. The leader of this atmospheric underwater metropolis known as Rapture, not coincidentally named Andrew Ryan, built this post-WWII art deco paradise beneath the mid-Atlantic in hopes that mankind could reach its full potential unhindered by surface laws, ethics and morality. But by the time you arrive in 1960, Rapture has become a dystopian nightmare, its great society split by scientific arrogance, capitalist greed and civil war, its leaking corridors now patrolled by genetically-unhinged humans called Splicers and young "girls,” known as Little Sisters, who harvest corpses alongside Big Daddies, their iconic Jules Verne-inspired bodyguards.

As you descend into Rapture’s impeccably art-directed depths and discover why the centre could not hold — along the way facing the ethical dilemma of whether or not to slaughter the Sisters as well as gaining the ability to shoot killer bees and electric bolts from your hand — you’ll feel like that generational torch has finally been passed. But it was a gamble — philosophical manifestos simply don’t fuel most mainstream fodder, especially in a game that can’t rely on the built-in audience of a sequel or licensed property.
Take Halo 3. With its 15 to 20 hour single-player campaign and endlessly re-playable online death-matches, it’s almost guaranteed to be the year’s biggest-seller — they broke records with over a million pre-orders in North America alone and analysts predict that could triple within two weeks of release.
But when a rep from development house Bungie was selling journalists on the game awhile back, we were dutifully informed, "It’s definitely a Halo game… just bigger, cooler and shinier.”
Certainly the Master Chief trilogy’s final chapter is an incredibly fun, well-refined adventure. The triple-A title is cinematic in scope with gorgeous vistas, a dramatic soundtrack, complex (ok, incomprehensible) plotting and, of course, filled with fast-paced firefights against those fanatical aliens, the Covenant. This first next-gen edition feels realer, as if you’re but a single soldier (albeit a badass one) in a widespread war that’ll continue raging even after your health bar hits zero.

But from the moment Bungie drops you back into this star-war story — quite literally, as the armour-encased hero, who ended Halo 2 on a fan-frustrating cliffhanger, falls two kilometres to now-occupied Earth in the threequel’s opening scene — you’ll realise that what H3 does not have is the shock of the new. If you’ve played its less-pretty predecessors, you’ve essentially played this one, too (even if you don’t yet know the final reveal).
"There’s a sizeable investment in videogames nowadays,” explains Chris Priestly, community coordinator for Canadian developer BioWare. The Edmonton-based company is revving up for next month’s release of 2007’s other feverishly anticipated original IP Mass Effect, a cinematic, universe-spanning role-playing game about galactic peacekeepers that’s already racked up plenty of pre-release critic awards. "If you’re doing a large event title like Mass Effect, Halo 3, Bioshock — you‘re talking million dollars of investment just in developing the game, let alone marketing.”
He should know since BioWare made their name via licensed games like the acclaimed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and the Dungeons & Dragons-linked Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate. Now risk and ambition don’t always pay off — classics like Psychonauts, Ico and Beyond Good and Evil never went beyond cult status — but BioWare decided to roll the dice. "It allows us a lot more freedom. That’s the whole point of having your own IP — you have the control over it. All game companies aspire to be able to make their own stuff and do what they want with it,” says Priestly.

So they told LucasArts to take a hike and made plans to give Mass Effect an emotionally-charged story, stunning graphics, synth-based score and an immersive, Oblivion-like living-breathing world, er, galaxy. Of course, it’s always going to a challenge bringing an untested title to market, especially when it’s a sci-fi epic about an alien race war landing in the wake of the latest Halo juggernaut.
"A lot of people get comfortable. You watch the movies by the same director, read books by the same author and it’s a fairly safe bet you’ll enjoy them. But we feel there is a need for originality. It’s good to be comfortable, but once in a while it’s good to experiment with something new and something cool.”