The Drifter is a psychogeographer of videogames. He chose that name because of Guy Debord’s concept of the situationist dérive, not because he’s almost 30 and completely aimless, okay? What are you, his mother?
As an internationally acclaimed videogames blogger I regularly receive fan mail, lace kerchiefs, perfumes, truffles, and other novelties courtesy of our crumbling postal service. My slender proportions and conventional good looks are unusual among my cohort, most of whom sit at the wobblier end of the spectrum, and so the fangirl hysteria that might in any other field be shared among many is reserved for me and me alone.
I have little time for my admirers and lack the ordinary human sympathy necessary to make full use of their gifts. However: I’ve discovered a useful tributary for this river of affection in the form of Ken Levine. The designer of the BioShock franchise is cripplingly insecure. I send him my castoffs, bolstering his self-esteem and ensuring he can continue to create exceptional videogames. It’s the least I could do to repay him. His imaginary metropolis of Rapture was a psychogeographer’s paradise, oozing intrigue and originality from every leaky cubbyhole: a gun-crazed all-American monoculture under the sea, maintained by lumbering cyborg brutes in the service of a mad philosopher-king. Who could forget that extraordinary twist, forcing players to re-think everything they believed about identity, agency and free will? Or the first time they commanded a swarm of killer bees to attack a drug-addicted debutante? How delicious! If I had any interest in sex, stinging would be at the top of my to-do list. Luckily I don’t, so ladies, please don’t use this as a prompt to send me bees, they’re only going to hurt some postman. (Also: I don’t want any more empty cake tins. ‘The cake is a lie’ – I get it, I liked Portal too. But GladOS is just not the mummy figure I need right now.)
In gratitude for my stabilizing influence, Levine’s former colleagues at 2K Games have this week furnished me with early concept outlines for his second great masterpiece, BioShock Infinite. His imaginary metropolis of Columbia was a psychogeographer’s paradise: a gun-crazed all-American monoculture in the sky, maintained by lumbering cyborg brutes in the service of a mad philosopher-king. Who could forget that extraordinary twist, forcing players to re-think everything they believed about identity, agency and free will? Or the first time they commanded a murder of crows to attack a steampunk ingénue? Yummy. If I had any interest in sex, having my eye jellies plucked out would be at the top of my to-do list.
No sir: I wouldn’t want to change BioShock Infinite one iota. But tweedy psychopath Booker DeWitt and his dimension-hopping murderess daughter were just two of many heroes hanging out in Levine’s gigantic brain, and I can’t help but feel tantalized by these dispatches from weird worlds we’ll never have the fortune to visit. So sit back and pretend a rift in time and space has just opened in front of you: it’s time to take a voyeuristic peak into sequels that could have been.
BioShock’s atmosphere of decadence gone to seed owed everything to a philosopher whose bleak view of human nature has delighted self-absorbed teenagers since the ‘50s. Why change a winning formula? As Rapture was to Ayn Rand, so the crumbling seaside resort of Ennui is to Jean-Paul Sartre. In BioShock Nauseous, you play Marxist historian Jacques ‘Foxy’ Reynard, the pipe-smoking amphibian hunk all the girls want and all the boys want to be. But the louche Left Bank lifestyle is mere cover for his real work: as an undercover Soviet agent, Foxy criss-crosses the globe to steal microfiche, raid armouries and plant exploding cigars in the desks of prominent politicians. You’re the Elvis of Existentialism: an intellectual playboy with absolute freedom to live as you choose. If only your Achievements didn’t feel as empty as Sisyphus pushing his rock.
It’s 1963. You’ve come to the town of Ennui to contemplate suicide in a drab B&B made of seashells and mud because the capitalists stole all the bricks. So far everything meets your expectations. You like QTEs? Hammer A to try and get out of bed. You’re not going to do it, so just give up: with any luck the hotelier will find your skeleton picked clean beside the almond croissant you couldn’t be bothered to finish.
Days pass. Weeks pass. Pointless funfair mini-games and asinine collect-em-up side-quests fill your time until, one wet afternoon, everything changes. Admiring your strong and thick-veined hands as you mix a lethal cocktail of gin, apricot cream, and barbiturates, you notice a strange aura emanating from your fingertips – a glowing magical field that defies easy phenomenological categorization. You quickly realise that the salty sea air has catapulted the local population of racist fishermen and their put-upon wives into the next phase of human evolution. And there you were, thinking that France’s only Mystery of Science was how a diet of Malbec, cigarettes, and soft cheese keeps people alive for so long. How little you knew.
It’s your duty to reclaim the town of Ennui from the petit bourgeois holidaymakers destroying its charming parochial atmosphere. Shoot angst from your fingertips, freezing your enemies to the spot as they realize the meaninglessness of their existence. Drain pencil-skirted shop girls of their jouissance, boosting your reputation as the most lecherous professor ever to be fired from the Sorbonne. How will your wife, the feminist icon Michelle Dogbert, react once she knows what you’ve done? Do you even care? You’re the third most cited scholar in the whole of the humanities: that makes you a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, so is global capital. It’s time to get to work. Under the paving stones, the beach!
The year is 1910. Hard-drinking, wise-cracking street lawyer Barry O’Bama never wanted to be a hero. That was before The Colonial Tea House arrived above his neighbourhood and blocked out the light of the sun. A floating city held together by quantum physics and hate, the Tea House is going to blockade Chicago until every last man, woman and child dies from vitamin D deficiency or comes on board to work as a wage slave.
With his rooftop pigeon farm dying, Barry takes his chances in the Tea House. It’s no place to raise a family. Vending machines sell handguns to anyone with enough small change. Patriots in frilly 18th Century fancy dress fire blunderbusses across the bows. The rich dine only on lobster and steak while the poor are forced to eat their own illegal abortions. There are moose on the loose, roaming wild through the streets. Twice a year the citizens push one over the edge to crush any bystander too slow to get out of the way. Let that be a lesson to the weak, the old and the frail: the people of the Tea House are sick of you dragging on their coattails.
Learning to conceal his disgust, Barry resolves to run for the Office of the Patriarch. He’s going to change this reactionary culture one obscene and unjust law at a time. Will he fix this mess once and for all? Or will his enemies succeed in protecting their cruel and outmoded values, doing everything in their power to tarnish Barry and his liberal regime? The choice, dear player, is yours.
BioShock: Kingdom Come
Follow the gulls as they depart the rugged Cumbrian coast to careen above the foam-flecked breakers of the Irish Sea. An island lies close, though few are so bold as to land deliberately upon its jagged shores: the island of Sodor.
No lighthouse warns voyagers against these rocks. The natives will have your ship for scrap metal and your bones for broth. Take a flare gun and whatever blunt instruments you can carry: you’re going to need all the help you can get. These are brawny, leather-skinned folk with little genetic variation and haircuts barely worthy of the word. And they do not look kindly upon strangers.
Their ancestors knew simpler lives: carved out against the violence of the wind and rain in glens and valleys and forests where deer once roamed and salmon copulated, clouding the streams white. Mawkishness and pity have never held sway on Sodor. Men ate only what they could grow or kill with their own hands.
Those days are gone. Now the green grasses of Sodor are ash. The fields are laced by an iron membrane. King Coal rules without mercy and grace, embodied by his man on earth, the sinister figure known only as The Fat Controller. Across a ravaged hellscape, the army of tank engines roll: human souls in prisons of rust and bone, forced to live out their pitiful lives according to his Timetable.
Their very existence is little more than entertainment for children delighted by anthropomorphic horror. Picture books depict steam trains with painted smiles. The television rights are syndicated for millions – yet have these aching creatures seen a penny of the royalties? You already know the answer. Listen closely, and above the unholy screeching of unoiled brakes you can hear their desolate cry: “Help me. Release me. I am in pain.” None dare show mercy. Those who do not learn to worship or fear the tank engines will be crushed under their tracks.
It’s the last place the Reverend Jack Aubrey ever intended to spent his retirement. A military chaplain dishonourably discharged for Doing the Right Thing, Jack just wanted to see out his days nursing injured kittens and playing tag with his daughter in the park. He never should have got on that ferry. Now, armed with his trusty satchel full of Semtex communion wafers and a vial of holy acid, he’ll have no choice but to face down the Sodor savages and their industrial oppressors alike. Welcome to a whole new kind of on-rails shooter. It’s time to blow the iron island to Kingdom Come.
In real life there’s only one builder who can compete with the legacy of Andrew Ryan, and his name is a byword for everything that made America great. BioShock condemned rampant free market capitalism with a wicked satirical streak; BioShock Apprentice was to turn the formula on its head, celebrating the virtues that built the American empire. The player would be cast as morally bankrupt reality TV presenter and company man Jim Drummond, aka The Great Blonde Bear, as he roamed the Socialist Republic of New York in search of new interns to feel up. He’s rich. He’s really smart. He knows how to punish women and gays, Mexicans and Democrats. What could possibly go wrong?
Of all of these hypothetical sequels, BioShock Apprentice came closest to getting greenlit, before Levine realised that basing a hero on Donald Trump threatened the player’s suspension of disbelief. After all, no intelligent person would regard him as an anything more than an unfortunate joke, and certainly not trust him with – say – tactical nukes. Would they now, America, would they now would they now would they.