gswbioshock2.jpg['The Magic Resolution' is a regular GameSetWatch column by UK-based writer Lewis Denby, examining all facets of the experience of playing video games. This time: sequels, the problem so many of them face, and a game to keep the idea of brilliant follow-ups alive.]

Do you know what was a dismally unexciting game for me? I do. It was BioShock 2. BioShock, for all its quirks, was for me the greatest first-person shooter of the last decade (and I’m not including RPGs with shooty bits in that category, since Deus Ex was clearly better). Its sequel? I keep having to remind myself there even was one.

Yet in a great many ways, if you want to be all silly and “objective” about it, BioShock 2 was the better game of the pair. Its world was crafted with just as much meticulous detail as its predecessor, the script and voice work were equally wonderful, it didn’t get confused and start narratively flailing two-thirds of the way through, and the combat was most certainly tighter. In contrast with the games’ fiction, if BioShock was the prototype Big Daddy, BioShock 2 was the real metal deal.

But - and go on, be honest here - it was basically rubbish, wasn’t it?

This happens. It happened with F.E.A.R. 2 fairly recently as well. In that game’s case, its being technically better than its predecessor is perhaps debatable: not much had changed, except that in the second game it’s harder to trigger a flying kick to the enemies’ unmentionables. But it definitely wasn’t horrifically worse than Monolith’s then-spectacular 2005 shooter - and a few years isn’t enough for a game to date that badly.

No: the cause of these symptoms is, of course, Sequel Syndrome.

I have no interest in sequels. In fact, on some occasions, it makes me genuinely upset that one is being made. This isn’t because of some ludicrous sense of entitlement to originality; nor is it anything to do with a misguided notion that the first in a series is always the best. It is, instead, based on hard, empirical evidence (I did a survey of one person, who just happened to be myself), and the results are clear: sequels may be more refined, but they are almost exclusively less interesting.

Expect the Expected

And it’s obvious when you think about it. When we first took shelter in that curious lighthouse in the middle of the ocean, swimming past the fiery wreckage of the plane and clambering up those slippery steps, it wasn’t just Jack who was discovering a world for the first time: we too were entering Rapture with minimal expectations, and little understanding of the world we were about to enter. Video games provide us with a chance to explore the unknown. Setting your sequel in the same place as the original game destroys this opportunity in one swift smack.

But what about games that don’t? I still vastly prefer Half-Life to Half-Life 2, and that was about as big a setting change as you could imagine. The Call of Duty franchise has flown all over the place, yet got progressively more tedious as time’s gone on, and as for Quake... well, that Gothic underworld might have been decidedly brown, but it shone more brightly than Stroggos ever will.

Is this because the original settings were simply better than what they morphed into? I’m not so sure. Few would argue that City 17 was not a marvellous creation, for example. And id Software did things with its crushingly competent Quake 4 that the first game’s level designers simply could not have done with the original id Tech.

Either way, last week something strange happened. I’m still not sure how I feel about it - a straight-up mix of childlike giddiness and gut-wrenching shame, I think. Last week, I saw a load of Portal 2 footage, and quickly realised I had never been so tremendously excited about a game before - let alone a sequel.

So what on Earth is going on?

Here’s what I think.

Doors Wide Open

Portal was wonderful. Exquisite. One of my favourite games in recent memory. It took a basic idea and crafted around it a game that, while only two or three hours long, felt fuller than almost anything else that springs to mind.

But, crucially, it also left a whole amount of room for improvement. Here was a game that was so fresh, so extraordinary, so exciting and so new, that a whole billion ideas must have ballooned up in the Valve hivemind. “This is beyond wonderful,” I imagine them internally boasting. “...but what if...?”

Portal 2 is looking so exceptional not just because it does smart things with the stupidly beautiful environment, cleverly subverting the cold clinicalism of the original; and not just because it’s introducing new mechanics that sit tightly within the format; and not even just because it’s shaping up to be a longer game.

It’s looking remarkable because of all of these things, and how they combine to present something which is aiming for bigger and better in a very real sense, as opposed to the “bigger and better” sequel mentality that usually, if PR were to take a dab of truth serum, would equate to “better graphics and more guns.”

And really, of course it would be Valve to make a sequel like this (Left 4 Dead 2? Never heard of it.) I mentioned earlier that I prefer the original Half-Life to its follow-up, but while that’s true, it wasn’t really a fair one to mention. Half-Life 2 - though somewhat overrated to my mind, and certainly feeling more dated than the first game - absolutely exemplifies what I wish, truly wish, all sequels would aspire to be.

BioShock 2 was inexcusable. 2K created in BioShock an astonishing, constantly surprising, breathtakingly vivid and genuinely affecting video game. What followed was more of the same, but better: and that’s about as far away from the BioShock aesthetic as it’s possible to get.

[Lewis Denby is the Executive Editor of BeefJack.com and general freelance busybody for anyone that'll have him. If he ever has a child, he's going to call him Lewis Denby 2: The Awakening.]