Posts Tagged ‘ Bioshock

Alan Wake Reconsidered

I said that this year I would try and stretch myself a bit as a writer, and that’s always a fraught endeavor when you’re doing it on someone else’s dime in front off a big audience. Fortunately, The Escapist came through as it always has in my career and gave me space to do a close, critical reading of Alan Wake in order to provide a revisionist view of the game.

It’s the kind of thing that sounded awesome as I was pitching it and playing through the game for a second time, but was easy to start doubting once I began working on it. By the time I sent back my final draft, I was convinced that the response was going to be a collective eye-roll. I liked my analysis, and I thought it was pretty damned sound, but I know there are a lot of people who resist reading deeply into videogames, especially ones as flawed as Alan Wake.

Fortunately, the article got an incredibly warm reception both from the audience at The Escapist and my acquaintances on Twitter. No piece I’ve written this year has given me as much satisfaction, with several people writing to express how thoroughly my article changed their view of the game. There is not much more that I can ask of my work.

While I stuck pretty close to what is actually in the game, and I can readily defend just about every claim that I make in the article, I will admit that my interpretation still owes a great deal to my own experiences. I have written several times over the last year about the difficulty of balancing my emotional investment in my work with other aspects of my life, and how sometimes work seems to be crowding out the other things I love. Approaching Alan Wake with those fears weighing on my mind, it was not hard for me to make the connection between the game’s plot and the conflicts I face as someone doing what I love for a living, dependent on steady stream of decent ideas and good words, and the pain I feel when they seem to dry up.

A few people raised their eyebrows at the connection I drew between the savior figure in Alan Wake, Thomas Zane, and Bioshock. I think the use of an old, porthole-covered diving bell is too heavily associated with Bioshock to be accidental, but I will readily grant that once again my own experiences inform my analysis here.

2007 changed everything for me, and Bioshock was a major part of that. It was the first time I really heard the kind of serious, intelligent discussion of videogames that I had long wanted to have, and Bioshock was the topic of discussion that year (as it has remained, in many ways). Bioshock didn’t sequester itself from intellectual life the way so many games do. It was in dialogue with the books I read in college on history and political theory, and critics were receptive to that. There have been other games that could make you think, other games that didn’t flinch from asking harder questions or engaging with their historical moment, but Bioshock was the first time that the stars aligned and serious critical discussion of a videogame entered the mainstream.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Alan Wake started production in 2005, Bioshock came out in 2007, and the character in the game has not been able to accomplish anything in two years. The game itself did not come out until 2010, and it’s not hard to imagine that 2007 might have been the year when the Alan Wake project finally started to gather some momentum after lengthy delays and creative struggles. And from my own experience, I can see where Bioshock might have played a role in the story.

Anyway, I hope you go and read the piece. This kind of analysis isn’t something I’ve done much, but I had an absolute blast with it.

Apex Predator

Bioshock is an exhausting universe. By the end of the first game, I was actually disturbed the brutal ways I killed splicers. Their constant wailing and sobbing and ranting had driven me out of my mind before I was halfway through the game. I came to love listening to them scream as they burned alive, these mewling psychopaths with their self-pitying, incoherent monologues. Revulsion had hardened into hatred and and then turned into sadism, which only served to deepen my revulsion.

Then there is the decay that surrounds you: the mouldering books, the shattered edifices, and the fetid bilge that has overrun every floor. Every splicer is a disfigured parody of a human. The general oiliness of the game engine and lighting effects, combined with the lurid art deco colors, creates a cloying sense of over-ripeness.

Eventually, it all just wears me down. I start trying to avoid encounters because the splicers have gotten inside my head and I just want things to be quiet for a bit. Besides which, Bioshock never lets me feel like I’m particularly strong or well-equipped. The controls have a slipperiness to them that makes it hard to use cover effectively, and most weapons are too inaccurate to be much good at long ranges. So Bioshock, and especially its sequel, is a game of close-range slugging matches that leave me depleted of ammunition, health, and energy. This is completely antithetical to my preferred style of play in an FPS. In general, I’m a tactician. I like to control the engagement from start to finish, and be able to stand the enemy off at a distance. If there’s going to be close quarters battle, it’s going to be on my terms: room-to-room fighting, done with grenades and shotguns.

Bioshock games make me feel more like a walking dreadnought, going broadside for broadside with psychopaths who don’t have the brains to take shelter. The strain and unpredictability of those engagements means I avoid them more than I should.

In Siren Alley, avoidance graduated to full-on paralysis. I was too low on ammunition and money to fight effectively. Every battle left me teetering on the brink of death. I was rapidly approaching a point where progress would be impossible.

The problem is that I was still thinking defensively, and as out of touch with the creative cruelty that powered me through Bioshock. I’d been clinging to my machine gun because it was comforting. But now, as I took stock of my options and surroundings, I realized that I was finally ready to turn the tables.

I had two great advantages. The first was the speargun, which is the only weapon in the game that never really runs out of ammo. Spears can always be recovered and they’re a perfect sniper’s weapon. The second advantage was the Enrage plasmid, which caused splicers to start attacking everything in sight. Including Big Daddies and the musclebound brute splicers.

This is where I finally started to get into Bioshock 2. The game’s systems started interacting in interesting ways. Using an ammunition saving weapon, I was able to stalk through Siren Alley and start racking up splicer kills, which allowed me to acquire more ammo and cash from my victims. The research camera, which lets you film hostiles in action so that you can learn more about them and unlock upgrades and bonuses, went into action alongside the enrage plasmid.

I started arranging little gladiator duels and filmed the results. Then, as the victorious splicer stood over his fallen enemies, I would reward him with a spear through the neck. In the meantime, the camera was making the splicers ever easier to for me to take down.

Since I needed to get hold of the Little Sisters and their Adam, I always made sure to enrage splicers in the vicinity of Big Daddies, and watched as the Big Daddies annihilated them. After the Big Daddy had been weakened by enough combat, I would open fire with my heaviest weapons and bring him down.

Brute splicers were a huge problem for me, since they’re as powerful as a Big Daddy and just about as tough. With them, I’d get the camera rolling, shadowbox them a little bit, and then put a Big Daddy between me and them. When the Brute charged, and he always would, the Big Daddy would go berserk, and an epic brawl would commence. They would just go on on each other with fists, drills, auto-turrets, rockets, rubble… Oh, the joy of watching my two most hated enemies devastating each other!

Over the course of about an hour or so of hunting, filming, and Adam-harvesting, I completely changed Bioshock 2. By the time I finished Siren Alley, I was a superhero, even capable of getting splicers to fight alongside me when I wanted them to. I tagged Father Wales, a viciously strong spider splicer, with the hypnotize plasmid and got him to demolish his own followers in his makeshift church. Then, when he ran out of followers to kill, I executed him.

Was the game broken, its balance destroyed by my employment of all these tools? Not at all. If the first half of the game was about struggling to get my bearings and survive, the second half of the game was about revenge and salvation. After Siren Alley, I was on a mission to save a little girl, and I was going to kill everything that got between me and that child. There was to be no more hiding.

Minerva’s Den and DLC

There I was Saturday night, wrapped snugly in my smoking jacket with a snifter of brandy at my side, when I received a note from Shawn Andrich. In a trembling hand, he implored me to come to the Conference Call posthaste, as Allen Cook had vanished under circumstances most strange, and he did not want to go alone to his rendezvous with Sean Sands and his sinister companion, Demiurge. Slipping a gun into my pocket, I went to the location he specified.

Since we’d all been busy bringing weapons and checking for tails on our way to the fog-choked watefront alley where we recorded to Conference Call, nobody actually remembered a topic. So we improvised, and you can listen to the results over at Gamers With Jobs.

Anyway, my chosen subject was 2K’s decision not to release “Minerva’s Den” for Bioshock 2 on PC. As often happens in a discussion, I didn’t quite make the point I wanted to make. My thoughts were still quite preliminary. Now that I’ve had a little time to consider my objections, I can explain a bit better why this bothers me.

On the show, I explained that I thought this decision trivialized this expansion to the Bioshock universe, and revealed 2K’s disregard for the connection that the audience has to the world of Rapture. Since I can almost hear hundreds of people rolling their eyes, I should probably explain a bit better what I mean.

Little things can change and deepen a gameworld, making every experience you had or have there just a little richer. For me that’s the promise of DLC. You don’t have to make a full game to make an interesting statement. There’s this sequence in Bioshock 2 where you go through what is basically a diorama for the children of Rapture, called “Journey to the Surface”. It’s this dull, heavy-handed jeremiad against the postwar world that exists outside Rapture, with Andrew Ryan narrating every morality play you see. Finally, at the end, you come across an audio diary from Ryan himself.

I know this facility is vital to the preservation of secrecy in Rapture. But seeing myself transformed into that… lurching, waxen nightmare… do children truly respond to this? Still, I spoke to a young man exiting the park after the grand opening, asking him what, if anything, he had learned here. He said his chores didn’t seem so bad anymore — as long as mother wouldn’t send him to the surface.

I love this detail, the portrait of Ryan it provides. He is mystified by children, and uncomfortable with the useful lies he’s teaching them. Seeing himself and Rapture reflected back at him through Ryan Amusements, you can sense that the Rapture experiment is starting to curdle for Ryan, just a little bit. Seeing him react to his first steps toward the kind of statism he spent his life trying to escape, the tragedy and melancholy of his character becomes clearer. That moment alone made Bioshock 2 a worthwhile experience for me.

The Parasite won't let The Artist release his masterpiece to all!

So when I read something like Joystick Division’s summary of “Minerva’s Den”, I badly want to be a part of it. I want to see how they’ve closed out this story. James Hawkins writes:

And it’ll be our farewell to the city, too. We’ve seen Rapture’s lengthy demise, as it succumbed to the narcissism of its culture, and Minerva’s Den ushers us out with the last of the survivors. It is a tasteful and solemn Bon Voyage, not only for the characters within, but for those of us that wanted to see it through.

Sounds great, and I definitely count myself among those who “wanted to see it through.” That’s why I own both Bioshock games, and have spent so much time thinking and writing about them. But that’s not an option available to me, because I don’t own the 360 version of the game.

As a matter of course, I’m against a policy that retroactively turns one version of a game into the “wrong” version by not providing similar levels of support. Now anyone who really loves Bioshock and owns it on the PC can either buy the 360 version or forgo “Minerva’s Den”. My suspicion is that most will choose the latter option. So PC gamers see a product withheld from them, 2K saves on the costs of porting and marketing for the PC, and the creative team behind “Minerva’s Den” reach a significantly smaller audience than they would otherwise.

That also means that “Minerva’s Den” is unlikely to ever be an important part of the Bioshock story. Discussion tends to center around shared experiences, and a large portion of Bioshock’s audience will never visit “Minerva’s Den”. It will be like it never happened.

Which is part of the whole problem with DLC, and why decisions like this make DLC into an after-market ghetto of half-formed ideas and novelties. They can’t ever be “essential”. They must always pass by without disrupting or affecting the experience of the main game. When Mass Effect 3 or Dragon Age 2 come out, Bioware will go to great lengths to make sure that nobody feels like he missed anything. But if the experience has value, shouldn’t it be something people miss? Shouldn’t it be available to anyone who bought the game?

DLC itself is a problematic phrase. To be honest, it’s a suit’s phrase. The rest of us enjoy stories, play games, and have experiences. DLC is the kind of term that comes up in the same breath as conversions, consumers, and monetization. I suspect it dilutes the perceived value of the product, especially when it is so often used as a stalking horse against used game sales, or to wring a few extra dollars out of your customers. It’s why “day one” DLC bothers so many people. People act entitled because they’re feeling defensive, and they’re feeling defensive because there are already so many transparent attempts to screw them. You know, like 2K “adding value” to the collector’s edition of Civ V by leaving the Babylonians out of the standard version?

“Minerva’s Den” should have been a positive experience. Great production values and talented developers combining to make a new and thought-provoking addition to a popular franchise. Everything DLC always promises, but so rarely is. It could have been a counterpoint to all fears of nickel-and-diming that gamers have right now. But instead, 2K took the opportunity to make a lot of gamers feel bad about their purchase of the PC version, and probably reduced the impact “Minerva’s Den” could have had. Seems like everyone loses on that one.

Boston GameLoop 2010 – Overview

Saturday morning, at Too Damn Early AM, I was sitting in a large briefing room at Microsoft New England and clutching a cup of not-quite-hot-enough Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. A hundred or so other people, game designers, artists, programmers, academics, and writers like myself were listening to Darius Kazemi and Scott Macmillan explain exactly what the hell we were doing here.

Well, Darius was trying to explain. Scott, and most of the audience, were trolling him. Still, he managed to get a few key points across.

  • GameLoop is a small local conference that is seeing rapid growth. ’09 had about 100 guests, this year was closer to 200.
  • We were here early to raise topics for discussion and vote on sessions that sounded interesting. Anyone was free to bring up anything, though it was best if he was prepared to run a session.
  • Once a session had enough interest, it won a slot in the schedule.
  • Expert talks should be clearly labeled as such, and moderators should keep the discussion on track so that it remains the proper knowledge level.
  • Bail on sessions that you’re not getting enough out of. No hard feelings.
  • Tabletop gaming is not dead and this audience doesn’t think it’s funny if you make jokes like that.

It’s a great concept and quite a ridiculous amount of fun. Before I get into some of the conversations I had during this conference, however, I should point out a couple things that didn’t seem to work quite right.

For one thing, GameLoop seems to be getting big enough to the point where it is causing problems. The informal nature of the conference agenda (the fact that it is created on the spot) seems like it would work brilliantly for a hundred people. Beyond that, it seems like it started to cause problems. Voting took forever, and the morning schedule filled up with the most popular topics while there was a bit of a “leftover” feel to the afternoon talks. Not that these weren’t valuable, it’s just that there were schedule conflicts in the morning, where 3 out of 5 sessions sounded great. In the afternoon, I was having a hard time finding any talks that I was keenly interested in. But it was the nature of the chaotic morning vote.

Second, I can’t help but wonder if maybe Darius and Scott have made GameLoop too welcoming for guys like me. Mind you, I really hope I can attend next year and they’ll still have a spot open for writers, but I also picked up on some frustration from some of the more advanced professionals attending the event. There were not enough talks for working professionals, and the discussion level tended to operate at an amateur level. If I were at BGL wanting to hear about new design tools, principles of level design, or get a primer in a new coding language, I’m not sure it would have been an entirely satisfying experience. I’d be interested to know whether this jives with what other people observed.

For instance, my day was bookended by two discussions that sprawled into armchair design by people who really didn’t know what they were talking about, but were plenty willing to share opinions. I was one of them. They were great discussions, one about making conversation in games a more satisfying from a gameplay perspective, the other about creating the illusion of life in AI-controlled characters. But the first conversation trended toward some truly ridiculous armchair design that had more to do with what people thought sounded cool than with what was actually practicable for a working designer. The second was largely about what people found lifelike in AI characters, and not about how to make life-like characters.

One last point: Bioshock seems to be growing more important with time, not less. The simple fact is that absolutely no discussion of any game-related topic occurs without reference to it. Narrative, level design, morality, choice, character… someone, every time, will bring up Bioshock. And it is never out of place. It is well on its way to becoming a crucial part of the conceptual framework that everyone uses to interpret and understand games.

The Bioware oeuvre is similarly important, though mostly within discussions of narrative and character. No discussion of storytelling in games passes without someone using Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age to illustrate something. I think what these works have in common is that they point the way forward in a number of ways, but that only serves to underline their limitations.

The Point Is to Be Challenged – Part 3

continued from Part 2

Having and Eating Cake That Is a Lie

Denby, unlike Pulsipher, actually seems to like games and the people who play them. He argues that it’s not an either-or choice between accessibility and challenge. Admitting that there are many games he’s rubbish at, he asks if it’s so unreasonable to expect developers make a “Denby mode” available. While he’s cruising through on a fail-proof difficulty level, I can still have the brutal and demanding experience that I (occasionally) love.

It’s nice to think that gamers of all skills and tastes can unite over games of all stripes, but I have seen precious little evidence that this is the case. Denby uses Bioshock as an example of a game that went out of its way to be friendly to less skilled or less patient gamers. It allowed for instant respawning after death (thanks to the Vita-Chambers that littered each level), and was a breeze to finish on the easiest difficulty setting. Failure was hard to come by, and it wasn’t punished. Yet hardcore gamers still had fun with it on higher difficult levels.

Or did they? I enjoyed Bioshock immensely when I first played it, but “does it have legs?” Not really. I have played Bioshock one and a half times. Compare that to its predecessor, System Shock 2, which I played at least five times and still consider the more interesting game, if woefully unpolished compared to Bioshock. While admitting the truth in Yahtzee’s characterization of SS2′s difficulty as ranging from “hard to murderous”, the game also featured more interesting decisions for the player to make. There were a number of workable approaches to how you could tackle the game, but what you couldn’t do was take advantage of all of them. So you could be a heavily-armed soldier, blasting his way through enemies and obstacles, but then you couldn’t use psionic powers (which were especially useful in places where ammo became scarce). Conversely, you could pour a lot of character development points (cybermodules) into technical skills like hacking and research, which could ease your passage through the game and reduce the combat required.

No matter how you built your character, you made painful trade-offs. If you tried to avoid making any trade-offs, you ended up with a hopelessly mediocrity that would begin having serious trouble in the midgame. However, it also made the game slightly different every time I played it. Furthermore, it was inherently challenging to play through the game with one of these characters, because some things were always easier while some things were suddenly more difficult. My marine could smash and blast his way through hordes of the Many, but he couldn’t break security barriers or hack the item dispensers. My naval technician could make the ship his ally by turning the security system into a friend, and he could break into any weapons locker or vending machine, but he had a tough time with some of the heavy-duty enemies. The two experiences were so different as to be practically different games. Another example of this kind of game would be Deus Ex.

The complexity and challenge inherent to System Shock 2 was stripped out of Bioshock, making the game friendlier to a Denby-style player but ultimately shallower. Your character could do anything and everything in Bioshock, making him effectively invincible. This makes the experience identical every time I play. Furthermore, higher difficult levels do not offer anything interesting. There is no way of making the game more interesting than the breezy experience Denby is having on the easiest setting, because that’s how the game was designed. Higher difficulty levels simply make the enemies more difficult: they absorb more shots  and hit harder, but the solution is hardly a stimulating challenge. You just shoot them more. The difference between easy and hard, then, is “kill them” vs. “kill them a lot.”

It’s easier for developers to create interesting challenges while they are designing the game, and much harder to bring it in ex post facto through difficulty options. Furthermore, there’s a point at which challenges inherent to a design cannot be mitigated by difficulty levels without breaking the game.

Ultimately, I cannot grant the premise that a game should be designed with the goal of being enjoyable or completeable for every potential player, and that seems to be the logical extreme where both Denby and Pulsipher converge. You can’t please everyone, and gaming is never going to disprove that truism. It would be disastrous to try.