Archive for December, 2010


Hot on the heels of their last bunch of sales, Steam is doing a singularly evil promotion: essentially, an achievement-based sweepstakes. Every two days until the 20th of the month, they post a set of criteria for filling in checkboxes that count towards a random drawing for free games. (Also, certain threshold numbers of filled-in checkboxes give special hats in Team Fortress 2, which is one of the strongest motivators known to modern ludology.)Most of the criteria involve playing games that they happen to have on sale for those two days, and apparently they’re all simple enough that you can be reasonably expected to achieve them within an hour or so of playing the game for the first time. So there’s a clear temptation here. Now, in the US, it’s illegal for a privately-run sweepstakes to actually require a purchase. Promotional sweepstakes that you enter by buying things are common, but there’s always an alternate way to enter, usually involving postcards, buried somewhere in the fine print. And so it is here; I could enter this contest without buying any games. But that’s missing the point. I don’t need the prize. I don’t even really want it. I just have a compulsion to do things that fill in checkboxes. (I’m one of the few people I know who played Achievement Unlocked and its sequel to 100% completion.)

But my will is iron. I have sworn not to buy any games solely for the sake of this promotion. Games that are already on my must-play list, though? That’s another matter. And so I’ve bought Dejobaan’s AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, which has a sufficiently quirky basis to be on my radar as worth trying out, if only for the lessons we can learn from its experiments.

That basis: it’s about base jumping. There are some levels with mountains, but mostly it’s base jumping past large floating artificial structures in the sky. You score points by getting dangerously close to them. Points give you money (or “teeth”, as the game calls it — the designers’ attitude contains a big hunk of non-sequitur humor) which you use to unlock more levels. There are more complications that I’ll probably get into in future posts, but that’s the essence of the game right there, in the same way that “enemy spaceships come from the right of the screen and you shoot at them” is the essence of myriad scrolling shmups.

And I mention scrolling shmups because, in a strange way, AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAA!!! feels like one. It has a similar sense of inexorable movement, and of twitchy reactions within a continuous framework of tactical decisions about which route to take. And when you come down to it, it wouldn’t take a lot to re-theme this game around spaceships. The main difference is just one of perspective, of whether you think of the direction you’re moving in as forward or down. (Ender Wiggin would approve.)

Puzzle Dimension: 3D

If there’s one thing Puzzle Dimension really hits home, it’s the dimensionality. This is an experience that’s more fully three-dimensional than most of what we do in real life. I mean, in real life, we’re generally bound to a single surface, with a seemingly consistent normal defining the direction of down. PD lets us explore any surface, regardless of orientation. Let me just share a few illustrative screenshots:

A cloverleaf with flowersThis level is made mostly of two partial shells, made of pathways along a convex surface, joined by some stepping-stones. Because of the way the shell bends, paths that are partially parallel cross and diverge. The implied hull has a definite inside and outside, with flowers on both, so the player has to seek ways to cross between the two — the hook-shape on the right side is a way to transfer from inside to out, by rolling off the end of the hook and dropping to the other side. Dropping from outside to inside is easier, and can be done in multiple places, but the falls necessary are longer, and more dangerous-feeling, because it’s hard to feel completely sure that things are lined up right over a longer distance.

Zero-gravity architectureThere are several levels with this sort of barrel shape. Again, we have a distinct inside and outside (and yes, it is possible to make continuous nonorientable surfaces in this system, although I don’t have a screenshot of one handy), but this time, the design works against maintaining any other sense of orientation: the paths, especially the ones around the curve of the barrel, wind too tightly to easily maintain a sense of absolute direction. Note that the blue tiles are slippery ice; only on the brown tiles can you stop moving. The tentacles here are similar to the hook in the preceding picture, and you can switch from inside to outside by dropping off any of them, but if you’re not careful, you’ll land on an ice tile and go flying off the edge of the structure.

Spike!This level has a shape that I wouldn’t have thought possible given the game’s constraints: using only 45-degree bends, it produces an elongated three-sided spike. It manages this by constructing three planes that are perpendicular to each other, like the sides of a cube, but whose grid lines are diagonal to the cube’s sides. Before seeing this level, I kind of intuitively assumed that the tiles, regardless of orientation, were part of an overall global 3D grid. But of course this is inconsistent with the observed facts: all tiles are clearly square, so anything situated at a 45-degree angle would break the lines of such a grid. Nonetheless, most levels before this one are arranged more or less rectilinearly.

Given the extreme three-dimensionality, it’s especially interesting that the designers decided to make an entire cluster of levels that are flat or mostly flat. I suppose it’s their way of showing that they’re not entirely dependent on disorienting the player, that they can make interesting puzzles even when deprived of their main tool.

Puzzle Dimension: Polish

Well, I’ve just opened up the final cluster. I haven’t delved into it much yet, but the first puzzle in the cluster is significantly easier than the puzzles I had to solve to make it available. In fact, the remaining ones, the ones I haven’t managed to solve yet, are difficult enough that it could take me several days to finish them.

Since we’ve got multiple posts ahead of us, let me take a moment to just talk about how polished it all is. The graphics certainly take advantage of current technology, all bump-mapped and shiny with the appropriate sheen for ceramic tiling or painted wood or whatever is appropriate for your current selected theme. There are four graphical themes, unlocked one by one over the course of play: a yellow-and-brown one with desert-like connotations, a cool whitish one, a wooden one on a green background, and an underwater one. At first I didn’t think much much of them — sure, it’s nice to get some visual variety, but switching themes means I have to get used to how the various tile types look all over again. But then I realized that the background art in the underwater theme — which includes a 3D sea floor, a shimmering surface above, some sea life and rusting barrels and Atlantis pillars — provided cues for remembering my current orientation, in contrast to the more uniform backgrounds in the other themes. It’s hard to say this for sure, but I think this helps even when I’m not consciously paying attention to it.

There isn’t a lot of physics in this game — there’s basically no moving objects other than the ball, and it moves in a simplified, rule-based way, always falling straight down. But there’s one bit of object interaction worth noting: if you brush past a flower — say, because you’re falling through the space it occupies, perpendicular to its orientation — it bends appropriately. It’s a little touch, but a nice one, especially considering that it’s the only sort of interaction that needs such special treatment. What does the game do if the flower is still pixelated? Well, first of all, if you’re close enough to brush by it, you’re close enough to unpixelate it. So it does that, and then the flower bends.

The sounds in the game are mostly arcade-like beeps and boops, but there’s a nice touch in the way the gameplay affects the background music. As in, for example, Peggle, changes in the music reflect your progress. You start off each level with chiptune background music, all square waves and drums made of white noise, and as you unpixelate the level, the music, in effect, unpixelates as well. It’s a subtle effect, because the music remains heavily electronic and synthesized even when it’s unpacked; the thing that really made me start noticing it was the sudden shifts back to NES-quality when you restart a level (something I didn’t do as often in the earlier levels). I suppose it’s an instance of a general theme, that this world, the puzzle dimension, becomes realer as you touch it, more detailed and particular as a result of your experience of it. Even the unlockable themes progress from the abstract to the concrete.

Puzzle Dimension: Scoring

Now, I’ve said that Puzzle Dimension is essentially turn-based. And this is true. But its scoring mechanism is extremely realtime.

I don’t have a good handle on the details of the scoring system — it’s definitely tracked per-puzzle so that you can try to beat your score on any particular puzzle on revisiting it, and it seems like you get points for each flower collected, for finishing the level, for unpixelating tiles (that is, moving onto or near them for the first time), and even, if my observations are correct, for making breakable tiles collapse. But the game doesn’t tell you outright what specific actions are worth, and I haven’t bothered figuring it out. The one thing that I have figured out is the multiplier. It starts at x1, then proceeds to x2, x4, and so on exponentially up to x32 at least (although this can only be reached on some levels). So you can see that getting the multiplier up is crucial to maximizing your score. The way you increase the multiplier is by unpixelating tiles. Behind the score on the screen there is a progress bar showing how close you are to increasing the multiplier. When you move into new territory, it goes up. But over time, it decays. You don’t lose your current multiplier to decay, but you do lose your progress toward the next.

Now, at this point, you might be saying “Why do you care? This is a puzzle game. The goal is to solve the puzzles. If you do that, you’ve won, regardless of the score.” And this is certainly how I usually feel about puzzle games with a scoring element that depends on speed. But, well, this game has Achievements, and some of them are linked to scoring, and that makes me care a little. There’s one Achievement, for getting a total score of over 50000, that I probably won’t get — Steam tells me that it’s the least-achieved Achievement in the game, achieved by only 0.4% of players. But I intend to make an honest try at it.

(Tangentially, I like what they’ve done with the Achievement icons in this game: they’re on backgrounds that are color-coded by type. So all of the “complete all the puzzles in cluster X” Achievements are on blue, all the “get a multiplier of Y” achievements are on green, etc., making it easy to spot trends in a list ordered by other criteria.)

Anyway, playing for points affects how I approach the levels. The first goal in any level is to get the multiplier up quickly by hitting as much of the board as I can without consequences. Once I run out of places I can go without thinking about it, it’s time to put the game into Camera mode, which pauses the game, including the multiplier decay, so I can actually take a look at the whole thing and make plans — plans which may involve more multiplier-grabbing in places that weren’t easily accessible. So the overall pattern becomes one of alternate rushing and contemplation.

Eventually you reach the point where there’s nothing left to grab — either you’ve unpixelated everything (which turns the progress bar green), or the only thing left is on a one-way path to the exit portal. The exit portal isn’t necessarily open at this point. Just because you’ve been at or adjacent to every tile doesn’t mean you’ve figured out how to get to all of the flowers — maybe you’ve only been to the flip-side of some of the flower tiles, maybe there’s ice or sand interfering with your ability to move directly between adjacent stuff. But I’m finding that even when things are in this state, I’m still acting as if I needed to rush everywhere and then pause the game. Habits come quickly in games.

Bioshock: Would you kindly finish the game?

I’ve cited superhero comics as an influence on Bioshock already, but the single most superhero-like moment in the game comes when you start catching up to Atlas, and he blocks your progress by hefting and throwing massive pieces of architecture at you, and striking an Action Comics #1 pose to do it. I suppose he has plasmids that I don’t — I can’t even lift so much as a brick except by telekinesis. 1Telekinesis in this game, by the way, is an obvious imitation of Half-Life 2‘s gravity gun. Not that I necessarily want whatever he’s been taking. By the time of your final boss fight, all the splicing has turned him into something monstrous, resembling a living version of that Atlas statue.

Mind you, the player character has his own brush with monstrosity. The penultimate level comes up with an excuse to get the player character to disguise himself as a Big Daddy — or possibly actually become one. This is a multi-part quest: you get the suit here, the boots there, the voice-box that produces those whalesong-like cries another place. Atlas sends you taunting messages warning about the consequences of what you’re doing, but it isn’t until you’re well into the process that you start finding reasons to believe that it’s not reversible. An audio log describes how the suit doesn’t work unless it’s bonded to the internal organs, replacing the skin. The voice-box is installed with a vicious-looking device that could plausibly be replacing your larynx. You naturally start to wonder just what you’re doing to yourself, what you’re giving up. It all leads into an escort mission, protecting a Little Sister (or, more accurately, a little girl who used to be a Little Sister) as she makes her rounds, and it’s easy to think “Is this how it’s going to be from now on for the rest of my life?”

Or maybe it's a new sort of stealth diving suit that allows the Big Daddies to blend in.But then, the game isn’t consistent about its presentation of your new status. Your first-person view has the circular window of a Big Daddy’s helmet superimposed on it (with some nice distortion effects at the edges), but your hands, when visible, show no such alteration. And when you go into the final boss fight, any sign or memory of the terrible possibilities just goes away. I can understand why they’d want a happy ending here (even though they miss out on a chance for a really memorably dark one), but I would have liked at least a word acknowledging the implications of the previous section.

Looking at a walkthrough afterward to find out what I’d missed, I saw one that concluded with the words “Congratulations, Rapture is saved!” I can only assume that this was put in as a matter of habit, part of the general walkthrough formula, because it’s flabbergasting in its wrongness. Your struggle towards the end is to save the outside world from a super-powered Frank Fontaine, or, if you’re playing the Sith path, to seize his Adam for yourself. Rapture is beyond saving. Its founder doesn’t even believe in salvation — not just in the religious sense, but in that he doesn’t believe in altruistic acts. And when you come down to it, the story of this game is primarily the story of a collapse. That’s unusual in games, even though ruins are a common setting — usually they’re just a setting, and the focus is on the player’s reason for being there. In Bioshock, the player’s real reason for being there is intimately linked with the ongoing collapse.

And the cause of the collapse? Given the Objectivist window-dressing, the obvious way to read the game is as a warning against the consequences of that philosophy. But, as I noted before, that point is blunted by Fontaine’s involvement. Or is it? The rise of Atlas and his revolution was made possible by the large numbers of dissatisfied poor (who weren’t allowed to leave Rapture lest they betray the secret of its existence to the outside world), and is therefore a consequence of Ryan’s no-social-safety-net policy. Something was going to break; Fontaine simply rode the wave, and satisfied videogame conventions by providing the player with something to kill.

It’s been suggested that we can’t really blame Objectivism for what happened, because Ryan had abandoned so many of Objectivism’s core tenets: initiating the use of force, robbing people of their free will through genetic manipulation. But that’s kind of the point. Ryan’s project was idealistic, and Ryan was unable to sustain that idealism. Even the “No gods or kings” bit is implicitly betrayed from the beginning by the way city features are named: Apollo Square, Port Poseidon, etc. Back at the point when you confront him, it’s notable how defeated he already is, despite his earlier appearance of nigh-omnipotent control: locked in his bunker-like office, alone, unable to affect what’s going on outside, finally understanding your mission but unable to do anything about it. He orders you to kill him, using your command words. Some have said that this represents a kind of victory on his part, proving to you that you’re no more than a slave. But he could have proved that with any command. By ordering his own death, he desperately takes the only sort of control he can over his fate, and the fate of Rapture.

I suppose this is why we didn’t have a boss fight against Ryan. He’s the personification of a certain set of ideals, and of how they can go wrong. To turn him into a powerful figure who has to be fought, and to make it possible to lose that fight, would be to suggest that his ideals are still powerful, and undermine the theme of inevitable collapse. Instead, the end boss is Fontaine, personification of things not going as planned.

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1. Telekinesis in this game, by the way, is an obvious imitation of Half-Life 2‘s gravity gun.

Puzzle Dimension: Clusters and Tiles

Like many games, Puzzle Dimension introduces new game elements one by one over the course of play. Except it kind of introduces them in pairs. The levels are grouped into “clusters” of ten, and all of the earlier clusters introduce two elements. If you play the levels within a cluster in order, you get the new elements one at a time, but you don’t have to play them in order; unlocking a cluster makes all of its levels available.

Most of the clusters have titles that play on the things they introduce — for example, the first cluster, “Broken Ice”, introduces first breakable tiles, which crumble after one use, and then ice tiles, which force you to keep moving in a straight line. It’s a pairing with a great deal of puzzle potential, as the ice tiles make it important which direction you move onto them from and the breakable tiles limit your opportunities to approach them as you like, but there’s still something peculiar about it. Because you can still jump when sliding on ice, and indeed sometimes have to in order to solve a level, ice tiles represent the only realtime element I’ve seen so far. Breakable tiles, meanwhile, really emphasize that this is at heart a turn-based game: you can sit on them for as long as you want, and during the entire time that they bear your weight, they play a wobbling, crumbling, just-about-to-collapse animation. But they don’t actually collapse until you move on.

The second cluster, “Jump in the Fire”, gives us springboard tiles, which catapult you forward three spaces (one space farther than you can jump), and then fire tiles, which start off dormant, but become deadly after you use them once. This is a similar pairing to the previous cluster: you get one thing that lessens your control over where you go and requires you to approach them from the right direction if you don’t want to go flying off the edge, and one thing that eliminates tiles from use. In fact, in practical terms, fire tiles and breakable tiles are usually equivalent. There are differences, but they’re subtle ones. Occasionally, you might want to drop through the space left by crumbled tile to a floor below. Also, remember that some levels loop around so that you can reach the flipside of your tiles. The reverse of a lit fire can be a normal tile; the reverse of a hole where a breakable tile used to be can’t.

Cluster 3, “Toggled Blocks”, is sort of an exception to the two-new-things-per-cluster pattern: the one new concept introduced here is switch tiles that turn things on and off. (Each togglable element can start off in either state, and if there are multiple switches, each switch toggles everything.) It’s still treated as introducing two elements, though, both of which are toggled by the switches: tiles that appear and disappear, and tiles with spikes that retract and extend. As with the breakable and fire tiles, these are mostly equivalent, just two different types of obstacle, except on levels where you need to pass through a disappearing tile space. But then, it seems like the levels here employ that trick a lot more. One notable thing about the switches: they’re the first element such that touching them can alter the board in a good way. Sometimes you roll onto a switch and immediately want to press it again to get things back into the state they were in before. It took me a while to realize that you didn’t need to roll off the switch and back on to accomplish this: you can do it by jumping in place.

After that, we get “Shifting Sands”: teleporters and sand tiles. Teleporters come in pairs, each sending you to the other — in fact, I’m not sure it’s possible for a level to have more than two. At any rate, they don’t seem like a very interesting trick to me. They’re not so much a thing that creates new puzzle opportunities as a convenience for the level designer, a way to avoid figuring out how to create a physical connection that doesn’t interfere with the puzzle. Sand tiles, now, that’s a thing to build puzzles from. The metaphor here seems to be drawn from sand traps in golf, which can only be got out of with great force. Likewise, you can’t roll out of a sand tile here: you can only jump out of them, leaping over the tile between. A grid composed entirely out of sand tiles would thus be broken into four mutually-unreachable sub-grids. Throw in a few ordinary tiles to permit crossing over and you have a very unintuitive sort of maze. Navigating sand feels a bit like a Knight’s Tour or something, forced by the rules to skip over the places you really want to go.

The fifth cluster, “Hidden Blocks”, I’ve only glanced at. It introduces tiles that are invisible until you get close to them, and then tiles that are visible from a distance but disappear close up (until you’re actually sitting on them). Both are rendered, when visible, in a way that suggests the reflections of light on glass. I can’t say I really like this addition to the game’s repertoire, adding hidden information to a puzzle type that was getting along without it before, and was otherwise quite good about letting me view the entire structure of each level freely. It may make for difficult puzzles, but it’s a cheap difficulty, and doesn’t make for better or more interesting puzzles.

That covers the first half of the game. After that, the introduction of new elements seems to stop, and the remaining clusters focus on different ways of applying what we’ve already seen. Based on what I’ve said above, I think I’m coming to the conclusion that the elements aren’t really all that varied. Not that this necessarily matters — sometimes a designer can do a lot with combinations of a minimal set of stuff. But it kind of seems like the designers here want to make it seem more varied than it is, which suggests a lack of confidence in their game elements.

Puzzle Dimension

Two degrees of pixellationSteam had one of its big sales over Thanksgiving, including a different five-dollar “indie [adjective] pack” with multiple games each day for five days. I wound up buying four of them. I really should close this loophole in the Oath. Anyway, now that I have all these games, I feel like I should at least give some of them a try. Finishing Bioshock can wait for the weekend, when I have the concentrated attention to spare. Weekday nights, I’m coming to believe, are for little indie puzzle games with self-contained levels — things where I don’t have to track a lot of state.

Which brings us to Puzzle Dimension. This is a puzzle-platformer about rolling a ball around on a grid, skirting obstacles and collecting flowers; once you have all the flowers on a level, an exit portal opens. Now, I say “rolling a ball”, but that’s only skin-deep. There’s nothing about the mechanics that suggests ball-rolling. What you’re really doing is moving an avatar in discrete steps in cardinal directions, and sometimes jumping over tiles. The gameplay seems designed not for keyboard and mouse, not even for a modern gamepad, but for an Atari joystick, a four-direction controller and one button. (Even the menus don’t recognize the mouse.)

I suppose that’s not quite true. It does support an additional button to toggle “camera mode”, which lets you get an overview of the playfield and rotate it freely to view it from any angle (again using four-direction digital controls to do this). This is important because most levels are intensely three-dimensional, and just grasping the geometry can be the key to solving them. The surface you’re on can go through 45-degree bends; sometimes it’s possible to wind up on the opposite side from where you started. The world is always presented so that you’re upright, but it partakes a little of the same gravity-reversal theme as VVVVVV. In particular, if you roll or jump off the edge of a pathway, you fall straight down — relative to your current orientation. Some levels require you to exploit this.

Also of interest is the use of pixelation. Every tile, and everything on a tile (flowers, teleporters, springboards, etc.), starts off rendered in blocky voxels. They become fully-rendered smooth objects when you move onto or adjacent to them, as if your presence is finishing something rough-hewn. This lets you visually keep track of where you have and haven’t been, and also apparently works into the scoring system (which I haven’t paid much attention to yet). Now, obviously there are a lot of games out there that use deliberate pixelation as a stylistic thing, but I think this is the first time I’ve seen it used to denote a marked state, like italics.

Bioshock: Twists

Posting this a couple days late. I finally got up to (and substantially past) the point of long-anticipated revelations. So let’s talk plot, in a spoilery way.

But first, to provide a buffer for for those not wanting spoilers, let’s talk a bit about the function of revelations in a game. Mainly they give some shape to an experience that might otherwise feel homogeneous: instead of spending six hours shooting bad guys, for example, you spend four hours shooting bad guys while confused and seeking answers followed by two hours shooting bad guys with firm and definite purpose. Alternately, new facts can justify sudden changes in gameplay — learning the bad guys’ motivations, for example, could lead to fighting on their side. Bioshock has a little of both sorts. There’s a third sort I think I should mention, because I feel like I’ve been mentioning it a lot lately, what with all the horror games in this year’s IF Comp: the revelation of something that the player already knows but the player character doesn’t, usually something that’s going to make life awful for the protagonist once he knows it and which therefore excites tragic sympathy. (I suppose that the “My god, what is that thing?” moment is also an example of this, albeit a very clumsy one.) Bioshock is something of a horror game and something of a tragedy, but it doesn’t quite do this, or at least not for me: when I speak of long-anticipated revelations, I don’t mean that I knew in advance what the revelations were going to be. I just knew there were going to be revelations.

There are really two twists delivered nearly simultaneously: the truth about Atlas, and the truth about the player character. Like I said before, I was suspicious of Atlas the moment he started being helpful, and his callousness towards the Little Sisters made me even moreso, so I was pretty sure he was hiding something, but I didn’t know what. I had some baseless guesses — was he a pseudonym of Andrew Ryan, allowing him to play both sides? A Big Daddy that overcame its conditioning? I suppose someone cleverer than myself could have figured out the truth: you hear quite a lot about Frank Fontaine, about how he was a crime boss who wielded illegitimate control over Rapture by controlling the Adam supply until Ryan’s men killed him, shortly before Atlas came along and started his uprising. The thing is, the level where you start hearing about Fontaine is also the level where you start hearing about Ryan rounding up dissidents and imposing the death penalty in complete contradiction to his stated ideals (with the usual mealy-mouthed excuses you hear from any dictator). And not just dissidents, but smugglers. Smugglers, in a free-trade paradise? It doesn’t take long to learn (and be repeatedly, anviliciously reminded) that the contraband they were smuggling consisted of literature and other media considered dangerous to Rapture society, mainly Bibles. So Ryan comes off as simply power-hungry and paranoid, and it’s easy to draw the conclusion that Fontaine is just someone who he demonized because he didn’t want to share power, and probably fundamentally blameless. It didn’t even occur to me that he actually is the fulfillment of Ryan’s paranoid fantasies, a con man playing the public for saps, and devious enough to fake his own death and come back with an even better con when it all went bust. But now that he’s come clean and become my enemy, he’s positively determined to prove Ryan right, to make Rapture’s collapse into the effect of an evil outside influence rather than the inevitable result of its intrinsic flaws. It’s a conclusion that’s morally uncomfortable in roughly the same way as the documents released in the 1990s showing that there actually had been Soviet infiltration of the State Department when McCarthy said there was: some people are so wrong in their actions, you don’t want them to turn out to be right about anything. I have to remind myself that Andrew Ryan is still enough of a monster that he’d rather destroy Rapture’s oxygen supply than allow the city to fall into the hands of, well, anyone without his permission — that he once burned down a forest to keep it from being turned into a public park — that, indeed, he’s become the sort of Kurtz-like madman who hangs corpses on hooks outside his office as a warning to others.

The revelations about the player character, now. Every once in a while, throughout the game, you get flashes of memory, in the form of sepia photographs of unclear significance: a farmhouse, a small group of people — the PC and his parents, perhaps? Not entirely clear: they flash by too fast for you get a good look. But the flashes are accompanied by ominous sound effects, sometimes by distant screaming, which I think is generally horror-game shorthand for suppressed knowledge. So, as in those horror games I mentioned earlier, it was clear that there was some dire revelation brewing, but unlike most such situations, it wasn’t at all clear what it was going to be. Some connection to Rapture, I presumed — perhaps the plane crash somehow wasn’t an accident. I was righter than I suspected: the PC’s connection to Rapture is that he was genetically engineered in Rapture, grown to adulthood in a matter of hours and had false memories implanted in Rapture, for the specific purpose of a mission in Rapture. Apparently the command phrase “Would you kindly”, used frequently by Atlas in his communications, activates the PC’s mental conditioning, giving him commands that he can’t help but obey — which is to say, your mission objectives throughout the game. This is one of those things that makes me want to go back and play through the game again, or at least to review the messages available from within the game’s info menus, to hear all the dialogue with knowledge of what it really means. Did Sasha Cohen use the phrase, during the brief time when he took over as taskmaster? Did Atlas say it when telling me to kill the Little Sisters, the one order of his that I’ve disobeyed? When exactly did Andrew Ryan figure out what I was? For it’s Ryan who tells you the truth, when you finally confront him. He definitely starts off at least as clueless as the player: the first time he contacts you by radio, he asks if you’re CIA or KGB. But as you approach his lair, he makes comments about how you’re “not fully human”, which seemed at the time to simply be part of his free-men-vs-parasites rhetoric.

Shortly after this revelation, Dr. Tenenbaum removes the “Will you kindly” trigger, making it impossible for Fontaine to clean up loose ends just by saying “Will you kindly commit suicide”. He does activate some other failsafes that mix up the gameplay a bit, lowering your maximum health, and then, when you attempt to undo that, temporarily putting you into an unsettled state where you can’t control what plasmid you’re using at any given moment, changing it at random. (The game can even choose plasmids you haven’t purchased, which I suppose is a bug, but it’s also a nice way to give the player experience of stuff that might otherwise go unseen.) The funny thing is how little really changes. The trigger phrase was essentially an in-fiction justification for why tasks assigned to you by strangers are mandatory, and in particular for why you have to kill Ryan instead of just sitting down and talking to him. But even without the phrase, the rules of the game demand that you get your marching orders from someone — it just shifts that role from Atlas to Tenenbaum. “A man decides, a slave obeys”: Ryan repeats this several times in his final spiel. By that standard, the player is still a slave.

Speaking of in-game justifications, the game tries to use the same revelations to sell everything else that’s implausible about your success so far. You can face incredible odds and kill Big Daddies so much more easily than the locals (who certainly try) because you were designed to be a killing machine. You can bypass the security systems so easily because Andrew Ryan left genetically-keyed back doors for himself, and you were created using his DNA. Actually, at one point it’s stated that you have half his DNA, which suggests that the PC may not be just a vat-grown homunculus, but Ryan’s natural son (modulo enhancements and rapid growth). This would explain why Diane McClintock, Ryan’s girlfriend, remains such a major source of audio logs throughout the game, despite being such a minor figure in Rapture and in the story so far: she’s probably the PC’s mother. I’m getting ahead of myself here, mind you; I still have a couple of levels to go. But it’s nice to finally have a revelation that I’m anticipating.

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