Archive for November, 2010

Bioshock compared to another shock

Even if it didn’t have the word “shock” in its title, I think it would have been clear that Bioshock owes a lot to System Shock 2. It’s got the same sort-of-RPG thing going on, and the same FPS-in-presentation-but-not-in-emphasis vibe. It’s got the same sort of backstory revealed by audio messages and journal entries scattered in unlikely places, as well as the occasional pseudo-scientifically-justified “ghost” cutscene, a very distinctive technique. It’s got the whole business of automated gun turrets that can be hacked to be on your side, as well as the equally-hackable security cameras that summon robots (here presented as not very bright, and awkwardly flying on little helicopter blades) if you stand in front of them for more than a second or two. It even keeps some of the really idiosyncratic touches, like the way that cigarettes restore a little mana at the cost of a little health.

Where does it differ from SS2? Well, the setting, obviously. Being under the ocean isn’t very different in practical terms from being in space — in both cases, it means you’re stuck in a constrained environment in the middle of something deadly, and that the authors can make plot points of the limited oxygen supply — but at least it means that when there are windows (or, better yet, glass tunnels), there can be something interesting to see through them, like gratuitous schools of fish.

SS2, like Deus Ex, had an “Inventory Tetris” system, where picking things up required slotting them into the free space in a grid, with bulkier items taking up multiple slots. People generally didn’t like it, so Bioshock scraps it. In fact, it doesn’t have a general inventory interface at all. Some things, like the aforementioned cigarettes, are simply put outside any kind of inventory by making you use them immediately when you pick them up. Health packs and Eve hypos (mana potions) show up as a number next to the appropriate bar in the main UI, and ammo levels can be seen from a special weapon/plasmid selection screen. There doesn’t seem to be any way to get a list of your currently-installed gene tonics other than going to a Gene Bank, the machine that lets you swap different tonics into the active slots. Similarly, the only way to find out how much of the various components for “inventions” you’re carrying is to take them to one of the machines that lets you assemble them. I don’t much like this. Simplifying the interface is one thing, withholding useful information is another. I swap my gene tonics around a lot, adjusting them to the situation; as a result, I don’t necessarily know at any given moment which ones I have installed, and therefore what sort of actions I should be attempting.

Which brings us to the biggest chance from SS2: the ability to swap in different upgrades. In SS2, once you bought an upgrade, it became a permanent feature of your character. Even before the game proper started, you were asked to choose to specialize in weapons, tech, or psi (magic). I get the impression that most players never did much with the game’s magic system as a result. It wasn’t a very attractive option once you knew the rules — just as in Bioshock, the only way to gain mana was with the equivalent of potions, and at the point where you were asked to choose your specialization, you had no idea how abundant they would turn out to be. But Bioshock lets you experiment with things by changing your specialization on the fly. I compared the research mechanic to the Final Fantasy V “Jobs” system before, but this respeccing reminds me of it even more. I made negative comments about killing everything with the wrench, but if that’s how you want to play the game, you can get tonics that support it. You can even be a sneak-attack wrench specialist, thanks to a gene tonic that makes your footsteps quiet and increases the wrench’s damage against unsuspecting foes.

For my part, I haven’t done a lot of sneak wrenching, but I have come to really like another stealth-gameplay tonic, one that turns you invisible when you stand still for a second or two. There’s a particularly joyous scenario this enables: you accidentally trigger an alarm, and the bumbling and buzzing security drones come after you, so you duck behind a corner and then just stand there, and watch the bots just fly past looking for you. And by far my favorite combat technique is to use a certain plasmid to hypnotize a Big Daddy into thinking I’m a Little Sister and fighting in my defense. I don’t remember doing any of this stuff in SS2, but that’s probably just because I didn’t take the right upgrade path.

Bioshock: Dawdling

So, we’re coming up to the two-week mark, and I’m still not making much progress in Bioshock. Mainly, it must be admitted, because of my self-imposed restrictions on use of vita-chambers. I play for a while, I get killed in a way that I’m unwilling to just let slide, I find myself also unwilling to replay very much, I stop playing for a while. Sometimes I do so with the attitude that I’m taking a little break, and will shortly get back into the game with a fresh attitude, but then wind up not getting back to it for a couple of days after all.

So I’m considering modifying my restrictions so I can save more often, but you know something? This isn’t a race. Even with this year’s self-imposed schedule, there’s no reason to rush through things. If I take months to get through this game, and finish a dozen others during that time, that’s fine. I look forward to that — not having a self-imposed schedule any more, just playing whatever I feel like, when I feel like it. Not pretending that I have a duty here.

But pretend duties can be enjoyable, or we wouldn’t have games that give us missions. Anyway, I’m giving this game until weekend’s end before I go on to 2008.

Bioshock: Photography

Just a short session last night, and with little progress to show for it. So let’s talk about the next significant mechanic the game brings forth. (It dribbles them out one by one.) At a certain point in the third level, you obtain a “research camera”. Progress in the plot is in fact contingent on finding it, so the designers clearly felt that finding it at that stage was important.

Despite not being capable of doing damage, the camera occupies a weapon slot. It treats film as a kind of ammo — one of the few types I’m not maxed out on at the moment. This is because you pretty much want to take a picture of every single enemy in the game, as well as certain machines. Doing so gives you research points toward the thing depicted, which are sort of like experience points: they fill up a progress meter until you “level up” and gain some benefit, with increasing numbers of points required for each level. The peculiar thing is, the research points are specific to the thing photographed. You’re leveling up for each monster type in parallel. So, although the camera is reminiscent of Pokemon Snap and, more particularly, Beyond Good and Evil (with which it shares the challenge of trying to photograph things while they’re attacking you), it also feels a bit like the way you level up specific Jobs with “Ability Points” in Final Fantasy V. This is just one way that the game is at least as much CRPG as FPS.

The number of points you get for taking a picture depends on its quality, which is evaluated and assigned a letter grade in a special picture-grading screen while the action in the world hangs frozen. (If your first picture of a subject is good enough, it can be enough to get you to the next research level all by itself.) Picture quality mainly seems to be determined by how close you are to the subject and how centered it is. The evaluation will often indicate bonus attributes, such as “Action shot” and “Multiple subjects”, although it’s not clear to me if these are things that affect the letter grade or additional modifiers on top of it. “Multiple subjects” is an interesting one, because, in a limited way, it lets you get credit for photographing the same subject more than once, which is otherwise impossible — attempts at taking multiple pictures of the same thing don’t even consume film, an unrealistic touch but a gentle one. There are occasions when the “multiple subject” tag has taken me completely by surprise, because I thought the thing I was photographic was alone. Sometimes it was; sometimes the other subjects were already dead. And yes, corpses can be photographed, but they give only a fraction of the points that a live subject does. The designers really wanted to make sure that the photography that’s rewarded is the risky kind. Even the “action shot” bonus seems to mean taking a picture of something at the moment it makes an attack.

And what do you get for your research? The most common benefit seems to be a combat bonus against the subject’s type, which is probably worth having, but kind of boring. If that were all you got, I’d probably still try to photograph stuff, but only in the way that I go for items that give a score bonus in an arcade-type game: as a little extra challenge that I don’t think about very much and pass by if it looks too difficult. But certain subject types, at certain levels, give you other things, such as gene tonics (passive buffs). You have a limited number of slots for gene tonics, but having more types means having more options. This is enough to trigger the “gotta catch ’em all” response in me, and for a while now, I’ve basically let no enemy go unresearched.

Bioshock: Eve and Adam

If I’m going to be throwing around words like “plasmid”, I suppose I should explain them. Fortunately, this is easy to do, because most of the terminology peculiar to this game is just a veneer over a CRPG-style magic system: plasmids are spells, gene tonics are passive buffs, Eve is mana and Eve hypos are mana potions. For those last two, the game even helps you out by coloring the eve hypos blue, and representing your current Eve level by a blue bar right alongside your health bar. (Something to research: where did this color convention come from? The idea that mana is blue is strong enough today that it would seem very strange if a game represented it with, say, a yellow bar.)

The one thing that doesn’t have an obvious counterpart is Adam. Adam is the name for the currency you use to buy plasmids, gene tonics, and other upgrades (such as increases in the number of slots you have available for plasmids and gene tonics) from the “Gatherer’s Garden” vending machines found throughout the game. The in-fiction explanation is that it’s the artificial stem cells that you need to bind genetic modifications to yourself, or some similar malarkey. I suppose you could say it’s equivalent to experience points or skill points or something like that, but that doesn’t take into account the unique matter of where it comes from. Adam has one source: the Little Sisters.

The Little Sisters are young girls living in symbiosis with a kind of sea slug. Or actually “symbiosis” might not be the right word. The word “parasite” gets used a lot in this game, in Ryan’s propaganda broadcasts, to describe his enemies, which is to say, most people. I’m sure that the confusion here is intentional: at some point you’ll find a log or two about the slugs, and then hear something about “The parasite” and, because of where your head is at, take a moment to register the fact that it’s being figurative. But I’m not sure that even this is the right word. The whole system is artificial, created by a third party, apparently to maximize Adam production. It’s symbiosis when two organisms interact in a way that benefits them both, and parasitism when one gains at the other’s expense. What is it when both organisms are the worse for their interaction?

Anyway, the Little Sisters produce Adam, and apparently also go around harvesting it from corpses, of which there are plenty scattered around due to the general collapse of civilization. Each Little Sister is accompanied by a hulking bodyguard in a diving suit: a Big Daddy. This is necessary because everyone wants Adam. If you can defeat a Big Daddy, you get a choice of what to do with the terrified Little Sister — a choice, moreover, with its own UI, with special buttons devoted to it specifically. First, you can harvest the slug, collecting all of its Adam and killing the girl in the process — destroying her, in fact; not even a corpse remains. The mini-cutscene on selecting this option leaves it unclear just what happens to her, fading the scene to black before it gets too gruesome. Perhaps she’s reduced entirely to Adam, clothes and all. The other option is to use a special plasmid (delivered to you in a cutscene) to “rescue” or “exorcize” the girl, which apparently makes her stop being a Little Sister, or at least makes her eyes stop glowing. She then thanks you and scampers away into the ductwork. This option also gives you Adam, but only half as much as you get from murdering her.

Now, the game puts a lot of effort into pitching this as a moral decision. There’s even an advisor on each side, contacting you via radio and making arguments like little cartoon angel and devil figures on your shoulders. On the devil’s side, you have the man who calls himself Atlas: your first contact in Rapture and apparently some kind of rebel leader. He’s given me good advice and gotten me through the earlier perils, which makes him highly suspicious in a game that shares writing credits with System Shock 2, but at least he claims plausible selfish motivations: he says he wants you to help him rescue his wife and daughters. To that end, he wants you to be as powerful as possible, which means getting as much Adam as you can, even though this sort of rampant abuse of genetic modification is what drove the population of Rapture insane. The hypocrisy of his position, of rescuing innocent little girls by killing other innocent little girls, is so obvious that he has to really push the idea that the Little Sisters are monsters, unworthy of consideration — something that would be more convincing if Dr. Tenenbaum hadn’t provided a way to restore them. Tenenbaum is the angel figure here: it was her research that led to the creation of the Little Sisters, so she feels responsibility toward them. (I suppose this makes her a traitor to Andrew Ryan’s philosophy, in which feeling any sense of responsibility to others is interpreted as being enslaved by parasites.) Tenenbaum promises rewards for following “the path of righteousness”, and I’ve already begun to reap them: special gifts left for me, including plasmids that aren’t available for purchase from the Gatherer’s Gardens. Atlas insists that Tenenbaum is playing me for a sap, but unless he tells me just what ulterior motives Tenenbaum has that I’m not aware of, it comes off as just so much hot air.

I’ve seen this approach criticized as working against the moral dimension of the decision — that the whole thing is set up to make it sound at first like sparing the Little Sisters involves self-sacrifice, in the form of giving up potential power, but then it turns around and gives you material benefits to make up for it. Now, I don’t agree that morally correct behavior always has to be the less convenient option. In real life, doing the wrong thing often requires greater sacrifice than doing the right thing — holding a grudge, for example, can be an enormous expense of emotional effort and limit on enjoyment of life. But it’s true that the choice here is basically one of Star Wars morality. You’ve got a light path and a dark path, and it’s obvious which is which. The dark path gives you a quicker route to power, but the light path is probably more powerful in the long run. And really, rather than pose any moral dilemmas, the game seems to be set up to make the player prefer the morally correct choice. Under this interpretation, the real purpose of the repeated decision is not to give the player a choice of values, but to prompt the player to reaffirm, in a meaningful and gameplay-affecting way, the correct values. To repudiate the dehumanization of the Little Sisters and, by extension, the whole system that produced them.

Bioshock: Stupid?

Coincidentally, there was some discussion of Bioshock at my workplace the other day. (Steam had put it on sale for Halloween.) One person insisted that it was “stupid”, and others rushed to defend it. I tried to argue on the stupid side, just to balance things out a little, and to that end adapted some of what I said in my last post — essentially, that it’s sensationalistic, and the line between sensationalism and stupidity is so fine that I’m not even sure it’s there. In addition, Objectivism is a basically stupid philosophy, by which I mean that adhering to it necessarily involves forgetting or ignoring a lot of what you know about humanity, and often seems to also involve other sorts of idiocy like pretending that you can derive practical information from a tautology like “A is A”. This is the sort of stupid that you can’t even argue against intelligently; just taking it seriously enough to engage it lowers the level of discourse. Bioshock certainly engages it, but perhaps not seriously enough to be affected. The chief argument it employs is “O NO YOU ARE BEING ATTACKED BY MONSTER PEOPLE”, which is kind of dismissive. Or perhaps just kind of stupid.

But this isn’t what the accuser in this discussion meant. He wasn’t thinking about the style or the theme, but about the gameplay. This is a game that imposes no penalty for dying, which, to him, meant there was no motivation for playing skillfully or learning new techniques. His knock-down argument was that he claimed he had beaten the game on the Hard difficulty setting using no weapon or plasmid other than the wrench that you get early on as your default melee weapon. It didn’t make a difference, he said, because enemies don’t heal when you respawn, so you can just whittle them down to nothing no matter how often they kill you. Thus, the game is stupid.

Now, I have my doubts about the veracity of his claims. I myself took a few wrench-swings at Dr. Steiner, the game’s first boss-like enemy, and I could have sworn that he was back at full health by the time I got back from the vita-chamber. Perhaps there was a health dispenser I failed to notice. Regardless, everyone present, including myself, felt that he was approaching the game wrong. I recognize that everyone’s different, and that not everyone who plays games plays them for the same reasons, or derives the same sorts of satisfaction from them. No game will appeal to everyone. But even bearing this in mind, it seemed like his poor experience of the game was his own doing, the result of a willful refusal to appreciate its merits.

It was argued that Bioshock is about the setting and story rather than about the challenge, and as far as that goes, I can’t disagree. A colleague of mine once said about Quake that it wasn’t really a game about shooting, but rather, a game about 3D environments. The shooting was just there to give you something to do in those environments. You can say the same about most first-person shooters, to varying degrees. Some are more about action, some are more about place. Bioshock is very much about place. But this isn’t a very satisfying excuse. If you’re going to fill your decaying underwater city with combat set-pieces, surely you can at least provide interesting combat mechanics?

But that’s where the argument for stupid breaks down. The game does provide interesting mechanics; my colleague just refused to use them, and the game never forced the issue. Again, people enjoy different things, and the game recognizes this by allowing you to take different approaches. If you enjoy sticking with the wrench, killing things by degrees and dying a lot, it gives you that option. If you don’t enjoy playing it that way, why do it? The fact that the game lets you respawn without resetting the game state doesn’t mean you have to take advantage of it.

I’m reminded of my experience with Final Fantasy 8. This is a game that gives you access to powerful summoning spells from near the very beginning, and lets you cast them at a much lower cost than in other Final Fantasy games. Thus, for most of the game, you can pretty much just do a summon at the beginning of every combat to win them all trivially. A lot of people did this, and consequently decided that the game was stupid. So when I played, I made a point of not doing it that way. As a result, I probably had a more satisfying experience than most players.

So, this all got me thinking. I had already been doing more dying than I liked in Bioshock. Even if it’s without consequence, it’s a kind of failure. So I’m replaying from the beginning, trying to avoid dying entirely, or at least minimize it. To support this, I’m dialing the difficulty down from Hard to Normal. The game recommends Normal if you’ve played shooters before and Hard if you’ve played a lot of shooters before, and so, although I don’t consider myself skilled by multiplayer standards, I figured I qualified for Hard just on the basis of long experience. But that was without my new handicap. Restarting also gives me the luxury of making decisions differently, and in particular, choosing different plasmids. The first time through, when I had the opportunity to purchase the Rage plasmid, which makes enemies attack each other, I instead purchased a couple of others that would make normal gameplay easier (for example, one of them was simply armor against physical damage). That might have been important under Hard, but at this point I think the better way to play this game is to choose things that make the game interesting instead of things that make it easy.


On to 2007. There’s a lot of choice material on the Stack for this year: Mass Effect, Aquaria, STALKER, Space Giraffe. Was this an unusually good year for games? Maybe, but then, this is also where we catch up to the start of this blog, and therefore the point at which I stopped playing new games so much. Still, this wasn’t a hard choice. Apart from the contents of the Orange Box, which are all off the Stack already, the one game here that’s had the largest impact on gamer culture, or at least on the sort of blogs I read, is definitely Bioshock. I’ve been trying to avoid spoilers on this game for the last three years, but it’s simply been in the air, used as an example of moral choice in games here, as a basis for humorous photoshops there.

Humility is the morality of the slave.So, I know a certain amount going in, but not everything. I knew to expect triumphalism gone awry, a wondrous and phantasmagorical underwater city laid waste by the deadly combination of genetic engineering and rampant Objectivism. I knew about the Little Sisters and the Big Daddies, and the choice they represent. And I knew to expect architecture and statuary in a sort of exaggerated art deco style, things like less-human versions of the famous statue of Atlas at Rockerfeller Center. (One of the first things you see in the entrance to Rapture is a huge bronze bust of Andrew Ryan, the city’s spooneristic founder, with unfortunate underlighting that makes him look like he’s sneering at you.) But I wasn’t expecting the contents of these halls to be quite so lurid. It’s like an EC horror comic in here, full of comical grotesquery: the enemies that ramble insanely about their lying bitch girlfriends as they swing lead pipes at you, the way your hand swells up like a balloon when you inject yourself with your first plasmid, the mad-scientist ravings and injury-to-the-eye-motif diagrams of a plastic surgeon who considers himself above conventional morality. All juxtaposed with soaring monuments drenched with seawater, while somewhere in the background a radio plays a gentle swing number, or maybe an inspirational recording of Andrew Ryan making a nasty and self-congratulatory little speech. It’s a glorious mess of potent imagery.

Other first impressions: It reminds me a lot of the Half-Life games. Not in content, in presentation. Like Half-Life, this is a game that keeps you in the FPS even when it wants to do a cutscene, putting staged events in places you’re likely to look. I recall some talk about how certain elements in System Shock 2, such as the “ghost” visions, were attempts at imitating Half-Life‘s techniques. They’re imitated much better here, and also more blatantly. The initial views of Rapture from the window of a bathysphere remind me a lot of the initial tram ride to Black Mesa, and the title of the first level, “Welcome to Rapture”, reminds me a lot of Half-Life 2‘s “Welcome to City 17”. Even that bust of Ryan puts me in mind of the large monitor showing Dr. Breen at the train station, a personal introduction to a remote adversary.

IFComp 2010 wrap-up

Unrestrained comments on various games in the Comp after the break.
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