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.

Final Fantasy V: Bosses

I honestly thought I would reach the end of the game this weekend, but the last bits have been taking longer than I expected, largely due to a whole slew of trick bosses. Generally speaking, there’s an approach that makes each boss easy to beat, but it’s different for each boss. Maybe it’s vulnerable to a particular kind of elemental damage; maybe it’s invulnerable to spells and has to be taken down entirely through melee attacks, or vice versa; maybe it has an attack that can wipe out your entire party in one round if you’re not prepared with specific defensive magic. The number of possible gimmicks increases as your capabilities increase over the course of the game.

The scariest boss I’ve encountered so far is definitely Atomos, the final guardian of that force field generator back in world 2. This is one of those monsters that’s so freakish it doesn’t even look like a monster. It looks like a gateway to the swirling void, its frame irregularly decorated with spikes and fins and things. Its modus operandi is to bombard you with the Comet spell more or less constantly until someone dies, at which point it starts slowly drawing the corpse toward itself. Things don’t usually move around during combat, so it took me a while to notice that this was happening, and to convince myself that I wasn’t imagining it. When I did, I freaked out. The natural reaction here is to immediately resurrect the fallen as they fall, lest they disappear into Atomos’ inky maw. It’s also exactly the wrong thing to do. As long as Atomos is drawing someone in, it isn’t attacking. If you just concentrate on doing damage to Atomos, you can kill it before your comrade disappears, or, if that doesn’t work, distract it by deliberately killing another party member before resurrecting the guy who’s about to disappear.

The most unusual gimmick boss is Gogo, a jester-like entity who guards the crystal shard from which you learn the Mime job. Gogo insists that he’ll only step aside for a master of mimicry like himself. In combat mode, Gogo waits for you to do something, and then replies in kind: if you hit him, he hits you back for 9999 damage, and if you cast a spell — even a defensive or healing spell — he casts some heavy-duty attack spell. The key here is to take what he says seriously: he wants you to prove that you’re a master of mimicry. If you don’t attack him, he stands there and does nothing, so you have to do the same. After a minute or so of just standing there, he declares that you imitated him perfectly and leaves. This strikes me as very much a late-game gimmick — the designers’ way of saying “OK, so, by now you’ve proved that you can fight. So let’s try something else.” (I understand that some people actually have managed to kill Gogo by conventional means, but that would take more insanity than I can spare.)

Most of the summonables in this game are bosses first, and become summonable when you defeat them. In fact, this game is fairly explicit about the idea that things become summonable by dying. There are two dragons in the game who are friendly with the party, die plot-related deaths, and become summonables in the process; one of them sacrifices its life specifically for that reason. Even weirder, there’s a couple of bosses in this game who show up as summonables in later games. Atomos is one, although I haven’t yet played the games where you can summon it. The other is Gilgamesh, X-Death’s incompetent right-hand man, who runs away from the first few battles (making him the first boss in the series that you have to fight multiple times) and ultimately gets banished to the Void by X-Death. I first saw Gilgamesh in FF8, and was baffled: he just showed up out of the blue, replacing Odin as the guy who randomly appears and ends battles for you. But at least Odin looked like the Norse god; what did this guy in the ridiculous puffy red outfit have to do with the hero of Sumeria? I’m pleased to now know where he really came from.

Now, the endgame is basically a very long dungeon with a boss fight approximately every other room, and sometimes multiple boss fights in the same room. Most of them aren’t too gimmicky, and can be finished with general-purpose equipment and job assignments, but still, any boss fight I’m not expecting has the potential for an instant TPK. This makes for nervous exploration. I find myself running back to the save points a lot. But that’s okay, because that just means more ordinary random encounters, and in this area, ordinary random encounters yield grossly disproportionate amounts of job experience. This is the last chance to master jobs for the final battle, so the designers help the player along a little.

Final Fantasy V: Dawn Warriors

I’ve made my way back to Galuf’s castle. It turns out he’s a king on this planet. I thought at first that this was another piece of his backstory that I had missed or misinterpreted somehow, and I was relieved to discover that it was news to the rest of the player characters as well. Another flashback filled in more details: the reason that Galuf and his comrades — “The Dawn Warriors”, as their PR department calls them — imprisoned X-Death where they did is simply because that’s where they defeated him, and they had to do something about him right there before he came back to life.

Now, these Dawn Warriors were a group of four, much like the current party. For the first time in the series, there’s a sense that the player’s position is not unique, that the previous generation had their version of this story — a Pre-final Fantasy, if you will (Midterm Fantasy, maybe?) — and that the story is partly about coming of age, filling the shoes of those who came before you and living up to their standards. When you think about it, it’s an appropriate theme for an RPG with mechanics based around improving your characters. FF8 does something similar.

As if to drive the point home, it turns out that one of the Dawn Warriors, the late Dorgan, was the viewpoint character’s father. This gives certain NPCs an opportunity to say admiring things about him and then conclude with “He would have been proud of you” or similar, just like whenever Dumbledore talks about James Potter. In particular, I’ve got this treatment from the two other remaining Dawn Warriors, Kelga and Zeza.

Kelga is a werewolf — werewolves are good guys in this game, there’s a whole town full of them. He’s too ill to have much to do with the new fight against X-Death, and will more than likely die before the game is over. Zeza, on the other hand, leads the offensive against X-Death’s new domain. It’s surrounded by an impenetrable force field, but Zeza knows a secret way in, through a cave that’s only accessible by submarine.

This is the point where I really started to think that everything that seemed new and different about FF7 was already present in FF5. FF7 was the point where the designers seemed to suddenly realize that
Fantasy does not have to imply Pseudo-Medieval. Sure, it still had swords and spells and dragons, but it was also full of guns and helicopters and neon-lit cityscapes. FF8 went so far as to declare that all magic was really manifestations of psi power, and put you in a world with roughly 1940’s fashions and customs (except in one country where it was more like Star Trek fashions and customs.) In FF5, people wear standard fantasy robes and live in standard fantasy castles, but this is but a veneer over advanced industrial technology. There’s always been a bit of high tech in the series — FF1 had a “castle in the sky” that turned out to be a space station populated by robots 1I always thought that the robots in FF1 looked a lot like those in Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, AKA Laputa, which was released in Japan while FF1 was in development., and FF4 involved a trip to the moon — but that stuff has generally been more like an anomaly in a mostly stock-fantasy world, and a relic of Vancian lost civilizations besides. In FF5, people are building submarines and steamships and force-field generators, even though they evidently haven’t discovered gunpowder.

1 I always thought that the robots in FF1 looked a lot like those in Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, AKA Laputa, which was released in Japan while FF1 was in development.

Final Fantasy V: Jobs

Although I’ve been trying to play the Final Fantasy series in order, I skipped FF3. It’s never been released on any platform I own — heck, until recently, it hadn’t even been released in English. 1There was an American release of a game called Final Fantasy III, but it was actually what we today call Final Fantasy VI. Some of the games were originally released only in Japan, but after FF7 they decided to sync up the numbers and do official English-language remakes of the skipped episodes. I tried playing a fan-made translation of FF3 on a NES emulator years ago, but found it unwieldy and confusing, and gave it up, hoping that the future would bring a better way to play it. In particular, it had this “Job” concept that was inadequately explained. Perhaps it was covered better in the docs, which I didn’t have.

FF4 didn’t have anything like the Job system — instead, it accomplished the same purpose, providing variability in gameplay, by swapping different player characters in and out a lot. But FF5 brought Jobs back.

This time I have documentation and an in-game tutorial to help me, but it was still confusing at first, because the whole idea is so contrary to both RPG convention and common sense. In essense: you can change a character’s class at any time (except during combat). I’m not talking about D&D-style multiclassing, I mean you can just turn your level 10 Thief into a level 10 White Mage, cast healing spells on your party, then turn him back to a Thief. It’s a little misleading to even talk about a “level 10 Thief” at all: it’s just a level 10 character who’s currently doing the Thief job.

“Surely there must be some kind of penalty for switching jobs willy-nilly!” one cries. No, there is not. Why should there be? Does D&D reward spellcasters for memorizing the same set of spells every day, or fighters for remaining loyal to a single suit of armor? Jobs in this game are like garments that you slip on to suit your current activities. Indeed, each job comes with its own outfit — or rather, four outfits, one for each player character. They get sillier as the game goes on. One job involves dressing up in an animal costume with big ears.

Each character also gets to use one feature they’ve earned from a different job. This is where it gets complicated. See, there are two parallel kinds of XP. You’ve got your conventional experience level system, which governs the character’s base stats (which are modified by the current job), and you’ve also got “ability points”, which are job-specific. Suppose, for example, you want a character who can both use a sword and cast healing spells. One way to go about this is to give someone the job of White Mage and go kill stuff for a while. A White Mage with enough Ability Points gets the privilege of keeping the ability to cast first-level White spells when switched to a different job. Get some more Ability Points and you can keep the ability to cast second-level White spells, and so on. Likewise, you can do it the other way around: if you gain enough Ability Points as a Knight, you can switch to White Mage and keep the ability to use a sword. (There are other jobs that use swords, but only the Knight lets you keep it.) Each playable character can only have one skill of this sort active at a time, but like the jobs themselves, you can switch the active skill at will.

The whole scheme seems tailor-made for people who like experimenting with different character classes. There are only four playable characters, but there are 22 jobs, including exotic things like Geomancer and Chemist. Naturally I want to try them all. The game doesn’t make all of the jobs available at the beginning, but releases them in batches after certain major plot events, with the more experimental ones appearing later.

Later installments in the series kept the idea of on-the-fly character customization, but the two that I’ve played used different mechanisms for it. In FF7, it was part of the Materia system, which broke things down into more elementary units — instead of a Thief job with such features as enhanced speed and the ability to steal, “Speed Plus” and “Steal” are separate materia that can be used together or independently. In FF8, there’s a system of “Guardian Forces” that enhance their bearers in various ways, including providing the ability to enhance certain stats by attaching spells to them. The FF7 system is a lot simpler than the Job system, the FF8 system a lot more complicated. But all three of them have one thing in common: “action points”, the parallel XP. When I played FF7, it seemed odd that materia — magic stones slotted into weapons or armor — gained experience levels along with their users. But now I see where that comes from.

1 There was an American release of a game called Final Fantasy III, but it was actually what we today call Final Fantasy VI. Some of the games were originally released only in Japan, but after FF7 they decided to sync up the numbers and do official English-language remakes of the skipped episodes.