Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Man, a Plan, an...Underwater City Based on Objectivist Principles: Bioshock!

Another wandering review of an ancient game (well, 2007 release...)

It is tempting to approach Bioshock with hindsight, forgetting just how many innovations it introduced to a wider audience. The combination of first-person-shooter gunplay and survival-game ambience was relatively new. The world-building was exceptional not just for a new level of technical achievement, but for an integrated and cohesive vision that made internal sense (instead of being just a series of spectacular backdrops). Even Crafting -- present in nascent form -- was essentially new.

However, the game survives well. Like the Lord of the Rings, it may have been followed by enough others to lend a certain jaded familiarity with the ideas, but it still holds up as doing a good job with them.

But let's just take this as established and move on; it was a very good game and deserved its acclaim then, and it is quite playable and does not feel in the least bit retro or awkward now. Whatever you can say on the technical side -- low-poly models, simplistic AI, canned and repetitive dialog -- the game recognized these technical limitations and constructed story and level and character design and gameplay to make the best possible use of them.

In short, it largely avoids the uncanny valley problem by choosing characters that are already firmly deep in the trench. The splicer's rote behavior becomes not emblematic of poor coding, but of their own befuddled brains. Similar can be said of the physical design of Rapture itself. Draw distance and skybox are hardly an issue when you are in a narrow corridor deep under the sea.

With that said, the rest of this essay is going to be about some of those elements of gameplay and design choices and what they say about evolving game design in general.

First off, and sharing a problem Tomb Raider 2013 had much, much worse, Bioshock may have too much in the box. It seems the accepted design that when you put RPG elements into an FPS (err..Role Playing Game elements into a First-Person Shooter -- I'm going to try to stay away from the technical and the acronyms but this is going to slide away from general readership regardless), you end up with multiple streams of weapon-and-health support.

As in every FPS from Doom on, you can pick up ammunition from enemy drops. You can find it just lying around the landscape (at least Bioshock is restrained in this -- in many games the random ammunition boxes become almost as ludicrous as the frequent health packs). You can also purchase it (a nice Bioshock innovation is that, contextually, vending machines for ammunition make sense in that universe.) And you can craft it.

Which is my first complaint, really. Crafting is cute, but when you get right down to it, it is a different vending machine. Or a different weapons drop. I have yet to see a Crafting system that let you make something truly unique (I can't really imagine how you could code it up!) So instead, this is just "expensive" ammunition. Which technically is not available to anyone else in the game world, except that they can and do use the same Crafting machines you do, plus -- to Craft, you need raw supplies, and you find those on enemy dead or in the usual supply cabinets.

So when you get right down to it, Crafting is just like purchasing ammunition with money you found on a body or hidden in a crate, only it is barter goods instead of cash. It is slightly more limited, but at the same time you don't get any real choice as to what you collect. You can't go out to the Rubber Hose Tree because you have everything else but that to make new RPG rounds.

At least they've avoided the extremes of Fallout 3, where you are carrying so many scraps of rusted metal and stale bread you have to rent a storage locker to put them in. Or the opposite extreme of Tomb Raider 2013, in which the open pool of "salvage" begins to suggest that the materials for strengthening a home-made stick bow are equally appropriate to bore-sight a 1940's machine gun.

But, in the end of it, you have three distinct streams of ammunition re-supply, and this starts to feel a lot less like gameplay and a lot more like a transparent effort to stretch the running time.

Bioshock has the sometimes-reviled "Vita-Chambers." Which are an in-game hand-wave towards how your character is able to restore from a save point. I don't have problem with them per se, except to say they don't get you anything. The in-universe explanation is ludicrous and you never see anyone else using them, nor does anyone in game seem to recognize that they are being used. Now, if Splicers camped the nearest Vita-Chamber, that might make a little more sense. But, really, you've just replaced one lack of explanation for an equal lack of explanation. Only one that is wearing a large blue-glowing lampshade.

Save points are an essential problem in game design. You achieve desired difficulty through there being a real chance of failure. But failure can not be punished too excessively or the player stops playing. I've had a least one game that required you restart and re-load a saved game, and that was so onerous the game lost all fun.

On the other hand, something like Tomb Raider: Legends, where you almost-instantly reset to a convenient place (with all health restored), makes death such a revolving door suicide becomes a viable gameplay option.

Bioshock started to carry through something with the Vita-Chambers in that they restore you with marginal health and Eve. The old space game Escape Velocity escape pod option plays out similarly; you lose your current ship and at least some of your reputation. In at least one version of the game, if you lost a battle to pirates you would have cargo and money stolen then be left drifting without power for the further ignominy of having to plead with passing ships for a little help.

I could sort of see this being carried through in an FPS, where making a mistake and getting shot means you are shown in cut-scene somehow finding cover to crawl into -- or being rescued by locals -- and then restart play with most of your weapons gone and your health hanging by a thread, with your first task being re-supply.

Except there's that old punishment problem again. If the player avatar gets killed/incapacitated often, then the penalty can't be too large or take too long or the player will quit in disgust after the third or fourth time of going through it. And when you make the drawbacks of resurrection too low and/or the process too fast and painless, you take the bite out of death and take the challenge out of playing.

I played Bioshock through to the end of Arcadia on "Medium" difficulty, but the big set-piece battle in the labs I ended up hitting the Vita-Chamber every few minutes. I literally would run out of the Vita-Chamber, attack the remaining Splicers with whatever weapon happened to be equipped at the moment, kill one, die, be sent back to the Vita-Chamber. Lather, rinse, repeat until all the Splicers were finally dead. It really took the thrill out.

At least a proper save point means you face the same challenge and have to get through it at least once from the top. You can't just chip away at it. (But then, this is the theory behind why some games limit the number of save points -- to keep you from save-scrumming through a really tough section. Me, I think the choice should be made by the player. You should be able to balance perceived risk and rewards, weighing whether to spend the time saving the game versus the pain of having to go back to the previous save point.)

Really, this is an extension of the Health Pack problem. At least, in the Bioshock universe it makes in-game sense why Health Packs work. And why guns are relatively weak; everyone is all Adam'd up to be much less vulnerable. And this is why rocket-propelled grenades and flame throwers are in the vending machines -- and they kill just about as effectively as they do in the real world. Being able to shrug off a couple 38 slugs does not translate into resisting two pounds of explosive warhead!

Bioshock also partly answers the Hero Success problem. Although it seems to you that you are pretty much a beginning Splicer -- literally just off the boat, access to the same weapons and Eve that they have -- you can believe you are doing well even early on because you aren't, at least, batshit insane. The Splicers are so easily distracted, prone to fratricide, and otherwise just as likely to get themselves killed as to successfully attack you, it is not entirely unbelievable you make it through them alive.

Later on, of course, you realize you are Jack Ryan, and the turrets are shooting at you less, the cameras take longer to find you, and every safe, door, and vending machine is easier for you to hack than it is for anyone else other than you or dear old dad.

Still, it does beg the question of if the Splicers are so into trying every plasmid they can inject, why so many of them shoot at you with guns, and why even the ones with plasmid-based attacks specialize in only one (and aren't even that good at it). Again; they've all got rubber hose and distilled water in their pockets; why aren't they are the Maker-Space-o-Matic making their own frag grenades?

For some reason, stealth and environmental kills feel more "realistic" in these sorts of ordinary-man-fights-off-skilled-ninjas situations. Even in the movies it seems to work. Put the hero in a "Draw, pardner" situation and it feels unlikely that they win the shootout. But let them come up with some stupid contrivance with a cart, a robe, and some straw and it feels reasonable. Relatively speaking.

Tomb Raider 2013 would have felt a lot better if that sort of thing had been made the rule. And they had the space for it; Lara shows an aptitude towards climbing and she's small enough to get into spaces the Solarii can't. It is established in several places in the game that the mooks simply don't expect someone to be able to approach from a certain direction, and otherwise have their guard down.

But then the game throws it all away by letting you, often forcing you, and apparently expecting you to do stand-up gun brawls with upwards of a dozen mooks firing automatic weapons. And you hose them down with an identical weapon and no explanation of your superior standing. Half-life got the same way, but at least had the hand-wave of the HEV suit. That, and the contrived circumstances that let Gordon constantly appear in the least expected place.

Bioshock nearly falls in the same direction, particularly after Jack downs so many plasmids he can take out a Big Daddy with a monkey wrench. Fontaine should be nearly unstoppable. Instead he's a typical boss fight, and easily taken down with a few grenades.

That said, Bioshock takes the hyperspace arsenal problem and doubles it. I found it frustrating and difficult even after some creative keyboard re-mapping to be able to actually reach the right combinations of weapons and plasmids amid the tumult of a battle.

The game gives you too many choices. It seems to expect you to be using them, too. Adding to the various tonics, the plasmids, the ammunition choices, the various strategies of distance, melee, fratricide via plasmid, trap-laying, and hacking, it also has an entire side mechanic of Researching.

At some point in the middle of combat while watching your three and nine for flankers, keeping an eye on Eve and Ammo (the game handles depletion badly and inconsistently. When you run low on Eve, you will re-inject in a time-consuming animation that can get you killed if you were just about to swing a wrench in a close-in melee. But if you run low on a speciality ammunition, no reload occurs until you page through all your ammunition types to find one you still have in stock), and of course trying to get the right weapons selected, you are expected to whip out a camera and take a nicely framed picture of your attacker, which after you've taken enough will tell you which kind of ammunition does them the most damage.

And, yes, Splicers do have typical video-game sound signatures. So, technically, you could hear a Splicer singing to themselves from around the corner, select and load up the optimum weapon combination, then jump at them.

In practice, if you do so you'll find yourself staring at a security camera that you need to rapidly switch weapons and/or plasmids in order to deal with, and the Splicers travel in mixed packs anyhow. Which is why most players seem to settle on one or two weapons and just use those.

Which in turn means that all that foofraw with U-Invent stations and weapon drops and cash drops and so forth is just annoyance, because you can never seem to be able to find ammunition for the weapon you've decided to settle on. You don't need more variety, and you don't need upgrade for the weapons you never use. You just want a way to reload the one you are comfortable with.

The much-touted "Moral Choice" is hardly that. It is presented pretty clearly from the first moment as "be relatively nice" or "eat kittens." The closest it comes to nuance is you only earn the good ending if you avoid eating even a single one.

I differ from other reviewers, however, in saying that there is no ludonarrative dissonance here. I think Jack is faced with essentially the same choice the player is faced with. The attraction of new plasmids against the moral repugnance of harming the Little Sisters.

I think the closest this comes to being true is that it is expected the player wants to fight Big Daddies. They can't resist the challenge. Internally, it is a lot less justified for Jack to tangle with them. Me, I think Jack and I pretty much agreed on the big guys. In this nightmarish world full of mad Splicers killing everything that moved, they were the only thing that didn't mess with me. They just tromped around, groaning, minding their own business. Sometimes Splicers would take them on, and they'd put a stop to that. Which I was also totally in favor of. And there's a moment in the animation where the Little Sister says "Come along, slowpoke," and the Big Daddy groans and adjusts it's heavy tank and regulator before lumbering after her. I can totally sympathize.

Given the choice, I'd leave them alone. Sure, Tennenbaum wants you to "rescue" the Little Sisters, but from where I stand, they seem happy enough and are pretty well adjusted to living in this freaky place. Being a little girl without spooky powers and a giant robotic-appearing guardian does not seem to have good long-term prospects in Rapture.

The reasoning to do otherwise is in-game, at least. Jack is put in position of "the only person who can save us" and has to selfishly chose to gather Adam in order to be be able to take on Fontaine. And that means attacking the Big Daddies, no matter how much that makes the Little Sisters cry. But at least you can still chose to rescue them instead of "harvesting" them.

(To add insult to the simplicity of the false moral choice, you only get half the Adam if you refrain from killing the little girls. And if you refrain twice, Tennenbaum shows up with a magical teddy bear containing more Adam than any three. So it isn't a moral choice, as much as it is a test for how stupid immorality can make you. One way or another, you'll have more plasmids than you know what to do with before the middle of the game).

This is also a complaint about the RPG element. Like at least one other game I've been naming a lot recently, Bioshock apparently gives you options to specialize your character growth, but practically speaking you'll end up with all the slots filled soon enough regardless on the order you chose to fill them.

I chose to specialize in hacking, but there are a lot of tonics you find if you explore (especially in the earlier levels, it is well worth checking out every nook and cranny. And after you get telekinesis, is worth keeping an eye open for extra ammo and Eve vials that are half-hidden on remote ledges or behind grates). Basically, you fill up your slots with random stuff long before you can make reasoned choices as to purchases.

And even then, hacking is almost entirely engineering tonics, so those slots would go unused if you didn't buff the hacking skills -- there's no trade-off involved, no loss you are taking to push those skills. So not really RPG in that way.

With that all said, the elements basically work. They are all defensible within-game, making a nice change from, say, games where clips of ammo seem to be lying around the halls at random, and stale food and old potions found on the damp and dirty floor of a dungeon are perfectly safe and indeed urgent to imbibe immediately.

The hacking mini-game is innocuous enough and it is a lot of fun to hack not just turrets but first aid stations and let Splicers blow themselves up. The ammunition choices don't seem to make a critical difference and there are far too many weapons, but even though only a small number of plasmids are worth keeping at the ready, it is awful fun to mess around a little and use some of the more outrageous powers to give a Splicer a bad day (the game thoughtfully gives you an episode in which your genetic code is going amuck and you basically get handed a random plasmid to experiment with every minute or so.)

The atmospherics are wonderful, early stages of the game are quite spooky and the extended episode with the mad artist fellow bring that spookiness right back up. And for those that empathize with the Big Daddies, there's a point late in the game where you can really indulge that feeling. The various oral diaries are a hoot and even the Splicers are fun to listen to (for at least a little).

And the ending is moving, and sufficient. I'd like it if it cut to titles instead of dropping you back to the main loading screen, though; that moment really needs a quiet time to follow to let it sink in a little and move through the catharsis.

Family, indeed. Another good thought for the holidays. Even if you do spend some of it behind a computer...and under the sea.

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