March 11th, 2010

Worldmaker

Have you played Bioshock

Every so often, there's a moment in a video game which strikes me as a missed opportunity. In Bioshock, it happened right off the bat, and it made me wonder if I'd really be cut out for the game as a whole. You begin in an airplane, smoking a cigarette, and then suddenly you crash into the ocean. Control is gained as soon as you surface on the water, surrounded by fire, the fuselage of the plane behind you. In the distance is an ominous tower, which you're supposed to swim towards. I didn't. I swam to the plane to look for survivors. There were none. There was no reward for my actions except the gradual sinking of the wreckage. Oh well, I thought, as my character paddled towards the stairs. I guess I'm not supposed to be too altruistic or anything.

Now, having gotten a little further into the game -- I'm approaching denouement in Arcadia -- I know what was missing. It would've been easy to add a couple of burnt corpses in the water to represent the pilot and a stewardess, perhaps. They wouldn't even have to be searchable, if the developers thought it was too early in the game for that command to be introduced. As it was, I had a disquieting sense that not only was I the sole survivor (obviously the intended effect), but furthermore, I was the only one who hadn't been disintegrated. Ain't that a fine howdy-do in Rapture.

Of course, everyone in the game is advising me not to trust each other, and in turn I've ceased to trust the game. It's the same as System Shock was: every time you think something good is going to happen, whoops! The containment lock just broke on a shipment of radioactive psychic cannibal orangutans, you need to go pick up a John Belushi DVD to get the code to open the door to the garbage dump, and the only guy who knows the devilish secret of the malevolent architect/computer virus/ancient intergalactic god-species just died in front of you on the other side of a bulletproof window! I know, it's standard game design to provide "challenges" and "plot twists", but the Shock series turns it into kicking the player when he's down. If I was harvesting the Little Sisters instead of rescuing them, I'd have next to nothing to feel good about -- although I did get to kill that psycho plastic surgeon, so I guess that's something. But come on now. I don't care about Andrew Ryan, I don't care about Atlas, and the way things are going I'm not even sure if I care about getting out anymore (because there probably is no "out," just a big sign at the top of a ladder which says "ha ha escape is impossible sucker!" at the end of the game.) What am I supposed to care about? My "morals?" Fat lot of good those did me at the beginning. My steadily increasing battle capabilities? Baby, I've seen the splicers and I've read the logs; the sooner I can get this EVE flushed out of my system, the better. My own personal health? I've got the Vita-Chambers for that.

Aha!

It bothered me in System Shock and it bothers me now. In most FPS games, and indeed most games in general, when you die, it's "game over." You reload from the last save point and you take another stab at it, or maybe you get to keep your EXP but lose half your gold, but there's a palpable sense that you've at least gained some knowledge in exchange for whatever penalty you took. In Bioshock you just pop out of a tube somewhere and you have to run back to the place you got slaughtered. You have less ammo and supplies, because you keep whatever you had when you died. And maybe there's a couple of new enemies in your way, forcing you to use up even more resources, although you might get something back for it (randomly generated enemies being your primary source of money.) And things generally don't change once you've returned. I was fighting a Big Daddy, and he took me out after I'd gotten his health down about halfway. I came back and he was still wounded. Well, if that's how it's gonna be, why did I waste all these medkits trying to beat him in one go? It's simultaneously too challenging and lacking in challenge; my incentive for not dying is to keep myself from being annoyed, I suppose, and since I'm already annoyed it's not really doing much to hold me back.

I'll keep plugging away at it, of course. Now that I've invested this much time in the first place, I suppose I will take a certain degree of satisfaction from putting a bullet between the eyes of whoever's got me going on this wild goose chase after all. I probably don't get to, though. More likely, I come right up face-to-face with Andrew Ryan, and just as I'm about to blast him, someone stabs me in the back. Cue the sixteen-hour prison-themed maze level.