Sea of Dreams

Bioshock was a game defined by its three major components: its streamlined, interconnected game systems, its standout narrative moments, and, most of all, the setting of Rapture and the meticulous level design that gave it life visually and systemically to bring the other components together. Irrational 2k Boston Irrational very clearly understood what made Bioshock unique on all levels. The combination of weaponry with plasmids and the trade-off of using one over the other formed a clever combat system which was constantly surprising the player when various elements combined in fresh ways or the level reacted to the player’s actions in helpful/harmful ways. Every level told a focused, contained story about some facet of Rapture; each had a unique macro design with a mini-hub approach that repeatedly required the player to backtrack and see various rooms in new ways as the game introduced new features. Meanwhile the game was building up one of the smarter narratives in the gaming world leading to one of the greatest climactic moments in the history of video games. The portions of the game that followed the climax were, ultimately, unnecessary and somewhat forced for game length, but only due to the comparison to the events that preceded them (except the final boss, that was purely awful). By the time Bioshock ended, the player had played through the tale of Rapture in its entirety.

By all accounts, a sequel to Bioshock was unnecessary and a sequel to Bioshock that remained in Rapture was picking from the bones of greatness. That said, 2k Marin managed to make a sequel whose narrative is intelligently focused by adding a new tale while simultaneously expanding on the memorable characters from the first game in ways that do no harm. The expanding on characters like Frank Fontaine, Atlas, and Andrew Ryan is more than a nod to Bioshock 2‘s predecessor and, rather, an extensive attempt at enhancing our understanding of these characters. The audio diaries which tell the story of these characters’ rise to power often comes across as completely tangential to all of the player’s actions, but when a specific audio log (or Andrew Ryan’s museum) nails its delivery and content, it’s a fascinating attempt at recreating a story from past to the present as the player works his way to the climax of the new tale.

The restraint that 2k Marin exercised in the high-level narrative of Bioshock 2 is astounding. Any attempt to one-up or surpass the execution of major moments or clever plot twists would come off as clearly fabricated attempts at doing just that (as Modern Warfare 2 discovered). Instead, Bioshock 2 goes for the heart: the story of a father, a daughter, and the controlling, scheming mother who has taken the throne of Rapture in the aftermath of Fontaine and Ryan. As hackneyed as the story sounds here and as awkawrd as it feels for the first few levels of Bioshock 2: stick with it. It’s worth it. Sofia Lamb is rarely interesting, but that’s okay, because Eleanor Lamb is purely captivating. Her transformation from the adored baby destined to for the metaphorical throne of rapture to the devious, destructive toddler, to the hyper-intelligent, insightful young adult is subtle and marvelous. The character of Eleanor Lamb at the end of Bioshock 2 is one of the most natural, clever, and endearing characters I have encountered in a video game.

It is unfortunate that so much time of Bioshock 2 is spent trying to understand what it is before ultimately realizing its purpose in glorious fashion. The first handful of levels of the game are all so reminiscent of Rapture that they come across as soullessly reverent. They absolutely nail the aesthetic and appeal of Rapture, no doubt, but they do so without much feeling or character. It is not until Siren Alley that players begin to seen glimpses of what made the levels of Bioshock so special: the level as short story. And as close as Siren Alley gets to this concept, it’s not until Dionysus Park and Fontaine Futuristics where Bioshock 2 becomes the absolutely brilliant successor that it needs to be. Regretfully, Dionysus Park is the sixth level in a nine level game.

Due to the player’s role as a Big Daddy in Bioshock 2, the management of Little Sisters is now a gameplay system. The player accumulates Adam through the interactions that make up this system; namely, the rescue/harvest choice (the same as it was in the first game) and, now, through the gathering quests. When the player adopts a Little Sister, rather than harvesting her directly when the time comes, the Little Sister jumps on the player’s back and remains ‘invisible’ in subsequent gameplay other than offering adorable little one-liners and commentary on gameplay actions. When a special, 2k Marin-placed corpse is encountered while the player has an adopted Little Sister, players have the option of gathering Adam from the corpse. The Little Sister is placed on the ground, and she gathers Adam while the player fends off the horde of Splicers that smell the Adam and want a piece of it for themselves. Thus, these gathering segments are bite-sized protection quests.

Since the corpses that the player can gather from are placed throughout areas of the standard level, the quality of a gather segment can vary wildly. They are almost universally tedious until the player makes it to Dionysus Park. The story of Dionysus Park is that of Stanley Poole. And Stanley Poole has a dark, dirty secret. His secret is contained within the Adam that the Little Sisters gather from the corpses. Stanley, though, idolizes Johnny Top-Side (the player character), and is willing to let him gather up the Adam in exchange for his silence on what he discovers. These gather quests, then, which have been optional and time-consuming side-quests up until this point in the game, now become the active goal of the level. And when each of the three Little Sisters that occupies the level is rescued/harvested, the player learns a little bit more about Stanley Poole’s secret. With this reward system, on top of the accumulated Adam, the annoying side-quest actually has a ludic and narrative purpose for being executed and, as such, seems far more tolerable. This is on top of the fact that the gather quests in Dionysus Park are now at the fore-front of the progression and, for the most part, make-up some of the best-designed encounters in the game.

Near the end of the game, the player takes on the role of a Little Sister through a surreal, disturbing look at Rapture through the eyes of these conditioned little girls. It’s a ludically mundane section, intended to be more of a mood and atmospheric piece that a legitimately interesting gameplay segment (much like the occasional underwater bits), but it’s a nice change of pace from the combat-combat-combat focus of the rest of the game. What’s strange about this segment is that, during it, the player can still gather Adam from corpses. This is not, by itself, bizarre; the player is a Little Sister, Little Sisters gather Adam from corpses. What’s bizarre is that there are splicers throughout this section of the game with direct line of sight to the Little Sister who is harvesting the Adam from corpses and they remain completely peaceful and unaffected by the Little Sister’s actions. It’s unsettling and weird and stressful the first time, raising players concerns about risk/reward and all that, but after the fourth or fifth time gathering Adam from a corpse with nearby Splicers, this strange and obvious inconsistency stands out and taints the integrity of the level as a result.

Part of the reason that the first half of Bioshock 2 is so awkward is the speed and seeming carelessness with which it introduces the features that Bioshock pioneered. A weapon can now be used alongside a plasmid, leading to a constant feeling of “dual-wielding” two completely different functionalities. Early on, firefights can quickly become a matter of blowing through ammo rounds on the Rivet Gun while trying to hit something while, simultaneously, attempting to use Electro Bolt to stun the enemy as you tear through your EVE reserves. With only a single plasmid and the Drill and Rivet Gun, combat is already filled with three radically different functionalities, none of which are particularly shallow, and the game is asking the player to manage all of this while engaged in active combat in a cluttered, busy, and interaction-heavy level. This becomes exponentially more difficult as the player gets a full eight plasmids and eight weapons and must manage all of these and their uses, presumably intelligently, amidst Thuggish Splicers, Leadhead Splicers, Brute Splicers, Spider Splicers, Big Daddies, Big Sisters, alpha series Big Daddies, and Houdini Splicers. Combat in Bioshock 2 for some of these early levels feels like a screen that is overloaded with explosions, screen effects, activity, damage, tips telling you to use first aid, more explosions, more screen effects, health and EVE depleting wildly, spamming the two triggers, and moving through a very colorful, wide-open environment with cover in unintuitive places.

And since so few of the plasmids are different from Bioshock in their basic functionality, Bioshock 2 also manages to create a profound feeling that I’ve been here and done all of this before, except it was better then. For all the restraint shown in its narrative, none of that restraint is present in Bioshock 2‘s combat. If the main complaints about Bioshock‘s combat were that, while interesting, it was overly-streamlined and somewhat lacking in personal customization, then 2k Marin’s response was to just blend all of those elements together and force the player to choose how to proceed. Except this doesn’t really work.

At no point does Bioshock 2 ever do what it really needs to in order to provide the player with a feeling of mastery, understanding, and the choice that the narrative so desperately wants to convey: allow the player to specialize. By the end of the game, the player has all of these weapons with these neat, crazy upgrades and all of these upgraded plasmids that do these neat things, but at no point does the game ever take the player aside and say: “Hey, you like doing this? Well, you can do that, but you’re going to have to kind of focus on that.” From the moment a weapon or plasmid is presented to the player, the player has the option to upgrade it, somehow, and the game essentially says: rest assured, at some point you’ll be able to afford this. The scenario I kept running into while playing is that I really like Electro Bolt because it not only has the most interactions within the game world, but it lets me do all I want: slow down combat. So what am I going to do? I’m going to focus on getting better with Electro Bolt using all of my various weapons, because I understand the weapons I have and their effects. I went through the game and upgraded all of my plasmids because I had an over-abundance of Adam (by the game I had all of my eight plasmids at their highest levels), but I only ever really used Electro Bolt.

Why did I solely rely on Electro Bolt? There is a Winter Blast plasmid that actually freezes enemies; combat doesn’t get slower than an icicle. It’s completely illogical that I would continue to use this one plasmid that I got at the very beginning of the game throughout the entirety of Bioshock 2 despite getting a lot better at the game and managing my eight weapons. There is a mechanical and a psychological reason for my reliance on this one plasmid. The psychological reliance is that the game made the acquisition and use of Electro Bolt an actual core element in the first mission of the game. It taught me how to use Electro Bolt, what its various uses were, and it allowed me time to really understand the use of this plasmid. No other plasmid in the game had the amount of game time dedicated to player understanding of it than Electro Bolt; some plasmids were relegated to the Gatherer’s Garden and got no fan-fare at all. This approach to doling out features works in a wide-open game that encourages exploration (like Far Cry 2), but not one which is fast, brutal, and confusing. The mechanical reason (and this is a console-specific reasoning) is that the plasmid/weapon control scheme for Bioshock 2 involves the use of the shoulder buttons; holding each shoulder button brings up a radial menu of the selectable plasmids/weapons. The problem here is that a single-tap of the shoulder button cycles through all eight selectable plasmids/weapons, rather than switching back-and-forth between the last two plasmids/weapons. So at no point can a player really get comfortable with a plasmid/weapon combo without stopping the game and switching from a menu.

The major new enemy in Bioshock 2 is the Big Sister. She’s lean, she’s quick, and she’s deadly. She’s a dangerous, ‘upgraded’ Big Daddy, essentially, and her inclusion in the game is thoroughly unnecessary. The goal of the Big Daddy is that it is a peaceful enemy until the Little Sister he is guarding is in danger or the player has actively attacked it. During this peaceful period, the Big Daddy is slow, lumbering, loud, and completely predictable. What was fun about Bioshock was using this period to set elaborate plasmid/weaponry traps, then trigger the Big Daddy, and watching the gauntlet of death take his health bar down. Sometimes active combat against the Big Daddy was never required whatsoever; taking the big fella down without so much as breaking a sweat was always an accomplishment for me when I played through the original game. Taking on a Big Daddy in active, close-to-mid quarter combat was a dangerous, fast-paced, stressful endeavor. Players were rewarded for thinking through the scenario and avoiding that need to go toe-to-toe. The way that Bioshock 2 approaches the Big Sister allows for none of this strategy. She is, essentially, nothing but the toe-to-toe combat sections that players engaged in with the Big Daddy enemies, except faster and more incomprehensible. The one positive element of the Big Sister encounters is that there is a brief window before she arrives where the player can familiarize himself with the layout of a room before the Big Sister’s eventual arrival, but it’s not enough to do any of the high-level planning and strategy of the Big Daddy combat; instead, it’s just more screen shakes, damage indicators, and postprocessing screen effects while rapidly attempting to stun and damage the Big Sister.

There are, technically, eight weapons in Bioshock 2, but two of these six are more utility items than weapons. The first of which is the hacking tool, which has three types of ammunition: auto-hack bolt, remote hack bolt, and the mini-turret. The mini-turret is, well, a mini-turret that the player throws down — at which point it becomes autonomous. That’s handy. The other two ammunition types are more problematic. The hacking minigame in Bioshock 2 is a vast improvement over the first; it’s quick, it’s thematically appropriate, and it allows for some tense moments mid-combat where a quick hack is necessary while hoping that enemies don’t notice you hiding in a corner while you do it. It’s a shame that the existence fo the hacking tool completely negates the role of the security entities. Rather than having to stun a camera, run under it, and hope to hack it before it turns back on and sets off an alarm when it sees you — as was the case in the first game — hacking can be done entirely from a safe distance. Shoot a dart at a camera, hack it, and walk into a room like nothing ever happened while a friendly camera alerts you to enemies. The same is true of managing enemy turrets. Due to the long-distance hack tool, the role of security systems in Bioshock 2 are almost always beneficial to the player and never threatening. If an alarm goes off, it’s uncommon and, for me, generally was more of a reload state than a play-through-it scenario. An alarm going off meant I screwed up as a player, rather than just being a thing that happened in the course of play.

The other non-weapon is the research camera, a presumed upgrade to research [picture] camera from the first game. Rather than taking static pictures during active combat to increase your “understanding” of enemies, the player starts the video camera and then goes back to normal combat while the camera rolls. The more unique actions the player takes during the course of combat with the research subject increases the eventual number of research points the session yielded. As the player acquires more and more research points for an individual enemy type, he increases his understanding of it, and unlocks are awarded (more damage, generally) along an invisible progress tree until the final unlock, a plasmid/gene tonic, is awarded. The strange aspect of this interaction is that it makes a system out of a tedious interaction of not having your weapon active at the beginning of combat, then having the game automatically switch back to the weapon (something that, strangely, never feels natural), and proceeding as normal. It’s a bizarrely abstract mechanic for the game which never feels quite right. The research camera seems designed to encourage players to mix up how they handle combat, but there doesn’t seem to be the concept of repetition from session-to-session, so doing an Electro Bolt and then simply killing an enemy generally yielded a solid score from the video session. Over and over and over again.

Bioshock 2 really is an exceptional game. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where my progressive enjoyment has deviated quite so wildly from beginning-to-middle and then middle-to-end. So few games really understand what needs to be done to create an enjoyable ending, that playing one which absolutely nails it is a refreshing experience (even if the road to that point wasn’t quite as excellent). I’m also quite comfortable saying that Bioshock 2 is worth it solely for Eleanor Lamb which, given the narrative, makes complete thematic sense.

Video Games Need a Divorce From Hollywood

It seems like it’s time for the video game industry to grow up and realize that it needs to start producing games with the idea that the experience they provide to gamers is one wholly unique to the industry. I finally saw There Will Be Blood earlier this week and, after witnesses the absolutely mind-numbingly fantastic performance of Daniel Day-Lewis I came to a fairly obvious realization: games will never provide an experience as fulfilling, captivating, and, most importantly, truly captivating viewing experience as a movie like this.

I don’t mean that a game will never have the ability to provide a thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking, and memorable experience. The primary distinction that needs to be conveyed is that, in their current form, video games seem to be handling their narratives in a wholly unoriginal form. So many video games released for both PC and consoles over the last year try to present what is, quite honestly, a mundane story with adequate voice acting in the same form as a movie may try to present a story: through non-interactive cutscenes. It seems absolutely insane to me that, as advanced as games have become, the industry still has yet to get past the idea that the only way to present stories is through heavily scripted scenes. I understand why the desire to force players to sit through a noninteractive or unskippable cinematics; developers put an absolutely ridiculous amount of time into developing their games and planning out their storylines and so on. So much work that it seems crazy to make the storyline in a game subtle or completely optional. But, by that same token, I know a great number of gamers who simply skip past any and all cutscenes that show themselves in any game.

There are, basically, two categories of games when narrative is the topic of discussion as far as I’m concerned: abstract storylines and concrete narratives. I consider games which place the game front and center as a game with an abstract narrative. These are games where, for the most part, there is no requisite story or the gameplay defines the player’s interpretation of a story. A game like Geometry Wars, for example, has no real story whatsoever. In my experience, and I’m not making this up, I tend to make-up completely irrelevant storylines to complement the gameplay; I’m destroying the crap out of these geometry blights upon my galaxy. For what, you may ask. To this I respond with whatever mood I’m in for that day: for destroying my similarly geometric self’s rights, for destroying my convex homeworld, for taking my harshly-edged fiancĂ© captive. I do this completely subconsciously and it’s something that I never would have realized if a friend of mine hadn’t mentioned this game during my midday rant about the same topic as this column. A more concrete example of an abstract narrative, in my eyes, is a turn-based strategy game like Galactic Civilizations, The Sims, or Civilization. There is, in fact, an entire set of storylines which surround any given game in these titles but, for the most part, the meat of the narrative occurs as I dictate it. I have a home world and I expand but, yet, there are the teal race of wobbly-armed balls of goo who are attempting to prevent me from helping my race to survive the depths of space by positioning two giant space ships around the planet I had my eye on. A planet with fertile soil and a friendly atmosphere. I need that planet and these teal bastards are trying to stop me. Why? Who knows. They probably do, but I can make my reasons up as I play. These events occur in-game without any necessary exposition whatsoever and no particularly keen observations on my part, but the narrative is there, whether I care to excavate its meaning or not.

The other type of game is one with a definite narrative. A game with a very well-defined and fleshed-out game world set within a unique or special universe all of its own. This could be a game like Bioshock, Half-Life, Starcraft, Diablo, or Lego Star Wars. These are all titles which present a particular storyline set amidst interactive gameplay. These types of games definitely have a place in the industry as experiences wholly unique to the medium but, in my mind, I would love to see some more chances taken with the narrative expositions. Bioshock, Half-Life, and Crysis are the closest and best examples I can think of that help to bring the industry closer to the kind of definitively interactive types of gameplay/narrative that video games should be representative of. The most important story in Bioshock is not that of the player’s dealings with Atlas and Andrew Ryan; no, the most important story is the one presented by the scenery of Rapture (Ken Levine understood this as he indicated in his GDC presentation). In Half-Life 2 the most memorable experiences for me are not being given objectives by the NPCs, it’s seeing Alyx’s face as she is impaled by a Hunter in the beginning of episode 2 and attempting to take down a Strider for the first time in vanilla Half-Life 2. I don’t give a crap about whatever dull story Crysis wanted to present; I was more interested in trekking around the landscape exploring the crevices of the island.

Why should players ever have to completely pause and be stripped of their controls so that a writer can impart his words as voiced by generally poorly acted lines? Video games are the only medium which can present stories in such a dynamic and interactive manner and, yet, we seem to be bound by the conventions of Hollywood.

Of Bioshock and MxM Blocks

Well, it’s been a couple weeks, but I’m now fairly established in the new apartment and it’s absolutely fantastic. Though, aside from the move, the main other reason for the lack updates has, of course, been Bioshock, which is far and away the best game I’ve played in recent months

The Bioshock thing brings me to my first point. I think that the one of the reasons that the game is as good as it is and is getting such a massive number of glowing reviews is that Bioshock has such a well-defined atmosphere. Sure, the graphics are great, the audio is fantastic, and the gameplay is good, but the thing that puts Bioshock ahead of the competition is that Irrational2k Boston has used the engine to really flesh out the world of Rapture. The stuck-in-time mood in Bioshock is handled well; the music that plays on jukeboxes and in bars throughout the game has a very 40′s-50′s scratchy record sound to it, the basic weapons are a six-shooter, a Tommy gun, and a big, bulky shotgun, the monitors throughout Rapture are all fuzzy black-and-white, and the list of things goes on. The atmosphere created in-game is, in my opinion, the reason for the game’s critical success thus far.

Anyway, that was my little bit about Bioshock in, what I have no doubt is, a completely incomprehensible little paragraph. This is what happens when I try writing things in between build times.

As far as the progress on Rawr, things are going slowly — I started up development again a couple days ago and have just been working on the framework for the terrain implementation that I started a couple weeks ago. Once I’m done with the terrain implementation, which I assume I will be able to make some very nice headway on over the course of the extended weekend, I think I’m going to resume work on some more framework-critical components; the terrain implementation is primarily a way to get a good visual representation of what a full scene should look like (as opposed to basing my visual results on nothing but an anorexic mesh). So far, this idea has already proven useful when I got the basic MxM vertex block rendering in-game (below); I realized that the reason my camera had been giving me such time had nothing to do with the actual camera code, but the fact that the model that I thought was positioned up-right was, in fact, titled 90 degrees along the X-plane. So, yeah, I went through four camera code iterations thinking that it wasn’t handling FPS-like movement the way I wanted when, in fact, it was doing fine, my sense of orientation was just screwy. Yay.