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September 09, 2007

Interesting Choices?

A week or so ago I finished BioShock, tearing through it in what seemed like fairly record time, at least for me. I enjoyed it more than any shooter I've played since Star Wars: Republic Commando¹. Again, spoilers will occur, caveat lector.

BioShock

At the time, I was in the midst of playing Rise of the Kasai, a sequel to the very enjoyable 2002 SCEA action-adventure title, mostly remarkable for its art style and innovative combat style. I mention this because we'll return to Kasai in a little bit, because that game seems to want to offer some sort of interesting choice, but fails so miserably that it's an object lesson in What Not To Do².

Much virtual ink has been spilled over the moral choice that BioShock provides -- to rescue the Little Sisters or to "harvest" them. To recap (and to spill a little more): either choice will give you a certain amount of Adam, a useful game resource which effectively gives you weapons and other increases to your abilities (more health, more power for your bio-weapons, better ability to hack in-game computers and other security devices, etc.). Rescuing a Little Sister frees her from her endless quest to find Adam in corpses throughout the underwater city of Rapture, turning her into a human girl again, while harvesting her generates more Adam for you, but at the cost of the life of the Little Sister, who does not survive the procedure. I haven't seen the result of harvesting, but rescuing them is a decidedly creepy affair, with chilling Exorcist-style lines and animation, with the ultimate result of a tranquil little girl who thanks you and runs off to the nearest Little Sister tube, apparently so they can creep around Rapture hiding from Slicers much like Newt.

I read in a couple places where critics/commenters indicated that this was a false moral choice, since as gamers we would choose the option which had the greatest game utility. While I'm sympathetic to the argument, I don't think it applies to BioShock, simply because this utility was false -- or at least, I perceived it to be false.

The issue is that the resource -- Adam -- wasn't rare enough for the choice to be all that meaningful in game terms. I ended the game, on normal difficulty, with several hundred Adam left over, which would have been enough to buy myself a couple of new powers, or more health or energy (had either been available to me at that point). I had maxed out the plasmid attacks I used most frequently, and even some I pretty much never used (freezing, for example, or incinerate). I guess I could have gone and bought additional attacks -- but I already had more than the 6 plasmids that could fit in the plasmid attack slots. The utilitarian value of the Adam resource was simply too low for me to care one way or the other, which made it no choice at all -- in a choice between doing "good" and doing "evil" in terms of the game's fiction, no matter ambiguous they try to make the choice.

It wasn't just on the subject of the moral choice that the game's choices felt meaningless -- it was pretty much across the board, in every choice I might make. Late in the game there were goodies hidden behind glass (health, ammo, that sort of thing), but breaking the glass would cause drones to fly after me for a minute or so. Choosing to break the glass to get at something was fairly meaningless -- the drones were not much of a threat, since my first person shooter skills are pretty decent, and a cost-benefit mostly came down to whether I felt like adding a couple of drones to fight on my behalf for a little while, since they could be fritzed out and hacked to fight for me. That's just an example -- I simply never felt that my decisions had much in the way of long-term impact, either because my first-person skills would save me, or because of other in-game helpers (the ability to completely swap out plasmids for other ones, for example).

It's hard to be down on them for that, though, since the pure play was fantastic -- Ken Levine frequently said that it was a shooter first, and absolutely, the shooter elements are fantastic. I can also see that the ability to switch out plasmids is a natural response to complaints about being unable to understand which choice you'd prefer to make between competing augmentations in Deus Ex. I can also understand why the degenerating weapons of System Shock 2 would be abandoned -- why spend time thinking about what weapons to use, if you have plenty of ammo and oodles of weapons? It keeps the pace going, and makes you less cautious about mistakes.

Of course, I liked having to take a moment to think about what augmentations would make sense to me; I think another mechanism could have been chosen to improve on Deus Ex's augmentation system. I also loved System Shock 2, even if I did get to the end only to discover I was effectively unable to continue (not enough psi power) -- I didn't feel cheated, I felt like I didn't pay attention and make good decisions, it was all above board.

With regards to BioShock, this sense of decisions not really mattering all that much was the same with the Little Sisters: sure, I could "rescue" them and get X Adam, with some additional Adam every time I had rescued three. I could "harvest" them and get Y Adam (with Y greater than X) with no such promise of later reward. I have no idea how balanced this equation was, but I had so much left over at the end that arguing that the choice had a significant gameplay impact seems a bit wrong-headed.

Now, one thing I will say that they did very well is to telegraph that this would matter in some way, that some sort of reckoning was coming based on how you treated the Little Sisters. It was very evident in the way that Tenenbaum would speak to you that the game was keeping track of every decision you made with regards to those little girls, even saying at the end that "even losing one" was bad, was a tragedy. It strongly reinforced that the choice you were making was a moral one, in the context of the game, even if in my view there were really no game system consequences to one choice or the other. So, I was left with a choice where the gameplay consequences mattered little, but I knew that might be some long-term result that mattered one way or the other (could be game-play, might not be). I hadn't read any spoilers beforehand, so I wasn't aware that there were multiple endings; but I could tell something was going on, even if the game wasn't explicit.

I mention this in particular because of another game I've recently been playing, Rise of the Kasai, which doesn't telegraph that you're making choices that have any long-term impact at all. The game had a host of problems and head-scratching design decisions, from the minor (unable to determine how many of a particular collectible are left to be found while in the level) to the horrendous (when I'm busy doing some other task, it is unforgivable that the AI controlling the other character die somewhere else in the level if there's nothing I can do about it), but the core combat remained satisfying when used skillfully, and the stealth kills were still memorably savage and rewarding to pull off.

I was a fairly big fan of Mark of Kri, which I thought presented a really interesting combat system -- simple enough for button-mashers, but still satisfying for those who could get into the nuances. I hope that will survive somehow into this generation; it'd be a shame to see such a clean combat system go, but I don't think that poor sales of this sequel are an indicator of the strength of the core gameplay. I also liked the strong, silent hero, Rau. In any case, each level in the game offers you the choice to play either as Rau or as his sister, Tati, and after playing the introductory level as a character more like Tati, I had decided to stick with Rau and if I really felt like it, I'd go back and try a few of the levels with Tati.

Well, apparently that choice had an impact, which was never specified nor explained. Late in the game, two or three levels from the end, Tati was faced with a choice to join the Dark Side or not4. And apparently, whether or not you had much in the way of input into that choice was decided based on whether you had played her very much, or whether you were playing her then, or something. In any case, I was unable to choose for her to stick with Rau and team up to fight the bad guy. Instead, my only option was to have her join the enemy, and apparently kill her. I replayed to that point several times, and came up empty every time -- while there was a little bar indicating that the decision was somehow being made, it was completely unclear to me what I had done to affect the decision, if anything. To date, I don't know -- I started playing some of the earlier levels with Tati, but after it crashed a few times in loading screens, I gave the title up for good. I'm very forgiving, but even I have limits.

What killed me about it was that apparently out-of-game choices were influencing in-game results; there was some meta-tracking going on that mattered to the game but which was unclear to me. I would happily have taken a little control over the story -- but I need to be nudged to know that's what I'm doing. I'm not sure what was going on, but it seems unfair that the story would be forced into a path where the AI's choices have turned my characters against one another. The lack of agency on my part to influence that decision was appalling, and were it not for my curiosity to figure out how it was supposed to work, I would have probably broken the disc in half right there.

So, systems designers: giving us choices that impact real game results: good. Not telling us that we're making those choices? Bad.

¹That's about as blatant a plug as I think I've ever pulled... ;) To be fair, I haven't played oodles of shooters in that time, though I played Quake n (was it 4? it was completely bland), Doom n (okay, being snarky, it was Doom 3), Deus Ex 2 (not better than SWRC IMO, falling far short of the bar set by its predecessor), and Thief 2, which I finally finished after a multi-year hiatus, and which was probably better than SWRC but so significantly different it's not realistic to compare them. Anyway. (back)
²Or maybe I should say "Patent Pending", since it came from Sony. Sony, this generation at least, seems to be driving very hard towards What Not To Do. Yes, that's a Sony slam -- the PS3 has a ways to go this generation. I think the power of the brand is strong enough to overcome all of their missteps, but poor PS3 market performance is clearly hurting them. (back)
³It's confusing, which is a whole different problem with the game altogether. The story weaves in and out of time, going back twenty of thirty years to lay some groundwork, then bringing it forward, then swinging back again. The two character archetypes are reflected in each set of characters, though -- there's really only two ways to play the level, but even that is a step up in terms of replayability. In theory, you can play the whole game twice, and other than cutscenes you'll pretty much see new level areas. (back)
4Or the legion of evil, or whatever. Who even cares. The story is pretty forgettable, even twisting through time as it does. I did like how they were able to generate player interest in a character who was going to die, but that's a tricky one, since it's a character you play, and having him die later on... (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at September 9, 2007 08:45 PM

Comments

I'm about halfway through myself. (360) I'm enjoying it, but starting to get a little bored.

This review is both hilarious and accurate. Give it a look.

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/editorials/zeropunctuation/1394-Zero-Punctuation-BioShock

Posted by: Jonesy at September 10, 2007 01:15 PM

Oh yeah, you sent me that last week -- I'm a bit under the gun for something at work and haven't gotten to it yet, though I will at some point.

Posted by: Brett Douville at September 10, 2007 02:16 PM

I agree with you about that being a choice that wasn't. I saved every little sister and ended the game with something like 800 'unspent' ADAM.

It's a great game, just not for the typically discussed reasons.

Posted by: peterb at September 10, 2007 08:32 PM

Precisely -- what's great about it are the interacting rulesets for behavior, the pure feel of the first person shooter elements, and even the ambiance of the fiction.

Thanks for stopping by! Sorry it took so long for me to moderate your post -- real busy with work this week.

Posted by: Brett Douville at September 12, 2007 12:31 PM

The Little sister choices were only as meaningful you made them. In the end the fiction was the only thing driving the decision, not gameplay impact. As we all know gameplay driven choices like these can be very meaningful but are a bitch to actually execute because it excludes so much of the audience one way or the other. RPGs run into this constantly and no one seems to worry that much. I wonder if the fact that Bioshock went more towards "shooter first RPG second" was the main issue here. In the shooter world it fell down but if they had stayed closer to their roots (System Shock 2 being a better game I think) then it may have been fine.

Posted by: TimL at December 28, 2007 02:42 PM