Wednesday, May 22, 2013

#60: A Shocking Evolution, from System Shock 2 to Bioshock: Infinite

(Since many of these games are best known because of their various plot twists, I have decided to keep this article spoiler free for the benefit of those who have not yet played them.)
It has been awhile, has it not? I apologize for taking so long to write up a new piece. College has a way of keeping me busy. Now that I am back, it will be a delight to get back to what I do best: Talking about things most people simply do not care about. Over the interim since my last post, I was able to take some time and play Bioshock: Infinite, the Minerva's Den DLC from Bioshock 2, and System Shock 2, which is available now on both Steam and Good Old Games. My recent playthroughs of these games, along with my memory of the original Bioshock and its direct sequel, gave me enough material to analyze how game design has evolved over the years in the context of this series. This will be similar to my article comparing Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, except that the only real difference in this case will be time and technology available. These games were all directed by the same person, Ken Levine, and with similar design sensibilities, yet are all distinct in their own way. I feel this kind of analysis will be interesting, so without further ado:

Released in August 1999, System Shock 2 is, for better and worse, a product of its time. Taking place in the far future, where humanity has greatly advanced technologically to the point where we can replicate matter using nanomachines and travel at faster than light speeds, this game was unique for what it did. Although far from the first, System Shock 2 was one of the earliest noteable examples of genre blending, as it combined aspects from first-person shooters, survival horror games, and RPGs all in one package. The player was a simple soldier assigned to work on the starships Von Braun and Rickenbacker. One day, they wake up to find that the ships are under attack by some force that has assimilated many of the ship's crew. Together with Dr. Janice Polito, who provides support through remote guidance, the Soldier needs to survive and stop the madness before it can escape the two ships.
While the game controls like a typical shooter might, it also had much more than that. The Soldier had the ability to use Cybernetic Modules to upgrade his capabilities through the implants installed on his body. This functioned as a Western-style RPG might, giving players the choice between a number of stats and skills to upgrade and improve. However, just because the game lets players improve themselves did not mean that the Soldier would become overpowered as the game went on. Quite the opposite in fact: At any given moment in the game, unless the player was very conservative both in their methods of exploring the Von Braun and in the way they used their resources, a single bad encounter could bring a fully-healed and prepared character to critically damaged.
This is where the game's resource management comes in. Players have a finite amount of inventory space to carry items, so choosing what weapons and supplies to bring. Making sure that there was enough ammo in the inventory to use those weapons was a major factor separating success from failure. While it was fairly plentiful in some spaces, it could be used up just as quickly if players often failed to connect. Being left with a rusty old wrench, several broken weapons and not a lot of ammo is a very likely scenario. As a direct result of this, the gameplay was geared towards anticipation. A skilled player would need to learn how to read the environment and how to prepare for encounters so that when they happen, resource use is kept to an absolute minimum. Unlike a typical run-and-gun shooter, a high degree of planning was involved in keeping resources stocked, sneaking around enemies and striking them before being detected, and deciphering the level design so that chance battles are no longer surprising. Unless these actions were taken, players will find themselves wasting a lot of money at the resurrection stations scattered throughout the Von Braun. The atmosphere was tense and culminated in an game beloved and admired by the many for the way it blended genres together.
While this was all pretty good, it was far from perfect and many of the game's most noticeable flaws come from its heavily stat and numbers driven nature. The biggest of these issue is that there are many skills and stats that either prove to be practically useless or completely redundant. As an example of the former, one of the four primary weapon skills is energy weapons. These weapons take charge instead of ammo to use, however they are only effective against mechanical enemies. As a direct result of this, they become vastly outmatched by standard weaponry, which has access to both Anti-Personnel and Armor-Piercing ammo. This advantage gives standard weaponry the edge in the general case.
Examples of redundant skills are just as easy to point out. In a hypothetical scenario where the player wishes to specialize in hacking, the player would need to invest in both the Hacking skill and a stat called “Cyber-Affinity” while scouring the Von Braun for hacking software. In order to keep weapons in working order (because ranged weapons degrade as they are used), it is necessary to invest in Maintenance to keep them functioning, Repair in the event that they break and there are no replacements, and Modify if the player wishes to upgrade them and make them more effective. Even worse than having all these redundant skills for weapon handling, they are all also effected by the “Cyber-Affinity” stat, so players need to invest in that as well.
People who want to use “Psionics”, the games magic equivalent, have a similar problem. They not only need to place points in the “Psi” skill, but they also need to invest points to unlock each tier of Psionic abilities and invest further in each Psionic skill they want to unlock. To top it off, all the stats and skills I have described up to this point are all taken from the exact same pool of Cybernetic Modules. I am not against painful choices between what skills a given character should invest in. In fact, I think those kinds of choices are a boon to gaming. However, the sheer degree of redundancy of these skills is just baffling and can be extremely overwhelming to new players. Other problems in the game are, relatively speaking, minor. They include an entirely stat driven hacking game that is highly luck-based with no real skill on the player's part required (which is the same minigame used for repairing and modifying weapons) and a control interface that comes from a period where PC gaming was just beginning to adopt the standard WASD keyboard and mouse set-up. As a whole System Shock 2 took what would later go on to be Irrational Games in the right direction, even if it was far from perfect.

Unfortunately, releasing a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 took a shockingly long time. Fortunately, it arrived at just the right time to quickly become a critical and commercial darling in August 2007, 8 years later. As most of you are aware, Bioshock took many of the design sensibilities from System Shock 2 and modernized them in a way that kept the core design while making it more palatable to the average player. For the purpose of this article, I will ignore Bioshock 2 and its DLC (though Minerva's Den is worth checking out if you get the chance) because Ken Levine, the director of all the other games, was not at all involved in those projects. With that said, the original Bioshock moved the setting from the futuristic world of the Von Braun to another location in space/time. It took players to the 1940s, below the water's surface in an undersea city of Rapture. This city was touted as the ultimate paradise based (from what I have been told, extremely loosely, depending entirely upon your interpretation) on Ayn Randian Objectivism where all one needs to worry about is doing what they find to be the most profitable. The city of Rapture grew to become a massive hit with those who played the game as it gave off a constant feeling of oppression of both its overall layout and the sea submerging it from all sides.
Moving on to the gameplay side of things, Bioshock retained the element of choice that was present in System Shock 2, but played around with it a bit. The RPG-like system of stats and skills was replaced by Plasmids and Gene Tonics, which gave the protagonist special powers or passive bonuses respectively. This helped players define their own distinct playstyle separate from others by giving them a ton of different possible combinations of powers. As the game progressed, players could spend ADAM, the material that allows for all of the genetic modification that is running rampant in the undersea city, to purchase upgrades to Health and EVE (Mana), new slots to equip Plasmids and Gene Tonics, upgrades to already acquired Plasmids and Gene Tonics, and even brand new ones. The simplified customization scheme had the added bonus of eliminating all of the many redundancies and useless skills that plagued the RPG mechanics of System Shock 2. Instead of choosing between putting points into Hacking or Cyber-Affinity, players can now decide between making hacking easier by either slowing down the rate at which the hacking minigame (which is basically Pipe Dream) plays out ,reducing the number of bad spaces present in a given hack, improve the effects of hacked machines, or something else entirely. The seem can also be said of powers and weapons.
Speaking of weapons, skills like standard or energy weapons were also taken out in favor of a system in which the player is allowed to carry all of the game's different weapons at the same time and a finite amount of each type of ammo at every given time. Furthermore, weapons no longer break and can be upgraded at “Power to the People” station, removing the need to have the Modify, Maintenance and Repair skills. One of the things they kept for System Shock 2 was that every weapon has several various ammo types it can use, which adds to the strategy of the game. While the game certainly feels more like a shooter and less like an RPG than its spiritual predecessor, the resource management from the first game makes a return as ammo is still fairly hard to keep in stock and players need to keep track of the number of health kits and EVE hypos on their person, else they could end up in a very precarious situation. Because of this, the anticipatory gameplay of System Shock 2 is pretty much preserved in Bioshock and exploring any given area requires preparation and planning. A skilled player will be able to read the environment and begin to set up traps for encounters before they even happen while other players will find themselves dying often, being revived at the nearest Vita-Chamber with only a small amount of health and EVE. While revival is free, unlike in System Shock 2, it leaves the player at such a disadvantage that it is a state best left avoided if possible. Consequently, efficient usage of resources like health kits and money are still important.
As a whole, the game captured the overall feeling of System Shock 2 well while simplifying a lot of the more frivolous elements of the previous games, but there were still some major issues. One of the bigger issues involves the actual story of the game. Up until the point of the major plot twist of the game, the story was extremely good. However, passed that point, it seems to lose steam. A lot of what happens after that stops making sense and it appears that the plot is being artificially lengthened in order to conform to the standards we have for the length of a typical first-person shooter is supposed to be. Needless to say that seeing all the dramatic tension fall apart in the last third of the game is an incredible disappointment.
This feeds into the game's other issue, it's moral choice system. In the world of Rapture, there exist girls called Little Sisters, who are possessed by a sea slug and made to harvest ADAM from the corpses lying about the city. These girls are guarded by Big Daddies, genetically engineered and mutated humans encased in armored diving suits and made extraordinarily tough. While the battles with Big Daddies prove to be some of the best moments of the game, where planning and preparation become more important than ever, the resulting choice players get after the battle seem really dumb. After defeating one of the hulking monstrosities, the protagonist has the choice to either rescue the Little Sister from her fate by neutralizing the slug and taking a small amount of ADAM, or extracting the sea slugs, killing her and getting a larger portion of ADAM.
In theory, this means that the player needs to choose to either partake in the twisted economy of Rapture or reject it in favor of doing what is morally right. In practice, saving the girls is an objectively superior option because they give the protagonist favors like ADAM (which when added up, means the amount of ADAM obtained through rescuing the girls exceeds that gained through harvesting them) and unique Plasmids such as “Hypnotize Big Daddies” that are otherwise impossible to get. Even worse is that the ending changes entirely depending on whether or not players harvest even one Little Sister. What the player has done up to that point means nothing if even a single Little Sister gets harvested. This whole thing combines to result in a muddled and convoluted moral message that does not quite succeed. Despite this, Bioshock is a great example of how to bring old design sensibilities to new audiences will maintaining the core of what made them great.

Which brings us to more recent gaming history. In March 2013, almost 6 years after the release of the original Bioshock, Irrational Games released another brand new game that was, and is, a radical departure from previous games in their portfolio. Rather than return to the undersea “paradise” of Rapture, Irrational decided to turn back the clock to the 1920s and take it to the skies in the aerial city of Columbia. Founded on values of American exceptionalism combined with a quasi-religious worshiping of the founding fathers, Columbia is the vision of the ideal America as seen through the lens of the age it was built in, complete with the racism and the whole Captains of Industry vs Robber Barons debate present in the age. In this new rendition of Bioshock, the story clearly takes center stage. Without spoiling anything, the game takes this city and uses it as a backdrop for a more personal story that explores the Many-Worlds Interpretation in philosophy. In order to tell this tale, protagonist Booker DeWitt now has the distinction of being one of the only two protagonists in the series (the other one being the lead in Minerva's Den) to be a fully fleshed out character with a distinct personality. It is a story that begs players to think back on the events on the game and reflect upon the meaning of them. I have discussed this topic before in the podcast with Javy Gwaltney and Marc Price, so to speak further on that front would be redundant. Needless to say, it was excellent.
Gameplay-wise, it is strangely held back by the expectations set forth by previous games while paradoxically tossing aside many of the elements that are core to the series. One of the biggest examples of this are the Vigors, drinks Booker can consume in order to gain magic powers, function almost exactly like Plasmids did in previous games, except that there are only 8 of them and DeWitt can have all of them available at once. And instead of Gene Tonics, players were treated to the “Gear” system, which enables them to equip a hat, shirt, pants, and boots that all confer passive bonuses. Altogether, these elements result in the removal of much of the customization in the game because now Booker has access to all of the Vigors and does not have to choose which ones he will equip. Furthermore, the reduction to only 4 pieces of gear means that players will not be too distinct from each other, since only 4 choices are being made as opposed to many different painful choices. The decisions to make are still there, but no where near as noticeable as they used to be. At the same time, the Vigors and Gear feel far too fantastical to belong in Columbia. It seems like the Vigors do not serve much of purpose beyond giving Booker powers, as few of the denizens of Columbia actually use them at all. The same can also be said of the gear, as there is no real rational explanation for a shirt that causes an enemy to combust when hit by a melee attack.
The weaponry also dramatically changed. Instead of being able to hold all of the weapons at once or as many as the player can fit in an inventory, the game imposed a restriction of two weapons at any given time. This would theoretically force players to make choices as to which weapons they will bring with them. In actuality, the result was that players used whatever weapons they could find in a given combat zone and no others. The frustration this causes is compounded by the upgrade system, where players can choose to spend money to upgrade all versions of a given weapon they ever acquire. If the combat zone a player is fighting in does not have a copy of any of the weapons he/she has chosen to upgrade, they are out of luck as those upgrades will no longer be able to help them in the battle.
And speaking of money, the resource management that has so far been a staple was toned down significantly. The only resources the player can gather are money, ammo, and lockpicks, which co-protagonist Elizabeth can use to pick various locks across the city. Players no longer store health and salt kits. Instead they are consumed upon collection, and cannot be picked up when their respective gauges are full. Money is used to buy supplies like health, salt, and ammo, along with upgrades to both weapons and Vigors. Booker will never have enough money to pay for every single upgrade, so the choice comes back, slightly, in the form of which upgrades will players take. As for lockpicks, players will find more than enough lockpicks to pick every single lock in the game with 20-25 left over. It would have been interesting to be forced into choosing if and when to unlock containers, but sadly the game does not do that. When combined with the new addition of regenerating shields, this means that there is little to no incentive to scour the field for items beyond purchasing upgrades.
And this leads well into the biggest issue people have with the game, the anticipatory nature of the combat of previous games has been replaced with combat that is more reactionary. Instead of silently exploring, taking the time and prepare and plan their approach, players will often find themselves running into combat zones full of enemies ready and willing to shoot DeWitt on sight. The aforementioned regenerating shields, like those in Halo or Borderlands, are a huge change to reflect this new paradigm. The other one is the co-protagonist Elizabeth, who will regularly toss Booker items during combat such as health, salts, ammo, and money. This combines to form a much more aggressive game than ever before. The absence of resource management and tough choice, together with the generally more aggressive style of play transformed this latest entry, for better or worse, into more of a shooter than the franchise has ever been before.

And so ends my analysis of the “Shock Series”. The purpose of this article was merely to outline the way it has changed over the course of its lifetime. I have no desire to persuade you into thinking that any one of these games is better than the others. Although I personally like the original Bioshock the most, (System Shock 2 felt too convoluted and Infinite was far too simple) there are clear merits to all of the games that Ken Levine has led development on. I leave the final decision as to which one is best up to all of you. I have given you all my analysis on it, and doubtless you have your own. Feel free to tell me what you think of the series and the way its changed over time. I look forward to further discussions on it because, if anything, these games are great for starting a good conversation. Take care guys, it is good to be back! :)


Arron said...

I can accept that System Shock had a number of psionic powers that were effectively redundant given you could acquire them though the technical or weapon skills trees. There were some that were unique however - like the healing skill (which was surprisingly useful given that the number of activation keys for surgery tables was limited), psikinesis (useful for finding hidden loot) and the psionic barriers for protecting against damage. The other point that you should probably have mentioned is that System Shock (unlike a lot of games of its ilk) allowed you to produce a hybrid character that could mix all three classes of skills. There were also the unique upgrade stations that allowed you to add four unique perks to your character which I rather liked.

System Shock I (which you didn't cover) did give an unerring sense that the game was playing a game with you. A case in point was a certain area on Level 6 (Exec level) where if you did one particular action, SHODAN would send you an email telling you she'd predicted your action and thwarted you. So you'd reload, and trying something else, only to get another email telling you that she'd predicted your cowardice and was going to send some of her minions to deal with you for running away. So you'd try again and decide to stay put..only for an email to pop up with SHODAN telling you she'd got fed up of waiting and was going to kill you anyway. It did make it seem that you were playing against a living opponent as opposed to some clever scripting, but I was really impressed at the time :)

Arron said...

System Shock II didn't have this as much, but there are a couple of places in the game where it predicts your attempt to avoid the place you're supposed to be going. One of these is if you try to visit Deck 5 before meeting up with Polito on Deck 4. You get a rather interesting email. There's also a choice about how you cover decks 4 and 5, and also an email you are sent if you fail to reverse the gravity in POD 2 on the Rickenbacker.

Bioshock seems to largely avoid this (apart from perhaps how you search for Lot 192) probably to avoid the various combination of events they'd have to cover. Bioshock II and Infinite seem to have now gone for a linear narrative experience.

Another thing that I wish you'd mentioned is that both System Shock I and II allow you to explore the entire levels without forcing you down an linear track like Bioshock I and II which gave you the impression you had the full run of the game. The size of the game is a lot smaller in Bioshock and even more so in Bioshock Infinite. I don't know whether this is to do with the increasing cost of content, but it does feel like a much less indepth experience when your levels are much smaller and encountered in a linear fashion.

Although you don't mention Bioshock II in detail, they did change the pipe dreams hacking game to a much simpler "stop the needle" game which allowed you to hack within battle. I think this was an improvement over the original. They also added dual wield of weapons/plasmids and stackable traps which did improve the mechanics of the game when collecting Adam through the Little Sister. The story with its moral choices was a improvement as well given the impact it had on the final level and the ending.

On the downside, they lost the crafting system (something I liked from Bioshock I) and the linear levels were pretty annoying as certain research items could not be achieved if you did not do them there and then, unlike the original.

Infinite for me felt like they'd looked at Halo and decided that a Broshooter was the way to go. You'd lost the strategy of hacking cameras and turrets, research and crafting were gone and the promised abilities from Elizabeth with combining tears, vigours and weapons to form new gameplay elements didn't materialise. Even the number of audio diaries was half what it was in Bioshock II, so the background story of the people of Columbia didn't seem as in depth. I don't know what happened with Bioshock Infinite, but it seems that they went for the Call of Duty market whilst claiming that this was a Bioshock game. Unfortunately I think it did the former and largely ignored the latter.

I think that the games have changed with some elements improving, but most of the mechanics being stripped off to appeal to the teenage/college student market. And I think that really sad when games like Bioshock, Fallout NV and Dishonored should be leading the story-driven in-depth hybrid survival horror adventure experience into the next gen.. :\

newdarkcloud said...

My point was more that in order to be skilled at Psionics, you need to invest in the Psi stat, AND the unlocking the Tier of a given Psionic skill, AND the further points on the actual skill itself. It seems unnecessary to have all that investment just to use Fireball. (Full confession, in my playthrough I was a tech/weapon specialist, so I never actually use Psionics.)

It was my hope the possibility for hybrid characters was implied. While they are still possible, the amount of Cyber Modules you'd need to invest in each skill seems to make that a bad idea. It would make more sense to specialize.

newdarkcloud said...

Perhaps this is just my perspective, but as I was playing through System Shock, it didn't feel any more or less linear than the original Bioshock. After all, you go through every level in the same order in SS2 as well. You'll always start on Deck 2, then advance to Deck 1, then move onto Deck 3, then 4 etc.. As for the level design, Bioshock was fairly open at many points as well, such as Sander Cohen's level and the level where you obtain all the parts of a Big Daddy suit you need for an admittedly stupid reason.

Arron said...

The initial level of Bioshock was linear, but each level after that was a hub with other rooms coming off each of those. In System Shock, the first level was a hub level, but the Rickenbacker was a single linear level that led from the tether between the two ships to the bridge. So I guess they had roughly equal amount of linearity.

I did feel that Infinite might have been improved by a Fallout:NV faction system with the Founders and Vox Populi competing for your support, so you could push the current reality to a single outcome with one side winning over the other, and then getting to Comstock House to rescue Elizabeth and deal with Comstock. It would have given you the impression that you were fighting to achieve something rather than the fake opposition that was put up to help along the story.

newdarkcloud said...

There were a LOT of things Bioshock: Infinite could have done to be better. A faction system in only one of those things.