Friday, April 11, 2008

Oh, and the ending? It should suck a LOT less!

bees oh god bees everywhere!

The title today comes from one of the funniest things I've seen lately. It also applies to Bioshock, a game I *finally* just finished. On that note, it seems to be the consensus of the interwebs that Bioshock is going to get a prequel, or at least that it should. I happened to see a really lame list of suggestions for Bioshock 2 (or should that be "0"? "1/2"? "e^(i π)"?) a while back, and since then I've been meaning to post a more insightful list of potential improvements.

Just to be different, I'm going to dispute the idea that Bioshock and/or any further games in the series should feature gameplay sequences outside Rapture, in the Atlantic depths. It would be nice if you got to see the layout of the city during bathysphere rides, and the immersion would be less broken if all the skyboxes weren't just one half-image mirrored onto the other side to produce a whole...but going outside could be ill-fitting with the symbolism of the game. The fact that Rapture is submerged does indeed follow the Rule of Cool, but what it's really about is isolation. Rapture was built as a preserve for the best and the brightest, and as such had to be located where "the parasite" could never reach. It had to be somewhere the rabble would never look for a hidden store of unmitigated greed and ambition. I don't even believe that Rapture was built with a "because it's there" attitude, it smacks more of desperation, a sad commentary on how far some people will run from their problems, perhaps. Letting the player go outside could break the idea that he/she is as much sealed in as the water is sealed out.

The first thing that the developers of a Bioshock prequel should do is post a big note on every wall saying "FedEx is for parcels". Every level in the original game had mission goals that could be boiled down to "get x from y so that z can be used/opened/killed/revived/whatever". To boot, this could just be me, but in one level, there are three places you have to go to win, basically in a set order. Now, non-linear game worlds are awesome, but due to the linearity of the goals, I took way too long, having visited each location in PRECISELY THE WRONG ORDER. I think this even happened both times I played the game, too. The game makes it worse by labelling important things that you can't use yet, so you see them, and realize with a sense of growing horror, that you'll probably have to back-track significantly to get whatever it is. I'll grant that "Mysterious Chemical"s should not be imbibed at random, but if the game would offer me the choice of CARRYING THE FUCKING FLASK, it would be fine, also logically consistent, because any man who can carry 9 health kits, 9 giant hypodermic needles, a wrench, three guns, a camera, a grenade launcher, a chemical thrower, a crossbow, probably a thousand rounds of ammunition, dozens of litres of napalm, liquid nitrogen, "electric gel", 18 grenades, and 30 or 40 crossbow bolts AND at one point an EMP bomb without so much as slowing down should be able to carry a flask of maybe 250mL! I digress, but an inventory system is a must. Back to mission goals: since the originality of the world will be gone, the developers will have to do something inventive to keep things fresh, or they risk jumping a shark or two (another digression: where were all the sharks in Bioshock? Also conspicuously absent were the frikkin' laser beams, but I'll let that one slide). Assassination missions would be fitting with a Rapture Civil war, but why not go one up on that and task the player with stopping an Assassin by setting a trap? Even cooler, say the Assassin has already struck, and it's up to the player to ascertain whodunit? Of course, that could be mismanaged into a "find clues by searching every filing cabinet in the level" or something. This could be avoided by introducing multiple solutions to the problem. For example, hack-happy players could tap into security cameras to yield incriminating footage, morally ambiguous characters could pull the Biopunk equivalent of Jack Bauer tactics on tight-lipped subjects (mind control plasmids, or even Incinerate! for the truly heartless), and maybe people who watch too much CSI could be treated to some Steam-powered forensic tools to examine the crime scene? To truly abolish the "fetch" aspect of the quest, there should be no "evidence collected" meter, and no obvious perpetrator. There should be sufficient information for the player to logically determine the identity of the killer (note: harder difficulties could restrict access to info, for true awesome sauce gameplay). For those of you who question the feasibility of such a thing, I have a game that's 10 years old or more which I think forced you to reason out the identity of the bad guy (I don't remember, and I bet the CD is lost, but if I ever find it, I'll get back to you). Oh, and don't end the game if the player guesses wrong. It will be so much more delicious when their mistake returns to haunt them later on in the game! Other non-stock missions could include: performing ADAM-fuelled cosmetic surgery; Performing in a work of Rapturian theatre, or perhaps working as a stagehand; Winning the heart of some lad or lass for good or ill purpose (with a waltzing minigame!); Participating in the clinical trial of a new plasmid; Running a business...anything that's NOT "fetch" or a shooting gallery.

On this note, while the Original Bioshock was very much about survival horror, the prequel should not fall into the trap of aiming for the same feel. Pre-civil war Rapture was Utopia, and so the game could at least for the opening levels present the player with tasks unrelated to physical violence. This will be condemned as heresy in a "shooter", but I'm serious. Doom 3 was a mediocre shooter, but the 20 to 30 minutes before the closets become populated with monsters were fantastic! The unprecedentedly realistic graphics, and awesomely shiny bump-mapped-to-death art direction made just wandering through Mars City a feast for the eyes and imagination. Similarly, the non-combat levels of Half-Life 2 are notable for emotion and character rarely present in the shooting segments of the game. Of course, these segments are hardly replayable because they do not feature gameplay so much as exposition. The key is to give the player something to do that is more than just SUPER TURBO TURKEY PUNCHER THREE! or exposing the limits of the Havok physics engine by over-stuffing Dr. Kleiner's mini-teleporter with books and that small cactus!

This brings me to my next point, which is that while Half-Life 2 featured a never-before-seen level of facial animation (for a game), apparently the Bioshock team thought that realistic water was more important. Well, to the final game it was, but only because their facial animations were so lacking as to force them to hide most of the central characters by using short-wave radio transmissions, audio diaries, and -worst of all - making them arbitrarily inaccessible to the player. You have your pretty water effects, 2K games, now would you kindly follow that up by implementing at the very least motion-captured facial animations for dialogue, emotion, etc? Hell, you could even go one up on the Half-Life 2 folk, and make characters whose emotional reaction to you is based upon your in-game conduct!

My next suggestion is that there be a better system for evaluating the morality of the player. I got the "good" ending movie when I beat the game, but the thing is, all I did was save some poor little girls, which constituted some several dozen pushes of the "L" key. The rest of the game I spent killing, hacking, and even defiling corpses by using them to trigger electrical traps! Does any of that count? What about the part where [highlight for HUGE spoiler, DO NOT DO THIS IF YOU INTEND TO PLAY THE GAME EVER!] you kill your daddy Andrew Ryan? Mind-control aside, if you're going to go with the philosophy that a player's actions speak louder than their words, a better metric for judging their conduct should be implemented. It can't be too hard to keep track of how many vending machines a player swindles, or how many safes they crack, how many people they set ON FIRE, or brutally pummel to death with a wrench, or electrocute in water! While these may be performed in self-defence, I don't see a distinction between choosing a less inhumane method of execution for a helplessly insane person, and deciding not to kill what may or may not be a little girl to harvest a resource. It's all a matter of principles over easiness. There is NO PRACTICAL GAMEPLAY difference between harvesting and rescuing little sisters (except you get the hypnotize Big Daddy plasmid in the latter case, I suppose): the ADAM totals are about the same (you get gifts when you accept the lesser yield), whereas a player choosing not to inflict cruel and unusual pain upon any other human character? That would actually make the game harder, and therefore roleplaying a truly principled character represents a much greater willingness to do good, than does hitting the "L" key because you find infanticide to be distasteful, and in the knowledge that the game will not be any more difficult for your having made that choice.

My last suggestion before I call it a day is that in the case of a prequel, Plasmids should not exist in the highly refined, militarized forms seen in Bioshock. Similarly, Gene Tonics should not be focused around hacking or combat abilities (not initially, anyhow). The game is called BIOshock, and there are a lot of other cool things to do with the human body. Make the player able to see him or herself in in-game mirrors, and make plasmids have a cosmetic effect which they can see, and to which other characters in the world react. Plasmids like Sportsboost! are perfectly fitting. Incinerate!, Electro-bolt, and other such plasmids should not exist as such. Yes, you should be able to light cigarettes "with a snap of your fingers", or recharge electronics with a touch from your energized hand (note to devs: those would be cool to see as animations in-game!). Other plasmids should seek to improve human abilities, perhaps granting stupendous jumping height, legendary alcohol tolerance, giant strength, maybe even extra limbs, armoured skin, infra-red and x-ray vision, and so on. These would all be more than useful in gameplay terms, in combat or otherwise. They would also have ANYTHING to do with biology, unlike every active plasmid in Bioshock except for Insect swarm and the ones where you secrete cool globules of electroluminescent insects or pheromones! Plasmids should be visible, and the player's appearance should reflect their level of surgery and splicing. If the game is to chronicle the downfall of Rapture, the player should see the utmost glory of human achievement, and then witness its unfortunate decline into creepy mutation and stark-raving madness.

If anyone from 2K happens to read this, I hereby declare that I will NOT sue you if you make use of any of these ideas in the game. I WANT to see a Bioshock prequel rock more than anything, so if there is any way I can convince any hypothetical lawyers that I have offered up these ideas out of nothing more than sheer good nature, please send Emails, or whatever. If ulterior motives are suspected, your lawyers have been listening to Andrew Ryan a little too closely.


final notes: between 2/3 and 3/4 of this post is my 133.7th post! Also, 110 more visits until my 1337th hit on the counter over to the side!

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