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Author Archives: Michael Clarkson

Prince of Persia

January 29th, 2013 | Posted by Michael Clarkson in Critical Compilation: - (2 Comments)

Editor’s note: This compilation has remained unscheduled in Critical Distance’s backlogs for going on three years and is no doubt out of date. We’ve elected to publish it so as to not let Sparky’s hard work to go to waste but we definitely welcome any further contributions by our email submissions form. (As for why it’s so late in the first place, it’s best not to ask really…) -KL

The decision to completely reinvent the Prince of Persia universe, following the (mostly) widely-praised Sands of Time trilogy may have come as a surprise to many fans. Removing the time-manipulation mechanic, discarding the character of the Prince, and adopting a dreamlike, cel-shaded look all seemed like significant and perhaps inexplicable departures. Duncan Fyfe has suggested, in “Time after Time”, that the franchise needs to keep rebooting itself because the simplistic core of its story and gameplay is at odds with the need to extend its stories into trilogies and series. Perhaps it was this, perhaps Ubisoft simply felt that it was time to go in a new direction. Given the great affection of many gamers and critics for Sands of Time, it was perhaps inevitable that Prince of Persia would be scrutinized extensively. Perhaps it was held to too high a standard, as Scott Juster thinks, but fairly or not several of the decisions in the new game’s design have proven widely divisive.

A gentle journey upstream

Among hardcore gamers there is little doubt that Prince of Persia is easy to play, but a debate rages over whether it is too easy, whatever that might mean. The game is devoid of punishing “Game Over” screens or unforgiving platforming puzzles in the mold of Sands of Time‘s Tower of Dawn. The Prince’s companion Elika has streamlined the experience of “death” in the game, as Richard Naik and others have pointed out. In addition, Joe Tortuga has identified an equivalence of action for the face buttons in different modes that is likely to make the control experience more sensible for the newcomer. Moreover, as a consequence of the open-world design, the difficulty curve is rather flat, as Corvus Elrod has pointed out.

The upshot of all of this is a game in a hardcore mold that reaches out to more casual players. Michael Abbott, in “Prince of Noobs”, relates that the striking visuals of the game attracted the attention of new players in his family, while the toned-down difficulty and simplified mechanics got out of the way of their enjoyment. Scott Juster believes that this approach fits with a new era of gaming, in which major titles primarily aspire to be accessible, rather than challenging. On the other hand, Jorge Albor and GSG have argued that Prince of Persia may be a bridge intended to stimulate the casual player’s further interest in games. In this respect, Ubisoft may be recapitulating Nintendo’s upstreaming strategy.

Gameplay as characterization

The idea that the challenge was stripped from a game in order to make room for casual players is not one that will make the hardcore crowd happy. Other writers have suggested, however, that the simplification of gameplay has aims beyond merely appealing to the pick-up-and-play crowd. Rather, the platforming and interactions with the world are designed to make the player feel a particular way. The compelling interactions with the game world grab the player’s attention, according to Spitfire, while Angelo asserts that the platforming segments and interactions with Elika develop into a kind of motion poetry. Greg Tannahill argues that the fun of the game comes from experiencing the platforming, rather than overcoming it. For Thomas Cross, the exuberant movements of the Prince draw the player into his world. I go even farther to argue that the emotions the player feels while platforming are a way of characterizing the Prince himself. If these things are true, then analyzing the game as a puzzle-platformer is inappropriate because that’s simply not the kind of game it is. Iroquois Pliskin understands it as more of a rhythm game than a character action title. For him, the physicality of the platforming gave rise to the romance of the story.

Haptic interactions between Elika and the Prince are an important component of the storytelling in the game. The way they touch each other while moving through the world makes the player feel like he’s in control of an actual person interacting with another actual person. As Jorge Albor says, touch deepens their relationship in a way comparable to Ico. Because Elika streamlines some aspects of the game and slows down others, David Zhong views interactions with her as a mixed blessing in terms of the gameplay. In “Wait for Me!” he ponders whether this ambivalence makes her more real. For Allen Cook, her relentless helpfulness actually made Elika seem at once passive-aggressive and boring. Although Joe Tortuga liked them, he felt that the haptic interactions interrupted the flow of play to the game’s detriment.

Because the feelings elicited by gameplay to a large extent depended on the flowing nature of the platforming, just about anything that brought that to a halt was viewed as a negative. Even the optional conversations, which were praised in some quarters, were criticized along these lines by Nels Anderson. Although he liked that these segments were optional, he detested the way they broke up the game and the fact that they were visually boring. I felt the combat fell flat for similar reasons. For me, the slow, halting nature of the combat was completely at odds with the rest of the gameplay, and also didn’t really fit the character of the Prince himself.

An interactive storybook?

Despite all of this, the difficulty level remains the elephant in the room, repeatedly brought to mind by the more ludicrous “Achievements” the game offers. David Zhong, for instance, characterizes the game as practically playing itself. In a pair of essays, Sinan Kubba argues that the lack of challenge in the game goes beyond the simplicity of execution and actually descends to the level of removing meaningful player input. In his view, Prince of Persia becomes something of an extended quicktime event, more akin to an interactive story than an actual game.

Is there something to this? The game seems to fiddle with player agency in interesting ways, especially at the end. The Prince’s decision to cut down the trees was at odds with the desires of many players. As discussed at Tangletown Games, this fact emphasizes the division between the Prince, as a character, and the player as an agent, and forces the player to examine his own values. David Zhong felt that the optional dialogue gave rise to a disconnect between the player and the Prince. His informal survey suggests that many people saw the Prince, rather than themselves, as the agent in the closing scenes. In general we think of games as being about player agency (even if it is only the weak agency of “continue or end”). Could the reaction to the game’s difficulty result from a feeling that the game in its story and mechanics removes agency from the player, despite its open story structure?

The Prince or the Princess?

The choice to invest so much in the Prince seems odd in retrospect because few critics were impressed with him. Always a good point man on character matters, Michael Abbott brings two essays to this line of inquiry. In “Prince of Promises” he identifies an uneasy tension between the light-hearted wisecracking of the Prince and the depressing destruction of the world; he feels the game might be telling the wrong story. The Prince’s character artlessly reaches for Han Solo territory, as Michael details in “Prince of Nada”, which makes him much less interesting than Elika.

So, why not make the game Princess of Persia? In his essay, “Caring about the Prince” Tom Cross acknowledged that Elika is the real emotional core of the story, and this is a thread that you can find in many of these essays. In his consideration of Elika, Ben Fritz pointed out that she’s so powerful one wonders why she needs the Prince at all. Yet the game’s story works against Elika, and its narrative conforms to patriarchal values, as Scott Juster explains in his excellent “Prince of Patriarchy”. In the game, nature and women are subjugated to the desires of men, and the King (at the beginning) and the Prince (at the end) undermine whatever agency Elika has.

Does Prince of Persia earn its ending?

The ending of the game puts all the decision-making power in the hands of the Prince, taking it away from Elika, and even from the player. Even people who agree about the difficulty seem to be sharply divided by the game’s conclusion. Steve Amodio thought that Elika was clearly worth saving and the cold, dead world of the Ahura was not. As mtvernon points out, the feeling of freedom in the gameplay depends entirely on Elika; her absence in the closing segment of the game makes the player feel uncertain and wary during the platforming. Spitfire felt that the ending worked in part because the Prince was a dynamic character, and in part because the gameplay incubated affection for Elika in the heart of the player. When the Prince slapped the bier, Spitfire got excited because he was united with the Prince in not wanting the experience to end.

Voices from the other side of the spectrum were just as loud. Sean Beanland felt that the game actually didn’t do enough to convince the player that the Prince would choose to save Elika. In Corvus Elrod’s opinion, the flat difficulty curve was matched by flat character arcs that never once managed to convince him that the Prince valued Elika. Eric Swain thought that the structure of the Prince of Persia‘s story worked against the development of the relationship because it prevented it from following any real trajectory (he also proposes a particular arc in an interesting piece). Although the vignettes with the various corrupted successfully create a vision of what Ahriman is and what can be accomplished through him, Swain wonders why the Prince doesn’t learn anything from their hollow victories. In fact the Prince reveals on at least one occasion that he understands Ahriman’s duplicity. In my own view, the game never does enough to build up the relationship between the Prince and Elika, or convince the player he’s foolish enough to make this choice. Moreover, by destroying the player’s time investment the ending makes him feel like a sucker.

The player’s time investment comes up in Game-Boy’s wide-ranging discussion of the game. He feels that Prince of Persia goes out of its way with mechanics like Elika’s life-saving to respect the player’s investment of time. As a result, he’s confused by the choice to devalue that investment at the end. Joe Tortuga identified a different kind of tension at this point, in that the game has a very free and open structure up until the final battle, but at that point doesn’t allow you any alternatives.

Or does it? The early credit scroll led to some extended discussion of whether turning the game off early was a valid approach. Joe didn’t think stopping early was a legitimate response, and as a consequence he felt the ending ruined the game. In contrast, Michael Abbott chose to walk away from the game rather than submit to its epilogue. As Greg Tannahill notes in his equivocal piece “Closing the Book”, turning off a game early can improve the experience, but the question remains whether you are gutting the intentions of the creator. At the same time, as I mentioned earlier, games are about creating a feeling of player agency. In a game like Prince of Persia, is turning it off the only relevant contribution a player can make?

Happy reading, everyone. Special thanks to Michael Abbott for setting up some cross-blogging about the game’s finale. That link collection was a good starting point for the rest of this. As always, point me to anything you think I overlooked using the comments, twitter, or e-mail.

Last updated: 5/9/09

Grand Theft Auto IV

October 14th, 2009 | Posted by Michael Clarkson in Critical Compilation: - (21 Comments)

At the time of its release, Grand Theft Auto IV was hailed as the most important moment in the development of games as art, and their mainstream acceptance as such. It had the usual controversies, from reactionary conservatives as well as genuinely-offended feminists. The perfect scores poured in, then the imperfect scores, and the game’s adherents and detractors went to war in the comment sections of every review site on the internet. At times it seemed more was written about the popular frenzy surrounding GTA IV than about what was actually on the disk. With time, and the realization that GTA IV has neither revolutionized the public perception of games nor caused the world to end in an orgy of violent teenage crime, the game itself has started to come into focus. Grand Theft Auto IV straddles the line between the emergent play of pure sandboxes and the directed play of linear experiences, and so in many ways represents the best and the worst of video games, the boundlessness of their potential, and the tawdry limits of their imagination.

A tale of one city

GTA IV‘s setting, Liberty City, is about the only part of the game that received near-unanimous praise. Leigh Alexander wrote that the triumph of the series is world-building, especially since the world being built is so similar to our own. In her view, the constant complaints about what you can do in GTA games are really just complaints about the possibilities of our own world. Lorenzo Wang points out that the weather effects, lighting, and sense of place are key aspects in making the world resemble a humming metropolis. The incredible level of detail built into the game’s systems make the simple act of exploring this space a magical experience, according to Daniel Purvis. Tom Armitage argued that this detail and scope overwhelm the player at first, just as they do Niko, and make it so that the player shares his process of acclimatization.

Yet the city offers more than just a sense of raw majesty and immensity of scope. Chris Remo found that what really sold him on Liberty City as an immersive world were the mundane parts of Niko’s life. Watching TV, hanging out with friends, and slowing down for tolls engaged him with the city more effectively than the continuity of its landscape. Lewis Denby similarly found that GTA IV‘s greatest beauty lay in its ability to capture small, idiosyncratic moments that allowed him to get lost in the world. IGN blogger Napoleon1066 felt that this attention to mundane behaviors made Niko and the other characters more relatable.

Another part of Liberty City’s power was in its reactions to the player’s behavior. In this regard, the Euphoria engine governing character movement proved to be particularly effective in making the world believable, as Tom Francis explained. Euphoria and the AI governing pedestrian responses were also particularly effective in making Chris Baker question his violent actions. Jim Sterling pointed out that when the player fights Liberty City, the city fights back in believable ways. This pattern of reaction led Bobby Schweizer to describe public spaces in GTA IV as threatening, from a gameplay perspective, because of the possibility of taking bullets from so many directions and the likelihood of drawing police ire.

The praise was only near-unanimous, however. In a three-part piece for The Observer, Laura Cumming waxed rhapsodic about the city, but Bidisha dismissed it as being neither arcane nor realistic enough to be compelling. Mitch Krpata complained that occasional AI breakdowns, particularly with respect to the street cops, shattered immersion. And PixelVixen argued that the Liberty City was merely a great toy.

The curious case of Niko Bellic

Magical or mundane, the player experiences Liberty City through the persona of Niko Bellic, once a soldier in the Balkan wars, who has been irrevocably scarred by his time in that conflict. Bitter and cynical because of his experiences, Niko becomes part of the criminal underworld not because of a burning desire for wealth or power, but because murder is the only profession for which his life has prepared him. As Heather Chaplin writes for NPR, Niko moves through the city at a deliberate pace, as if physically weighed down by his past, and he feels little joy in what he is doing. Blogger Vitz711 concurs, taking the view that Niko’s journey into the criminal underworld stems from a loss of hope and loyalty. Niko is not proud of his actions, writes Jim Sterling, and through his interactions and the behavior of the game world the player gets to share that feeling. Despite his moral ambiguity, Niko seems to have a code, and Tony Rice, like many players, found himself making decisions based on what he thought Niko would do.

And yet, Niko does show a kind of joy – a drunken appreciation of power. He shouts out boasts in the game’s firefights, and it seems that once the gun enters his hand, he doesn’t mind killing so much after all. In the cutscenes, he constantly bemoans the violence, but that doesn’t stop him from murdering his way across Liberty City once the game part starts, as Trent Polack and Shamus Young point out. While Krystian Majewski felt that Niko’s tragic background made practically any behavior plausible, others were not so convinced. Spencer Greenwood felt betrayed and alienated by the awkward way the dealt with Niko’s attitudes towards crime. In part three of  a cross-blog dialogue, Stephen Totilo stated that he couldn’t interpret the character as anything other than sociopathic scum. N’Gai Croal, however, pointed out that the game shows us an endless procession of self-deluded characters like Manny Escuela and Brucie Kibbutz. Could Niko’s nice-guy routine fall into that pattern as well?

Of course, this sort of contradiction can be tolerable if you can convince yourself that you have no other choice. Sinan Kubba points out that Niko is a man resigned to his unhappy fate, totally aware of the futility of his situation. Could that self-perception relieve him of any principles he claims to have? Daniel Weissenberger takes this a step further, arguing that Niko’s emotional passivity is one of his key traits: he allows himself to be defined entirely by the things others have done to him. Niko may hate being a violent person, while at the same time believing he can be nobody else. In a conversation with a girlfriend, Niko can say that his war experiences “ruined” him. Is that a fact, or just his excuse?

Perhaps such ambiguity was unavoidable in a game of this kind. As Wes Erdelack points out, in this sort of game poses a dilemma: “The game’s protagonist must reflect the player’s choices, on one hand, and be someone in particular, on the other.” Tom Armitage points out that the player’s decisions about how often Niko hangs out with his friends gives the player unintentional control over his understanding of the character. The incoherence of Niko’s character might even reflect a design response to Erdelack’s dilemma. As one participant in a round table discussion at Valuable Games put it, Niko might be a kind of “ideological salad bar” of many motivations so that players can pick their favorite one and run with it. This gives the player a simpler kind of control over the perception of the character.

Drawing a line in the sand

The presence of a strong central character like Niko spotlighted GTA IV ‘s departure from previous entries in the series. As Stephen Totilo pointed out in part 2 of a cross-blog dialogue, the sandbox gameplay that had been the calling card of the series was supplanted in this game by a focus on character and narrative, which he felt was detrimental. N’Gai Croal welcomed the new direction, but felt that at the core there was a fundamental disconnect between the  developer-directed narrative of the cutscenes and the player-driven story of the gameplay. In the case of Grand Theft Auto, where the character’s behavior and the sandbox gameplay are, by their nature, transgressive, the imposition of a restrictive linear narrative can feel particularly limiting.

The problems caused by the combination of the dynamic sandbox world and the linear scripted narrative were recognized in two main forms. The first of these was the inability of the sandbox play to affect the story. Duncan Fyfe describes the issue succinctly: “it’s like a movie stapled to a video game.” Whatever choices the player makes don’t have any connection to Niko or even the story; they’re broken down into a pre-written framework. Ben Fritz points out that GTA IV allows the player to do so many things that are at odds with Niko’s character that one starts to wonder why nobody says anything. The free-form gameplay stretches credulity in other ways, as well. Participants in the Valuable Games roundtable wondered why Niko’s use of prostitutes or visits to the strip club had no effect on his romantic relationships. The narrative, even in its incidentals, found it impossible to accommodate the player’s freedom to shoot anyone. Tom Armitage, in a pair of posts, related his frustration that GTA IV negated his decision to kill the control-freak Jeff, and his mixed feelings when the game eventually offed Jeff for him.

The other significant problem, albeit one not unique to this entry in the series, was the excessive authorial control exerted in the game’s missions. As Shamus Young points out, the missions in GTA IV were over-scripted, brittle affairs where the player must figure out exactly what the developers wanted him to do or repeat them ad nauseam. Chuck Jordan argued that you’d have to play each mission at least twice: once to find out what to do, then again to actually succeed. GTA IV employs restrictive mission objectives that diminish the sandbox feel, according to blogger Zulu. Moreover, the game cheats by making certain characters or vehicles invincible until a particular set piece is completed, a fact that outright infuriated Arthur B. Several writers liken the experience to acting a part in an action movie where you don’t know the script.

This feeling likely stems from the admitted influence of film on the Rockstar games. As Dan Houser stated in a wide-ranging interview with Ben Fritz, Rockstar sees their competition as being the movies, not other games. Not everyone sees this effort as a positive. In a diatribe, Boss Nonnu argues that the obsession with melding games with film is embarrassing and juvenile. In the first part of the cross-blog dialogue, Stephen Totilo explains that the game fails on this point anyway, and never gets us to the point of playing a movie, in part because it defeats its own aims.

Wes Erdelack argues that part of the problem is that vast open worlds with epic stories, like those of GTA IV and Fallout 3, simply cannot deliver taut pacing throughout unless the mechanics of gameplay develop a player narrative that matches the developer’s. Justin Marks uses the example of GTA IV, among others, to argue that developers ought to make the gameplay into the narrative, rather than imposing the narrative as packaging through the use of cutscenes. Chuck Jordan points out that the game doesn’t do a good enough job early on aligning the player’s view of the narrative and the developer’s view of it, and makes the case that the real potential of interactive storytelling lies in collaboration between the player and developer. The closest GTA IV comes in this regard is its approach of doling out new gameplay possibilities as a reward for narrative advancement, as Shamus Young notes in comparing it to Saints Row 2.

The tension between the narrative and the gameplay caused some to view contradiction as the game’s defining feature.  Carlo Barbara described the game as a near-impossible balancing act between often-opposing influences. And even while arguing that GTA IV was the game of the year, Wes Erdelack nonetheless acknowledged, “GTA IV is less than the sum of its parts. It contradicts itself; it contains multitudes.

Full of sound and fury, signifying bullets

Opinions remain divided on whether the story being told warranted the sacrifice of the series’ historical gameplay traits. Trent Polack praised the game’s slow start, because it makes the first real shootout feel like the game-changer that it is. In his view, however, the effort to ratchet up the tension late in the game led to what he called “an uninteresting and nonsensical mafioso finale.” Duncan Fyfe argued that the game fell to pieces as it became more involved in the crime, that the real tragedy of GTA IV was that Rockstar abandoned an interesting story about immigrants for a ludicrous one about criminals. Bidisha, writing for The Observer, dismissed the whole as “bad guy-on-guy thug porn,” and Tom Chick identified the writing as one of the game’s great weaknesses because it eventually sank into stock gangster plots and lowbrow satire. Chuck Jordan felt even that fell flat: “I would appreciate seeing something that genuinely offended me,” he wrote, “as it is, I’m just kind of bored and annoyed.”

The mechanics of the plot also came in for some critique. Justin Keverne, among many others, pointed out that one key motivation of the story – Niko’s need for money – falls apart late in the game, when you’re likely to have hundreds of thousands of dollars. I personally contended that Rockstar were too willing to disregard common sense and character motivation in service of whatever would justify the cutscenes and set pieces they wanted to make.

Many who didn’t care for the direction of the plot nonetheless loved the game’s characters. Blogger dvader654 thought that the supporting cast, particularly early in the game, were colorful, unique, and engaging. He was disappointed that the game later largely discarded them in favor of colorless stock mafiosi. Pixelvixen, herself a fictional construct, felt Dwayne Forge was one of the best supporting characters of 2008. Daniel Purvis felt that the characters of The Lost & the Damned were even more realistic and intriguing. Wes Erdelack argued that the power of the supporting cast  derives from Rockstar’s skill at writing convincing human interactions. But the positive opinion of the cast was not universal. Tom Chick quit The Lost & the Damned because its characters were mainly brutal, simplistic thugs. Tom Cross gave up on the main game because he found its characters to universally fit horrible racist or sexist stereotypes.

Those who did make it to the end found a surprisingly subdued conclusion. No matter what choices Niko makes during the course of the game, he loses someone important to him, and gains nothing from his act of revenge. As blogger yamster points out, the friendship system allows you to create Niko Bellic’s character to some extent, but the story then forces you to destroy whom you have created. In a world full of power fantasies that end in glorious triumph, maybe GTA IV‘s most redeeming feature is that it doesn’t grant its chief thug a happy ending.

It’s a wanted level, not a karma level

Given the popular perception and gameplay reality of the series, perhaps it’s a bit odd to examine the role of morality in GTA IV. After all, this game belongs to a group of crime sims that take the murder of policemen too casually, as Matthew Kaplan points out. Leigh Alexander reported that some New Yorkers, angry over the Sean Bell murder, were interested in the game for precisely that reason. Here you have a game in which, infamously, you can hire a prostitute, then kill her to get your money back. GTA IV doesn’t punish you for that behavior, or move you one notch up or down on a good/evil scale. As Josh Birk says, “You can bring your ethics to the table if you want, but they’re just your ethics and the game doesn’t really give a damn.”

One consistent defense of Grand Theft Auto games is that they merely make abhorrent behavior a possibility, not a necessity. As Chris Baker points out, the public’s perception of GTA IV hinges on the outrageous things you can do, not the relatively tame things you must do, and the game doesn’t celebrate even the required violence. Yes, you can kill that prostitute, but you gain nothing by doing so that you couldn’t get just as easily by buying a $5 hot dog. Does that turn the situation into a test of your own morality? As a participant in the Valuable Games roundtable notes, really making a moral choice isn’t possible unless an immoral option is available. Some players felt that Niko’s attitude towards his situation and the way the world reacts to him don’t particularly encourage crime, either. Jim Sterling felt that Niko’s character and the depiction of certain interactions made killing, or even hiring, the prostitute seem unpleasant, cold, and sleazy. A subset of players reacted by challenging themselves to act as morally as they could within the confines of the game’s systems: strategies are still evolving to play through the game while committing as few crimes as possible.

The feeling that Niko would act in a certain way often guided player response to moments in the game when Niko can choose between two assassination targets, or to let his enemies go free. As Nick Dinicola mentions in his critique of karma systems, even though the player is free to choose to kill, say, Playboy X or Dwayne, the guiding principles of the main character point towards only one choice, even though there’s no explicit karma system. Several developers who played the game made their choice for just this reason, as did N’Gai Croal. Some, however, did not, and Wes Erdelack argued that the substantially better in-game reward for killing Playboy X poisons this dilemma. In general, however, the game doesn’t explicitly prefer any of Niko’s options, and this absence of obvious moral rectitude in most decisions struck blogger Droll as one of the games strengths.

Players did not generally react as well to the forced choice between Francis and Derrick McReary, in part because the game did not seriously engage the consequences of this decision. Niko’s relationships with the McReary clan continue, and there is little discussion of the missing brother. But this neutering of consequence did not always strip Niko’s choices of meaning. Blogger Jesusofwales praised the game’s willingness to let the player choose Darko’s fate without punishment or reward. Tom Chick concurred, stating that the decision to kill or spare Darko said more about the player than the game, and the somber drive afterward “forced you to think instead of watch or listen.”

Nayan Ramachandran, however, felt that dressing up certain choices as explicit moral decisions only served to trivialize the countless murders Niko committed in missions or just driving around. In this respect, Justin Keverne envisioned GTA IV as a test case for the categorical imperative: when murder and theft are trivial and allowed, life and property become meaningless.

Taking the low road on the American Dream

Is there a larger message in GTA IV to match the elaborately-designed city, a point of view on American life that justifies its violence and tawdry sexuality? When Corvus Elrod asked questions along these lines, That Fuzzy Bastard responded (comment #17) that the game should be taken not as a stab at gritty realism, but rather as an attempt at a Brechtian sendup of the ideas America incarnates. When Junot Diaz forcefully argued in a piece for the Wall Street Journal that GTA IV exemplifies America’s cultural evasions rather than its unpleasant realities , Wes Erdelack similarly replied that the game should be interpreted as low satire, a “funhouse mirror” look at the American Dream.

Spencer Greenwood takes this a step further, arguing that the game critiques the American Dream directly, not in its original form, but in the hedonistic view articulated by Packie McReary. In Greenwood’s interpretation, GTA IV accuses the American Dream of having devolved to nothing more than enjoying life as much as you can and leaving a bloated corpse when you go. Peter Conrad, writing for The Observer, similarly argues that “GTA IV is about the revved-up tempo and suicidal trajectory of our mechanised lives.” You can make any number of choices for Niko, but the best victory you can hope for is a hollow one. G. Christopher Williams comes to a similar conclusion. In his view, GTA IV is a consideration of the pursuit of happiness. Niko Bellic comes to America, lured by his cousin’s tales of riches and hot women, hoping to finally wipe out his horrific past, but the world posited by Rockstar makes that dream an empty one. As Williams puts it:

To condemn GTA as a game that thrives on wanton cruelty to achieve happiness is to condemn other “systems” (like the America portrayed by Rockstar as fixated on a pursuit of happiness) whose “rules” do likewise. GTA provides a game where criminal choice is one of the few options available, but the vision of America provided by GTA suggests a “game” of similar nature grounded in capitalism and greed.


http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90041944

Fallout 3

July 17th, 2009 | Posted by Michael Clarkson in Critical Compilation: - (5 Comments)

Imagine the enormity of the task: to take one of the most fondly-remembered role-playing games ever made, a game developed by another studio, and craft a sequel with vastly different gameplay, advancing the world design and graphics for a new era of gaming while recapturing the ineffable spirit of the beloved predecessor. If that doesn’t sound like a losing proposition to you, then you are either an idiot or a visionary, and the odds are on the former. We owe some gratitude, then, to the splendid idiots at Bethesda for creating Fallout 3, now perhaps the prime example of a great open-world RPG. This is not to say that the positive impression is unanimous – writers and reviewers have critiqued the repetitive design, the dodgy shooting, and the wooden and unappealing non-player characters. Yet, given the innate difficulty of what Bethesda Softworks set out to do, Fallout 3 stands as a great achievement. It is, after all, too much to ask of any work of art that it inspire everyone. Fallout 3 is not perfect, and even those that love it have found much to criticize. Nonetheless, many have found that the game seizes not just their attention, but their imagination.

A wasteland rich in story materials

Although built from a relatively limited palette, the world of Fallout 3 feels vast and even boundless. In “The world’s your oyster”, Iroquois Pliskin compares this game with Oblivion and indicates that the key to its appeal is its ability to keep showing you something you haven’t seen before. The limited repertoire of objects and textures is skillfully permuted to create environments that gently inspire players to develop their own stories about the world, as Denis Farr describes in “Seven for a secret never to be told”. For an example of such a story, check out this example from Steven O’Dell. This effect seems to be intended – the Wasteland of the game is not an accessory to the main quest, but a setting in which that quest is just one of several important stories that are unfolding. As Mitch Krpata puts it, the game’s world is “a massive canvas upon which are painted scenes of depth and import”.

The seeming richness (and safety) of the wasteland confused Justin Keverne initially, because it seemed out of place given the apocalyptic setting. He found it to be more vibrant and alive than the landscape of Far Cry 2. By contrast, Steven O’Dell felt that Fallout 3 kept a sense of danger intact throughout the game, even as the player grew more comfortable and confident in the wastes, through use of dangerous creatures like the Deathclaw. Keverne eventually came to the conclusion that the appearance of population and life was an illusion, that the clusters of houses that he had perceived as tiny villages were really just the last few vestiges of enormous sprawling suburbs. The desolation and emptiness of this world enhances the apparent importance of moral choices, as Allen Cook describes in “Hero of the Wastes”. When there are so few people, killing even one feels like genocide, and saving even one feels incredibly important.

Of course, the Washington D.C. setting of the game provides a touchstone for the development of personal narratives. Chris Person, whose once lived over the spot Vault 101 would be if it existed, found the game deeply affecting because of its connection to his childhood haunts. Michael Abbott, who only visited D.C., detailed a similar experience in “Second Thoughts”, in which he also ponders his meta-experience of the game. Bobby Schweizer relates the Metro segments of the Wasteland to his own experiences of those sites and the larger context of RPG and FPS spaces, likening Bethesda themselves to the unintelligible announcers on modern Metro trains.

This didn’t work out for everyone, though. In “The Mutant Behind the Curtain”, Thomas Cross explains that despite the richness of the world’s many distractions it just doesn’t connect emotionally for him. As Susan Arendt relates in “A Different Kind of Treasure”, she found that the design of the world interfered with her experience of the game, particularly in the respect that she didn’t get the kind of loot she was expecting.

Some writers felt that Fallout 3 actually constrained them from their desired character narrative. Jorge Albor describes in “Role Playing in the Wastes” that his experience of the game simply didn’t fit with the character that he had conceived. The mutual accommodation between character and DM typical of tabletop role-playing isn’t possible in the context of a computer RPG, which may mean that players must be more flexible in their approach to their roles. Krpata felt reasonably comfortable with his character concept, but found that Fallout‘s inflexibility occasionally boxed him out of the karmic path he desired to take. The route to a desired moral outcome was at times needlessly obscure.

The game also seemed to have little flexibility in dealing with gender options. Simon Ferrari, among others, thought that the game did not do a good job of supporting the choice to play a female character, although it featured several positive female NPCs. Bonnie Ruberg felt that the game’s dialogue took too little notice of the player’s choice to be female. As she points out, “Whether we like it or not, even our most basic communication changes depending whom we’re addressing,” but Fallout 3 has no such adaptation. The game’s heteronormative attitude (as expressed in perks like “Lady Killer”) and paucity of options for sexual expression also troubled Denis Farr.

What you don’t know…

Several authors have identified ignorance as a key way that Fallout 3 draws the player into the creation of a personal narrative. Spencer Greenwood argues in “Ignorance is Bliss” that the decision to supply the character with a minimum of information encourages exploration and experimentation in the context of the game world, in this as well as previous Fallout games. Similarly, Justin Keverne found that his immersion in the main quest was strongest at a point when the game stopped telling him exactly where to go. In “Wasteland Detective”, he asks if the game might be at its best when it lets the player get lost.

In “The Wasteland of Forking Paths”, Travis Megill points out that the presentation of the main quest encourages the player to explore. Although the central storyline involves a somewhat urgent attempt to save the world, the game hides this until the player is fairly far along in it. This disguise makes it more comfortable for the player to meander. The apparent lack of urgency and potential lack of structure in the main quest changes the way you approach the entire game. In “The Sisters”, Duncan Fyfe suggests that these aspects make Fallout 3 less like a novel and more like a themed collection of short stories, explicitly comparing the game to James Joyce’s Dubliners.

Mitch Krpata puts forward something of an opposing view in “How I learned to stop worrying and love Fallout. For him, the more obvious RPG aspects of the game, and his uncertainty about what exactly to do next, created something of an anxiety that he was playing the wrong way. For him, it was the fine details of the open world that finally got him relaxed enough to realize there was no wrong way. Borut Pfeifer touches on this feeling in “Your choice, and your fault”, pointing out that players who forge an emotional connection with the game world may feel paralyzed by the unpredictable outcomes of their choices (and the feeling that the developers are out to screw them over).

Denis Farr, writing in “Birth of a role” about the character creation portion of the game, expresses some relief that Fallout 3 avoided a particular kind of ignorance, namely the “amnesia” trope. One of Fallout 3‘s strengths, in his view, is that the player doesn’t have to ask who he is, but rather how he came to be who he is.

Immersion failure at the NPC interface

In contrast to the widely-praised open world, Fallout 3‘s NPCs have come in for some harsh criticism. Michael Abbott contributes the core of the critique in “Genius Jilted” and “People drive me crazy”, which also cover some criticism of Fable II. The realistic feel of the world, for him, is entirely at odds with the behavior of NPCs who basically function as “human-esque information kiosks”. He calls out the sometimes poorly-written dialogue and the wooden facial animations as sources of his problem. Thomas Cross expresses similar sentiments in “The Mutant Behind the Curtain”, stating that the stilted interactions with NPCs are part of the way in which Fallout 3 flaunts its game-ness. Gamey behavior in the finale also troubled D. Riley, as he describes in “What about the oasis?” (for a similar take, see Ben’s RAAAAGE).

Duncan Fyfe, on the other hand, feels that most of the NPCs work well enough for what the game is trying to do with them. In “Friends like these”, he explains that the NPC interactions really start to break down once you bring the companions into the mix. Their failure to react to the discoveries that give the open world its emotional relevance highlights the fact that they are little more than walking gun turrets. Only Dogmeat, who we don’t expect to have emotions, is a convincing character. Mitch Krpata found that immersion broke because the scripting of the game led to the NPCs noticing at once too little and too much, making an example of the Lincoln Memorial quest. Similar encounters with psychic NPCs and restrictive response options left David Sahlin wondering if Bethesda could have done more than they did to anticipate alternative routes between narrative nodes. In “Prototyping Story” he wonders if an in-house interactive fiction system could have improved their preparations.

Beyond “good” and “evil”

The NPC writing didn’t just foul up the immersion, it also fiddled unpleasantly with the game’s approach to morality. In “Fun and loathing in Las Vegas Washington D.C.”, Ben Abraham identifies a tension between the portrayal of certain characters and the feel of the game. In his opinion, Mr. Burke comes across as a very cartoonish, moustache-twirling villain that is inappropriate in the context of the gritty, realistic game world. The game seems to make judgments about characters, sometimes without asking the real questions.

I express a similar complaint in “There’s nothing in it for you”, arguing that the game doesn’t provide the NPCs or the player with reasons to be evil beyond sheer insanity. In particular, the relative abundance of supplies in the Wasteland seems to defeat the feeling of desperation that might make an attractive core for such a personal narrative. Shamus Young had similar problems with Mr. Burke’s quest, as he describes in “The Power of the Atom”, where he critiques the flimsy writing behind what may be Fallout 3‘s most affecting visual sequence. David Wildgoose, in contrast, found that the information he dug up on Megaton’s citizens from Moriarty’s computer, painting them as “sleazy losers”, helped him see Burke’s side of it. For me, the chief reason for evil comes not from any of the writing, but rather from the V.A.T.S. system. In “Power’s joy and sorrow” I opine that the system presents killing as an empowering pleasure, and in that way makes a case for war.

The case for selfless helpfulness, in my view is much stronger, but the narrative of the good character ends up “Falling apart at the end”. The conclusion of the main quest, in my view, suffers because of a weak antagonist and moral confusion. The middle road also becomes problematic, as Denis Farr found in his quest to play a neutral, judging character. The paucity of truly neutral options means that in Fallout 3, the only way to remain neutral is to avoid quests entirely or vacillate oddly between good and evil.

Justin Keverne critiques the game’s explicit karma system in “A measure of morality”. The fact that the karmic result of a particular action is made explicit is at odds with feeling of ignorance mentioned earlier. He also points out that almost everyone thinks of himself as a decent person, and that this slippery moral perspective is absent from the karma math. Malcolm Ryan, in his essay “On Moral Detachment” argues that explicit karma systems eliminate moral force by giving every choice a gameplay consequence. He actually felt more moved by an incidental moment in the game Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, which he found otherwise forgettable. Nick Dinicola felt that the quest in Oasis was one that called for a more nuanced view of morality. In his initial playthrough, he navigated it without gaining or losing karma, and felt that he would be less inclined towards self-examination and criticism had the game given him an explicit thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

The existence of an explicit morality system also leaves that system open to critique. D. Riley’s provides one in his discussion of “The Situation at Tenpenny Tower” in which he describes a quest where even the “good” solutions leave a bad taste in your mouth. Shamus Young also extensively critiques the logic of this quest, the options available, and the game’s moral judgment of your choices.

What does Fallout 3 tell us?

One of the persistent complaints about video games is that the lack of authorial control diminishes their artistic merits. Much is wrong with this view, but it has a certain resonance in light of games like Fallout 3 that work by allowing the player to construct a personal narrative. Obviously a game can use particular mechanics in order to reinforce certain behaviors, but this can create as many questions as answers, as Justin Keverne mentions in his short post “Its own reward?”.

Nonetheless, some messages can be read into any personal narrative that gets built into the game world. Duncan Fyfe opines in “Escape from Vault 101″ that at its core Fallout 3 is about the worthlessness of inaction, and the futility of safety, connecting this to Bethesda’s own story. As he says, “It’s about not staying in the vault.” The open-world context itself can also convey a message. In Bellum omnia contra omnes I argue that the wasteland, by depicting the state of nature as close to Hobbes’ vision, says certain things about humanity. The game’s fictional history connects the desperate struggles of the wasteland with wars that may be coming in our own.

Last Update: 12/5/09

BioShock

June 17th, 2009 | Posted by Michael Clarkson in Critical Compilation: - (15 Comments)

BioShock is the rare game that really does change the way we think about video games, if for no other reason than that it has turned up as an example in almost every discussion of game style, mechanics, story, or design that has been written since its initial release in 2007. BioShock has received excessive adulation, a much-discussed backlash, and even a backlash to its backlash. Discussions of the game spawned the most popular jargon in games writing. So much has been written about it that I could only put my hands on a fraction of the material without driving myself nutty as a splicer. Thus, this constitutes an in-progress draft of a survey of critical thinking on a game that will likely be regarded as a classic.

“Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?”

One of BioShock‘s most compelling features is that it details an interesting philosophical system and then uses it to frame an ethical question. The underwater utopia of Rapture was founded by an industrialist named Andrew Ryan on a system of principles much akin to Randian Objectivism, so much so that John Lanchester argues in the London Review of Books that BioShock is the only popular work in recent years to give Rand a drubbing. Lorenzo Wang fleshes out this case in his rich and interesting essay BioShock Explained”. In his view, the game attacks two key flaws of Rand’s philosophy: society can never sustain its ideal state (somebody must, after all, scrub the toilets), and free will, even in the land of plasmids, is limited. A sprawling essay at Popular Symbolism interprets the game’s history and many characters as a condemnation of Objectivism and transhumanism. Jay Barnson felt that the game critiqued the intrinsic short-sightedness of the market, which is regarded as all-wise by the lovers of laissez-faire economics.

This interpretation of the game’s attitude towards Objectivism was not universal, however. Shamus Young interviewed an Objectivist on the subject, who argued that BioShock really aims its criticisms at the idea of philosophical certainty. Ava Avane Dawn argues that the game isn’t a fair critique of objectivism because the people of Rapture actually betrayed objectivist ideals. In his very interesting Marxist critique, Richard Terrell lays out a case that the game conditioned the player to accept the principles of Rapture’s economy. In his view, the choice to attack the Big Daddies (and possibly the little sisters) makes the player part of the oppressive capitalist regime. Justin Keverne argued that the mechanics of the game suggest that one’s goal is to acquire power in order to gain the ability to acquire further power.

At this point, designer Clint Hocking felt that BioShock went off the rails in a certain sense. In his essential essay “Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock, Hocking argues that the game presents the player with two conflicting contracts. The gameplay establishes that the player must serve his own interest in order to advance, while the story forces the player to serve others in order to advance. Our attempts to deal with or ignore this tension are them mocked by the game’s central twist.

“How can you do this thing? To a child?”

The philosophy of rational self-interest provides context for the story, and also for a moral choice that the player makes. When Rapture’s lumbering Big Daddies are defeated, the player may choose the fate of “little sisters” they protect. If he rescues a little sister, he receives a small amount of ADAM that he can use to purchase plasmids, tonics, and other upgrades, and the girl survives. If he chooses to “harvest” the girl, he gets a great deal more ADAM, but she does not survive. For Leigh Alexander, saving the girls is like saving Rapture’s last bit of innocence. In her view, the whole saga with ADAM was like a child’s wish, and saving the girls is a way of forgiving Rapture for making that wish, despite the destruction it caused. Yet many did not find this choice to be compelling. As Wes Erdelack notes, in BioShock as in many other video games, the moral choices are too simplistic and do not feature a sufficient challenge to “goodness”.

One frequent complaint about the rescue / harvest choice is that if the player rescues enough little sisters, then the twisted Dr. Tenenbaum will leave a Teddy bear at a nearby vending machine, stuffed with plasmids, ammo, and extra ADAM she has presumably harvested on her own. In a thorough critique of this moral choice, D. Riley argues that the benefits of rescuing are sufficiently great that the whole system is neutered. Duncan Fyfe concurs, and wonders how the developers could have gotten this so wrong.

This opinion is not universal. Leigh Alexander believes that approaching the rescue / harvest choice with a cost-benefit analysis is too limiting. In her view the question to ask is not what you want to get but who you want to be. As she says, “The merit of choice in games may not be what we get from it, but when done this richly, how it feels.” In her detailed essay on BioShock‘s critique of objectivism, Mighty Ponygirl similarly argues that the choice to kill the little sisters says less about morality than it does about the player’s acceptance of Rapture’s ideals. In her words, “If you can look at a sentient being as an expendible resource… you would make a great objectivist.” Bonnie Ruberg feels that the choice is really there to expose the selfishness of gameplay tactics in general. I also felt that the near-equivalence (in economic terms) of the two choices was making a point about the hidden values of games.

Some also argue that the harvest choice is not compelling because the player is spared having to watch the act or even see the body that remains. D. Riley’s previously noted essay includes a comment on this point, and I make a similar case in my own essay, “Ecce, soror”. Nels Anderson acknowledges that this may be so, but points out that on-screen child murder by the protagonist of a game simply could never get by ratings boards or the easily-outraged public. Nonetheless, he argues that the nursery scene provides some of the necessary emotional impact.

And perhaps the little sisters aren’t even the real focus of the moral choice. Justin Keverne argues that the player’s real moral choice is whether to attack the enslaved Big Daddies for his own personal gain. Unlike the other denizens of Rapture, the extremely dangerous Big Daddies won’t harm you unless you attack them first. For Glenn Turner, the choice to put down a Big Daddy was harrowing because of the little sisters’ reaction. Gene Koo felt that becoming one of these lumbering behemoths brought the game’s emotional and philosophical threads close to each other. In his view, however, this didn’t quite succeed, because the player has no choice about whether he becomes a big daddy.

Whether the rescue / harvest choice was compelling or not, BioShock at least invited a fresh consideration of the meaning of moral agency in games, according to Leigh Alexander. She also pondered whether our behavior in the game would change if our peers were aware of it (perhaps through achievements or trophies).

“A man chooses; a slave obeys.”

Choice is the subject of BioShock‘s most compelling moment, the confrontation with Andrew Ryan. This moment twists the preceding exposition of the ideas of rational self-interest into a commentary on the nature of gaming itself. Wes Erdelack views BioShock as a parable about gaming, highlighting the fact that the feeling of agency is always an illusion. The Graduate School Gamer notes in an essay comparing BioShock to Braid that “The player can only converse with the text within the confines of the game’s design and always remains at the will of the designer.” The illusion of choice is not a subject unique to gaming, according to Roger Travis. He notes that the non-choice of killing Ryan resembles Achilles’ non-choice to join battle in the Iliad. Travis also expands on this idea in arguing that the game’s ethical challenges exist to highlight the illusion of choice.

The first-person perspective heightened the impact of the climax. Matthew Gallant regards the first-person viewpoint as essential, especially in moments like the confrontation with Ryan. The personal choices at the center of the game couldn’t be the same if the player’s eye into the game world didn’t seem to make him a part of it. Sinan Kubba shares Gallant’s skepticism about a BioShock movie, feeling that the immediacy and immersion of the game’s perspective could never truly be replicated in film. The praise was not universal, however: Brad Gallaway felt that the silent, first-person protagonist interfered with the narrative at several important points. He especially felt that the internal logic of the game collapsed when the player injected himself with a plasmid for the first time.

The more widely-expressed complaint about the plot, and specifically the encounter with Ryan, is that there is far too much game after it. The denouement of the game is widely recognized as its weakest segment, a fact that Josh Birk explains by pointing out that BioShock, like many other games, has more backstory than story. The confrontation with Ryan is the culmination of the fascinating backstory, leaving the rest of the game to become little more than the tale of a man with a gun out for revenge. Moreover, the game doesn’t exactly free the player up to make his own choices after its climax. The player continues to obey a character, only now it is Tenenbaum rather than Fontaine. Andrew Vanden Bossche was not disturbed by this, in part because the game did a good job of keeping the player’s goals aligned with those of the narrative. Duncan Fyfe, however, was frustrated by BioShock‘s refusal to engage this dilemma. Chris Dahlen also found it troubling, because the game’s most compelling character (Ryan) has so much agency and the player has so little. As he puts it, “…within the game, you never become a man. The only choice you have is to stop playing.” In a very interesting piece, Tom Francis proposed an alternate ending sequence with stronger inherent logic and an actual choice in the final moments.

Aside from Ryan, surprisingly few writers have gone in depth on the characters of the game. A worthy exception to this rule is Leigh Alexander’s examination of the bizarre Sander Cohen. She relates his personality to people she knows from her theater background, seeing in him a metaphor for the whole backstory of the game. In her view, Cohen is “a brilliant character not only for his spot-on characterization, but for the way his endless wrestling with ‘the muse’ is a perfect metaphor for the consumptive nature of Rapture in general.”

“I know why it has to be children, but why just girls?”

Without focusing a spotlight on particular characters, several interesting pieces have examined the role of women and femininity in BioShock. Although creepy little girls are a staple of the horror genre, as Leigh Alexander has noted, BioShock uniquely gives the player power over their fate. Bonnie Ruberg found the female enemies in the game particularly disturbing, and wondered whether their horrific power drew from the simple fact of their gender. She also found the power relationship between the player and the little sisters to be troubling, and agreed with a Penny Arcade comic suggesting that it had overtones of pedophilia.

Nels Anderson indicates that the design of the girls is intended to evoke sympathetic feelings, but what attitude does this imply on the part of the player and developers? In a comprehensive critique, Richard Terrell argues that BioShock pervasively trades in patriarchal values because it “depicts women as weak, emotional, submissive, and nurturing and men as strong, and protective…”. The little sisters are portrayed as helpless human commodities, and for much of the story Diane McClintock equates her self-worth with physical attractiveness. Moreover, Dr. Tenenbaum’s redemption comes through an acquiescence to patriarchal ideas of motherhood. Terrell’s analysis encompasses the mechanics of interacting with female characters as well. Alex Raymond offers a counterpoint, noting that Rapture’s only remaining sane geniuses are women who integrate intellect and emotion. Since the game shows the conditioning of the little sisters into partriarchal ideals as disturbing and corrupt, she believes it may even have feminist ideas at its core.

“I chose the impossible. I chose… Rapture”

It’s easy to understand how Cohen, Tenenbaum, and so many others could have chosen Rapture. For Ed Borden, the environment was key to BioShock‘s immersion of the player. The crumbling city arrests the player’s attention and inspires his curiosity. Glenn Turner felt the same way, arguing that the art design was perhaps the game’s best feature. For Richard Naik also, the selling point of the game was Rapture’s auditory and visual design, overwhelming all of the game’s shortcomings. The art design unified the disparate levels, making the world of Rapture feel like a coherent whole and maximizing the emotional impact on the player, as Tom Cross explains in “Surviving Rapture”.

Part of the power of the environment was the way in which it was used to tell a story. Steven O’Dell compared the player’s journey through Rapture to a guided tour of a dying city, one in which the enormously detailed spaces tell a story through the way they are designed. Wes Erdelack points out that the much-loved environmental storytelling of Fallout 3 has some roots in the construction of Rapture’s spaces. While the audio logs constitute the most powerful storytelling in BioShock, the game’s spaces allow the player to play detective and reconstruct his own history for the game world. Careful construction of spaces and traversals played a significant role in player experiences as well, as Simon Cooke explains. Every time the player encounters a massive set piece, the developers use clever design to make sure he is able to see every bit of it. The hub-and-spoke design used for most areas of Rapture also increases the player’s sense of familiarity with its major spaces, as Steve Gaynor details in his essay “Reorienteering: Spatial Organization in Bioshock.”

“…bugger gets into his ‘ead that he’s gonna go down guns blazing.”

Also making sure that the player can see every inch of the city is the fact that he simply can’t die in it. In some respects, the Vita-Chambers that resurrect the player after every fatal encounter resemble a streamlined checkpoint system (much like Elika in the later Prince of Persia), and Scott Juster places them among a number of ways that BioShock used narrative elements to disguise common gameplay tropes. Nonetheless, the Vita-Chambers were widely criticized. This goes beyond the hardcore player’s lament, articulated for us by Josh Bycer, that resurrection makes the game ‘too easy’. Josh Birk complains that they interfere with the scare factor in the game and the logic of weapon collection. Justin Keverne points out that they encourage the player to take the path of least resistance, though for him the draw of using the plasmid powers was enough to keep him playing fair. Not so for Richard Terrell, who felt that the chambers too strongly encouraged the wrench / revive / repeat approach to combat, and demoted the central activity of the game, which he felt to be shooting. Moreover, he argues that the effective immortality of the player weakens the psychological impact of the game in his psychoanalytic evaluation.

Another way to conceive of the Vita-Chambers might be as a resurrection spell, an apt comparison since BioShock had so many RPG elements. In fact, Richard Terrell felt the game’s mechanics tended more towards the role-playing side, in particular because the almost nonexistent cover system forced the player to behave like a bullet sponge. He compares tactics in BioShock to the attack / attack / heal approach common in RPGs. Justin Keverne comments on the oddity of this, as the Vita-Chambers actually make healing and health packs totally superfluous in all but the final battle. Writing for Eludamos, Matthew Weise connects BioShock with RPG roots originating in Ultima Underworld.

BioShock resembled RPGs in even less flattering ways as well, specifically because of its fetch quests. These quests added numerous objectives that muffled the story, in Duncan Fyfe’s view. Rather than engaging in a breakneck pursuit of Ryan (or Fontaine), the player spends his time mucking about Rapture looking for 7 vials of bee spit. This quest temporarily scared Tom Armitage right out of the game, even though it ultimately led to some interesting exploration. He warns, “I was thrown by the instructions the game gave me…” saying that even a good game can be derailed by players’ bad memories of similar quests.

And despite the “too easy” vita chambers and exciting plasmid powers, the conventions that BioShock embraces limit its audience. Although Lanchester praised BioShock‘s consideration of Randian philosophy, he criticized the game because even its modest difficulty would keep it from being experienced by a broader culture that might genuinely appreciate it.

Author’s Note

If you go to any of these blogs and search them for the word “BioShock” you will come up with dozens of posts. The game has become a kind of yardstick by which we measure others, and a rich source of examples to illustrate points. I attempted to limit what I included here by stipulating that the post must be at least 50% about BioShock, and that it should be in fully developed paragraphs rather than bullet points. I’m not sure I actually ended up holding to that, but that was at least the approach I tried to apply. I am positive I left some excellent posts out, mostly by failing to find them in the vast wilds of the internet. If I omitted your dissertation on the semiotics of dentistry in the context of Rapture, it is probably because I didn’t run into it while I was doing my survey. Would you kindly let me know about it in the comments, via Twitter, or with an e-mail?

Last updated: 12/5/09