"Halo 3" comes out next week, and maybe more than a million (or two) gamers will consider it the biggest first-person game of the year.
That may be.
But what if you wanted a first-person game set underwater and inspired by 20th-century philosophy?
What if you wanted your first-person game to be controlled with the wave of your hand and to force you to occasionally roll into a ball?
Those are the games we're talking about this week.
Having tackled "God of War II," the "Halo 3" beta, "Manhunt 2," and short session games, Newsweek's N'Gai Croal and I are setting our newest Vs Mode on "BioShock" for the Xbox 360 and "Metroid Prime 3" for the Wii. Spoilers abound, and while they are clearly noted in today's first round, by tomorrow's second installment, you will want to have finished "BioShock" before reading.
So what did we think of the year's best-reviewed game? Why did I go into "BioShock" convinced I wasn't going to like it? And what did N'Gai do this time to infuriate me? It's all revealed this week.
As always, these exchanges are co-published at N'Gai's "Level Up" blog.
To: N'Gai Croal
Fr: Stephen Totilo
Date: August 24, 2007
Re: Shook Ones
We're done talking about short games and back to the big stuff, specifically "BioShock" and "Metroid Prime 3: Corruption." I beat the first game. I haven't even started the second, because the advance delivery I was expecting of the game got, well, kind of corrupted.
So "BioShock." They say it's a perfect 10. Game Informer did. 1up did. Ace Gamez did. They don't all say that. Edge magazine gave it an 8. I started playing the game before I read the reviews. In fact, I didn't know this game was allegedly perfect until after I finished it. I actually went into it blind.
No, scratch that. I didn't go into it blind. I went into it a bit prejudiced, expecting trouble.
Let me give you my "brief" history of following "BioShock." I first heard of the game at E3 2006 two Mays ago. People were buzzing about this great game in the Take 2 booth. According to my meticulously kept files I went to see the game at 9:30AM, on Friday, May 12th of that year. My "BioShock" meeting occurred a half hour after Shane Kim no-showed a scheduled interview with me and right before I had to swim into the raucous crowd at the EA booth to conduct a shout-interview with the makers of "Crysis." From 9:30 until 10, in a darkened closed-door private booth, "BioShock" mastermind Ken Levine ran the demo. He talked a great game, but what I saw didn't do it for me. I saw pretty water effects that served no gameplay purpose. He talked about interesting moral choices but could only name this one thing about rescuing or killing creepy Little Sisters that were protected by monstrous Big Daddies. And this one female enemy in a green dress kept attacking the game's first-person hero. Levine seemed like a nice guy, but when other reporters said this game was the Best of Show, I scoffed.
I didn't pay much attention to the game after that. Any time I heard about it, it just sounded like more of the same: Little Sisters, Big Daddies, moral choices. It seemed to me that Levine and team weren't showing much breadth. In the fall, my games-scripting pal Susan O'Connor told me that I really needed to talk to Levine again. She believed in "BioShock" (she was also being paid to work on it).
I consented and interviewed Levine in January. He gave great quotes -- "Most video game people have read one book and seen one movie in their life, which is 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Aliens' or variations of that. There's great things in that, but you need some variety… Look, I just steal from other sources." -- but great quotes don't make a great game. I went to a couple of demos of the game. Levine was at them too. He kept talking about Big Daddies. Enough! Didn't this game have anything else going for it?
The last time I went to a demo of the game before actually playing it myself -- the meticulous notes mark this moment as June 19, 2006, 10:00AM -- Levine at least showed me the game's photography system. Something unexpected! I had hope.
As you well know, the game is, actually, wonderful. My skepticism may have been healthy but it was unwarranted. "BioShock" is a superb game. I love the setting. I enjoy the range of choice available to my character. And the game peaks late, which is something that I, a gaming completist, genuinely appreciate it.
What I like most about this game are the things Levine was talking about from the start. And what I like most about those things is what I didn't like about them at the start:
1) The World of Rapture. The flooded undersea 1950s city had looked cool at E3 2006, but, as I mentioned, I was dismayed that the submerged metropolis and its wonderfully rendered water served no gameplay function. The setting seemed incidental. It had no bearing on that very essence of video games: what you do via the controls. But after having spent 16 hours virtually in Rapture, I have re-learned the value of good setting. It need not affect the gameplay. It need not matter even to the level design. It may merely be original to serve its purpose. It may merely be a special place unlike any I've been to before.
One of the things I'll grumble about with video games is how most locations in them are unoriginal, uninteresting and forgettable. I have been on real-life vacations for fewer days in my life than I have been in virtual video game worlds, and yet I can probably describe an interesting place from each of those vacations but not from most of those games. I have spent more time in various homes than I have spent in virtual worlds and I can probably describe an interesting place in each of those homes but not from most of those games. Why, when given an infinite canvas, do so many game designers paint such traditional landscapes? Where are video games' Eiffel Towers and Grand Canyons? Their Easter Island statues and Taj Mahals? Their Chocolate Factories and Bat Caves? Their Yellow Brick Roads and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?
Thirty, forty years in, video games, I am sad to report, are without many famous landmarks and places. N'Gai, can you name a single famous video game building? Princess Peach's castle (and courtyard) from "Super Mario 64," maybe? Anything else? Yes I can recall locations in games. For example, I remember the giant vat containing a massive, submarine-sized floating mechanical shark in "Banjo Kazooie," and I remember the green hill zone of "Sonic: The Hedgehog." But the truly great places -- the postcard-worthy ones -- include, for me, just the moon in "The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask," the big sword bridge in "God of War," Sanctuary Fortress in "Metroid Prime 2: Echoes," and, not much else. Almost every other spot -- even the fun ones -- from Dracula's Castle to Vice City feels generic, familiar, or plain unspectacular.
And because of this, I welcome Rapture. It is a place that looks like no other I've been to in video games. Who cares if there's a gameplay significance to its rising flood-waters! It's a special, specific place. I'd like to go to a few more
2) The Big Daddy - Little Sister Moral Dilemma. It turns out there really weren't any other moral dilemmas in "BioShock" besides the choice to rescue or kill the Little Sisters. I was right to think Levine wasn't going to pose any other ethical challenges to the player. But I was wrong to think that would be a problem. Those big, hulking, lumbering, Big Daddies -- the protectors of the Little Sisters that appear about two or three times per level -- are the games' best characters. Garnett Lee on the 1UpYours podcast even called them the best enemies ever in a video game, a judgment we should probably weigh in on. Their rage is impressive, but so too is their interplay with the spooky little girls that beckon and guide them as if they're the family dog. To repeatedly witness those interactions and to, early on, know the calming influence a Little Sister has over the locomotive might of Big Daddy, makes the player's interaction with each Daddy-Sister pair feel not just like interaction but intrusion. To simply interfere with their walks and their scavenging feels like a moral choice. They weren't bothering me, and if not for the voice in my ear telling me to proceed through the game by attacking, I wouldn't be bothering them. That I will then kill the Big Daddy no matter what feels somewhat heinous. It is always unprovoked -- a pre-emptive strike, at best. The fact that once I've caused one death (the Big Daddy's) I have to decide whether to cause a second (the Little Sister's) feels like a mock-moral choice. For the record, I always chose to save the Little Sisters.
I can't say my choice was a purely ethical one. When you are first asked to decide whether to kill or save the first Little Sister, you are presented the choice not simply as a moral quandary (freedom vs. an end to misery) but as a wager on personal benefit. Take the greater immediate prize of 160 points of Adam energy for killing a Little Sister, or the smaller prize of 80 Adam with the promise of occasional gifts for sparing one? Let's make a deal! This, ultimately, is what almost every moral choice in video games I've ever encountered boils down to: how will each path benefit me? We can write a doctoral thesis on whether all moral choices in real life can also be quantified in the same way, but at least in life, we can probably assume that empathy plays some role -- that care for others is somewhat relevant to what we do. In games, it's easy to think of a virtual character as a group of illuminated TV pixels. No little girl, thankfully, is going to live or die because of "BioShock." But if I kill a virtual one I might be able to upgrade my ability to shoot fireballs from my left hand.
When we play games we are consciously and subconsciously constantly running the numbers, constantly grokking the system. We're noticing patterns that let us deduce that we don't really need to play a realistic game of football; we can just run the same few "Madden" plays that always guarantee a touchdown. We don't need to really sneak through "Splinter Cell." We can get through just as well by taking advantage of this blindspot in the enemy's artificial intelligence and that unrealistic logic of the levels' alarms. In games developers often want us to see actions and images and words and movements. So often we see through it all: we see the math. Until now I've seen the math in game's moral choices. Piling on the ethical dilemmas in other games has just made the math more obvious and my view of them more cynical. So instead of cluttering the game with a carnival of conundrums, Levine pared the key decisions down to one -- one that you are asked again and again. Far enough into the game, the choice to save or kill is no longer a true choice but a reminder of the path you had chosen. It is no longer, "Are you sure you want to save the next one too?" It was "You're going to save this one like you did the last nine and deal with the consequences, right?"
The value of the Big Daddy - Little Sister Dilemma isn't in making the player make a choice, but in making the player ultimately accept -- or challenge -- their own commitment to that choice by asking the same question again and again. This is not at all the way developers have presented ethical choice in games before, and it's not even how the big moral-dilemma game of 2007, the "Jack Bauer in space" sci-fi epic "Mass Effect," is being presented. For "BioShock," I think Levine made a wonderful choice.
Those are the two key elements I like about "BioShock." I believe you really liked the game as well. What made it a winner for you? Was it the fact that "BioShock" is just a re-mix of "Metal Gear Solid 2"?
To: Stephen Totilo
Fr: N'Gai Croal
Date: September 1, 2007
Re: The Feel-Bad Game Theory Of The Year
Now the first time you kill somebody, that's the hardest. I don't give a s--t if you're f---in' Wyatt Earp or Jack the Ripper. Remember that guy in Texas? The guy up in that f---in' tower that killed all them people? I'll bet you green money that first little black dot he took a bead on, that was the bitch of the bunch. First one is tough, no f---in' foolin'. The second one...the second one ain't no f---in' Mardis Gras either, but it's better than the first one 'cause you still feel the same thing, you know...except it's more diluted, you know it's...it's better. I threw up on the first one, you believe that? Then the third one...the third one is easy, you level right off. It's no problem. Now...s--t...now I do it just to watch their f---in' expression change.
--Virgil to Alabama Worley in "True Romance"
You're the one who always feels as though there's not enough conflict between us--that there's not enough vs. on Vs. Mode. Then you deliberately go and choose two of the three things that I liked most about "BioShock." If you were a Little Sister, I'd harvest you for your insolence.
You pointed out in your first post that many games don't create memorable locations. That's strange, because as Clive Thompson recently pointed out in a Wired.com piece about "Dungeon Maker: Hunting Ground," architecture is at the core of game design. He wrote:
Basically, if you strip away the ghouls and enchanted magikal attacks, it's a game about ... architecture.
Yet here's the thing: In a way, all games are. That's what "level design" is, after all: Architecture and landscape design. If you listen to gamers rave--or complain--about their latest title, half the time they're talking about what urban theorists would call the "built environment."
When we assess the multiplayer maps for "Halo 3," we argue about whether there are enough nooks to hide inside, or sufficiently sneaky promontories from which to snipe. We whine about the monotonous corridor design in most RPGs. One of my only major complaints about "Super Paper Mario" was entirely architectural: The game forced you to ponderously double back every time you wanted to reach a save point.
Here's another thing that many games don't do: create truly memorable openings. Perhaps that's because they're too focused on teaching us the controls, hitting us with a chunk of narrative or both. But regardless of why this occurs, I think these two problems are actually related. Too many games whisk us from environment to environment in a way that doesn't feel particularly connected. The best games figure out how to seamlessly weave narrative, tutorial and setting in a way that, to paraphrase the old Origin Systems motto, creates a world.
The first "God of War" kicked off with a short but compelling burst of non-interactive narrative: Kratos looks directly at the player, says "The gods of Olympus have abandoned me. There is no hope," then throws himself off a cliff, with Linda Hunt's literary narration kicking in as he falls towards his death. It immediately created a sense of mystery--why did he do that?--before Sony Santa Monica serves up its next trick, shamelessly and smartly stolen from the James Bond and Indiana Jones movies: a pedal-to-the-metal opening sequence where the player-as-Kratos battles his way through undead soldiers en route to a face off with a massive hydra, parts of which we see breaking through ships on our way to confront it. By the time we finally defeat the colossal beast, we're thinking, "That's how you open a videogame."
By contrast, "Half-Life"'s opening took a more subtle, quotidian approach that befitted its near-future storyline, with the game's now-legendary tram ride through the Black Mesa Research Facility. From the clinical female voice recording that provides information about the installation to the images of spider-shaped robots and massive airlock doors, to the greeting of familiarity from a security guard ("Morning, Mr. Freeman. Looks like you're running late."), with minimalist credits, the Valve takes its time to seduce us step-by-step into believing that we're really are in this place at this time.
"BioShock"'s opening does a bit of both. There's a title card that reads "1960. Mid Atlantic." As our protagonist, Jack, looks at a wallet photo of a boy and his parents, we hear his voice-over. "They told me, 'Son, you're special. You were born to do great things.' You know what? They were right." As the voice-over wraps up, he looks at a box wrapped with a bow and a note on it, before the screen goes to black, followed immediately by the sounds of engine failure, screams, and a plane crash. After the "BioShock" logo comes up, dripping water, we return to Jack's point of view, underwater, as shoes, handbags, jewelry and a plane's fuselage sink past him while we struggle to get to the surface. As we do, we gasp for air, surrounded by flames. We swim over to the tail of the plane, but before we can get to it, a jet of fire streaks over to the tail wing, triggering an explosion that causes the tail to sink.
To our right, however, we see a massive lit pillar protruding from the water. We swim over. We enter the open door which slams shut behind us, leaving us in pitch-black darkness. Then lights come up, revealing a towering bronze statue and a sign that reads "No Gods Or Kings. Only Man." Then we hear the strains of period pop-jazz. As we walk over to a nearby staircase, a series of lights are triggered, urging us forward until we reach a bathysphere. We activate it, and it takes us down into the water, past a series of depth indicators, bringing up a "News on the March"-style newsreel about Andrew Ryan's vision, before finally revealing the submerged city of Rapture in all of its Art Deco, neon-drenched glory. Before we've even docked in Rapture, before the next several moments when the game skillfully tips over from the mysterious into the macabre, the brutal and the terrifying, Irrational Games aka 2K Bostralia has already persuaded us to believe in their world, hook, line and sinker. Because if you believe the architecture, if you believe the landscape, you're much more likely to believe the experience. And the more you believe this particular experience, the more you're going to be challenged by BioShock's central moral dilemma.
Sometimes I wonder, do I deserve to live/Or am I going to burn in hell for all the things I did?
--Mobb Deep, Shook Ones Part II
Before I began playing "BioShock," I already knew that I was going to harvest the Little Sisters. What I hadn't counted on was how difficult that decision was going to be when it finally came time to make it. You and I were playing the game on separate machines in separate rooms, as we'd requested. I'd gotten to 2K's offices about forty-five minutes after the appointed time, which meant that you were already ahead of me. So when I finally got to my first Little Sister; after hearing conflicting advice from Atlas (harvest her!) and Tenenbaum (rescue her!); after the little girl? little monster? scrambled away from me only to be cornered against a storage trunk, whimpering with fear, here's what came up on the screen:
CHOOSE whether to RESCUE the Little Sister or HARVEST HER.
If you harvest her, you get MAXIMUM ADAM to spend on plasmids, but she will NOT SURVIVE the process.
If you rescue her, you get LESS ADAM, but Tenenbaum has promised to make it WORTH YOUR WHILE.
My finger was hovering over the X button, ready to harvest…and all of a sudden, I couldn't do it. There was a little girl, albeit virtual, cowering in front of my avatar, and I couldn't bring myself to harvest her, as she'd been presented far too sympathetically. At the same time, I couldn't bring myself to rescue her either, because I wanted that Adam. Yet there was another complicating factor, one which is the true mark of the brilliance of "BioShock"'s fiendish conundrum: the promise of an unspecified reward from Tenenbaum for rescuing the Little Sister.
What was puzzling me was the nature of Levine's game. He was pitting my basic humanity against my greedy self-interest and against my curiosity--a cruel hybrid of a moral dilemma fused with the Trust Game. This was a far more devilish problem than had it been a simple binary either/or, and it had completely paralyzed me. Should I treat this game as a Rorschach blot and do what I would do in real life: rescue the Little Sister? Or should I treat it solely as a fantasy and do precisely the opposite, explore the road I'd never take in the real world. I didn't know what to do.
So I set down my controller. And I called my sisters to help me figure out what I should do.
Neither of them picked up.
Next, I called you on your cell. But you didn't pick up either.
At the time, I thought I was calling them--and you--for advice. But as I look back at that moment more honestly, what I was actually hoping to do was pawn off the responsibility for whatever decision I was going to make on either my sisters or you. I figured that my sisters would tell me to rescue rather than harvest, so I would do that. Or I figured that you would almost certainly inform me that you'd chosen to rescue the Little Sisters, freeing me to do the opposite--purely in the interest of providing a more contentious Vs. Mode for our Dear Readers. But with no-one answering their phones, I was once again left to agonize over my decision. And after fifteen minutes of back and forth, weighing pros, cons and my own roiling unease, I decided to be bloody, bold and resolute.
I chose to harvest the Little Sister. And I was disappointed in what followed.
(SPOILER ALERT! MASSIVE SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT!)
There was an almost imperceptible jump cut from the Little Sister lying on the floor to her being held up in front of me by my left hand. As she struggled, protested (through sounds, not words) and tried in vain to fend me off, the fingers on my right hand curled menacingly. My right hand came up slightly, then the screen went first green, a thumping noise was heard, then the screen went black, after a which a couple of non-human squealing sounds were heard. When the screen returned to normal, I was holding a wriggling, slug-like mass in my left hand. Adam.
I was extremely disappointed because Levine's too-discreet portrayal of the harvesting and its aftermath didn't make me feel as bad as I thought it should have. It wasn't graphic enough. By that, I don't mean that he should have shown me killing the Little Sister, nor am I saying that I wanted to see that. But there are other things that he could have done--shadow play; disturbing soundscapes; abstract images; the Little Sister's dress left behind in my right hand--to make me feel the weight of my virtual actions more strongly than I did. I felt far worse trying to make the decision than I did seeing the result of that decision carried out. In other words, I was bummed that I wasn't more bummed.
After I harvested the Little Sister, Atlas told me that I'd done the right thing, while Tenenbaum asked how I could do that to a child. Yet she still held out the promise of redemption, of pulling back from the abyss, by adding, "There are other little ones who need your help. Will you be as cruel?" But at this point, having already gone down the harvesting path, I was now focused on coldly and rationally grokking the system, as you put it, rather than any bleeding heart concerns about facing this moral dilemma when I encountered the next Little Sister. (We'll discuss the "fairness" of Levine's system next time.) I had my 160 Adam in hand, and once I saw what it could buy, I wasn't willing to settle for less. Not for an unspecified gift. Also, I assumed that any Achievements would be rewarded in a binary fashion, for either harvesting all of the Little Sisters or killing all of the Little Sisters. Since I was already fallen, I figured that I might as well keep going down this path and hope that the devil would have sympathy for me.
You'll recall that in our Manhunt 2 Vs. Mode, I wrote about action, reaction and repetition being the foundation of videogames, which brings with it both a higher body count in games than in other media and, necessarily, a certain numbness to this amount of virtual violence. Once I'd already decided to stare into the abyss, the second Little Sister became much easier for me to harvest than the first, the third even easier than the second, and so on until my biggest dilemma was figuring out whether I had enough ammo and Eve to take down a Big Daddy so that I could get to its Little Sister…
…until, much later on in the game, after I was saved by a Little Sister and guided by her to the room where, it's revealed, Tenenbaum houses the Little Sisters that she has rescued. As the strains of "God Bless the Child That's Got His Own," plays in the safe house, I saw that I was surrounded by little sisters, their eyelines matching mine, their eyes tracking me as I moved about the small room. One said, "Who's he?" The other replied, "He's the one who hurts us." "He's mean," says another. "Stay away from him," says yet another.
After that, it was as though my conscience had been re-awakened--and it didn't even take a Little Sister to provoke that realization. Upon leaving Tenebaum's Halfway House For Wayward Girls, I came upon a Splicer with its back turned to me…and I couldn't kill it. At least not right away. "BioShock" had always portrayed the doomed denizens of Rapture as tragic figures even amidst their relentless hostility, to the point where I'd once or twice felt guilty for looting their corpses--but only after I'd electrocuted them, burnt them, shot them, blown them up, beaten their brains out or watched them stung to death by my killer bees, of course. But here, right on the heels of my Jiminy Cricket moment, I didn't want to take out this Splicer. Yet the only way to proceed was to do so. There would be no phone calls to you or my sisters this time. I'd been in Rapture long enough to know what I had to do.
And when I finally, inevitably, inexorably encountered the next Little Sister, I harvested her immediately. I hit the X button as fast as I could to avoid that long, drawn out moment of doubt and pain, of agonizing over what course of action to take. I didn't want to think about it any more. Even now, as I write about this, I can feel my stomach tightening with the real discomfort provoked by the memories of my virtual deliberations.
Bummer accomplished. Masterfully.