We had issues with the morality system in "BioShock" and in today's exchanges explore some other ways the acclaimed game's developers could have tackled them. For instance, I ask why not make it really hard to be "good"?
But if you're anything like me you'll find one sentence below that kind of wipes away all the other ideas. It highlights the "Metroid" problem we've had in this exchange. Here's the comment, from N'Gai's letter below.
...the reason that I haven't gotten further in "Metroid Prime 3" is that because while the game does many, many terrific and admirable things, "Metroid" is a franchise that should never have made the jump from 2-D third-person to 3-D first-person.
Yes, he said that. Click through for more.
(As always, these exchanges are also on N'Gai's "Level Up" blog)
To: N'Gai Croal
Fr: Stephen Totilo
Date: September 15, 2007
Re: Why Is It So Easy To Be So Good?
Complain. Complain. Complain. Oh, you didn't get your extra plasmid in "BioShock" because you chose to harvest Little Sisters. Boo-hoo. I bet you'll be even sadder when I point out that the game gives rescuers of Little Sisters three unique Gene Tonics (Armored Shell 2, Prolific Inventor and Safecracker, according to GameFAQs). That's what you -- don't -- get, you lousy Little-Sister-killer. Serves you right. And, yeah, you did miss out on the game's best Plasmid, the Hypnotize Big Daddy one. It's your own fault. And yet you try to blame the consequences of your actions on the makers of the game. Have you no shame?
Seriously, I understand your frustration. Your analysis of how the game shortchanged you was really interesting. It was also novel. The chief complaint I've had about how games handle morality is that they almost always make moral choices a matter of symmetry. The first "Knights of the Old Republic" game offered me equal chances to be good or bad. Each Jedi path would arm me with a distinct, but balanced arsenals of Jedi powers. The plot repeatedly bottle-necked in a way that ensured players of either of the game's moral extremes would see the same amount of content. "Fable" did stuff like this too, as did the second "Deus Ex" (I didn't play the first one, so I can't speak to it). But with "BioShock" your complaint targeted the game's asymmetry. You objected to how it betrayed your understanding of how games work and didn't offer your Sister-killing methods with rewards that were as rich as the ones I got for saving the Sisters. I say "Bravo!" to 2K Boston/Australia/Irrational for their imbalanced design. It's easy for me to say, right? I took the more lucrative path. Sure, but let me push this further…
If there's something wrong with the imbalance of the morality system in "BioShock" it's that it doesn't go far enough. The medium can have its "Fable" games where your ethical decisions become the clothes that you wear, an outfit that can be changed mid-game by donating some coins to a church of the rival ethical strain. I don't want all that balance. Instead, if a game is going to offer distinct moral paths, then I'd like it to really make those paths distinct -- and not equivalent. N'Gai, you suggested, quite rationally, that "BioShock" should have offered a unique Plasmid, possibly a Hypnotize Splicer ability, to a player following the path you chose. That would have made things equal. There would have been one unique Plasmid for people taking my approach; one for yours. It would have made the moral choices equal. It would have made the decision to kill or save Little Sisters strictly a matter of tactics. Do I want these beasts on my side or these monsters? Do I want Light Jedi powers or Dark? Do I want to hypnotize those guys or those others? The gameplay in each path would be slightly different, but the experiences would be essentially equivalent, balanced, equally rewarded and rewarding.
But look what we've got instead in "BioShock": a bias against players who take a certain moral path. We've got a system that offers players a choice that is implied to offer equal bounty (immediate guaranteed rewards or delayed vs. slightly delayed rewards from Tenenbaum). We've got a system that presents itself as fair and balanced but then betrays the player who, according to the game design, chose poorly. Your choice didn't prevent you from clearing the game, but it made clearing the game more difficult. You were penalized. But were you penalized in a truly interesting way? Imagine if the game had kept even more Plasmids from you, say anything but the core three of Electrobolt, Incinerate, and Telekinesis. Imagine if 2KBos.-Aus.-Irr. made the game even more difficult for you to complete because of what you had done. Would you have felt robbed? Deceived and suckered into picking from a seemingly balanced choice only to find the rest of the game so severely imbalanced? What if the game warned you, repeatedly during, say, the first three Little Sister encounters that you were on the verge of such a penalty? We'd be left with the same message "BioShock" already sends: saving the Little Sisters is the right thing to do. But we'd also have a game that makes the player who chooses the "wrong" path aware of their wrong-doing while playing the game, instead of only once they've swapped notes with their favorite games writer from MTV News, fact-checked with a game guide and stamped their feet. Are you with me? Let's radicalize morality systems by turning them into something else: difficulty settings. Want to take the scumbag, Sister-killing approach to get through a game? Well, guess what, buddy? It's going to be harder to win the game. You're going to be given access to fewer tools and abilities. Or… shocker… maybe taking the right path would make the game harder.
As the game is currently designed, I have no reason to go back and play "BioShock" the way you played it. I'd be playing at only a mild handicap, minus a single Plasmid. If the game had been made your way, with an extra Little-Sister-killer-exclusive Plasmid, I still wouldn't be that compelled. But if playing the game over as a Sister-killer like you meant that I'd be made to feel like the entire game world -- and much of the gameplay system -- was against me, that every fight was a struggle, that the few abilities and weapons I acquired were being provided by a disapproving, stingy, reluctant game designer disappointed with my immoral choice, well, that… that'd be really interesting.
The only thing I've experienced in games that resembles this is the pure stealth option in games such as "Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence." Such games can be conquered by patient gamers in almost entirely non-lethal ways. That path is hard. The problem, for me, is that it's also not as fun as going through the game with a little bit of stealth and a good amount of lethal, gadget-supported combat. For the thing I'm calling for to be fun, either path would have to be fun -- equally fun, if not equally difficult or equally empowered.
By the way, isn't it somewhat perverse that you and I conclude that "BioShock" champions the way I played simply because my method reaped quantifiably greater rewards?
On to other things… You've got me chattering about game morality for so long I nearly forgot to commend you for trying to start a beef between me and Jonathan Blow. That was smooth. In my last letter I sad that "the thing that I think video games do best [is] gradually empower the player" and you cited Blow's GameSetWatch critique of those who celebrate games as empowerment fantasies. Blow had said: " Is it really good to be the pretend 'most powerful person in the world,' and is that where the medium ought to be heading, really?"
Let's circle back. The word "gradually" in my line is a clue as to why you can't really start beef here. As I went on to explain in my last letter, the empowerment that games so capably provide -- and that captivates me -- occurs, over time, within games. I appreciate Blow's concern about celebrating games as some sort of alternate reality chamber that turns a world of real life Clark Kents into virtual Supermen. I, however, am focused on the delight of empowerment within a game, which is sometimes called "getting better at something" and sometimes called "getting more abilities." Some games, like Blow's "Braid" don't dole out the empowerment or make it purchasable, a la "Metroid" or "BioShock," but strict level design alone and an ascending difficulty curve grant the "Braid" player a gradual feeling of mastery. So does "Tetris," which enables the player who plays their 100th session to become increasingly skilled at placing pieces at high speeds. So, more crudely, more obviously, and, for whatever reason, more to my tastes, does "Metroid Prime 2: Echoes." That game made me feel like a wimp when I first stepped into its poisonous Dark Ether realm and saw my health diminish simply for virtually breathing its air. It made me feel bulletproof when I returned there late in the game armed with an Annihilator Beam and the Light Suit. Hooray for in-game empowerment, even if would be nice to see some challenges to that dynamic. But, hey, isn't one of the primary appeals of "Spore" the appeal of pulling a little single cell creature up from the ooze and atop the inter-galactic food chain?
Speaking of empowerment, one of the key abilities you gain early in "Metroid Prime 3" is Hyper Mode. With the easily reachable press of the plus button, this allows the player to switch into a super-charged mode that displays the game world in black and white and multiplies the power of their weapon. The Hyper Mode boost is temporary. It is either exhausted after the player fires a few well-placed shots or it turns toxic, forcing the player to rapidly fire in any direction to expel the Hyper energy, lest the toxicity kill game's heroine Samus. This mechanic may well be a first for Nintendo games, which traditionally have allowed players to get a boost without worrying that such boost -- a Fire Flower, a "Donkey Kong" hammer, a Master Sword -- has a drawback. The Hyper Mode power comes with a price: potentially fatal overdose. (So maybe that's why Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto had a cool reaction to the FPS overdose game "Haze" at this year's E3.) I like the system. It adds a new strategic twist to "Metroid Prime" combat. Given how much we've been discussing game morality, I think you could also view it as a very light addition of moral gravity to the "Metroid" universe. It's a mild maturation of the common video game idea that every new pick-up is an instrument for good and that every new trick should be played without fear of consequence. It makes me think of my second-least favorite aspect of "BioShock": the scene in the beginning of the game when the player-hero comes upon his first Plasmid updgrade. He spots a syringe sparkling with power and unquestioningly stabs it into his arm… and then gets a great power. Only in video games, people. N'Gai, what do you think? Do you want video games to have more double-edged swords?
I just mentioned my runner-up for Least Favorite "BioShock" Moment. Anyone who has completed the game can probably guess my winner. It's the game's final boss. Since we've spoiled just about everything else in the game during this Vs. Mode I'm going to do one more spoiler now and mention that the last thing you fight in the game is a Chewbacca-sized Fontaine. He looks, acts and talks like a super-villain. He's a stereotypical, megalomaniac of a game-ending boss. He attacks in patterns. To beat him, you duck and cover. You might as well be fighting the villain at the end of an X-Men game. There's little connection in tone, theme or even gameplay to what "BioShock" established before it. It's as if 2KB-A-I ran out of ideas just a little too soon. Not that this didn't cut into the game's many perfect scores. All's well even if it doesn't end well, apparently.
You asked me what I thought of the boss encounters in "BioShock" and "Prime 3." If we consider Big Daddys as bosses, I like "BioShock"'s better. I enjoy the novelty of stumbling upon such formidable enemies in surprising locations. "Prime 3," like most games, telegraphs the appearance of a boss. You can tell when you're about to fight one, when you've entered a room where one is about to emerge. In "BioShock," the opportunities come as surprises. "BioShock"'s other bosses are less interesting. They fit the mold of many game bosses. They are enemies that are arbitrarily granted more power than others, a character programmed to survive a headshot or 20 bullets to the abdomen, because, well, he's a boss and won't die as easily as a random grunt. There may be some narrative rationale to them, but why, really, should the mad doctor be more resilient to bullets than his lieutenants? Because he's the mad doctor? The fiction buckles to accommodate a game design cliché. The bosses in "Prime 3," however, represent inspired convergence points in the two main avenues of the series' gameplay. They require the player to utilize both the offensive skills learned in combat with earlier enemies and the detective skills honed while exploring the game worlds' terrain. You don't just shoot these Bosses. You scan for a weak point, grapple and yank away armor plating, roll into a ball to bomb a guarded node, freeze puddles of fuel to make them lose their footing, etc. From a gameplay perspective, the "Prime 3" bosses make sense. From a gameplay perspective, the non-Big Daddy "BioShock" bosses don't.
You also asked me about the "Metroid" Wii controls. I think the box hype claiming these to be the best first-person controls has some merit. The shooting aspect of the controls worked perfectly for me, and mapping character navigation to the nunchuck's thumbstick was a solid choice. The simple fact that these controls remove the question of whether to invert the Y-axis proves that they are a step in the right direction. Whether they expose limitations in the Wii remote's button layout is another story. I didn't have the problems you had tapping minus and plus to activate certain powers. Initially I couldn't remember where the minus and plus buttons were. But isn't that my problem? Having to reach for the bottom of the d-pad to shoot missiles or to stretch down to the 1 button to access the inventory menu have been minor ergonomic hassles. I'll grant you that there are more buttons within easy reach on a standard PS3 or GameCube controller. But a standard controller doesn’t give you the free-hand, point-and-shoot controls that a remote tethered to a nunchuck does. There's a trade-off here, which, at worst, evens out old controller schemes with this new one. What would you have suggested the "Prime 3" team or Nintendo's Wii controller engineers done?
You've got a backlog of assignments. Let me know what you think of "Prime 3"'s art design and Wii graphics as well as the potential for Wii FPS controls in more casually-targeted, expanded-audience games. And please tell me you've gotten more than 10% into the game.
To: Stephen Totilo
Fr: N'Gai Croal
Date: September 18, 2007
Re: I Am Stephen's Finite Patience
The risk of being
a long-winded blowhard an expansive writer is that one runs the risk of one's sparring partner overlooking an essential point, as if it were one of "BioShock"'s Power to the People stations. In my last post, I wrote:
Expressing a videogame's morality in primarily intrinsic terms runs the risk of being amoral rather than moral because, as I said in my first installment, gamers may focus on playing the elements of system rather than allowing themselves to moved and provoked by the elements of the narrative. Yet I can't help but feel that game systems--particularly sandbox or emergent systems like those in "BioShock"--are at their best when they allow players to explore moral choices and their consequences, rather than privileging one moral choice over another, as the makers of this game seem to have done in their handling of the Hypnotize Big Daddy Plasmid.
Looking at the Adam dispersal system that The Studio Formerly Known As Irrational came up with for "BioShock," it's not clear why you think that I should have endured further intrinsic punishment for harvesting the Little Sisters. After all, doesn't the game itself posit that doing the "right" thing is a more difficult choice than expediency? Yep. But then it effectively contradicts itself by the way in which it cumulatively doles out Adam, which some "BioShock" fans have begun to question--and address by modifying the game itself. If anything, you're the one who was insufficiently penalized for being the good guy. Fine, you get your extra Plasmid (Hypnotize Big Daddy Plasmid) and Tonics (Armored Shell 2, Prolific Inventor and Safecracker). But no supplemental Adam from Tenenbaum. All you get is your 80 Adam per Little Sister rescued, while I get my 160 per Little Sister harvested. That would have made for a very different game, because you would have had to me far more selective about which Plasmids you purchased and/or upgraded.
In fairness, you did also suggest that perhaps "taking the right path should be harder." Agreed. But perhaps your real mistake is looking at "BioShock"'s systems through the lens of discipline and punishment, when you proposed that the game re-balance itself in response to our moral choices by upping the difficulty, or by penalizing the player by taking away tools and abilities. (I guess this is your post-opening version of License Revoked.) "BioShock" already has difficulty settings, as do most games, so I don't see how merely changing the difficulty adds anything unique to the experience that you couldn't get otherwise.
As for taking things away from the player feels like punishment, and what punishment does is discourage exploration and experimentation--the creative essence of the game--and pushes them to play it in a cramped, narrow, safe manner. So don't give us players less. Give us more. Don't subject the player to punishment, but rather, retribution. In other words, what if "BioShock"'s response moral choice you made was more multi-faceted than it is now? The foundation of "BioShock" is its different systems, so the intrinsic expression of its two major paths--Rescuer and Harvester--should have been built around a greater variety of tools (rewards) to explore BioShock's systems and different challenges (risks).
In fact, this line of inquiry makes me partially rethink my earlier praise for "BioShock"'s feel-good/feel-bad handling of the Little Sister dilemma. It's still powerful at a three key points: the very first Little Sister encounter; the sequence in the girl's safe house; and the section where you must protect a Little Sister as she unlocks the various doors that will take you to your final encounter with Fontaine. But from our own experiences and what we're reading online, the optimal way to play "BioShock" is to choose one of two extremes: rescue all of the Little Sisters or harvest all of the Little Sisters. This meant that we were doing the same thing over and over, slaves to the system rather than making optimal decisions in the moment. It also meant that we weren't really being forced to confront "BioShock"'s moral dilemma between the game's three major moral checkpoints. I submit that we should have been forced to confront the consequences of our responses to that dilemma far more frequently. How?
Imagine that there was a third type of Big Daddy--let's call it the Predator the Punisher the Redeemer--that was activated every time I harvested a Little Sister. And rather than confront me directly, the Redeemer would emerge to steadily ratchet up the pressure on me within "BioShock"'s already defined language. First, it would lay snares (trap bolts and proximity mines) for me, impeding my progress. Next, it would reprogram security cameras, bots and health stations that I'd hacked, undoing all of my hard work and turning them against me. Then it would start destroying the vending machines. And all the while, the Redeemer is broadcasting alternating recorded messages to my shortwave radio (the plaintive cries of the last Little Sister I'd harvested; snippets of Tenenbaum intake interview with that particular girl, in which the girl is addressed by her pre-conversion name) and over Rapture's public address system (an impassioned fire and brimstone sermons--in a voice as eerily rattling as the Circus of Value's--that urges me to confess your sins and repent for what I have done.) And this would go on until I tracked it down and defeated it.
I haven't forgotten about you, by the way. You and your fellow bleeding-heart Rescuers would get The Siren. After every Little Sister you rescued, a Siren would softly, raspily sing ominous reminders (think Nina Simone's version of "Pirate Jenny") about your weakness for not harvesting the monstrous, corpse-defiling Little Sisters. Then, upon seeing you, the Siren would issue a high-pitched scream (think the pod people from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers") that attracted a pack of Hybrid Splicers--each one a blend of two existing traits from among Thuggish, Leadhead, Spider, Nitro and Houdini--to your current location.
If "BioShock" is about the player making his or her way through an ecosystem, the ecosystem should respond to the player's intrusions in increasingly interesting ways, of which difficulty is merely a single element. The game could respond extrinsically, by reminding us periodically of our decisions--that's why I gave my proposed Redeemer his accusatory recordings and the Siren her taunts, and why I think the angel-on-one-shoulder, devil-on-the-other urgings of Tenenbaum and Atlas/Fontaine could have been employed more regularly. And it could also respond intrinsically, by making the gameplay more challenging after each Little Sister decision--hence the Redeemer and the Siren. As a Harvester, I'm dehumanizing the Little Sisters, so "BioShock"'s systems should humanize them, making it harder for me to keep harvesting them. You, on the other hand, have been humanizing the Little Sisters, so "BioShock" should respond by dehumanizing them, making it more of a challenge for you to keep rescuing them. It's fine for the game's extrinsic narrative to make a moral judgment, to value one choice over the other, as "BioShock" does now with its "good" and "bad" endings. But when it comes to the intrinsic gameplay, that's where I think that "BioShock" should be amoral, to see whether we players will stick to our guns when under pressure, or rely on situational ethics to see us through.
Of course, it's easy for me to sit back and play armchair designer when I don't have to do the hard work of testing, balancing and iterating to make sure that the end result is actually fun to play. When we visited 2K's offices to play "BioShock," producer Jason Bergman told us that this was the most extensively tested title in 2K's history, and that they made a number of judicious changes in response to the feedback they received and their observations of people playing the game. Perhaps the equivalent of fun in games is like laughter in movie comedies, which are also tested and re-tested before they're released. No matter how much a filmmaker may like a particular joke or gag, if it doesn't get a laugh, he or she is likely to cut it, because eliciting laughter is the point. So just as comedies have to be funny, games have to be fun. And by fun, I mean in that catchall way it's used when discussing that medium, not as a mental narcotic to pass the time. I mean that the systems have to cohere in a way that ultimately feels both challenging and rewarding, not simplistic or sadistic.
Of course, all of my ideas could simply founder on "BioShock"'s somewhat controversial save system, which privileges completing the game over genuinely frustrating challenges, at least on normal difficulty. But enough about "BioShock." Allow me to dig into "Metroid Prime 3: Corruption," or, at the very least, slice off a little piece of the "assignments" that you've given me, Professor.
You said that you hoped that I'd gotten further than 10 percent of the way through "Metroid Prime 3." I have! I'm now 18 percent of the way into the game. It's not quite a passing grade, Teach, I know. But the dog ate my Wiimote I have reasons. I could say that it's because my Wii is in my office rather than in my Crown Heights apartment, but the last two games that I beat--"BioShock" and "Halo 3"--were finished in an office building (2K's, around midnight on a Friday, after they forgot to kick me out) and in a midtown hotel (where Bungie's Luke Smith watched us finish the fight on co-op heroic). No, the reason that I haven't gotten further in "Metroid Prime 3" is that because while the game does many, many terrific and admirable things, "Metroid" is a franchise that should never have made the jump from 2-D third-person to 3-D first-person.
(I am Stephen's raging bile duct.)
I love 2-D "Metroid." Not the classics, because I was a latecomer to games. But I played the Game Boy Advance titles "Metroid Fusion" and "Metroid Zero Mission" from beginning to end and had an absolute blast. The look, the moody music, the sense of solitude as Samus goes about her mission, the thrilling sense of empowerment—yes, Mr. Blow, I said it: empowerment—as you not only acquire new weapons and abilities, but the "aha" that goes off as you remember that area that you couldn't get to before, realizing that, yep, now you can, and backtracking to that area to proceed to the next mysterious area of the game. Having only gotten seriously into games in 1999, I haven't played nearly as many 2-D side scrollers as you have, but for my money, those two "Metroid"s are not only among the best of their kind, they're two of the very best games I've played.
Retro Studios deserves every bit of praise for its yeoman's work in transforming the "Metroid" experience into 3-D first-person. But for me--and I fully realize this is something of a minority opinion--I've always believed that there was something fundamentally misguided about the decision to rebirth "Metroid" in this manner. The mechanics that are at the heart of "Metroid," most notably backtracking and scouring the environment for hidden passages, don't translate well to first-person gaming. I'm generally not a fan of backtracking in 3-D games, but that goes double for first-person shooters. (Yes, I know that the "Metroid Prime" series has been described as first-person adventures.) When I play an FPS, there are two cues I use to determine whether I'm headed in the right direction: if I see enemies ahead, or if I see a new area. It's all about forward movement, so having to backtrack throws me off completely.
With the 2-D "Metroid," I could much more easily maintain a mental map of where I'd been, so backtracking wasn't a problem. And if I ever got lost, there was a simple one-to-one visual correspondence with the games map. The 3-D "Metroid Prime," unfortunately, compounds my backtracking difficulties with its 3-D map, which you yourself acknowledge is confusing in our second Vs. Mode Gaiden. And since "Metroid" is about steadily developing one's mastery over an environment that is not completely navigable at the start, Retro couldn't simply eliminate backtracking and design the game around a simple proceed from point A to point B. The end result is two great tastes that don't quite taste great together.
(I am Stephen's mournful sorrow.)
You also asked me about the controls. I've never had a problem with FPS controls on a console, so I'm not prepared to declare, as did our friend Chris Kohler, that it "reinvents the FPS control scheme for the better." I will say that the "advanced controls," where you can lock the camera perspective and look around freely, works well, and that it creates a reasonable facsimile of a mouse and keyboard. It's still not as precise, however, and the game did occasionally lose track of where I was pointing. Some of the gestural controls worked well (throwing out my nunchuk arm and pulling it back for the grappling hook; flicking my Wiimote hand up and down to make the morph ball jump) and others were just okay (rotating knobs, pumping pumps and pressing buttons.) I didn't find any of it a great leap forward in immersion, but it offered some nice things as far as control, and I could see this becoming the gold standard for Wii FPS games.
The button layout, however, was another matter entirely. Firing and jumping worked just fine; I briefly debated switching them around, since the default scheme puts jumping on the trigger, but since the idea didn't cross my mind until I'd already been playing for 30 minutes, I decided against it. Lock-on and morph ball on the nunchuk also worked well. But I wasn't happy with the use of the plus and minus buttons for Hypermode activation and visor switching, nor the D-pad for missiles. And it's clear from the way that Retro was forced to stack missile types rather than allow missile switching as they had in previous entries that they struggled with the Wiimote's limited layout. You asked me what I thought they should have done. I think they should have taken a page from Wii Play as well as Nintendo's own recent history and shipped their own Wiimote with the game; one that sported kidney-shaped plus and minus buttons around the A button, like the X and Y buttons on the Gamecube controller. I know you'll agree with me.
(I am Stephen's utter disbelief.)
That said, "Metroid Prime 3" may well be the best art directed game of the year. And that's saying something, considering BioShock's astonishingly realized, is-it-really-real-son sense of place. If I do finish "Metroid Prime 3"--I know you're skeptical, but with GameFAQs at my side, I just may surprise you--it will be because of the game's visuals. You urged me to get my ass off of the planet Bryyo, where I'd gotten stuck a few times, and onto SkyTown, Elysia where I am now. Boy, were you ever right. From soaring high above the planet on the zip lines, watching the sunlight bouncing off the rolling clouds to the various classes of robots rolling, hovering and shuffling their way through the level, I hereby declare that while the subtitle for Metroid Prime 3 may be Corruption, it shall henceforth be named "Metroid Prime 3: Ocular Masturbation." An important part of the joy of playing games is the shock of the new, and the art direction here is propelling me to keep fitfully exploring when a couple of the game's mechanics are having the opposite effect.
Did I forget anything?
(I am Stephen's finite patience.)
Oh yeah, boss battles. I'll talk about that next time.