Vs. Mode: “BioShock” and “Metroid Prime 3: Corruption” — Totilo v. Croal, Final Round

Metroid Prime 3In yesterday's third round of Vs Mode, Newsweek's N'Gai Croal trashed the idea of 3D, first-person "Metroid." Such games shouldn't exist, he told me.

It was a strong opinion, one I already knew he held. My first temptation was to issue a strong reply.

I reject the idea that any game shouldn't exist and that any idea shouldn't at least be tried. But while I offered my own stern words about why I think "Metroid" has been successful in 3D, I thought it was also a good time to talk about the whole break between 2D and 3D gaming, how that affected those of us gamers who didn't leave the hobby but learned (or consented) to shift our tastes.

N'Gai and I talk about a lot of things in our Final Round today, but if there's anything I hope gets people speaking, it's these words that I wrote:

What's it like to watch a great 2D game series go to 3D, have the masses praise it, and yet see it abandon key aspects in the process? I'm trying to put myself in your shoes which don't feel altogether unfamiliar. Do we praise this situation or shake our heads? Did no one notice what happened to the "Mario" platforming series? Should anyone mind? None of the three 3D "Mario" games I've played ("64," Sunshine," or preview versions of "Galaxy") feels as combative as the old 2D games. This has bugged me. In the "Mario" side-scrollers I was always wading in enemies. I could jump from the top of one enemy to the next, knock down rows of them with Koopa shells, and blitz through a whole bunch while invincible with star power. "Mario" 3D games are desolate by comparison. There are barely any Goombas and Koopas to fight. How many do you get on the screen at once? How many do you see in the average game minute? Very few.

...

There's a very real argument to be made that something was lost in the transition from 2D to 3D, which is what the Wii's backers have been happy to talk about. While it's worth exploring why the transition ruined things for some gamers, I think little has been discussed about why other gamers didn't lose touch and what kind of tastes may have developed in those of us who stayed hardcore on both sides of the break. What do such gamers have to add to a discussion that so often deals only with the lapsed 2D gamers and the children of the 3D era, to say nothing of the outsider casuals?

The rest of our exchange is posted below, as it is on N'Gai's "Level Up" blog. He and I will be back at it next month, in our first Vs. Mode dedicated to a handheld game.

To: N'Gai Croal

Fr: Stephen Totilo

Date: September 18, 2007

Re: You May Stop Now

N'Gai,

If you're only going to complete "Metroid Prime 3" with the help of a GameFAQ, then just stop. Please.

If "'Metroid' is a franchise that should never have made the jump from 2-D third-person to 3-D first-person," then what's wrong with me for enjoying it? Am I enjoying an inferior "Metroid" game? Am I enjoying a game that isn't a "Metroid" game at all?

And should they not have turned "Mario" into a 3D franchise either? Because, you know, it was a lot easier to move around in the Mushroom Kingdom when there were only two dimensions to worry about.

As wrongheaded as your absolutist conclusion is -- perhaps you meant to say that the game just wasn't your taste, not that it shouldn't exist -- you have managed to stumble, without the help of an arrow or the cue of enemies down the corridor, into a good point. That point is that there is still a great problem in gaming, a schism, even. There was the 2D era and then the 3D one. Not every game series -- and not every gamer -- has made the leap successfully, for better or worse. In the decade since "Super Mario 64," how many other platformers have been as good as their 2D predecessors? ("Sonic," anyone?) "Zelda" made the leap well, right "Link to the Past" fans? How's "Tetris" handling that 2D-3D transition? Other than "Tetrisphere," it ignored it. "Castlevania" still hasn't made a successful jump to 3D, and maybe it never will. Maybe it too is a "franchise that should never have made the jump."

What's it like to watch a great 2D game series go to 3D, have the masses praise it, and yet see it abandon key aspects in the process? I'm trying to put myself in your shoes which don't feel altogether unfamiliar. Do we praise this situation or shake our heads? Did no one notice what happened to the "Mario" platforming series? Should anyone mind? None of the three 3D "Mario" games I've played ("64," Sunshine," or preview versions of "Galaxy") feels as combative as the old 2D games. This has bugged me. In the "Mario" side-scrollers I was always wading in enemies. I could jump from the top of one enemy to the next, knock down rows of them with Koopa shells, and blitz through a whole bunch while invincible with star power. "Mario" 3D games are desolate by comparison. There are barely any Goombas and Koopas to fight. How many do you get on the screen at once? How many do you see in the average game minute? Very few. I've got to imagine there's an M'Gai Broal out there who just can't stand the violence done to his beloved "Mario" 2D games by bringing them into 3D. This gamer may think that the 3D "Mario" games are sacrilege and must not exist. He may be firing up his time machine right now in the hopes of changing gaming history. Others, though, might not mind the changes required of the transition to 3D, because they think enough of the essence is still there.

So that's where you and I part. I've played all three "Metroid Prime 3" games to completion, as I have all the 2D "Metroid"s except for the Game Boy one. The 3D games hold up their end. Whatever I got from the 2D games -- spooky atmosphere, sense of wonder, fun power-ups and progression, engaging detective-work -- are in the "Prime"s too.

You said, "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 just can't meet you on this, not even halfway. The backtracking has been fine. I just finished the game at 100% completion. I backtracked plenty. In fact, I chose to backtrack near the end when I didn't have to and am now made that I overwrote my save file and can't go back and re-visit parts of the game some more. To help me backtrack and find hidden passages I used the plentiful cues programmed into the game, including: strong art design that made most rooms uniquely memorable, a 3D map that worked well enough for me to never get lost the way I did in "Halo" two weekends ago, a scan visor that marked all but one of the vulnerable areas I ever needed to bomb to find hidden stuff, a humming sound effect that played in any room where a power-up still lingered, and...

(BIG SPOILER WARNING)

...a satellite station I activated late in the game that clearly marked any remaining items on my map as well as an x-ray visor that let me see through the architecture of any given room in order to spot power-ups and enemy weak points.

(END BIG SPOILER WARNING).

I've been quite puzzled by your disengagement with the game. I think the "Prime" titles are an extremely successful example of porting the values of a top franchise from 2D to 3D. Yet I knew you arrived at the opposite conclusion long ago. What's the difference? Is it simply individual tastes? I'd love to know what a player who only played 3D "Metroid" games thinks of how well the game achieves what it's designed to do. Or flip that around. You like 3D "Metal Gear," but I don't think you've played the 2D ones. I wonder if you'd find that the 2D and 3D games exhibited the same key values and did so just as well. It would be an interesting experiment. And you know me: I don't think there'd be anything wrong with concluding that the 2D and 3D "MG" series are differently wonderful.

I wonder about this because I wonder about the 2D-3D schism. I wonder how many gamers actually made the transition. And I wonder what it says about the gaming values of those of us who did, that we enjoyed on both sides of the break. I'm talking about people like me, of course. I was serious about "Zelda" and "Mario" and the rest when they were 2D. Switching from SNES to N64, though, basically forced me to accept that everything I liked before I was now going to have to like in full 3D, whether I thought "Mario Kart," "Kirby" and "Donkey Kong" needed it. ("DK" didn't, but it sure did benefit from a bongo controller once it went back to 2D on the GameCube!) So people like me enjoyed/tolerated/rationalized/celebrated the switch of our favorite games from 2D to 3D. We lived through it. Did we settle for the switch each series made or did we learn not to love one form of our favorite franchises too much?

You were an arcade gamer back in the day, but you didn't get serious about gaming until 1999 on the Dreamcast and then the PS2 when the home console world had largely gone to 3D. You didn't game through the schism. And that's interesting, because a lot of 2D gamers didn't it make it through to your side. You stand as apart from them as maybe I stand from you. A lot of the 2D faithful left when games went 3D. I know plenty of gamers like this, in their late 20s and early 30s. They grew up with the NES and Genesis and then left when games switched to 3D. They didn't like the controls. They didn't like dealing with cameras (which is why, of all things, first-person games were the only ones they could still hang with, if begrudgingly). The Wii was made to woo these people back.

But you came in after those people were leaving. You bought into a system that was 3D, after most series that were going to make the switch did so. Because "Metroid" was the sole major SNES Nintendo franchise that skipped the N64, it wound up being one of the only 2D-3D switches that happened while you were really watching. When it happened, interestingly, you hadn't even fallen for the 2D "Metroid" formula yet. Your first game in the series was "Metroid Fusion." It came out the same week as "Metroid Prime." You didn't experience a franchise transition. You experienced a franchise fork. You chose your road, a rarely traveled one of only relishing the "Metroid" experience as a portable one. You crazy guy you!

I don't begrudge you your tastes. Instead I encourage you to tackle this topic too. There's a very real argument to be made that something was lost in the transition from 2D to 3D, which is what the Wii's backers have been happy to talk about. While it's worth exploring why the transition ruined things for some gamers, I think little has been discussed about why other gamers didn't lose touch and what kind of tastes may have developed in those of us who stayed hardcore on both sides of the break. What do such gamers have to add to a discussion that so often deals only with the lapsed 2D gamers and the children of the 3D era, to say nothing of the outsider casuals?

Lastly, I like your Redeemer/Siren idea for "BioShock." I'd like to play a version of the game with that implemented. So get to work. That said, it's another system designed to even things out. What I said in my last letter -- and that I think you may have misinterpreted -- is that I'd like to see a game strike a genuine imbalance and really favor one approach to playing it over the other. You took that to mean I was calling for dynamic difficulty adjustments. Nope. I was calling for one side (ultimately, the "good" player, I guess) to get three Plasmids max and the other player to get everything. Let the game make it hard to be good and easy to be bad. Warn the player during their first three Little Sister encounters that that's where things are going. Offer this, essentially, as two differently challenging ways to complete the game.

Imagine such a system in "Metroid Prime 3." You'd like it. Picture, if you will, an "evil" player of the game -- I don't know, maybe someone who had committed the crime of saying the game shouldn't exist. Picture such a player getting Samus' little sister to escort them by the left hand to make it easier to get through the game (tug the nunchuck to pull her toward you at a sign of trouble -- unless you want her to hold your right, so that you could feel her pulse with each rumble of the remote). Picture a "benevolent" player of "Prime 3" -- hmmm, maybe some guy who's done the good deed of trying to educate his friend on the quality of the game -- not getting the helper sister and just having to puzzle through things on his own. It would be easier to finish the game playing the "evil" way, but so much more satisfying to finish as a "good" guy.

OK. Our time's wrapped up. Looking forward to the next Vs. Mode with you… I think. Philistine.

-Stephen

BioShockTo: Stephen Totilo

Fr: N'Gai Croal

Date: September 19, 2007

Re: This Is The End

Stephen,

Your response to my not-so-subtle provocation was more charitable and thoughtful than I had any right to expect. It's not going to make me reverse my opinion on the "Metroid Prime" series, but I will explain further.

The introduction of 3-D brought with it the need for a camera. Cameras generally depict 3-D objects on a 2-D plane. The odds of being disoriented when you introduce a camera, particularly a moving camera, rise astronomically. The whole Y-axis debate (to-invert-or-not-to-invert) comes from this. So does first-person vs. third-person, and within the latter, the creative decision among fixed cameras ("Devil May Cry"), player-controlled cameras ("Gears of War") and A.I.-controlled cameras ("God of War").

As I said before, it's much easier to maintain a mental map of a game world in 2-D. If all you're doing in a game is moving from left to right, as in" Super Mario Bros," or continuously moving forward on a clearly defined path, as in the classic "Medal of Honor" games, you don't need much of a mental map. But if a game asks you to backtrack or to scour its environment in clues, you most certainly need a mental map, and that's especially true if the game is a first-person 3-D game, where you are the camera. "Metroid Prime" games involve all three. It's a sure-fire recipe for potential disorientation.

The other challenge the "Metroid Prime" titles face, at least where I'm concerned, is that first-person shooters have largely defined the first-person gaming experience, and they've done so in a way that's detrimental to the gameplay that Retro was translating from 2-D to 3-D. In a first-person shooter, much of the action takes place on the same plane as the player character, so my attention is primarily focused straight ahead. Enemies are rarely below me, unless I've taken the high ground; if I haven't, the high ground is where I'll find enemies armed with snipers rifles, rocket launchers and other ranged weapons. So in an FPS, whenever I'm looking up and off in the distance, I'm usually looking for enemy armed with one of those pieces of lethal hardware. In "Metroid Prime," secret passageways and power-ups could be hidden anywhere. I might have to look high, low or in a corner. I might have to go to a room, realize I don't have something I need, complete a fetch quest, then go back to that room, aided only by a map that is as much foe as it is friend.

This, then, is the source of my frustration. A handful of key design decisions that were terrific in the 2-D "Metroid" games I played on the Game Boy Advance become, at their worst, annoying and tedious in 3-D. It makes playing the "Metroid Prime"s strange, as if I can see the ghost of the games I very much enjoyed playing hovering over something that alternates between the highly entertaining and the deeply irritating.

You asked for my thoughts on the 2-D to 3-D transition, citing the "Metal Gear" games as an example. You're right that I didn't play the 2-D "Metal Gear" games. But I have an observation that is relevant. In "Metal Gear Solid" and "Metal Gear Solid 2," the game gives us an overhead radar, displayed in the upper right hand corner, that displays the position of enemy troops. Why? Because even though the game is isometric 3-D (allowing 2-D-esque gameplay with 3-D graphics) which radically reduces our ability to look off in the distance, we can still "see" what's ahead of Solid Snake or Raiden--the bad guys, at least--thanks to the radar. In the original "Metal Gear Solid 3," however, Hideo Kojima removed the radar without changing the isometric perspective. It just about broke what is otherwise an excellent game, because without the radar, you have to keep switching to a first-person perspective to see anything outside of the isometric camera's range. Talk about frustrating. And Kojima must have recognized his mistake, because with the release of "Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence," he changed the camera system so that we could look about more freely.

Speaking of "Metal Gear Solid 3," I haven't forgotten my promise to reveal my favorite boss fight of all time. It's the confrontation with The End. I still remember stepping into that area, seeing The End's intro cinema and thinking, "No, it can't be," only to enter the gameplay proper and realizing that, oh yes, it was indeed going to be a hide-and-seek sniper duel. A battle of wills, a test of patience, with numerous ways to accomplish the task at hand. The "holy s--t" moment for me came when I'd taken position atop a ridge and was scanning the other side of the map through my sniper rifle when all of a sudden I saw a glint of sunlight reflecting off the scope on his own weapon. I was gobsmacked, as they say.

What makes this a great boss battle is that it uses the tactical language that the game has already established--hide-and-seek-and-shoot--over a sizeable three-stage area, rather than throw us into a shooter in an arbitrarily confined arena. Similarly, "Metroid Prime"'s tactical language consists of dodging enemy attacks, exposing their vulnerabilities and using the most efficient weapons to defeat them, so its boss fights feel like a natural extension of the game's more exploratory parts where the enemies generally serve as temporary obstacles.

What is "BioShock"'s tactical language? It consists of turning an initially unfamiliar and hostile environment to our advantage. Within that approach, we're generally granted the freedom to plan our attacks in advance, to set traps, to regroup by putting distance between ourselves and our enemies--or to go in guns-and-Plasmids blazing and hope for the best. This is an essential part of what makes "BioShock" great. But the final battle with Fontaine, which you rightly criticized, discards that vocabulary. In its place we get a highly pressured old-school boss battle, complete with patterned attacks and multiple stages, set in a confined arena. Maybe the finale shouldn't have been a boss fight, but rather a boss level, a new environment that we would have had to navigate, learn and master while alternately hunting down and being hunted by the powered-up Fontaine. To thine own self be true, "BioShock."

Sometimes, though, it does make sense for a game to temporarily reject its language, as BioShock does with the "Press X to Harvest, Press Y to Rescue" menu screen (H and L on the Windows version) that pops up after you've dispatched a Big Daddy and must now decide what to do with the Little Sister. It worked for me, for reasons I'll get into in a sec. But the folks over at The New Gamer didn't think so. They wrote:

The other half of the problem is the method by which you interact with the girls. You cannot harm them directly, they cannot be shot or bludgeoned or electrocuted like every other character in the game. The choice of harvesting or saving is constrained to a cutscene that plays after the pressing of a button. H for Harvest, L for Rescue. The mechanical nature in which the game forces you to choose, by reducing the action to a simple button press, makes the choice feel all the more detached.

Pushing that singular button feels more like a Copy-Paste operation on your computer than the wanton slaughter of a young girl. By taking away the visceral aspect of the slaughter the player feels no more gravity holding a child's life in his hands than he does deciding how to organize his mp3s. If your choice to harvest required you to light these young girls on fire, riddle them with bullets, or explode them with grenades instead of pushing an arbitrary button, would it be so easy to send them to their death? If participants in the Milgram experiment had to watch their subjects in the throes of agony as they were "electrocuted" would they have so willingly continued the procedure? Although the decision is already mostly moot from a gameplay standpoint, "BioShock" also does nearly nothing to scare the player away from killing the girls. It feels totally rote, less like murder and more like grabbing a mushroom in "Super Mario."

I hear what they're saying, but I think that they're wrong, for a couple of reasons. There aren't any mainstream movies or TV shows that I can think of that show young girls being set on fire, riddled with bullets or exploded with grenades, and even if there were, they wouldn't depict it 18 times. Then there's the small matter of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board; if "Manhunt 2" initially received an Adults Only rating, what would they have given "BioShock: Girls' School Massacre Edition?"

The fact is that 2K Bostralia had to handle this depiction very, very carefully in order to both get the game onto store shelves and to avoid completely alienating a portion of its potential audience. (For example, a fellow game journalist who's been reading our exchange told me that, "as a father, I absolutely CAN NOT bring myself to harvest" the Little Sisters.) So while I've already said that I think they could have gone a bit further with their portrayal of the aftermath of a harvesting, I found that the menu screen had a compelling, dare-I-say-it, Brechtian effect, because the phrase "Press X to Harvest, Press Y to Rescue" is not aimed at our character, Jack. It's aimed at us, the players. By taking us out of the game world for a moment and placing our two choices on a menu screen, 2K Bostralia temporarily ruptures what is an otherwise seamless experience and throws the question at us directly, yanking us out of our the lucid dreaming netherworld that exists between the analog sticks and buttons we're manipulating in the real world and the responses we're seeing and hearing in the virtual world to make a tough choice. It's bracing when you first experience it. The effect diminishes over time, naturally, but that would certainly be true of The New Gamer's suggested remedy.

I'll conclude by saying that while I've been hard on both "BioShock" and "Metroid Prime 3," they are both in their own way exemplars of the art and craft of videogames. There's so much more I could have praised about "BioShock" in particular. The terrific and fiercely imagined writing, including the radio play-like quality of the Rapture residents' recorded messages. The embedding of story into the environment, like the "Above All, Do No Harm" sign scrawled in blood in the Medical Pavilion, or the small room hidden behind the stage in the Fort Frolic strip club, where we learn that one of the dancers became pregnant by Andrew Ryan, only to be subsequently murdered by him. The witnessing of wonderfully strange emergent events, like looking through a window and seeing a Big Daddy walking along the ocean floor, or watching a Big Daddy run right past me, fleeing from the drones summoned by an alarm that I'd hacked. And best of all, the way that the story of Rapture's birth and death doubles back on the story of our protagonist. I'm reminded of one of my favorite movies, "Apocalypse Now," in that while both Francis Ford Coppola's movie and Ken Levine's game have their flaws, the level of ambition and achievement on display are so far ahead of much of the other work being done in their respective media that you have to say, "Bravo!" and hope--pray--that others rise to the challenge.

Thanks for the exchange, Stephen.

Cheers,

N'Gai