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Friday, August 1, 2014

Bioshock : A Requiem for Rapture

After posting the reasons why I didn't like Bioshock, I didn't feel any inner push to further my adventures underwater. Then I got drunk.

My logic was sound and I think very similar to what must go through the mind of women who dare sleep with me; if I am drunk, maybe I won't be as critical of the experience and I might still manage to enjoy myself.

While it certainly wasn't magical, my one-night stand with Bioshock kept me interested enough to get through to the end. I might even give it a replay one of these nights...

Here's a list of my thoughts after completing the game.

The Good

The sunken metropolis of Rapture is one of my favorite fictional settings. I love the city, its style, its look and its implied history. Everything about it is memorable, gritty and leaves enough space to dream. As far as world-building, Irrational Games are peerless.

There is a certain elegance in the controls. Most games would have assigned the right-mouse button to an alternate firing mode and relegated the plasmids to an obscure button on the keyboard somewhere but Bioshock knew what it had and tweaked the control scheme to best serve its purpose. Few games manage to pull off a control scheme which deviates from the established standards and I applaud it for this. Elegant, simple and focused.

The game grows on you, rendering anyone who has completed its story in a position where it is quite hard to criticize the game. Everyone should play through Bioshock at least once; It is entirely worth it despite its negative aspects.

The part leading to the final showdown is almost perfect. The role you must assume in this section really sent my mind in "what if?" mode and made me ponder all the possible outcomes. To be fair, the game doesn't really deliver but the fact that it made me 

The cutscene ending was cool and makes me wonder about the alternate scenarios which might have followed these events.

The Bad

The combat is anything but tight. Sometimes it is fluid and responds very well but at other times, shots will fail to connect. Couple that with weird UI bugs and you get one annoying game experience.
I know the game was originally meant to grace the Xbox 360 and PS3 so I am not 100% sure if this is an issue exclusive to the PC version.

It took me until Sander Cohen's challenge (which marks the halfway point of the game) to really start feeling comfortable with the game. That's a hard sell.

Referring to my initial post on the Ghostbusters rule, where I stated that shooting Plasmid juice in my arm is not something I'd consider doing if I found myself on a deserted island, the last quarter of the game really feels...what's the word...pretentious. The game's story introduces themes of player agency and free will but fails to really deliver the gameplay to back it up. It feels as if it tries to tie all the loose ends when leaving unanswered questions would have added a lot of mystique to the experience as well as provide for a better endgame.

The ending was disappointing. A boss fight makes sense but feels out of place. The fact that Vita-chambers are disabled at this point is a really jarring disconnect from the rest of the game and give me a Deus Ex : Human Revolution boss fight vibe. That being said, the fight itself is fairly easy even on the hardest difficulty setting.

The audio logs Atlas talking to you on the radio, all narration/dialogue was 90% of the time drowned out by gunfire or music. Other times, it was cut in half due to a Vita-chamber respawn. I missed most of the details and frankly, that might have played a big part of why I didn't get invested in the story as much.

The Ambivalent

While I feel like I might have fun replaying the game with the experience and knowledge gained through my first playthrough, I don't see the point in restarting powerless. The story twists won't be as effective and the first half of the game really feels like a tutorial. The latter half of the game lets you experiment with the plasmids and weapons, which is something that would have made me a fan from day one if it were like this in the first half as well. If finishing the game gave a "New Game +" mode, I would be doing my second playthrough right now.

The main story is not that interesting. Its dramatic twists make it a compelling reason to get through the end of the game but at no point was I really invested into Ryan, Atlas or Tenenbaum's narrations. It does the job as a framing device but the real beauty of the narrative is unspoken, lost in the details of the city itself.

The Vita-chambers break the game for me. The game's difficulty seems balanced with their use in mind but they feel like dying has no consequence. It must be stated that the reason why they affect you and "no one else" is explained in the story and is a quite ingenious twist. Which makes me even angrier at the option to disable them, since they are indeed an integral part of the game's story.

Conclusion

When it was released, BioShock might have broken new ground. The world of Rapture is still beautiful even though it was rendered in Unreal Engine 2.5. I think that the game has aged very well due to its visual design. Judging by Bioshock Infinite's story and reception, I think Irrational Games have truly mastered their art over the years and even though the studio has been disbanded, I would be extremely curious to see a Bioshock HD remake which fixes some issues I've had with the game while remaining true to the original.

The last PC game I've played was Dishonored, which borrows a few elements from Bioshock, notably the Plasmids system..

I have played through Dishonored's main campaign 4 times, completed the DLC stories and will replay them again. I love that game, it seems built for my tastes.

Dishonored avoids many of the pitfalls which Bioshock stepped into but its acting is not as good as Bioshock's and it probably wouldn't even exist if it weren't for Bioshock clearing the path first.

All in all, while not a perfect game, Bioshock deserves all the praise it received over the years. I get it now.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Confession Time : I don't like Bioshock

I feel like I am abnormal.

Amongst easily muffled outcries of being corporate sellouts, the awesome Humble Bundle guys have released the 2K bundle, rendering nil any excuse I had of putting off Bioshock for so long.

I've finally basked in the glory of Rapture's underwater dystipia and...I...don't like Bioshock.

I've searched online for others who might share my plight and found that, as is becoming a predictable trend in my life, I get boxed in with all sorts of idiots for my belief. I refuse idiocy by association so here I go trying to intellectually explain my point; I don't HATE Bioshock, I just don't like it.

Minimum requirements

I grew up playing PC games of all types and genres : shooters, RPGs, adventure games, Strategy of the turn-based and real-time ilk, I've played most games released since 198x.

During my vain search for others like me, I've often come across the "Ah, you hate Bioshock, go back to playing COD. Bioshock is for REAL gamers."

I hate Call of Duty. I find it boring and shockingly confining.
I love Halo and Unreal Tournament, Deus Ex and its reboot, Thief and NOT its shitty reboot, Dishonored, Doom, Hexen, Heretic...

I humbly posit that I am over-qualified for the real gamer status.

Forced Baptism

I remember having played the Bioshock demo when it was released on the Xbox 360 a few years ago. Replaying the first few "levels" in 2014 reminded me of a very important issue which still prevents my immersion in Rapture : The first Plasmid injection.

During my quest for peers, I've come across an article describing the ...ahem...controversy of a forced baptism in Bioshock Infinite. I haven't played Infinite and thus had no idea about this baptism, naively thinking that someone else had identified my issue with the initial Plasmid injection.

Let's imagine that I am in a plane crash over the Atlantic. Let's pretend that I find an abandoned lighthouse which leads me into an underwater city I had never even suspected to exist. Let's push this delirium further and say that inhabitants of this secret society regularly use some sort of injection to give them super-powers.
A bit far-fetched but I have no problem with outlandish ideas...as long as it respects the Ghostbusters rule.

In the movie's DVD commentary, the late Harold Ramis explains a very important technique used to suspend the audience's disbelief. He states that as long as the main characters in a movie (or game) react in believable / plausible ways to everyday and supernatural/extraordinary events, the audience will buy it.

Jamming a needle into my wrist, hoping it will give me superpowers is not something I would ever consider, unless I was in grave danger. Really grave, unbelievably grave danger.

If injecting the plasmids would be introduced as a logical story-telling point, I wouldn't mind it too much but as it stands, you perform the injection because it's the only way to open a door.

It might seem like a minor complaint but this one moment completely breaks the narrative for me. I'm very aware that I am playing a video game at that point and will not bother investing my attention into this world because at any time, it might just decide what I would do.

Ever played Fallout : New Vegas? I love the immersion and world-building of the modern Fallout iterations but every time I get to Camp McCarran ( The NCR-occupied airport), the convoluted and forced narrative of its NPCs and their quests turn this role playing game into a checklist of things to do. All immersion is lost and I start skipping dialogue, fingers taking residence on the quick-save and quick-load buttons.

Whatever Andrew Ryan says, whatever Atlas mutters on the radio, I don't care. I just want to get through this and get it over with as fast as possible.

Indiana Jones survives a nuclear blast by hiding in a fridge. I won't pretend to give one shit until the end credits roll.

Mixed bag of Enemies

I love the idea of Splicers  I like their getup, I like their madness and the fact that Irrational Games managed to make the most common enemy feel unique when framed in new situations is testament to their skill.

Big Daddy's iconic image will be drilled (ha!) into your mind as soon as you catch a glimpse of the hulking monstrosity and while I have nothing bad to say about its design, it just never managed to register as a "cool" enemy. Little Sisters suffer the same fate; instantly recognizable but ultimately forgettable.

The Flying turrets have a distinct feel which I really like even though I think that hacking being represented by a clone of Pipe Dream is stupid.

Bad Lip Reading

Narrative dissonance aside, my main issue with the game is its readability. I think that this was intended in Bioshock's design so I can't really fault it for this but I have a hard time discerning the enemies from the lush, incredibly rich scenery.

Rapture's environment and the atmosphere it evokes are pitch-perfect; I am a fan of Rapture when I think about it or fantasize about its mysteries. When I play the game, though, I have a hard time focusing on the enemies, losing themselves in a blurry darkness, occasionally lit by muzzle flashes.

As mentioned, I think that this combat confusion is intended and its annoyance will wane as I log more time with the game.

Instant Revival

Whenever I start a new game, regardless of platform or genre, I choose the hardest difficulty available and expect to get my ass handed to me. That's how I learn best and I feel like in most cases this allows you to experience the game's situations with much more intensity.

Breezing through a game on easy feels like a rollercoaster and at that point, I might as well be watching a movie...or be playing Assassin's Creed.

Plowing through a game with clearly marked respawn stations puzzles me. I understand how this makes the game 'easier' or more forgiving but the fact that they are built into the game's lore just makes every encounter lack the tension which makes encounters shine. Oh I died? And I keep all my weapons? Cool. Death is meaningless.

I know you can turn the Vita-chambers off but they are part of Rapture, right? They are part of the story-world Irrational is trying to sell me. Why don't Splicers use them as well in that case?

Parting words

I am now on my 6th or 7th playthrough of Dishonored. I can easily tear the game to pieces for its faults but its flaws are outweighed by the fun an immersion which I get from each playthrough.

It all comes down to this

I feel like Arkane Studios care about sensibilities which I care about.

I feel like Irrational games do not share my sensibilities.

I will still play Bioshock the whole way through. I will bite down hard and disregard my brain screaming "GO PLAY SOMETHING ELSE!" every few seconds. Why? Because from what I've read, Bioshock 2 sounds like it would be right up my alley, and I'd rather play the first one before jumping into the second one.

I sincerely wish for Bioshock to take a sudden turn and turn me into a raving fanboy.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Requiem for Adventure Games

It is very possible that you haven't grown up in Québec. I did.

Québec is a quirky little Canadian province where most people speak French regardless of the fact that they are drowning in American culture. It is a land of contradiction, a land of resourcefulness and creativity..

While we watched the same movies as our American neighbors, ours were translated. To give a very concrete example, Harrison Ford is voiced by different actors from movie to movie. Bruce Willis might be voiced by the Harrison Ford voice actor in one movie and sound like Eddie Murphy in the next. It`s a mindfuck but to those born in this mess, these memories are just as strong and indelible as the "real stuff".

In my journey towards adolescence, I had but one goal : I wanted to watch the Real Ghostbusters cartoons on TV, in its original language and...gasp...understand what they were saying.

Down the rabbit hole we go...

The Sierra Salvation

My first computer game was Leisure Suit Larry 2 : Looking for Love in Several wrong places.

Leisure Suit Larry 2

Time Travel Advice #1 : If you ever find yourself in Québec in the 1980s, don't be surprised if people call it Larry Suit Larry. As far as these people are concerned, the extra letters in the word Leisure might just be a fancy way of writing Larry.

I distinctly remember everyone freaking out; apparently Leisure Suit Larry was 18+ and could not even be discussed in public as it was so vile.

My dad was not a big fan of bullshit and said "There is more sex on daytime TV than in this. Besides, the kid doesn't even understand what sex is."

I wish my dating life would be as nostalgic about these moments. Poor girls...

Actually, I had received this and King's Quest 2, in all its RGB glory.

Bear in mind that I didn`t read, speak or understand a single word of English at this point.

I remember most games as their executable file name. As far as I knew, these games were called LSL2.BAT and KQ2.BAT.

The language barrier

King Graham walks through a peaceful meadow, your young mind interpreting the pixel patterns on the screen as flowers and grass. You see an object on the ground, which you want Graham to pick up.


Time Travel Advice #2 : Pick up everything that isn't nailed down, save after every action and be ready to die often for no reason . It's the only way to find girls.








A few problems quickly manifest themselves :
  •  you don't know what this object is from the blob of pixels representing it
  • you don't know what word you could use to identify the object
  • you don't know what word you could use to tell your character to pick it up
You've learned to type in "LOOK" on every screen but the textual descriptions of the room are 99% gibberish. Any form of literary wit or flowery detail is completely lost on your alien mind.

You pick up a dictionary. You look up the definition of every single word in the room`s description and try to make sense of it just so you can pick up that...that thing! Aha! The description tells you explicitly that there is a trident lying on the ground.

You learn that "GET", "PICK UP" and "TAKE" are synonyms. You learn that you don't have to learn adjectives as long as you can identify the noun. It doesn't matter if it's a shiny Trident or a slimy Trident; it's your trident now!

You also learn the main trick of Sierra adventure games : USE.
Whenever I hit became unable to progress in the game, I'd do the sensible thing and try to "use" everything on everything else until something yielded a clue or actually did something useful.

In my 6th grade English course, I managed to obtain a perfect score : 100% for the whole year!. Nobody else in the school even came close. All thanks to Sierra.

Looking back : These games are shit

What sparked the idea for this article was Reverend Anthony Burch's seemingly innocent tweet.
Unknown to him, his tweet was the final act of a chain of events which led me to reminisce about my formative days as a virtual adventurer.

I went to bed yesterday with a book entitled
The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures. That book made me angry.

I find that the book is full of grammatical errors, typos and just wonky sentence structures. It feels thrown together and lacks the polish that such a compilation should respectfully deserve. I am fully aware that the same could be said about the article you're currently reading but the difference is that I'm not asking for your money in exchange for the privilege of reading my blog.

Aside from the book's writing, the games it describes are reviewed on their narrative merits or the difficulty of their puzzles. They are analyzed through the eyes of a 2013/2014 human.

Here's my problem with this approach : to me and to countless others, these games were not just games. Analyzing them logically reveals nothing about the game worlds we've spent countless hours exploring and ultimately growing up in.

LucasArts vs. Sierra

The feeling I had when I closed the book was one of sadness and despair which always strikes me when I encounter praise for the LucasArts classics at the expense of the Sierra catalog.

The feeling I had when I read Anthony's tweet was similar; I think that the issues he describes are not as prevalent in LucasArts games.

I love LucasArts adventure games as much as the next guy. I concede wholeheartedly that they are better games in terms of design and flow than their Sierra-made counterparts but I've always felt like they weren't as magical.

  • They were easier games.
  • They didn't have gruesome deaths.
  • The worlds they depicted felt much flatter than the world of a Sierra game, mainly due to the lack of textual descriptions.

Whatever you saw or interacted with in a LucasArts game was usually described or commented on by the main character. Non-player characters would also chime in to block your way or tell you not to touch this or that. The characters were instruments of the game; they rarely felt like real characters to me.

That being said (Thank you, Larry David.), LucasArts games were comedic goldmines and were incredibly fun to play. I think that the modern game industry owes much to the classic LucasArts formula.

The early Sierra games on the other hand had a more personal connection with the player, constantly addressing the player as "you". "You pick it up and carry it with you.", "You see a majestic waterfall.", "You can smell the farts of a thousand gnomes.". Maybe I invented some of those but "You couldn't tell".

It was the voice of the designer, as if he or she was writing to you directly. To complete the comparison, I think that this is much closer to the tone of  most modern indie games.

I remember what a PR-24 nightstick because of Police Quest. I remember the word prophylactic from Leisure Suit Larry 1. Most of what many consider my "general culture" comes straight from Sierra games. LucasArts games fall into the same category as my Transformers fetish or my Star Wars obsession; entertainment and identity but not learning.

CGA-tinted glasses

We live in a time where if I have to decide what game to play (the very definition of first-world problems), I might choose whatever is on my PC because the Xbox360 requires me to switch A/V inputs.

Like Anthony, I do not have the time to try every object on every other object because I'm stuck. I expect the modern niceties of game design to guide me along the way so I can get more entertainment out of my game.

I don't play Sierra games anymore. I still have most of them installed and ready to go via DOSBOX but I can never find the time to sit through them, even for nostalgia's sake. I'd rather watch a Let's play on youtube.

I do remember thinking that there was so much more to these worlds than what appeared on screen. That cityscape in LSL2; I was convinced that one day, the story would take me beyond what I now know is just a backdrop meant to project an illusion. They didn't really draw the entirety of L.A. They didn't really plan out everything that you could type into the parser. I really thought that they did, though. The limits were blurry in these worlds of language and it is that magic which I vainly try to recapture with games today. That feeling of freedom and pure exploration which I now realize is the viewpoint of a child.

I've grown old, wonder lies elsewhere...


Time Travel Advice #3 : What you love today might leave you cold tomorrow. Enjoy whatever strikes your fancy but never force enjoyment. The wise time traveler must learn to let go.

What Egoraptor claims rings true. The first Zelda was all about your desire to venture into unknown lands. What drove the adventure was your own desire to quest and to explore the world full of untold wonders. Later Zeldas were more focused, reduced exploration and imposed upon the player a reason to act heroic.

I remember playing "Link's Awakening" in recent years and thinking "Oh, I already know how to do this", plowing through the game by doing what I had already done in countless other Zelda games.

When I play an adventure game today, I employ the same logic : "Oh, I know how to do this" and look at everything, exhausting the game's options to make sure I didn't miss a thing and carry on through to the end of the superficial story.

I don't think they could have marketed the classic Sierra Games as valid methods to learn the subtleties of the English language. Most of them can even be considered to be badly written. Most of them are bad video games.

What I take away from all this is that these games were more like books than games. You can read a book many times throughout your life and interpret it differently depending on who you are at that point in time.

Sadly, the technological bias of these artifacts of  modernity will not carry their words into the future. They will be remembered as quirky little products of their time and little else. I don't think the trials of King Graham or Leisure Suit Larry will reach immortal cultural relevance on the same level as Les Misérables or Hamlet.

I merely wanted to give you what was hopefully a different point of view on what games can mean to people and why care should be used when crafting them. I highly doubt that Dungeon Keeper's mobile iteration will be remembered as fondly in 30 years...

Safe travels!