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bioshock, system shock 2, and fear
games Posted 2007-08-28 16:48:32 by Jim Crawford
In this post I'm going to discuss the gameplay of Bioshock and System Shock 2. I don't consider that sort of thing to be a spoiler, but if you do, consider this your spoiler warning.

So I'm pretty convinced that while Bioshock tells a wonderful story, one that requires interactivity to be truly effective, and that it also provides a great sandbox for interesting combat tactics, it's actually not a very good game. I don't mean that Bioshock is not a good product, to be clear; I mean “game” in a very specific sense, of a form of play that has success and failure states.

Craig Perko writes about the gameplay differences between Bioshock and its spiritual predecessor, System Shock 2. The short version is that in making System Shock 2, Irrational Games stumbled onto what may be the only way to have any real failure state in a game that has free saving and loading: attrition. Be stingy with resources, and take them away just a little at a time, in chunks small enough that people aren't going to bother loading to replay a section more efficiently.

To win System Shock 2, you have to play well. If you fuck up, for instance by losing too much health or spending too much ammo, or by choosing a bad upgrade path, you lose. Period. You can't just restore your last save, because during your last save you were already well on your way to failure. You have to start over pretty much completely. System Shock 2 is a very, very stressful game.

While Bioshock is superficially very similar, it is not that game. It is of the more modern, friendly school of game design, in which the designer wants you to win. As a result, it is not scary; the only threat it can make good on is showing you images that you can't unsee, and though it does a good job of that, it doesn't have System Shock 2's teeth. It can't, because it doesn't really have a failure state at all.

In System Shock 2, they did it the easy way. They made you believe you were always about to lose by making the game so hard that you really were always about to lose. The real trick would be for the game to fool you. I've never seen a video game pull this off, maybe because it's hard to trick the player for upwards of 10 hours, but a friend of mine described Netrunner, an asymmetrical collectible card game, almost exactly that way: no matter who's actually winning, you always feel like you're losing. I tried it once, and he's right. It's stress city. I don't know how they did it, but I'd love to see an analysis.

I posted what ended up being an early draft of this in the comments for Craig Perko's blog entry, and he suggested that adaptive difficulty might be the way to do it. I've always hated adaptive difficulty, because it denies the player the ability to get good at a game. But having already decided that Bioshock succeeds as an interactive story, not as a game, I'm willing to trade the experience of becoming skilled for the experience of being scared while experiencing the story.

Except, um, having just written this, I probably won't be fooled. Shit.
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no subject
Posted by Anonymous (Rusty) on 2007-08-29 00:04:56
Bastard! You make me want an Xbox 360 now.
re: no subject
Posted by Jim Crawford on 2007-08-29 02:57:43
Well, if we ever end up on the same coast, you can play it on mine!
re:re: no subject
Posted by Anonymous (Rusty) on 2007-08-29 12:59:30

I will hold you to that though :)
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