Ever since he started first getting into PC games, my good friend Joe Percy has returned to the work of Irrational Games time and again. That means he’s uniquely able to chart his attitudes to fear in reaction to the Shock series – from the unmanageably frightening System Shock 2 to the relatively relaxing BioShock 2.
Right in the middle of this pattern is the original BioShock, which for Joe hit a sweet spot between fear and challenge – but still wasn’t without problems. This episode looks back at both what BioShock did right and wrong, as well as the parallels between it and its predecessor.
Unlimited Hyperbole is a weekly podcast about videogames and the stories we tell about them. The show is divided into seasons of five episodes, each with a topic that’s used as a prompt when interviewing special guests. This season we’re talking about “Fear Itself” – but for more information about the podcast itself, read after the jump.
BioShock is a game I’ve had a number of interesting interactions with myself, come to think of it. It was the first AAA game I ever previewed for Bit-tech. It was also the subject of the longest review I’ve ever written and the first game I ever gave a 10/10 to. What it stands out for me the most though is the regret I have over it. I was unseasoned and easily swayed as a critic when BioShock was released, as well as still learning about games and games writing in a larger sense. The six-page review I wrote is a mixture of instruction manual and poorly reasoned drivel, while the score is the very definition of unlimited hyperbole. BioShock is not a 10/10 game.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad game. It has enough room for self-expression in there to be interesting and Irrational were brave to broach concepts such as Randist Objectivism in a AAA blockbuster, but it also has big problems that I think I overlooked at the time. The ethical choice is both poorly presented and self-defeating (see here for more on that), for example, though my biggest complaint is that the game doesn’t harness the self-expression which is one of its core strengths in any way beyond creating murder stories. It’s also way too long.
Anyway. I was thinking about possible design solutions to some of the problems Joe discusses when I was putting this episode together. How would you make BioShock a more tense experience for a competent gamer who by definition will reverse engineer the world and come to understand the world very quickly? Listening to what Joe said, the obvious answer would be to make player resources more scarce on the whole, but I actually think that’s a blunt-force solution. A better tactic might be to vary enemy strength randomly within difficulty-determined thresholds – an idea first suggested to me by James Silva years ago. If players can’t tell how strong an enemy is until he’s dead then not only does that put more possible pressure on resources, but also makes combat unpredictable in itself, diminishing the sense of control. It also makes the world more believable, as not all people can take the same amount of damage before they die.
That’s just an idea though.