Perhaps the most interesting thing about Prey is how much of its cleverness is wasted on me.
I knew from prior reporting that this game was different than standard games. I had heard of tales of fancy solutions to seemingly impossible situations. That “cheesing” encounters might even be necessary to survive. What I had not considered though, is how tunnel-visioned I had become on rote, formulaic solutions to cliched problems such that I had not even considered the possibility of trying something else.
The very first weapon you pick up is a wrench, which is about as tropy as you get. Then you get the GLOO gun. This is a weapon that deals no damage, but spits out expanding foam balls that can immobilize enemies, put out fires, seal flaming pipes, temporarily block arcing electrical panels, and become climbable platforms when it dries. The silenced pistol comes an hour or two later, and by then you will have encountered quite a few of the stronger enemy types with just a wrench and GLOO gun. The designers were very clearly trying to educate the player on all the myriad solutions to the problems they want you to solve.
Trouble is, I’ve been “trained” too well over the years.
It’s only well after the fact that I realize a better solution existed. For example, I walked into a room, and saw the windows sealed with GLOO foam. A note on the counter read “I sealed two Mimics in there, but there are casualties, so as many as eight.” I wrenched the foam out of the way, and used a combination of Wrench, Silenced Pistol, bullet-time, and panic to kill the half-dozen or so Mimics that popped out of the window.
After searching the now enemy-less room, I realized a few things. First, there was a broken turret in the hallway before this room. I could have repaired it, then set up the turret to cover the window. Second, there was a flammable oxygen pipe that run just under the window – which could have been shot to spray a jet of flame across the opening, catching the Mimics on fire. Third, I have Recycler Grenades, and could have just blown them all up. Instead, I chose the dumbest, most caveman solution possible and wasn’t overly punished for it.
Speaking of Recycler Grenades, these are items that basically convert everything within a certain radius into blocks of materials. And I do mean everything, furniture and enemies included. You can spend a lot of Neuromods (e.g. skill points) unlocking the ability to to lift ever-heavier items out of the way – and there are quite a few early rooms barricaded with heavy objects – or you can… just toss a Recycler Grenade at the obstruction and clear it instantly plus get some materials to make more grenades. This was not my own discovery, I had to read about it. It’s entirely possibly that I would not have even ever tried. That’s some goddamn 1984 doublethink shit, where you lack the language to even acknowledge your oppression.
To be clearer in my own language here, I am praising Prey. It’s just blowing my mind a bit that years of other, less clever games could essentially atrophy any out-of-the-box thinking. I even played Deus Ex back in the day, and I enjoyed all the sequels too. Part of me feels like Prey should punish more mundane gunplay more, or just forgo guns altogether.
At that point though, perhaps forced cleverness isn’t really cleverness at all.
Anyway, six hours in, Prey is an exceedingly unique experience with some really inventive scenarios. The existence of Mimic enemies cause you to really examine all the debris in a room, which can sometimes (and sometimes not, apparently) lead you to realize alternative solutions to an otherwise straight-forward enemy situation. The GLOO gun is pretty much the closest thing to the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2 that I have seen a game introduce in a decade. And damn near everything else is similarly polished and grokkable in surprising ways.
Pick this game up when you can. On sale, of course, but on the next one.
System Shock 2: That 90s Feeling
System Shock 2 (hereafter SS2) is a game I’ve heard about a lot, but up to this point didn’t have much of an interest to play. I mean, I immensely enjoyed Bioshock and all, but I have found by experience that “spiritual successors” tend to make their source material difficult to play. Which makes total sense, considering a game is a spiritual successor if it emulates and expands upon all the good things about the prior title while discarding the rest.
Plus, you know, 1999 was a long time ago. There is a whole swath of games that are more or less forever unplayable by me simply because I can’t get over the terrible (by today’s standards) graphics. Watching the intro to SS2 did not inspire much confidence:
Luckily for everyone, there is a wide selection of mods out there that more or less brings the game to at least 2004.
At this point, I am roughly 10 or so hours into the game and I must admit that SS2 still has value to give. For example: it’s pretty damn scary, but not in the way you might be used to. FEAR has some great moments, Silent Hill definitely gets the horror angle correct, and Resident Evil does “crash through the window” better than most. None of those really capture the unique (as far as I know) dread that is hearing the “whisk” sound of a spaceship door opening behind you. In fact, I find myself developing somewhat of a complex with these doors, as evidenced by nearly jumping out of my chair from the sound of one door – that I had just activated – closing behind me.
Aside from the evil doors, I want to spend a moment and praise the overall sound design of the game in general. For the most part, you can hear nearly every enemy before you actually see them. Which, now that I think about it, is not as common a gaming trope as it should be. What this allows SS2 to do is make the various types of enemies resistant or vulnerable to specific weapons without the player feeling cheated. If you hear a robot walking around nearby and aren’t switching to your energy weapons in anticipation, it’s your own damn fault.
Another thing I can appreciate about SS2’s design is the overall upgrade mechanic. Your character has like four tabs worth of various stats and abilities you can upgrade/purchase with Cybernetic Modules. While you do receive some periodically as “quest” rewards, the vast majority of Cybernetic Modules are stuck in desks, on dead bodies, and sometimes hidden in plain sight on the floor. Combined with a traditional (the de facto back then) non-regenerating health system and the necessity to collect currency for ammo/hacking/etc purposes, Cybernetic Modules provide an immense incentive to explore every inch of the ship. Contrast this with, say, Bioshock Infinite which has painstakingly-designed nooks and crannies without any reason at all to search them.
As an aside, I can understand why some games might not go that route. If you hide a bunch of upgrade currency throughout your game, you are then faced with a dilemma: either that upgrade currency is necessary to realistically defeat the final boss, or it isn’t. If it is necessary, you are forcing everybody to comb your game for supplies, including the people who find that sort of thing tedious. If all the upgrades aren’t necessary, the people who enjoy looting all the things are “rewarded” with trivial encounters for the rest of the game. It is much easier to control your game’s pacing by directly tying upgrades to specific plot points, so no one is ahead or behind. That does make your game more boring and empty however. Hence, dilemma.
In any case, I am likely closing in on the System Shock 2 endgame and should be done in the next day or two. While I do not consider it to be as groundbreaking as something like the original Deus Ex, it is at least in the same parking lot as the ballpark. If you picked it up as part of one of any number of bundles in the last two years, go ahead and spend the 20 minutes or so it takes to set up all the mods and give it a whirl. Part Deus Ex, part Half-Life, and extremely atmospheric.
Maybe not so indie after all…
One of the points I made yesterday regarding Card Hunter’s potential was:
1) Card Hunter is not being made by some large corporation (even if their F2P pricing is similar);
It occurred to me later though, that I never bothered to check on the actual game developers. Who are these guys and gals, and how were they able to create such a polished experience even in this Beta state? As it turns out… well, let’s just say that they have some experience in this regard:
- Jonathan Chey – co-founder of Irrational Games, director of Bioshock, producer of System Shock 2.
- Joe McDonagh – Production Director and Peggle Studio Franchise Director at PopCap Games.
- Dorian Hart – Veteran at Irrational Games; worked on System Shock I and II, Thief and BioShock.
- Tess Snider – from Trion Worlds, programmed Rift.
- Kevin Kulp – DM/game designer, worked at Wizards of the Coast, Green Ronin, and other places.
- Richard Garfield – Design consultant. Created Magic: The Gathering.
- Skaff Elias – Design consultant. Magic designer and founder of the Magic pro-tour.
So… yeah. Maybe this team isn’t so indie after all. I mean, when you have Richard fucking Garfield as a design consultant for your pseudo-TCG, that almost feels like cheating. Then again, I’m not particularly interested in having a hipster semantic war. Seven dudes with two consultants and no major publisher with suits to answer to? That passes the indie smell test for me.
P.S. For those just submitting their beta applications, it took me from May 11 to Jun 20 to get in.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
In a game with morality choices, would you choose the Good options if the results were often worse?
Most of the games I can think of that had moral choices ended up rewarding you the most if you chose the Good options. In Bioshock, for example, you could either “harvest” the Little Sisters for extra upgrade currency, or you could Cleanse them for a smaller reward. As it turns out though, if you end up Cleansing the Little Sisters they would start dropping off care packages containing ammo and extra upgrade currency, such that you might even come out ahead by going the Good route. The choice also ends up reflecting the tone of the ending, but it luckily skews towards Evil Ending rather than Bad Ending per se.
In thinking back to Bioshock, I started wondering if I would have been more inclined to harvest the Little Sisters if they did not “sweeten the deal” with the gift baskets later. I would like to say “No,” but I also feel like the “Pick the Good option and get bigger reward later” is such a ingrained gaming trope that I am beginning to question which inclination came first. Would the promise of a “better” ending be incentive enough to make Good choices, even if the game proper was made more difficult thereby?
Or to go all the way: what if the only reward of a Good choice in a game was the personal satisfaction of having done the right thing? In other words, what if the player was punished in some way for choosing the moral thing to do? An example could be sparing a bad guy, only to have them return and kill an NPC teammate later. Would the average gamer behavior change? Would the moral players feel better about their choices, or worse?
Sometimes I feel like I want to be a game designer just to screw with people.
Recommended price: $5-$10
Metacritic Score: 76
Completion Time: 8-10 hours
Buy If You Like: Shameless Half Life 2 / Bioshock knockoffs
Posted by Azuriel
Tobold put up a rather cringe-inducing critique of Mass Effect 3 the other day, prefaced by the Sid Meier quote of “good games are a series of interesting choices.” From there, Tobold argued that ME3 was not a good game, because the story choices being presented did not lead to gameplay changes. Indeed, he goes so far as to say in the comments:
First, that argument is so absurdly cliche that I started questioning whether he was simply trolling us at that point.
Secondly, in point of fact, you could not simply wait for Mass Effect: the Movie because any such film could not encompass the varied plot choices you can make over the course of the game. Characters can die in Mass Effect 1 & 2 and thus not show up in Mass Effect 3, cutting out entire swaths of character arcs. Who makes it through the Suicide Mission? Would the film feature a male Shepard or FemShep? Would the choices be primarily Paragon or Renegade? Which races get the shaft? Would the conclusion be the Red, Blue, or Green Cupcake?
The green one. Always the green one.
Third, I believe Tobold’s stance is exceedingly pernicious to the maturation of gaming as a medium. It simply boggles my mind that a self-professed lover of D&D would twist “interactive story” into a pejorative; are non-interactive stories supposed to be preferable?
Individual agency has a way of submerging players into a narrative in a way that traditional storytelling does not. Just look at the mind-bending (at the time) twist in the original Bioshock and the narrative arc in Far Cry 2. Even if you were not particularly impressed with the depth of these narratives, those story mechanisms simply cannot be replicated in book or movie form. Reducing games to their mere mechanical components would be an incredible tragedy of potential.
What the exchange highlighted to me though, was how squishy the venerable Sid Meier quote actually is.¹ To me, the choice between curing the Krogan genophage or deciding not to was interesting. In fact, I spent ten minutes or so agonizing over it when the dialog wheel was presented. Was it fair of us to cripple an entire species because we feared their hardiness and breeding speed? At first, I was worried about that hypothetical. Once the Reapers were gone, who is to say that the Krogans don’t simply out-breed and out-muscle the rest of us out of the universe? Then I thought: wait a minute, is this not the same sort of argument used against inter-racial marriages in the past, and even concerns about Islam today?
In contrast, Tobold simply picked whatever gave him the most War Assets.
This was meaningful to me, god damn you.
I do agree that a good game is full of interesting choices. But what should be obvious to anyone spending more than a minute thinking about it, is that what is interesting to one person can be boring/irrelevant/pointless to someone else. “Interesting” is not an objective term; Sid Meier may as well quipped “Good games are full of fun” for all the sage wisdom it contains.
¹ The full quote is actually: “According to Sid Meier, a [good] game is a series of interesting choices. In an interesting choice, no single option is clearly better than the other options, the options are not equally attractive, and the player must be able to make an informed choice.” (Rollings & Morris 2000, p. 38.) This does not meaningfully change my objections, as whether an option is “clearly better” and/or “equally attractive” is necessarily subjective. For example, I almost always prefer passive abilities to active ones, to the point that most of the WoW talent tree levels have only a single rational (to me) option.
Posted in Commentary
Tags: Bioshock, Choices, Far Cry 2, Game Design, Genophage, Interactive Storytelling, Mass Effect, Mass Effect 3, Sid Meier, Tobold