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I’m Not Dead, I Just Post Elsewhere (PART TWO: THE POST ELSEWHERING!)

Hey, guys.

School, and life, have been amazingly hectic. My posting on Polygon has come to an end. I do stuff on NeoGAF every once in a while, but the best place to find me, without a doubt, is on my new Tumblr. My update frequency isn’t going to skyrocket–I’m stuck developing game projects at school–but it is going to slowly begin increasing as the semester moves on. For the most part, it will be freelance work I do–I’m working on my second piece right now.

In fact, I might be updating you guys as to my development projects progress. That means pictures!

I may also be posting a more traditional wordpress blog with a friend after a while, but that’s not a guarantee. There have been rumblings of podcasting, but only rumblings… for now. If it happens, however, that’s going to start in the summer.

For now, school and work dominate my waking time.

I’m Not Dead, I just Post Elsewhere

I post here now.

Why Bioshock 2 is the Art Game You’ve Been Looking For

I find it strange that Bioshock gets a great deal of love. I didn’t used to, back when it first came out, because it is a clever, unique, and interesting game, with a lot of cool ideas, but then I played two very important games: System Shock 2 and Bioshock 2.

System Shock 2 revealed Bioshock for what it was–a nice-looking, but shallower representation of the Shock ideal. Bioshock was a simpler creature, lacking the vim and verve of its spiritual predecessor. When you stripped away Rapture, there wasn’t much left. Gone were the guns that broke, the inventory management, the reasons to go back to previous levels and have a look around. Gone were the big ideas, too, and the characters that drove them. The gameplay had tightened up significantly, but even though powers were easier to use, they tended to be far less interesting. The dearth of enemy types hurt the game as well.

Still, it was unique, and it did make a rather interesting point about video games: choice is created by the developer, everything is fake. You are a slave to the game. You do not have total freedom. You are a puppet, dancing at the developer’s whims.

I can forgive Bioshock for not having the best combat ever. Half-Life doesn’t have the best combat ever, but it’s still pretty fun, after all. I can forgive it for not having an inventory system, because they did a pretty good job making the game without it. I have a harder time forgiving the lack of good characters, but Rapture and Andrew Ryan alone made for an interesting world. Putting the game on a numerical core, I’d still give it a solid 9 out of 10 because the <i>experience</i> transcends its many weaknesses.

But… Bioshock 2 is by far the better game.

Wait; let’s back up a bit. Wasn’t Bioshock critically acclaimed? Didn’t a lot of people talk about how great that point was? In fact, wasn’t the largest criticism about Bioshock 2 the fact that it didn’t need to be made because Bioshock was so perfect?

Okay, yes, a lot of people did talk about how great the point was, and they did go on to say that Bioshock 2 didn’t need to be made because Bioshock was complete as it was… but… saying that a sequel to a great game doesn’t need to be made? That’s a really uncommon criticism. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say “this great game doesn’t need a sequel!” It’s just not a thing people do. So why did Bioshock warrant this claim? Was it really so perfect? Was it the best game ever made, so perfect that it could cure disease, kiss infants, and make you smarter just by thinking about it?

I think not. Generally, a very good game is a game that most people, once they’ve played it, like. They might not have heard of it, it might not have sounded interesting at first, but if it’s truly good, then most of the people who pick it up are going to really enjoy it. Bioshock is rather interesting because the response to the game seems to be rather cool. There’s a surprising number of gamers who actually didn’t enjoy it all that much.

In fact, most common complaint I heard about the game went: “I love Rapture, but the game isn’t very fun.”

It’s interesting to note that Ken Levine, when first revealing Bioshock Infinite, said something along the lines of: “Bioshock wasn’t about Rapture, it was about exploring new worlds.” It makes sense, then, that the biggest appeal of Bioshock would be the discovery of Rapture. Likewise, it makes sense that people might not be hyped for Bioshock 2, even if they claimed to love its predecessor. In truth, the appeal of Bioshock was, by and large, the discovery world–that idea of being under the sea for the first time, the newness wonderful early-60s aesthetic, that first appearance of those freaky men in sdiving suits highlighted by neon, creepy little girls trailing behind them excitedly talking about angels. It’s no surprise, then, that Bioshock 2 didn’t garner the hype that its predecessor did; Rapture had been done, but the game behind it was mediocre at best. No one really wanted to play Bioshock, they wanted to discover something new.

In this way, it makes perfect sense that the biggest argument against Bioshock 2 was that people had already played Bioshock: the appeal of Rapture had worn off, and people had actually begun to dread the idea of playing Bioshock again.

But, you see, Bioshock did need a sequel. While the gameplay itself might have been lackluster, the point it made–this idea that choice is illusory, that freedom isn’t real, that the developer need not be burdened by the medium’s strength, interactivity–was a bad one. It’s sad to me that the developers at Irrational feel this way; indeed, the worst part of Bioshock was the part where it revealed itself to the player, removed all choice, and turned itself into an empty, linear experience. The game was genuinely interesting when it offered you choices, but when the folks at Irrational decided that they’d have enough and decided to remove choices from the game, it became far less interesting.

Any artist will tell you that the best art is that which plays off its medium’s strength. A film built entirely around reading words on a screen isn’t a film worth watching. Likewise, a sitcom that tries to use filmic storytelling isn’t going to work because film’s pacing doesn’t allow all that much to happen in half an hour. Gaming’s strength is its interactivity–as soon as you can interact, that means that the gameplay is choice-driven. A developer who chooses not to capitalize on that strength, instead going for the “choice is fake!” route, does a disservice to the medium.

People like to say that choice is an illusion, but that’s only true if there are no consequences. Over the weekend, I played Back to the Future parts 4 and 5. I had the choice to pick various dialog options, but only one of them was the “correct” option. If I tried to tell Citizen Brown that a character would live a happy life in the future, Marty would invariably say something stupid, the dialog option would be removed, and I’d have to pick whatever option was laid out for me. That’s the illusion of choice. One example I’m fond of using is an ice cream store. A store claiming to offer hundreds of flavors, but truly offering only vanilla, is offering nothing more than the illusion of choice. A store offering a limited selection of different flavors, however, is offering choice, no matter how limited that choice may be. If something changes, then you have, in fact, made a real choice, regardless of the size of the consequence. Maybe it’s simply the difference between chocolate and vanilla.

That Bioshock would effectively argue “there are no real choices in gaming! This is all it can be!” is, then, rather sad. It’s a myopic take on the medium. It’s an inherently limiting idea. This is where Bioshock 2 came in. Where Bioshock said “hah! gotcha! choices are fake,” Bioshock 2 assessed the situations and went for something significantly different.

In Bioshock 2, You are Subject Delta, an early-model Big Daddy, bonded to a little girl, Eleanor. You were killed by Sophia Lamb, Eleanor’s mother. Resurrected after the downfall of Rapture, you wake to discover that Sophia has been turning Eleanor into some sort of superheroic savant, capable of bringing Sophia’s dream of a Marxist family to the world. You need to get to Eleanor. In a way, you are her slave. The entirety of the game is built around making your way to Eleanor to free her. It does not appear you have much choice in the matter–without her, you will die and the world will be doomed. Unlike Bioshock, the maps are actually linear. You appear, at first glance, to have even less choice!

…but…

You meet Grace, Stanley, and Gil, Sophia Lamb’s lieutenants. At each juncture, you have a choice. You can kill them or you can walk away. One of them was a pawn, another was misguided, and another was a key figure responsible for your slavery. Each one tries to kill you, and, as such, it could be argued that each one deserves to die.

I chose not to.

When I died, at the end of the game, and Eleanor absorbed my consciousness into her own, a profound thing happened: she chose to be a better person. She, with the powers of a goddess and the upbringing of a Marxist, realized the power of choice. She realized that we each needed to choose for ourselves the kind of person we would choose to be. She learned that from me. She could have forced the world, kicking and screaming, to be remade in her image, and maybe some would have thought it a better place, but Eleanor realized that it wouldn’t truly have been. I showed her the value of freedom.

Where Bioshock argued that choice in games could be nothing more than an illusion, Bioshock 2 made the counterpoint that, no matter how limited the choices may be, they can have a profound impact on the world of the game, and that is true choice. The value of the choice is not based on the audience’s willing to believe–it’s a burden placed upon the developers. There is nothing that says choice must or must not matter.

Bioshock 2 is a game that capitalizes on interactivity, the element that separates video games from visual media like film and television. It offers a metatextual counterpoint to its predecessor, Bioshock, in addition to making a point about how our choices affect others (unlike other media, as a game, Bioshock 2 actually allows us to see how our choices have an effect), and it does so while featuring better gameplay and storytelling than its predecessor. If you want to argue that games are art, Bioshock 2 is one of the best examples you could possibly use.

Daily Think: On Great Difficulty (In Both Senses)

With all the love that Dark Souls gets, I’m starting to get a bit bothered by hearing about it. Everyone talks about how punishingly brutal it is, about how it forces you to do this or that, and blah blah blah. I don’t care. It might be the greatest game of all time, but its fans are really starting to get my goat, just as Demon’s Souls fans did before it. The worst part is how they talk about its difficulty as though its some sort of revelation.

It’s not.

Other games have done the whole “I’m really hard but if you treat me well I will respect you,” thing. The newest example of this is probably Serious Sam 3: BFE, though previous Serious Sam titles have done this as well. It’s the best game in the series–don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It has the best/most guns, the second-best humor (Serious Sam 2–note, this isn’t The Second Encounter, but Serious Sam 2–did do that better), the second-best art style (again, Serious Sam 2) the most enemy types, the most strategic element of combat (prioritizing which enemy gets which weapon depending on their location in relation to you and having to do so on the fly), and so forth.

…and it’s hard. I barely made it through the museum basement alive. My approach to the Great Pyramid killed me so many times until I finally found a sound approach to the situation. Learning from that mistake helped me in a later fight, which proved quite difficult at first, but once I got the rhythm of it all, I became a better player and ultimately prevailed.

Sam’s mechanical premise is simple: people run at you and try to murder you alive. You try to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

Why Is It So Hard To Define an RPG?

I made this comment on RPS. Normally, I’d hold my posting to better standards, but I am tired and headachey and have only had one proper meal in the past three days.

This is just me, but I always had the idea that an RPG was a game about role-playing, and that being turn-based and all that other nonsense were just abstractions that we never needed to begin with (no reason to have a dice roll regarding the success of a rat’s dodge; the AI, physics, and engine calculation of my sword’s swing can handle that now).

I’ll try to get into my justification for that simple claim in a moment, but, first, I do wonder… why would anyone think any differently? The RPG is a role-playing game. It describes itself in the title. I like to think I can actually trust the English language enough to assume that a descriptor like that is quite literal. Presumably, a game that facilitates role-playing more than another game is the better role-playing game, right?

I’ve been thinking about this in part because, when I think about it, I did more role-playing in STALKER than I ever did in most RPGs. The skills and classes of those games limited me to a role, rather than letting me truly be the person I wanted. Granted, STALKER wouldn’t let me play as a pacifist, but that’s more because one wouldn’t actually find a pacifist in a place like the Zone, only a pile of monster shit. It is a game that dumped me in a world, set forth the rules of that world, then let me be whoever I wanted to be.

The stuff we generally think of as RPG mechanics are often unnecessary! Being turn-based, for instance, is the only way to keep a DM sane. Having dice rolls is the only way to keep people from being mad at the DM when he calls the outcome of a thing–it’s a bit harder to dispute a dice than it is to dispute a guy who randomly decides whether you hit or miss, after all.

The other night, a friend got all huffy with me when I said I was quite happy with where The Elder Scrolls was heading. He said it was becoming less of an RPG because it was getting streamlined. I suggested that instead, a lot of the skill stuff was being offloaded into other areas (or removed because they figured out how to do it better–see classes). Skyrim was, I argued, slowly evolving (I realize that the use of the word might be provocative, but considering that role-playing is inherently a part of the immersive sim, and that the IS removes abstraction, then surely it must be an evolution of the RPG, no?) into an immersive sim, which is really what Bethesda has always wanted to make.

My friend was a bit upset.

For him, the stat elements in Daggerfall and Morrowind were what made it an RPG. For me, and, I presume, Bethesda, who has made a game less dependent on stats and more dependent on simulation with each release, it was the idea that Bethesda could put you in a world and let you be whoever you wanted to be.

I guess I feel like people really want stats-based (or stats+turn-based, or stats+turn-based+isometric, or maybe something else) adventure games. Maybe they’d like a degree of choice, but that seems secondary to their primary interest, which is in a stat progression system (hi JRPG fans! It’s the only way you can consider your genre an RPG!). It’s why people seem willing to call Borderlands an RPG, when it’s no more of an RPG than Darksiders (in Darksiders, you gain souls to unlock abilities; in Borderlands, you gain XP to level up to get a skill point to unlock abilities). Ultimately, it seems as if a lot of people, particularly those who would moan about Skyrim being less of a game than its predecessors, are so focused on specific elements of RPGs that they don’t really pay attention to WHY those elements are there, or why they’re no longer needed.

Computers can simulate all sorts of things that dice rolls previously controlled. Now we can do things like fluid classes instead of saying “okay, you are a rogue so you can learn these things, and for no reason whatsoever, that guy over there cannot.” Those elements were a result of RPGs being tabletop games and running on computers with crappy processors. We don’t have those limitations any more, so the abstraction can be removed and people can focus on role-playing without having to worry about the excess stuff.

I’m not saying that the stats-based (or turn-based or isometric) game should die, just that I really wishthat the people who whine about RPGs shedding their previous limitations would shut up. It’s nice to see that they’re really trying to let people truly immerse themselves, not only in a world, but a role.

No matter what you say, you can’t really immerse yourself in the other RPGs. The second that you level up (yes, I get it, Skyrim does this too–I said it was an evolution of the RPG, not its apogee) or watch XP numbers fly in the air or watch your character do something for you… you’re not immersed. The game is being a game and pulling you out of the experience. Sometimes, that’s awesome. Sometimes, I want my games to be gamey.

But, yeah, um, this is getting long, so I’ll just finish it up with this: by being immersive, Skyrim’s actually a better RPG, because it’s removing as much crap as it can between the player and the player’s role. It’s not necessarily a better game–after all, The Witcher 2 has better graphics, writing, voice acting, sound design, art design, and a bunch of other details–but it is a better RPG, because there’s nothing stopping you from being the person you want.

Why would there even be a debate on what the RPG is?

(Also, Skyrim has more levels, skills, and perks than The Witcher 2. It’s a bit funny that I’ve heard people say Skyrim is dumbed down because of a reduction in skills, but The Witcher 2 is the year’s best RPG).

Coming Soon!

Very shortly, I’ll be attempting not one, but two new posts. I’ve been super busy the past week (I had some homework that took me a few days, including one marathon seven-hour session! Also, Gears of War 3), so I haven’t been able to write a whole lot, but I am going to try to set aside a dedicated time to blog here.

Speaking of Marathon and Gears 3, I’m going to be writing about them pretty soon. For today, however, I’ll be writing two blog posts that clarify how I think about games. The first post will be about my core belief system at large, as well as a bit of my background, and the second will explain my review process.

I may go dark for a while–Rage is incoming, and I have plans to edit a significant amount of the site’s current content. “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” for instance, is a name I’d originally used simply because A) I couldn’t think of anything else, and B) because I intended to segue into a discussion about my hypothetical ideal game (that I believe is not only what ought to be future of gaming, but where games are actually heading). I think that needs to be a series (or at least a very lengthy article) in and of itself, so I’ll be retitling the series.

Another problem I have is that I’ve read back over these after the fact and have seen a bunch of stuff that could be improved or isn’t explained as well as it could be. My FPS articles in particular don’t feel quite right, in part because they’re only first drafts. I ought to be more careful with my writing, especially since I don’t have any official deadlines.

So!

Site update in the future! Two articles today, or, failing that, one today, one tomorrow!