Begging hands and bleeding hearts

Talking Time appears to be suffering from host-wide MySQL issues, so please do not despair. If you get a 500 error, it doesn’t mean I don’t love you. It means Dreamhost doesn’t love you.

Anyway. I played the BioShock demo last night, and it left me wondering: Does storytelling have an Uncanny Valley, too?

There’s no question that this game is amazing on many levels; the art direction alone is pretty much mind-blowing. If this is what next-gen consoles are for, farewell to everything that’s happened between PlayStation and now. Lots of games do “dark,” but BioShock is the first game that manages to do it without sacrificing things like “detail” and “beauty.” The lighting is moody, sure, and that makes it spooky, but it also makes the colors richer. People toss around terms like “HDR lighting” without much thought to the actual benefits of the technology; who knew that it’s good for something other than shininess and blown-out faux overexposure? BioShock creates deep pools of blackness, but look within the darkness and you’ll see burnished metals and luxurious cloth, rendering an eye-popping world that perfectly creates the unique setting of an avant-garde utopia fallen into ruin.

And I appreciate the fact that the game doesn’t even try to be subtle in its lampooning of Objectivism. You’ve got a mad industrialist named Andrew Ryan (oh ho ho), a dude on the radio named Atlas, a self-sustaining capitalist society free of the shackles of religion and socialism and welfare, a legion of decadent me-first people undermined by their own excesses and their collective drive to become übermensch — all wrapped up in spot-on art deco stylings that echo the original dust jackets of the various works of Ayn Rand. How can anyone not love that, is what I’m asking.

Best of all, it’s less a first-person shooter than an adventure game that happens to make use of the standard FPS conceits. All in all, it promises to be a very welcome intellectual experience with enough visceral gameplay to appease players who totally hate intellectual experiences. The best of both worlds! Except that I still have some misgivings about the game.

I think the problem, perhaps somewhat ironically, is that the game world is so detailed, the story so thoughtfully crafted, that the contrived bits that enable the gameplay are thrown into high relief. The term Uncanny Valley only really ever seems to be applied to digital humans as an acknowledgement of the fact that the more detailed your faux-person becomes the more distracting the little ticks that betray his or her unreal nature tend to be. BioShock’s people are freaky and mutated — normal humans only appear as photos or other static images — so they get a pass. But the world itself is so convincing that its failures grate.

What really bothers me is that the game seems to suffer from the same problem I had with Half-Life 2 — that it’s basically one big scripted amusement park ride. The game is determined to herd you in a set direction from the moment you’re given control of your character, bobbing in the water and unable to do anything except drift over to a conveniently-located bathysphere that takes you into the depths. Later, you step through an opening blown in a wall to reach a new area, and the ragged hole somehow becomes impermeable, magically closing behind you against all logic. These game elements ring jarringly false and contrived in such an imaginatively-rendered world. It’s especially frustrating when every gushing preview I’ve read of this game has breathlessly proclaimed how open and free its gameplay is; the demo gives me none of that. It leaves me concerned that the final product will turn out to be nothing more than your typical Half-Life-inspired on-rails ride with “player choice” limited to what kind of weapons you use against the hordes of scripted enemies. I do not want this to be the case.

As for the spookiness… well. Games like this rarely do much to creep me out, since “crazy mutants caused by dabbling in God’s domain” is pretty hard to do without being trite, and I’m not sure from what I’ve seen that BioShock succeeds just yet. I definitely applaud little touches like the woman talking to a revolver in a baby carriage as if it were her own infant, but on the whole it still feels a bit like it’s trying too hard. The happy exception is the mutualistic relationship of the Big Daddy/Little Sister pairs, which somehow makes the tired horror trope of deranged little girls in summer frocks menacing again. Funny how a half-ton of heavily-armed superhuman protector will do that.

If this sounds needlessly churlish of me… well, you’re probably right. But I am bearing in mind that this is a demo of the earliest areas of the game, a training ground for new players, and can’t wait to see what the full game has to offer. I’ve heard that how you deal with the Little Sisters has some bearing on the game’s outcome, and since the Adam/Eve element is clearly tied into the freakish mutations that wander the game I’d really like to think that how (and how much) you use your Plasmids will affect what happens to your character in the end.

And really, if I sound cranky, it’s because I’ve fully anticipated BioShock to be a revolution in game design. To have a spookier, slower Half-Life 2 would be a letdown. I scathe because I care, and hope.

25 thoughts on “Begging hands and bleeding hearts

  1. Well, yeah, I said as much. Just voicing some concerns which I hope will be washed away by the tidal awesomeness of the finished product.

  2. Yeah, I noticed those bits in the demo too. Then again, if Bioshock “only” ends up being a near-perfect culmination of gaming’s past and present rather than the first great example of what games can be in the future, then I guess it’ll hard to complain.

    Well, complain *too* much.


  3. Good crit, and I absolutely agree that there is an Uncanny Valley of narrative, which most games are barely aware of much less grappling with intelligently.

    I’m always one of the folks asking if we really do need to constrain the player to impart something vital in a given situation. With the introductory bits in the demo, the answer ended up being “yes, sometimes we do”. I’m happy to say there are only a few such bits in the rest of the game.

    The demo ends right as you get to the first “real” level of the game, which is about as open as MedSci was in Shock2.

  4. The reason that I love the Metal Gear Solid series is because it hangs a lantern on artificial game conceits. Though I think Kojima is actually working on making MGS4 more organic.

  5. Man, I would really love to know who “JP” is. But I will happily accept your reassurances, since it seems you’re in a position to know how the rest of the game plays out. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Ah, but MGS4 has Snake pulling not just a cardboard box but a gigantic metal barrel out of thin air. That’s actually the topic of my next “I spent more than five minutes on this” post.

  7. “And really, if I sound cranky, it’s because I’ve fully anticipated BioShock to be a revolution in game design.”

    If this is true, are you really giving the game a fair chance?

  8. Since I’ve bent over backwards to make it clear that I’m giving it a fair chance, I’d say… yes.

  9. When I read “Does storytelling have an Uncanny Valley?” I felt like you had gotten into my head, but after reading the rest apparently we see things a bit differently. When I see the uncanny valley in video game narratives it is during cutscenes and text. The whole “push the player down a narrow tube” is distracting for me only because it dampens the gameplay. I think the reason is because crossing a point of no return is an undefined gameplay semantic; it affects how you play but the details are purposely hidden from you.

  10. Yeah, I’m not really sure it’s a good idea to give players astounding choice in the tutorial. It’s something that frequently annoys me in games, when they give me a choice where I don’t have enough information to make an informed decision. It’s also somewhat problematic when there’s lovely little secrets hidden about the tutorial area that you’ll only discover if you ignore the point of that game area, which is schizophrenic game design, I feel, rewarding people for ignoring the plot.

  11. Thanks to the magic of broken street dates, the answer seems to be “don’t worry”.

    (this based on the skimming of the threads at GAF)

  12. My God, about an hour after reading the title of this post, I realized that it was a nested reference: Rush channeling Ayn Rand! So geeky…but I can’t cast stones as I was geek enough to figure it out.

  13. Thank you for articulating this – I was starting to think I was going crazy. I mean, I’m not FPS averse. I’m really looking forward to Halo 3. But Bioshock – as a console game – kind of left me feeling flat. Like it is the most refined FPS game out there, but brings little new to the table. The Plasmids really do just feel like a second gun – a cool one, but I feel like a game like Shadowrun with it’s constant cost for deploying “magic” and true constant area of affect are slightly more innovative than the elemental guns; and really, when you do a survey as to what kind of superpowers people would want to have, aren’t the answers usually things like invisibility and flight, rather than shooting various projectiles out of my fingertips in a claustrophobic space? Who thought that having fireball skills like Super Mario would improve society?

    I’m skeptical about the whole morality play as well, especially when most of the AI seems to be all about running at you with blunt objects which, for some reason, you can’t pick up. I kept thinking to myself, in the absence of any bolts to tighten, how I much rather would have the flashlight that dude near the medical center came running at me with than the wrench I was holding. And in this era of Dead Rising, how come I can kick around frying pans but I can’t pick one up?

    Now, maybe morals come into play later in the story. Maybe the more you shoot up plasmids, the more morally corrupt or “feral” your avatar becomes. But didn’t Far Cry already have a similar story?

    I may be completely removed from the majority on this last point, but given that most people grow up and out of buying into the whole Ayn Rand school of Objectivism after high school, poking fun at it seems almost a little too easy.

  14. I am always so happy when someone manages to piece together the tenuous connections between my posts and their frequently arcane and obtuse titles.

    Your observation about plasmids is a good one. It would make more sense for them to take the form of things like flight, enhanced strength, mind control, etc. Ah well.

  15. I would assume that the world opens up after the first section of the game. It’s kind of been the point from the beginning and if the game is anything like the game it’s based on, System Shock 2, then it will be more open as it progresses.

    Since it was first announced like 3 years ago Irrational (2K Boston) have been talking about the “AI Ecology” and the way that Big Daddies can freely wander around environments. It has the same respawning enemies system that SS2 had as well which seems to imply that there will be “backtracking” when the whole environment is eventually available to you.

    Anyway, I share your concern, the demo is definately linear, but then I think it will open up eventually. Or atleast provide open “sections” where, for example, once you’re in the Medical Pavillion that whole area is open to you to be explored in a non-linear fashion until you proceed to the Docks which is in turn open.

    As for Xell’s comments about it being a watered down System Shock 2… I think that’s totally wrong. If anything it’s the maturation of System Shock 2 where the range of gameplay is bigger, the range of enemies is bigger, and the “simulation ” in which all of these elements interact is more cohesive.

    The only thing missing really is Shodan but even in the demo there’s already several contenders for her position.

  16. From the review –

    “And unlike so many shooters, this isn’t a game that wilfully funnels you through narrow environments. The overarching nature of the game is still admittedly linear, but it’s the kind of linearity that allows the player to poke around to your heart’s content, and flit back and forth as and when you fancy sniffing out a few more secrets from a previously neglected area (and believe me, there’ll be plenty). It’s a game that will entice you to look at its map to explore, scavenge and go off the beaten track.”

    Hopefully that will put some of your fears to rest.

  17. I think the lesson here is that I should go play System Shock 2, assuming I can find it anywhere. Maybe it could be an entry in our club??

  18. If System Shock 2 becomes available via a modern distrubution system (Steam, GameTap, XBLA) I will definitely include it as a Fun Club selection. Otherwise it’s probably a little too fussy for most people to want to bother with.

  19. I think it (System Shock 2) holds up just as well as say… Half-Life does. It’s still using the same mouse-keyboard control system that modern FPS use and it’s also using a 3d engine so it looks pretty good. I don’t think it would be a problem.

    The only crappy thing about it as far as I’m concerned is the weapon degradation system. Guns break down WAY too quickly and the result is that you’re very low on ammo for most of the game. But this can be turned off.

    Anyway, I think it would be very interesting for people to play it AFTER Bioshock simply to see how much Bioshock is leaning on it. It’s not like they’re “similar” they’re THE SAME on many many levels. Obviously the setting is different but most of the gameplay is the same, the storytelling approach is the same on two counts, the enemies are very similar. The type of environment is similar etc.

    Basically Bioshock is a System Shock game without the license. It’s like Starcraft to System Shock’s Warcraft.

  20. Well, yeah — its audience is a froth-free subset of 1UP’s. If you ever compare the blogs I cross-post between the two sites you will notice certain changes made to the 1UP versions intended to dampen the frothiest zealotry.

  21. aren’t video games, especially single-player first person shooters, essentially kinda objectivist? i mean, within the context of the game, you are the man, you are fundamentally different and special. as soon as you started talking about the disconnect between narrative and gameplay, that’s what leapt to mind.

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