Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Factions in Bioshock Infinite

Another post about Bioshock Infinite. This time I think I glimpsed something that became cut content, or maybe unreleased content: it's hard to tell when I'm just guessing from promotional material and the final game. Either way, we'll file this under DLC speculation for now. Bioshock players beware: plot speculation may include spoilers ahead. You've been cautioned. Is the bold too much? It feels like it's too much.

Early in Bioshock Infinite's dev cycle, enemies were more patriotic, wearing red-white-and-blue ensembles. Saltonstall, a politician from one of the early trailers, wore striped pants in this fashion. A Handyman in a demo wears a similar outfit. However, in later versions enemies are almost totally stripped of this political chic. The outfits are streamlined, divided into either blue outfits or red. Blue is the color of the Founders; most soldiers wear blue, their outfits assembled to look like uniforms or military gear. Their gun icons are blue. The Vox always wore red, but it's further codified as numerous enemies were given red character models, and the Vox weapons are adorned with red ribbons, in addition to their red gun icons.

 At one point in the game, you emerge to find the Vox are your allies. Friendly without being Possessed, they join you in the fight against the Founders. If you attack one (as I did, not realizing that the guys executing unarmed men were supposed to be on my side) the game warns you to stop shooting allies. This mechanic is explored for the next five minutes, then never discussed again. It was heavily touted in press releases that in certain instances enemies wouldn't attack unless provoked, which seems like a mechanic that would play into factional combat.

Knowing all that going into BSI, I assumed that the faction-specific guns were relevant to that. Most of the guns are nearly carbon copies across the aisle. The mechanics are slightly modified between factions, but in practice most weapons are nearly identical. Additionally, upgrades are faction-specific; upgrading the Vox Heater doesn't improve the Founder China Broom or vice versa, so if you want a fully upgraded shotgun you're loosely encouraged to pick sides.  There's the rub! The game's enemies were redesigned, seemingly to help players differentiate between the Founders and the Vox. The combat system was designed to facilitate the player swapping between weapons, but then you're heavily encouraged to invest in faction specific weaponry. The game even offers warnings when you hit allies in the one section where that is legitimately a serious concern. Factional combat was baked into BSI, and then almost totally ignored.

So I was thinking about how it could have been expressed. It's pretty simple: as you enter an area, enemies might take exception to the gun you were carrying and attack you, declaring you an enemy sympathizer. Alternatively, killing enemies could make the other side sympathetic to you. Depending on your relationship with a faction, they might offer you side-quests.  Potential hostiles would ally with you and you could turn battles in their favor. Allies, for ease of recognition, would share faction-specific HUD colors in addition to their appearance. How strongly do you sympathize with a particular faction? Will you fight to further their goals, or will you use them to further your own?

Why do I care about this? Well, Bioshock Infinite doesn't have a mechanic that carries it in an interesting direction the way that Bioshock's Little Sisters do. I also feel that a factional system makes for the possibility of a more interesting "moral system": rather than saying "Press X to be Good or press Y to be Evil", the game would let you join a party, then decide whether or not you want to toe the party line. Which faction you join and how much effort you put into serving them influences the outcome of the story.

Monday, April 29, 2013


I've been doodling some devices. There's a samovar, a tea kettle, a teacup, mortar and pestle, a pumpkin flower, and some kind of air pump. I haven't doodled in a while so I wanted to do some fun stuff. Yep! Fun stuff for me includes drawing samovars.

This stuff is all used to develop medicine! Not in real life, oh, heavens no. But in my mind, anything can be used to make medicine.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Intimidation as a Gameplay Mechanic

Bioshock Infinite has gotten me thinking about how enemies in videogames respond to the player. In most video games--especially videogames outside of a zombie horror settings--it's often unbelievable how waves of enemies will run at me with no regard for their own safety, determined to tear my face off. It doesn't matter how many of them I kill, nor how brutally I kill them, they never even seem to flinch.It gets especially hilarious when you could rebuild the Sedlec Ossuary with all the bones you've shattered in a single fight, but the one remaining enemy continues to berate you with tired braggadocio.

Bioshock and Bioshock 2 handwave this with splicers. They're addicts, lunatics, and mutants all at the same time: their naked hostility may not be completely sensible but it's totally understandable. Splicers are generally depicted as being profoundly delusional. They get confused about who the protagonist is, about where they are, about what's going on. They're capable of lucidity, and a few even have conversations that you can listen in on if you're sneaky enough, but mostly they're raving lunatics. That's gone in BSI, though. The Founders and the Vox Populi are regular human beings. Sure, they're caught up in the fervor of a civil war, but that's the only thing that could explain anything going on inside their heads. These are regular people who, if they were real, would be terrified of dying. But they don't care if you're carrying a rocket launcher, they'll still try to hit you in the face with a lead pipe if they could just get close enough.

Hey, Terry, you got something in your eye.
In a Bioshock 2 promo video, they implied that splicers would fear you, that they'd drop off, look to get a different angle, or just flee. They even showed a splicer fleeing in terror when the player revved his drill; he didn't even hit them with it, just revved it up, and they fled. This idea enchanted me: enemies that leave the fight not because you murdered them, but because you scared the hell out of them. It began to take shape even more firmly as I realized that executions in BSI don't serve much purpose. They only work on enemies that are badly injured anyway. They provide some extra damage but not enough to be worth it unless you're a melee specialist.

This got me thinking: I don't care how gung-ho you are to kill somebody, when you see that guy incinerate your sergeant with fire he shoots from his fingertips, you lose a little bit of confidence. When that same guy then picks up the lieutenant, chainsaws off his face, and hurls his corpse across the room, you should probably start working on your "innocent, fireproof civilian" look. When you look around and realize that this dude has visited some variation on the theme of grisly murder on everybody in your platoon, and now he is coming for you with a grenade launcher and a purposeful look, I think maybe you just totally rethink your "murder this guy" strategy. If that doesn't work, maybe you just jump off the nearest balloon. After all, what's the worst the ground can do to you?
It sure ain't gonna set you on fire and then steal pineapples from your wallet
So, my idea is that enemies enact smarter behavior. We already have that to a certain degree; enemies will tell each other to flush you out of cover, they'll loudly announce that they're reloading, they'll complain that they're on fire, and they'll loudly telegraph haymakers while threatening to kill you. I just want to take it a step further: when you do something horrifying, I want the enemies to recognize that as some hard core stuff, and be suitably impressed.. To think "If he did that to Frank, imagine what he could do to me!"

During the course of combat, enemies would swing from brave to scared depending on how the player behaved. A brutal melee execution might cause the other units to give up and flee. Setting off traps or seeing particularly powerful special abilities would make enemies scared. On the flip side, badly hurting the player would make enemies brave again, as would killing the player, seeing the player retreat, or receiving reinforcements.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Jelly Tyrant

Jelly Tyrants are mind-controlling slime-creatures. They wrap around their victim's head and control their actions, forcing them to walk, fight, or even cast spells.  Typically they hire or abduct a victim of sufficient value, then seek to trade up as stronger hosts become available. Sure, they may trap a sentient creature in a hellish nightmarescape while they drive its body around, but those sentient creatures were probably dicks!

They're surprisingly adventurous critters, even when hostless, but when they're riding around on a human's head, they are fearless. Dangerous in a fight, they rarely stay in one place, leaping from head to head in the fray, staying one enemy's sword, misdirecting an arrow on the next, interrupting spells and generally busting heads.

They're very fond of humans and never have understood the distrust they suffer, although they're also notoriously... unsentimental about their hosts, with little regard for their safety or well-being. You might say they're fond of humans in the same sense humans are fond of particularly ornate wrenches.

A Weird Hero, the Jelly Tyrant can be played in two ways: one, as a mind-controller that coerces a player character to obey his commands, or two, as a cooperative master who directs a mini-party of himself and a willing thrall. For the coerced victim, he may periodically trade out hosts, superimposing skills and bonuses he has onto the template of various NPCs he controls.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bioshock Infinite and the Problem with Gear


Last week I started my vacation, which translated into a week of sunshine, swimming, and of course my newest murder simulator, Bioshock Infinite. Now, there is a lot to discuss about Bioshock Infinite, and I'm sure that with nearly a week of life under its belt, the game has been discussed, reviewed, picked apart, analyzed. I have heard a lot about spectacular reviews and heard a lot of complaints from comments sections. In an amusing upset, people almost seem to take umbrage with the game's high scores, citing often trivial-seeming complaints as evidence that the game isn't worthy of the perfect scores it's garnered across the board. In light of that, I've decided to voice the most trivial complaint possible, because Hell's Choir needed a baritone, anyway. Be forewarned: this is a nit-pick of the highest order. In fact, check my vitals. Just by writing this I expect that there is a chance I'll be reclassified as a lowland gorilla and shipped to a nature preserve in Namibia.

Bioshock Infinite shares many of its gameplay mechanics with its predecessors, albeit they are moderately retooled and renamed. Weapons are still upgradable, but you're limited to two. Heavy Hitters fill the role of Big Daddies, injectable Plasmids are replaced by consumable Vigors, and Gene Tonics are replaced by Gear. Here is where I depart.

http://images4.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20091220231850/bioshock/images/thumb/a/a1/Physical_Tonic.png/132px-Physical_Tonic.pngGene Tonics were the passive portion of Bioshock's character customization, and fell into three categories, with a cap of six tonics equipped per category. Combat tonics affect the ability to fight: they can shield the player from harm or make their weapons more deadly. Engineering tonics change the hacking minigame and reduce prices at vending machines. Physical tonics affect the character's fitness: allowing him to heal more easily, move faster, or hide from enemies. Found around Rapture or developed by researching splicers, Gene Tonics occupy the fiction in much the same way that plasmids do; both can be bought at Gatherer's Gardens, they look similar, and both are clearly meant to be products that are marketed to Rapture's citizens. Splicers appear to prefer them to plasmids, in fact, since many splicers have marked physical deformities that may result from abuse of tonics like Sports Boost, Armored Shell, or even Static Shock, but no splicers ever visibly use a plasmid that is available to the player.

Gear fulfills the same gameplay role as Tonics, allowing the player to customize their experience. However, unlike the simple taxonomic system that distinguished between the three types of tonics and their unique roles in gameplay, Gear is divided into four slots: Hat, Shirt, Pants, and Boots. Only one piece of gear may be worn per slot, with the abilities divided willy-nilly between slots. Some are clearly designed so that they're mutually exclusive (for example, Pyromaniac and Shock Jacket cannot be equipped at the same time, which each deal elemental damage to enemies when the player is injured), but these rules are not hard and fast and the reason for exclusivity between certain items is unclear.

The major problem, however, is that the gear is completely divorced from the story. There is no explanation about why a particular piece of gear causes its effect, and although they're implied to be articles of equipment, there are no models for any of the gear. Oftentimes the relationship between the item and its slot are completely nonsensical: you get a pair of boots called "Tunnel Vision"... which reward the player for shooting down the sights.  Gearboxes are also randomized, so opportunities to imply a story by leaving a particular piece of gear in a specific location are gone. In fact, the only time the game ever appears to acknowledge gear as anything other than a cursory expression of game mechanics is a vandalized tailor shop with a box of gear in front of it, and even that's a pretty threadbare thing.

Why does this frustrate me so much, you might ask, if you haven't already guessed that I'm a crazy person and gone on to more fulfilling ways to spend your day? Obviously, because it's a passel of wasted opportunity. Gear is the final version of what were billed through the game's development as "nostrums". The term describes patent medicine and snake oils, and in that form would have been a perfect companion to the Vigors. It would have grounded them in a mutual universe.

So I have to ask: why gear? Why was a perfectly functional piece of fiction abandoned for an inferior mechanic? My guess is that they thought it wouldn't matter, and of course, it really, really doesn't, does it?