Sunday, March 29, 2015

Game Mechanics: 3 Redesign Ideas for the Bioshock Franchise

I spend a lot of time thinking about video games. Thinking about how video games could be different than they are. Not better, just... just different. Not because I think I'm smarter than game designers--no, I realize that I am just a man with a blog. No budgets. No deadlines. No publishers, distributors or fans breathing down my neck for a release date. No design team to tell me my ideas are impossible. No QA team to tell me my dreams crashed the server, froze the engine and killed Ted from accounting. No feasibility, no marketing, just a guy sitting at his unmade bed desk.

So today I sat down, dialed my brain back through the last eight years, and revisited some ideas I had for the Bioshock games. Some of these ideas are original. Some of them are loosely based on concept art or cut content. I'm just thinking.

1) Bioshock 1 & 2: Surviving Humans 
In the Rapture-based Bioshock games, the narrative occasionally suffers when there are supposed to be regular, non-spliced human beings creeping around in Rapture, but you only meet them when they're specifically named in the plot. Rapturites you encounter respond to your presence more or less the same way: violent incoherence and incoherent violence. Seeing some regular people just eking out a living amid the violence would have been radical. It would go a long way to explain how plot-important regular humans lived in the world of these delusional homicidal-types.

Now, this is something that was considered for BS2. There's some cut content that suggests that they had considered it, and when I read about that I thought about how unclear the narrative got occasionally, where non-spliced people were involved. Tanenbaum originally looked like a miscolored Ladysmith splicer, Frank Fontaine looked like Waders. What do you mean, they're regular people? How do I tell? Give me some context!

2) Bioshock 2: Repair missions
This one strikes me as obvious. Delta handles very much like Jack, the silent protagonist of Bioshock, and if you're angry at me for explaining who Jack is, someone asked me that on the Bioshock freaking Subreddit so I guess I need to bloody well explain. Meanwhile, I'm a Big Daddy! Rapture's monstrous, brainwashed custodians. My primary weapon is a rivet gun, which one might reasonably expect I use to rivet things together, but no. The game forgot, apparently! Instead, it's like, "oh no, some ice is preventing this subaquatic train from progressing to the next area. Better find a fire plasmid with which to melt the ice off with. Remember the time you did that in the last game? There was ice and we made you find a fire plasmid? This is, like, exactly like that. Embarrassingly similar, actually. Fortunately it's the only time we reuse a mission. Except for the time when we force you to drop what you're doing and research some splicers for us. And the one where you protect Little Sisters during collection sequences! We made that one a core game mechanic."

 I don't mean to suggest that the game is uncreative. It does expect us to do new things in the story, but the absence of repair missions left the story almost incomplete. I have a rivet gun, and am compelled to make repairs. The first game was a pointed commentary on the fact that gamers have relatively little control over the stories they make happen; forcing a brainwashed character to stop what he's doing and make repairs is a great way to reinforce that message. So please! Make me fix things! Send me out to tighten the rivets on a tunnel, quell the flooding, and let an NPC--one of those humans I mentioned earlier--get somewhere they need to go!

After posting this on the Bioshock Subreddit, I got a lot of pushback about repair missions, because people couldn't understand where they fit in the game or the lore. Now, repair missions are not just their own thing. They're a fairly bare framework for something that would make sense to have a Big Daddy do. Whether you make them optional side missions or core story missions would have been at the discretion of the developers. They could be optional missions and thus rewarded with bonus plasmids, tonics, audio diaries or... whatever, you know? Or they could be core missions, like "find a fire plasmid to melt the ice" or "kill this person, because a disembodied voice told you and since you're playing a video game you know it won't let you progress until you do what the voices tell you."  In the latter case, it may be that you encounter a flooded section of map, i.e. the flooding in Dionysus Park, which require you to rivet windows until they no longer leak, rivet pipes so a pump can begin pumping again and so forth.

As far as the lore is concerned: gamelore follows mechanics and vice versa. You offer a piece of lore (flame plasmid) which creates a mechanic (flame plasmid melts ice) which in turn creates lore (audio diary explaining that leaky pipes create ice, which then needs melting). Alpha Series Big Daddies were designed to be pure protectors in the game's existing lore, but that has no real bearing on the plot; it can be safely changed if new mechanical needs are introduced by different mechanics.

3) Bioshock Infinite: Improving Vigors
Clash in the Clouds was a CHORE for me, because BSI's combat is so squiggly. Vigors aren't terribly valuable or fun; many of them feature arbitrary, cruel limitations (charge can only be used while targeting an enemy? Why?) and without EVE hypos they're too expensive. I get why you don't necessarily want us to carry medkits, but EVE hypos are just specialized ammo..

The skylines were fun but too often the unreliable hitboxes (compounded by my own terrible aim) meant that an A-button press that should have turned me into a blood-streaked comet actually featured me hopping up and down ineffectually, waving my arms like a toddler eager to be carried. Often I found myself trying to jump to a barge or ledge, only to give a gentle bunnyhop, because the SUPER jump is only available when you're looking at the correct pixel on the rail. What I'm trying to say is that I hated the contextual controls.

A handful of vigors should have had advanced movement options in place of traps, the kind you see in competitive shooters like TF2. What if the Return to Sender projectile, fully charged, was also a grabbing point for the Sky Hook? Let me use Bucking Bronco to rocket-jump. Murder of Crows? While I'm using that, let me glide for a moment while I look for somebody to goomba-stomp. Single-use teleporter projectiles would have been neat, like the kind we saw in Plants Versus Zombies: Garden Warfare.  And let me use Charge any time I want!