August 15, 2007

Ready for the other Rapture

My recent post last month about videogame criticism turned into a conversation about why so few games rise above mere entertainment, with some particularly harsh words for first person shooters. I've never been a huge FPS fan myself. I'm probably the only 360 owner who isn't chomping at the bit for Halo 3. My favorite for the last generation was probably Half-Life 2, largely because the gunbattles required a certain amount of puzzle solving and tactical thinking. My only problem with it was that the world, while well-designed, was yet another oppressively metallic Orwellian dystopia guarded by armored stormtroopers. It's hard to believe, but games are even more mired in cliché than movies.

That's just one reason I was so taken by the BioShock demo, which I played through last night. Not only does the gameplay promise some Half-Life style finesse, the setting and storyline is something I've never seen before in a game. The game begins — as you can see in the trailer below — when your plane crashes in the Atlantic, conveniently near the long-lost entryway to an underwater art deco city that was built in the mid 50s as some kind of Randian paradise. The city — Rapture — has since been thrown into extremely tormented upheaval by.... something. The idea of being able to explore this world and solve its mysteries — while also electrocuting, frying, whacking and blasting genetically devolved maniacs — is immensely appealing.

This is just about the level of innovation I'm personally looking for. I admit to being curious about truly format-breaking games such as Braid [via], but I'm not exactly dying to actually play it.

It's too early to say whether BioShock will be emotionally engaging in the way the best movies and novels are, but then, as we discussed earlier, what games are? I loved Knights of the Old Republic, which Jessica mentioned last time (and I am dying to play Mass Effect), but I can't say it made a lasting impression on my psyche. I'm dating myself here, but I think the only games that ever have were the old Infocom text adventures. Even 25 years later, I can still access the emotions I felt — not just the excitement — at the high points of Infidel, Planetfall, The Lurking Horror and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, one of the few videogame adaptations that may be even better than its source material. And this isn't just youthful nostalgia. A few years ago my wife and I played one of the games I'd never gotten around to as a kid — Ballyhoo — and I was blown away by how much freedom the game allowed, how well written it was, and how the puzzles managed to be both diabolically clever and so utterly natural that I almost always felt like I was "doing real stuff to solve a problem" rather than merely "solving a puzzle that was designed for a game." (You can play ugly but functional versions of many Infocom games here, or keep you eye open for used copies of various boxed sets that have been reissued over the years.) Of course, this was possible because developers could write responses for virtually any action a player might decide to take without having to create graphics to go along with that. Today the best RPGs look fabulous, but you only ever have a very limited number of things you can do at any one place/with any one object. Which means that unlike with the text games, which allowed you to improvise solutions, you're almost always stuck finding the one correct way to stick slot A into tab A.

Wow, I really am beginning to sound like a grumpy old man.

Other games I'm looking forward to: Fallout 3 (a similar aesthetic to BioShock, now that I think about it), Rock Band, GTA IV, and maybe Assassins Creed and Beautiful Katamari. Games I would be thrilled if they turn out well, though I'm highly skeptical: Stranglehold and The Bourne Conspiracy.

What's on your horizon?

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Of course, you couldn't really improvise in those text-based games -- which is to say, you couldn't enact a solution that no one had thought of before. If the creators hadn't thought of it, too, and programmed an appropriate response, you simply got an error. Infocom, I grant you, did an amazing job of covering making it look like you were improvising, but you were still playing in a confined environment.

The only computer game I can think of that truly embraces the spirit of creative problem solving is Nethack.

isn't the phrase "champing at the bit"?


Regarding the old Infocom games, my personal favourite was one called "Deadline", a murder mystery in which the player character is the sleuth. If you have ever read and enjoyed an Agatha Christie "Hercule Poirot" story, you will enjoy this game. I remember my whole family gathered around the Commodore 64 for something like 3 straight days playing this game one Christmas. Good times.

Sure, I played Deadline. I played almost all of them. I actually never much liked the mystery games because they required too much soliciting information from other characters -- something Infocom never managed to make feel as realistic as the rest of the games. There were always artificial constraints on when you could talk to certain people and what you could talk to them about.

you know, i never finished one of those infocom games, but that may have just been because I never had one at home. they always seemed like a lot of fruitless work though.

I'm not looking forward to any games because I have purposely cut out all my mag subscriptions and game site bookmarks so I don't waste my time being suckered into playing (or reading about) video games!

but I do know final fantasy tactics advance A2 is coming. I will be playing that...


and...uh... after watching that trailer I can say I will not be playing bioshock...

I did some programming with Irrational back on System Shock 2, so I'm glad to see them getting some press.

Regarding "champ" versus "chomp"... I prefer the former, as it is a phrase derived from the "champing" that horses do. In other words...

The etymology here is equine.

i'm with mypalmike re: champ.

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