Tag Archives: gaming

Bioshock and the Ludonarrative Dissonance

Bioshock Big Daddy
Image by Akiraman via Flickr

Bioshock has been a considerable disappointment from a story telling perspective.  As a FPS with an innovative mix of weapons, enemies and problem solving strategies, Bioshock delivers a satisfactory experience up there with Half Life 2, but well below the personal benchmark of Half Life 1.  Storylines are woven into the game with the character picking up fragments of the world around them from the audio tapes left scattered throughout the levels.  Of course, this also leads to really stupid moments of finding some innermost secret ravings of a lead NPC in the middle of what would have been a crowded shopping mall food court.  Plus, most of the tapes can be ignored for the straight first person killing spree that Bioshock provides with decadent glee.

The problem for Bioshock is the Ludonarrative Dissonance. (Hattip to @lordriffington for the link). Iroquois Pliskin onVersus CluClu Land outlines the idea as a more sophisticated version of “story-game conflict”. Failed forced congnitive dissonance would be my take on the matter.  Basically, the story line tries to tell you that an event, incident or other McGuffin Device Is Important(TM) yet the gameplay does not remotely support the story’s assertion.  In Bioshock, the big reveal in the cutscene sequence is that you’ve been mind controlled into following instructions from your mysterious benefactor voice-over.  Oh no! I’ve been forced to adhere to a structured narrative from an unseen… wait a second, that’s the premise of FPS storyline gaming.  Follow prompts, cues and storyline or fail to progress to the next level.  Okay. Message bounced right off the surface.

Then we get the whole sequence of Andrew Ryan’s “Are you a man or a slave?” rant at your character.  Slave. This is the FPS genre with no sandbox capacity to take alternate paths. If the game says “Go to the butchers and buy meat” you’re going to get meat from a butcher even if there are cows, abbatoires and a supermarket chain between you and the destination.  IF this was some commentary on the storyline mode, then it missed the mark.

Finally, there’s the ‘shock’ part where you’re instructed by Ryan to kill him (Would you be so kind as to rub in the slave motif really really hard this time? I missed the reference in the first 20 attempts).  Except… well, by the time you’ve reached Andrew Ryan’s fortress of cutscene solitdue, you’re a polished, professional and frankly stylish mass murdering machine. Everything that has moved in the game is your target, and 95% of the moving NPCs are kill/be killed coded to hunt you down.  Excepting a few stray Big Daddies that have be liberated from their slavish defence of the Little Sisters, everything else that sees you tries to kill you, or you kill to harvest for parts, ammo or objectives.

What’s one NPC in a cut scene versus the relentless slaughter to get here?

This is where Bioshock fails to deliver an emotional connection.  You kill everything you see, so naturally, when you see Andrew “McGuffin” Ryan, you kill him.  Shrug, accept the XP, solve the quest, and move to the next part of the game.  It’s not like you have a choice.

Which, if that was the message of the game, was a poorly chosen message.

In fairness to the Bioshock game, there were two moments of genuine connection with the NPCs.  First was when one of the NPC Big Daddies was badly wounded as collateral damage in a battle with another bunch of NPCs. This thing was moaning in pain, covered in burn marks, and whilst I knew at the cognitive gamer level I could walk away, I didn’t want to leave the wounded beast suffering, and elected (at great ammo/health cost) to put it down rather than leave it whimpering in pain in the corner. It’s the first time I’ve apologised to an NPC character for what I’ve done in game.  Same sense of frustration and “I don’t want to do this” came about when I realised that I had a grand total of no other option but killing a living Big Daddy Elite for a single part I needed to complete a quest.  Most frustrating was the knowledge that there had been five corpses and one living Big Daddyin the level, and the game was forcing me into a showdown that should not have been necessary.  But, it was, and it was scripted as such, and whilst I resented having to kill this particular Big Daddy for a component part, I’d been so well conditioned to wiping them out as part of the story, it was a fairly painless and quick approach (for the NPC).

For the record, I elected to rescue rather than harvest the Little Sisters. No real reason, except that I figured the alliance with the Little Ones wouldn’t go astray and HEY STORYLINE it turned out to be useful.

I think that Bioshock needed to bring a level of free choice to the game with the NPCs. There had to be a choice to make, and a consequence for the choices – if you had the option to work with an NPC to build a bomb as problem solving exercise where you could elect to trust the NPC (and be betrayed now and then) or betray the NPC for good reward, then the choice you didn’t face with Andrew Ryan would take on some meaning.  Otherwise, since the zero minute of the game, you were killing your way through NPC after NPC as you did everything on your own to follow the prescripted path set down by some higher power of coders and scripters.  What free will lesson could exist in that environment?

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L4D: Expert Mode, Blood Harvest

Since only the PC character can finish a level in LEft 4 Dead, there are certain considerations to be made in the name of winning the level or starting from scratch When my team was brought down and I was a short solo, treachery induced run from the safe house… it became an Left3Dead as I cut and ran…

From L4D Screenshots

As sole survivor, I progressed the story to the new level, and everyone respawned. No harm, no foul right?

From L4D Screenshots

Oh. Okay, that’s not a good look to be seeing at the start of the level. There are worse looks… [cue flashback sequence]

From L4D Screenshots

But not by much… [end flashback.]

Understandably, as the first person left as a zombie snack pack, Louis stayed angry for most the rest of the level.

From L4D Screenshots

Francis wasn’t too happy either at being left out to dry (or as dry as you get under a smoker tongue).

From L4D Screenshots

Francis: I hate flames.

Bill didn’t notice… or at least, was just content to light smokes off the other two. That said, they were quite slow to react to rescuing me from hunters, smokers and tanks for the rest of the game…

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Left 4 Dead: Views, Reviews and Opinion

Dear Valve. You appear to have spilled AWESOME on my gaming. Thank you.

L4D is one of those landmark video games that will change the way gaming on the PC operates in the long term.  From the ground up, this game is different to the usual PC FPS genre.  At the top of the list is the realisation that L4D was probably ready to ship about 2 years ago if Valve was running a classic publishing company.

Tank comes knocking

What changes with L4D?

1. Development and Refinement Timelines: The extra levels of development in the game, plus the extended refinement period and a “When it’s ready, we’ll talk about release dates” can lead to a Duke Nukem infinite push back loop.  Thankfully, this wasn’t the case at Valve.  I’ve seen gameplay footage from mid 2008, and the final release looks a world better than the mid year game play footage.

2. Voice acting: Valve’s been pretty good with the voice work for a while now – particularly with the Team Fortress 2 characters having character…. except that a Red Scout and a Blue scout sound the freaking same…BONK!. L4D has 8000 lines of dialogue, including a classic moment of Zoey calling bullshit (zombie bullshit) on fast moving zombies.  Plus, the voice acting when the player is hurt, or a fellow survivor is downed by the horde lifts the performance of the game.

3. Collaborative Team Play: Left 4 Dead makes a major step forward for the networked games of the future by designing a game that you will lose if you try to run through it on solo – I tried the demo on easy on my own, and I was wiped out by the limited set of special enemies (Smoker and Hunter) who have a specialist role in pinning or constricting you until rescued.  Plus, seriously, you need all the eyes and brains you can get when there’s a zerg zombie rush happening.  Team Fortress 2 is a non-story driven sports gaming event. It’s awesome, but it’s soccer to Left 4 Dead’s theatre production. Different values drive both games and gameplay design.  L4D has opened the door to a whole new world of squad based gaming with mixed AI and human players.

4. Useful AI: The fact that the game was built around a four person squad where the computer controls three of the four during the solo game could have been a nightmare.  There are so many squad games with mindnumbingly dumb AI that exist to either soak bullets without taking damage (Ahem, Halflife2) or who get stuck in doors, walls, or small bumps in the texture map (Unreal Tournament).  These squad mates do lay down cover fire, give you health, heal each other, and help each other.  In fact, I’d love to see a four AI team play a map… but there’s two weaknesses in the AI code. First, you still have to go first as the player for the squad to move. Which makes for a couple of problems with the solo map not being quite so tactical (ie, in the large open field where the smart move is a sniper covering two runners, you can’t order for a sniper or send the runners).  Second, for some reason, the AI ignore the projectiles so they’ll never pick up the molotovs or pipe boms.

5. The Director: The secret sauce in Left 4 Dead is the AI underpinning the enemy. Known as the Director, it controls the film effects as well as the waves of enemy attacks, placement of health, ammo and explosives.

6. Hostile Character Design: Valve built a tank which is mostly destruction but can be killed, a Boomer which is revolting and extremely easy to kill but with consequences if you’re too close, the Hunter which does surprise attacks that pin you down, the Smoker which is a sniper mode zombie, and… The Witch.  The Witch is awesome in concept – a wailing, broken helpless sounding creature that’s going to kill whoever disturbs it.  (Note: It’s usually me).  When you play these characters (except the witch) in versus mode, you get a real sense for how hard it is to do them well (except for the Tank for me. I’m a natural match for its style). Yet the AI Director spots these harder challenges into the game to keep the group together (good for hunter stopping, vulnerable to Boomers), split us up (Smokers, Hunters) or up the pace a megawatt or two (Boomer) or provide the combo pack (A Smoker drags you from the pack and a hunter jumps on you for a double painful end).

I’ve played most of the canonical FPS games, and Left 4 Dead lights up a whole new style of play – cinematic cooperative group based gaming with a thematic consistency and quasirandomized gameplay.  It’s amazing.  It’s going to be a landmark point as the developer community, fueled by the ease of which conversions and new maps can be included, start making amazing things with the L4D engine.

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