I recently replayed BioShock‘s first couple of hours as part of a VGHVI gaming session. And I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting those scenes with the perspective that I’d gained playing through the game, and gaining new insights by listening to the other participants.
But I was also sad, especially in the initial bathysphere descent. That descent is a wonderful reveal, a magical view of the city. And it’s teeming with life; much of that life is aquatic, but there are buildings glowing with lights, it looks (a few flickering neon signs aside) very much like a vibrant, functioning city.
And then you arrive, and find that matters have taken a turn for the worse; soon enough, you’re in traditional FPS mode, where everything is trying to kill you, and you’re trying to kill everything. Which, on second viewing, raised the question: with such pervasive violence, how on earth would a city under the sea continue functioning at all? Where is the power to the lights coming from, who is fixing the leaks?
I think the game largely sidesteps those questions (though, if I’m remembering correctly, we do see some Big Daddies outside doing maintenance, adding yet another twist to your slaughtering them), and I don’t claim to have answers to how the game could have been designed to avoid that. (FPSes are a known design space to work within, after all.) But I would have liked to see the game try to answer those questions, and answer them not in the form of audio diaries but in the way the gameplay was structured.
On a similar note, somebody on Twitter (whom I won’t identify here since she keeps her tweets private) commented that she wished Ico had no combat at all. And I’m sure that Shadow of the Colossus would have been much less powerful if you’d had to fight enemies while traveling between colossi instead of just being free to soak in the landscape.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against combat in games per se (though it does sound like I should try out the new Silent Hill game)—genres that focus exclusively on that (fighting games, multiplayer FPSes) have a quite pleasant singularity of purpose. But as a game starts to move away from its combat, trying instead to get me hooked on its atmosphere and the worldbuilding, I wish I could actually spend my time having the world soak in, to play with where the world came from, where it’s going, how it works. Which means, among other things, less violence or even no violence.
So it is time, I think, for the mechanics / world-building scale to tilt the other way. And I hope that, when it tilts back, the genre will have found a wider range of mechanics in the process.
This post has not been revised since publication.