Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bioshock vs. System Shock

In closing my last post on cognitive games, I proposed comparing the 1994 PC classic System Shock with its spiritual sequel Bioshock, released this year. Both are great games, but are representative of two different philosophies -- and perhaps even eras -- of game design.

To begin with, Kieron Gillen did an excellent job describing just what is so great about Bioshock in a recent article for Eurogamer. I'd encourage everyone to read his article. In fact, I was inspired somewhat by his comparison of Bioshock with System Shock 2. Since I have not played the second System Shock, I will ignore most of the specific points Gillen made in his comparison and draw my own. The main point to be taken from Gillen's article is the excellence of Bioshock's narrative and setting, especially the way in which the game's setting drives the narrative. This is important because placing the narrative within the environment is a useful technique for providing narrative without detracting from the game's interactive nature. As Gillen points out, the more observant and curious the player, the stronger the narrative becomes. In this sense Bioshock's narrative, at least, fits my description of a cognitive game, and Bioshock probably does this better than any game to date.

Where Bioshock falls down compared to System Shock is the way the narrative is tied to the actual gameplay. Both games are littered with recorded messages from their settings' past inhabitants, but while these messages do an excellent job of driving Bioshock's narrative, they have very little impact on the game itself. In System Shock the player needs to listen carefully to these messages in order to figure out what to do. They are clues not only of what happened on the space station and of the people who once inhabited it, but also of what the player must do in order to win the game. Exploration fuels the narrative which then fuels the gameplay itself. Whereas in Bioshock the player only needs to keep pushing forward. With the exception of a few simple fetch quests -- the necessity of which are broadcasted to the player loud and clear -- Bioshock doesn't require exploration and there are no significant puzzles standing between the player and the final credits. As an illustration, I actually played Bioshock with the 'objective arrow' on for most of the game, despite my love of self-guided exploration. Before you cry foul at my apparent hypocrisy, the reason I did this is because I quickly realized that there was no real point to floundering about lost in Rapture when there was always one place you were supposed to be going. The arrow will guide you through almost every part of every level in the proper linear order, and with no nonsequential puzzles in the way or clues to discover, there is no real point in not using it. Either way, you can still take your time and explore the scenery to find hidden item stashes and narrative bits.

The lack of puzzle elements and required exploration alone is not enough to disqualify Bioshock as a cognitively demanding game, however. Bioshock was always billed as a shooter first and foremost and its action elements are more important to it than action elements are to System Shock. Unfortunately, although Bioshock has a great deal of depth in this area, it once again fails to meet my cognitive criteria. A big reason is Bioshock's implementation of vita chambers. Without real consequences in the game, there is less incentive to explore the actual depth that does exist in Bioshock's combat. Furthermore, most of the tactical options that do exist are either too heavy handed to be satisfying(oh look, another huge oil slick to lure enemies onto and set on fire) or impossible to derive deductively(does it make any sense that taking pictures of security cameras would eventually allow you to walk right past them undetected?). To be sure, there are a lot of weapons and skills in Bioshock, but are there many reasons to use one over the other besides running out of ammo?

System Shock had a better implementation of vita chambers because each chamber was inactive until you found it and flipped a switch nearby. This created a mini objective for each level and required you to explore carefully for a good portion of each level. So even though System Shock was not as combat intensive as Bioshock, its combat was still a more challenging experience.

Bioshock is not alone among recent games when it comes to its flaws. In fact, it is quite representative of recent trends in game design, only most recent games don't have such an exquisitely crafted setting to make the whole experience still worthwhile. Games today are targeted at a more casual audience and so developers are focused on creating games with shorter learning curves and less challenging gameplay. These types of games are still entertaining, in much the same way as other forms of pop entertainment, but after 6 to 8 hours the experience becomes stale. From reading forum posts online, I gather a lot of people felt this way about Bioshock. The game just got boring and repetitive to play by sometime around the halfway point. But at the same time, many gamers don't feel that a game is worth the initial $50-60 without 15+ hours of content to play through.

So should fans of cognitive games be without hope? Not entirely. The audience of casual gamers is expanding, but that doesn't mean the cognitive niche is shrinking. The days when cognitive games top the sales charts may be over, but in absolute terms I think they will continue to sell as well as they always have. The differences will be in who is making them and in how much money it costs to make them compared to the sales leaders.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Cognitive Games

As I've begun to think more about the types of games I most enjoy, I've realized that the games I like best are those that require an investment from the player. It seems that the games which demand the most often have the most to give back. Of course not all demanding games are richly rewarding, but for the most part games that are demanding seem to perform the unique role of games as learning tools better than those which aren't. The enjoyment an individual derives from games compared to other entertainment media depends in part on how much they enjoy the learning aspect of games, and the purer the game, the more it relies on learning.

I call games which stress learning cognitive games. There are two broad categories of cognitive games, complex games which demand the player to learn complicated systems and interfaces, and games with relatively simple mechanics but which require total mastery of those mechanics. In the case of the simple games, the learning process is often more akin to learning to play a sport than it is to the process of learning a complex game. I enjoyed both types of games starting at an early age.

My first exposure to complex games was through pen and paper role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. P&P RPGs are usually quite complex because their rulesets need to be able to handle an extremely open-ended game and thus adjudicate an endless number of possibilities. Of course, the game master is there to make judgments on how to apply the rules, but the fact that D&D has been so successfully translated to computer simulations which lack human game masters is a testament to the game's complexity. In fact, the computer RPGs which are directly based on P&P systems are probably more complex on average than those which aren't.

In addition to ridiculously complex RPGs, during the 80s and 90s computers also held host to numerous other cognitively demanding games, including turn-based strategy and war games, flight simulators, real-time strategy(RTS) games, and various simulations. Most of these games had thick paper manuals and complex controls which took advantage of every input device the PC had to offer. These are games which required study, and people like me were happy to spend hours poring over the manuals and devising strategy when not actively playing.

Console games, on the other hand, tended toward the simple variety, but there were still cognitively challenging games. Tetris and other similar block puzzle games have very simple systems that are easy to understand but demand faster and faster mental processing and reaction from the player as the difficulty increases. Many side scrolling platformers and action games likewise have fairly simple mechanics(alther much more complex than Tetris) but require dedication from the player to acquire the necessary hand-eye coordination to complete the game. And to provide one more example, fighting games like Street Fighter require the development of timing, coordination, and dynamic strategic thinking. And with each game employing different systems, skill in one doesn't translate 1:1 into other games no matter how superficially similar they may seem.

The one characteristic all cognitive games have in common is that they punish you for making a mistake. Negative feedback is necessary to enforce learning. The trend these days is toward positive feedback in the form of rewards or unlockables, and although those can be useful and fun, I still think cognitive games need negative feedback. If the game is so lenient that the player can progress the narrative even while playing badly, he probably isn't even aware that he is playing badly. Imagine learning to play chess against a computer AI simulating a typical 10 year old. Despite the depth and potential complexity of the game, you would be unlikely to appreciate the finer points without a more challenging opponent. Perhaps one reason competitive multiplayer modes are so popular is because in the modern narrative-focused game that is the one mode where failure, and thus learning, is unavoidable.

I've recently been playing three games which I consider to be good examples of cognitive games, Armored Core 4, Virtua Fighter 5, and System Shock. The telling point to be made here is that System Shock is over ten years old and the other two games are continuations of series which began long ago(Armored Core 4 is actually the 12th game in that series). Are games today less cognitively demanding than the games of old? Are new franchises of cognitive games likely to find mainstream success in today's commercial environment? The recently released Bioshock, a spiritual sequel to the System Shock series, is an excellent subject for analysis, but one which I shall have to tackle in a later post!

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