Irrational Games: From Simulators To Games

Hey, I bought something on a Steam sale and was able to finish it immediately. In this case it was both episodes of BioShock Infinite: Burial At Sea. Looking at the BioShock games alongside their main predecessor has got me thinking again about this whole “game versus simulator,” difference.

Picking up System Shock 2 again, then the first BioShock, then Infinite and its DLC, I’m still trying to figure out exactly why the earliest game feels so different from the BioShock games despite their almost complete congruence in gameplay. I don’t think it’s the action-oriented focus of BioShock, but rather its fantastical level design.

The BioShock games are definitely faster-paced and more shooter-oriented than System Shock. It’s like comparing Resident Evil 4 to the original Resident Evil. In System Shock I usually slowly creep through every corridor, checking every corner for enemies and diligently checking every container for resources. In BioShock I pretty much just run through the environments blasting people while mashing keys to rummage through boxes. System Shock’s inventory definitely slows the game down by making you consider what resources you keep.

The thing is, I’ve played action-oriented shooters that still err on the “simulator” side of the pendulum. The first Crysis and GoldenEye are good examples I constantly reference. 3D Realms’ Build engine games — Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior are great candidates too. All of them are fast-paced games where you spend most of your time shooting the crap out of things, but the difference is you’re shooting the crap out of things in environments that feel logically and believably planned out. They feel as if the designers built regular places first, then built video game goals around them.

Then you’ve got 1999 Mode and 1998 Mode in Infinite and its DLC. Those hardcore difficulty modes significantly slow down the pace of Burial to something very similar to System Shock. Having barely any resources in the first part of Burial forces you to slowly creep through areas, carefully consider every shot you take, and thoughtfully search containers. Part two’s 1998 mode successfully feels like a lite version of Thief where you have to observe your environment and make economical use of your tools. Basically, those modes make BioShock feel less like an action game, but to me they still don’t feel quite like System Shock.

That’s not against BioShock at all. BioShock will always feel like BioShock because it’s designed to be a different kind of game for a wider audience. It’s a first person shooter, while System Shock is much closer to an RPG. In a way it’s apples-to-oranges, but it’s still an interesting comparison when the apple and orange have almost the same gameplay mechanics.

The huge difference I notice is in the level design between System Shock, and BioShock. Somehow, System Shock got me to almost believe I was exploring an actual space ship where people live and work. Rapture and Columbia do not feel like actual cities where people live and work, but rather game levels with set dressing.

Let’s take objectives between the games as an example. Late in part two of Burial you’re sent to grab an object you’re told is in a lab. This involves traveling through a linear chain of areas to find the object in a special location at the end of that veritable tunnel after a lot of scripted story sequences. System Shock 2 has a somewhat similar part where you have to find an object, but it’s among a bunch of similar things, and you have to identify it by its number. All you have to guide you is an audio recording telling you the number of the thing you need to find, what room it’s in, and what shelf it’s on. Basically, you have to think through that environment the same way someone would if they were really there.

Maybe it’s because of the nature of each place. It’s fairly easy to imagine what kinds of places a ship like the one in System Shock would contain: crew quarters, medical, engineering, etc. It’s probably not extremely difficult to plan those kinds of places out to feel real. Rapture and Columbia on the other hand are inherently fantastical concepts — a city at the bottom of the ocean and a city in the sky respectively. They lend themselves immediately to abstract level design.

If you ask me, I think Rapture and Columbia would have lent themselves well to full-blown open world RPG design. Ultima Underworld is actually a pretty good example of an alternative possibility for BioShock. The game that influenced the whole “Shock” series puts you in the buried ruins of a failed utopia as well, but just about every character in it can be interacted with in some way. With clear differentiations between “normal,” “upset,” or “hostile,” people, it feels like a place full of people, and more importantly rival communities you have to navigate through exploration and conversation. I guess Fallout New Vegas is quite similar as a modern example. An approach like this could have made Rapture and Columbia far more “live” as settings, even with fast-paced shooting, but that’s just my opinion.

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