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BioShock bungled its best chance to make play meaningful

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The tragedy of the Little Sisters

The 2007 classic BioShock, which 2k Games recently remastered and re-released as part of BioShock: The Collection, explores a lot of heady themes and big ideas. It posits that individual agency is an illusion, both in games and in life, and that we are subject to manipulation by forces we may not even perceive. It suggests that our pursuit of our highest potential might turn us into monsters.

But it sadly pulls its biggest narrative and thematic punch.

Little Sisters

Bioshock takes place in the city of Rapture, a massive, leaking underwater boondoggle of a city founded by a lunatic millionaire named Andrew Ryan who took Atlas Shrugged way too seriously.

Within this objectivist paradise, unencumbered by laws or ethics, Ryan’s acolytes learned to hack their genes and give themselves superpowers using a substance called ADAM. The abuse of this technology eventually transformed most of the people of Rapture into mutant junkies, but before that happened, their uninhibited pursuit of power led the Rapturites to perform some truly barbaric experiments.

Foremost among these atrocities was the creation of the "Little Sisters." ADAM was produced by sea slugs, but the slugs weren’t making enough of it to satisfy the needs of Rapture’s power-mad gene splicers. They discovered they could exponentially increase a slug’s ADAM production by implanting it into the body of a child, at the cost of turning the children into creepy zombies.

Luckily, competition for scarce ADAM was already breaking down societal structures and creating a Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes, so there were plenty of orphans for Rapture’s scientists to round up.

The player encounters these implanted children, the Little Sisters, skittering around in the rusty, creaking underwater ruins. They’re extracting ADAM from the corpses of dead splicers with giant syringes under the constant supervision of their monstrous, technologically-enhanced protectors, the Big Daddies, who serve as the game’s minibosses.

Once the player defeats a Big Daddy and captures a Little Sister, they get a choice: They can destroy the sea slug and rescue the little girl, but this causes the player to lose the precious ADAM, which is a currency that they use to buy upgrades to health, energy and their plasmid powers. Or they can harvest the slug and claim all the ADAM for themselves, killing the child.

However, if the player chooses the rescue option, the Little Sisters leave a gift for every third child they save. Harvesting a Little Sister yields 160 ADAM, and saving her will only yield 80, but the gift contains 200. That means the difference between harvesting and saving Little Sisters only amounts to about 10 percent of the total amount of ADAM, and players who save the Little Sisters will still get all the upgrades they need as they play through the game.

Why is that a problem?

BioShock was released to universal acclaim, and reviewers did not zero in on the economics of saving Little Sisters as a problem at the time of release. But this mechanic came under harsh criticism from Braid designer Jonathan Blow in a presentation he gave at a conference in late 2007.

"It's supposed to be a big ethical dilemma," Blow said. "As it turns out, it doesn’t matter whether you do either — the game throttles the rewards either way."

Blow’s observation has since become viewed as conventional critical wisdom about BioShock, and writer Chris Suellentrop recently asked series creator Ken Levine about it in an interview for Rolling Stone.

Levine said he had initially wanted players who rescued the Little Sisters to "really feel" the impact of their constrained flow of ADAM, but he got pushback from his publishers, who argued that it was "design anathema" to have a branching narrative path that makes the game harder for the player.

"As it turns out, it doesn’t matter whether you do either — the game throttles the rewards either way."

Levine said he could not win that argument by providing counterexamples of a similar mechanic done well. I also tried to think of an example myself, and I really could not. There are some quests in games like Skyrim where choices you make can cost you access to a powerful weapon, a special ability or a companion character, but there are so many ways to ramp up your character’s power in those games that the loss of one opportunity for advancement is in no way analogous to having your supply of upgrade currency cut by half in BioShock.

This should have been different

In the Rolling Stone interview, Levine continues by saying that "there was also a lot of concern that people would always harvest. They would look at it from a numerical standpoint, an optimization standpoint. I actually think that people approach harvesting and saving almost entirely from an emotional standpoint."

BioShock’s publishers should have had the courage to let that happen. It would have been interesting to find out what players would have done in that situation, when doing the right thing came with an actual cost.

I’m an optimizer. It’s deeply embedded in the way I approach games, and I’ve written for Polygon about playing this way on several occasions. The fantasy of escalating power and the tantalizing allure of in-game rewards appeals to me on a very basic level, as I’m sure it does for many players.

But how far would I go to min-max my character? What horrors would I perpetrate? What happens when the fantasy of escalating power is set in conflict with the fantasy of being the hero? I rescued the Little Sisters when I played BioShock, but would I have played the good guy if doing so had meant being outmatched and outgunned throughout the campaign? Or would the frustration have eventually pressured me to do something unspeakable for a big stack of currency to spend at the upgrade machine?

Mechanics and narrative are intertwined in games. The splicers were driven to barbaric acts by their lust for ADAM. Will you, the player, succumb to the temptation of unbridled power that ADAM represents?

You never have to find out. If you don’t harvest the Little Sisters, you get a big teddy-bear filled with ADAM as a reward for being such a good person.

How does that mesh with the fiction? If everybody in Rapture had been rewarded with lots of ADAM for being nice, things probably would have turned out differently. The rules are different when you’re the hero, I guess.

Is scarce ADAM really a design nightmare?

BioShock has four selectable difficulty levels: the default mode, an easy mode, a hard mode and an extra-hard survivor mode.

Cranking the difficulty from normal to hard gives enemies 55 percent more health and causes them to do 50 percent more damage, while shooting more accurately. The hard difficulty also causes plasmids, or special abilities, to cost 30 percent more energy, or EVE.

You spend your ADAM on health upgrades, which allow you to take more damage; plasmid upgrades, which make your plasmids more powerful; and EVE upgrades, which allow you to cast more plasmid abilities.

The fact that all the combat stats ramp up so rapidly when you push the difficulty slider up suggests that the game has plenty of room for players to have given up some power for story reasons, all without making the default setting unreasonably difficult. Playing BioShock on normal difficulty while receiving only 50 percent ADAM is still a bit easier than playing the game on hard mode with full ADAM.

Will you, the player, succumb to the temptation of unbridled power that ADAM represents?

Playing the game on normal mode while rescuing all the Little Sisters without the ADAM gifts would have been quite a bit more difficult than a normal difficulty mode ordinarily is, but it wouldn’t have been an insurmountable task for most experienced gamers.

For players who couldn’t handle the challenge, but couldn’t stand to harvest the Little Sisters, lowering the difficulty to easy mode would have been an option. Enemies have 40-percent health and deal only 17.5 percent of the damage in easy mode, so even novice gamers could probably have handled the challenge without feeling a need to resort to cannibalizing little girls.

It actually seems that the game is already tuned to essentially solve the design problem, but that Irrational added the ADAM gifts anyway, when the publisher balked at the choice to rescue or harvest affecting game difficulty. We’re just not used to in-game decision that can impact a game’s difficulty on the fly.

Playing the game on hard while rescuing the Little Sisters would have been extremely difficult and frustrating. The survivor difficulty mode, which gives the enemies 240-percent health, is an extreme challenge even with the gifts, and it might be close to impossible with 50-percent ADAM.

But modes like that exist for players who like extreme challenges, and players still would have had the option to harvest the Little Sisters for more ADAM. The added pressure to do the "wrong" thing would be seen as an in-universe temptation, not an aesthetic choice or hope for a "better" ending.

This is a little thing, but it’s a big deal

The difference between games and other media is that the consumer of the narrative is actually participating in it, and that’s significant even if the things the player does are what Jonathan Blow calls "architecture," or actions that are predetermined by the developer.

BioShock introduces a conceit: Here is a tonic that grants people superpowers. Here is how the residents of what was supposed to be a utopian city descended into madness and barbarity while competing over this precious resource.

Then it poses the problem to the player: You can claim this power, but to do so, you’ll have to commit an act which shocks the conscience. What will you do?

Tempting a hero with great power that comes at a terrible cost is a pretty well-worn trick. It’s the snake in the Garden of Eden. It’s Dr. Faustus. It’s the One Ring. It’s the Dark Side. It’s the Deathly Hallows.

The choice posed by BioShock could have actually subjected the player to this kind of temptation, which is something books and film can’t replicate in such a meaningful way.

By stripping the choice of gameplay significance, Levine and company are instead left with a role-playing decision.

When we are given the option to rescue or harvest a Little Sister, we are deciding whether we want to play as a good guy or a bad guy. That should have meant something outside of the ending animations.