Exploring Rapture is Enough

I often ponder why we play certain games and not others. More specifically, I question which elements of each game are the most important to the overall experience and my personal enjoyment of it. With BioShock 2, a game that is not presented with a unique interface or radically different way of playing, a marginal hybrid of a first-person shooter, I find that the joy of playing it comes far less from how I actively influence the game world than from what I passively take away from that world. It is more about exploration than achievement, but could it survive on exploration alone?

Player input isn’t the game’s strong suit – nor is the bullet-permeable Bid Daddy outfit, but that’s for another discussion. The shooting mechanics aren’t particularly refined and the progression from one area to the next, gathering Adam, fighting splicers and Big Sisters, all grows somewhat stale through repetition. What is most compelling in the undersea dystopia is the revelation of Rapture’s history and the mystery of the metropolis itself, of its stories and its inhabitants.

The exploration of a mystery world is in no way a novel concept; literature, film, and even interactive media have utilized this theme many times in the past. One benchmark title, Metroid Prime, not only cast players as a galactic bounty hunter exploring essentially extinct worlds, but devoted a significant portion of the game to scanning and cataloging descriptions of everything from enemies, objects, and environmental features to Pirate data logs and ancient Chozo lore, each entry teaching the player something about the otherwise alien planets.

In BioShock 2, the information is less meticulously organized and rigidly structured, but is instead drawn from radio recordings scattered about the city, messages scrawled on walls, and period advertisements, among other things. Perhaps this is enough for it to become a sole motivating factor for players to see the journey through to its end.

While the hunt for information is largely optional in both games, BioShock 2 makes it a self-guided discovery by hiding that information, often placing radio recordings at the dead ends of otherwise useless paths or concealing them in drawers and ice blocks, forcing the player to work to uncover them. Other tidbits are blended into the rendered environment as simple visual elements, and cannot be collected and logged, but only viewed and processed as-is, via the player’s own perceptive tools. The player has to observe the decaying city to piece the picture together.

This method of exploration is more similar to how we investigate the real world, and by mimicking that, BioShock 2 connects players more closely to the in-game search for answers. In turn, the discovery of the city’s history and the actions and motivations of its characters easily become enough to keep players pushing forward, seeking out Rapture’s remote corners, and devouring every little scrap of knowledge they can find. Even the final goal becomes more a means to reveal the truth than to simply save the day and be a hero; the reward is internal rather than external.

If discovery is indeed enough motivation, then could 2K Marin have minimized combat in BioShock 2? More broadly, can a game like this survive without combat as a prime directive? Would it stand a chance in today’s market or would it be doomed to fail? While games like Animal Crossing and Endless Ocean don’t have combat-orientated goals, they also get written off as non-games or placed in other shunned categories, such as kiddie or casual. Can the same design philosophies be migrated to more adult-themed works?

The Animal Crossing franchise has been largely successful with building on core concepts that do not require combat to increase interest. Players are most often driven through self-assigned objectives revolving around exploration and collection. These are not simple doodad hunts, but serve to piece together the world in which the player resides. Like the intricacies that give substance to Rapture and the Metroid Prime universe, building the museum, filling the insect and fish catalogs, completing a KK Slider music library, and cultivating a variety of fruit trees are all instrumental in defining Animal Crossing’s world. These are of course different characteristics than in the other titles, but in all cases, each individual in-game item is a small piece of a much larger puzzle.

In BioShock 2, the world is instead defined by its characters and living history, the information about which is all similarly collected as the game progresses. Rather than animal and plant species, the stories of political and philosophical movements and of opposing ideologies are the flesh and blood of the game world. The intrigue of what exactly led to Rapture’s reascension and subsequent second demise, and whose actions were to blame for these events, are all of immense importance to the game’s appeal. I dare say more important than its moment-to-moment gameplay. Even actions as simple as roaming halls and reading old posters or observing architectural design, in essence shaping a post-mortem portrait of the former city and life within that city, are far more memorable than the 300th splicer the player shocks and drills into an undersea grave.

So what would improve the experience, and how could the game actually work without so much filler combat? Believe me, I don’t assume that conflict can be eliminated entirely, because human beings crave such challenges, but conflict can again be internal as well as external. Even the delightful Animal Crossing maintains conflict without combat, as the townsfolk can become angry with player characters, turning conflict avoidance into a motivating factor. The M-rated Penumbra: Black Plague similarly axed combat and focused on the player’s fear of the enemy. Games like BioShock 2, though, are designed with combat in mind, so a complete overhaul would be necessary to remove it entirely. Instead, simple adjustments could reduce the combat, improve the exploration, and even give remaining conflict more significance.

Consider this: what if mandatory combat was limited only to battles with Big Daddies and Big Sisters?

In BioShock 2, as a Big Daddy the player is supposed to be a menacing entity, an entity players learnt to fear from his presence in the first game. The insignificant Splicers who roam Rapture, too, should fear and flee from the player, reinforcing that aura of power surrounding the Big Daddy, and at the same time creating a new dilemma of mercy versus malice. Of course, there would be fewer of these than there currently are in BioShock 2 – a logical assumption about a derelict sub-oceanic city after its second utter collapse.<

As for Rapture’s other Big Daddies, why not give players the option to steal the Little Sisters from them without a fight? Perhaps specific set pieces could allow players to use the environment, which is already a prison in a way, to trap the other Daddies and run off with their girls. This would not only improve the game by providing options for each Big Daddy encounter, but also by putting the player in the unique position of embodying a protagonist’s mental pathology. Subject Delta, the man inside the Big Daddy suit, could potentially inflict the same suffering upon the other Daddies that was inflicted upon him when he lost Eleanor. Transferring this anguish would further reveal the effects of the events of Rapture’s past, this time on the psychological level in a character who is – depending on how you deal with Little Sisters and Splicers – otherwise noble. Even conflict would be about demystification.

Finally, Big Sisters would also remain obstacles in Rapture, but like the others, only occasionally. The structured and predictable way these Sisters come after Delta in BioShock 2 is completely useless to the player, as is. There is nothing exciting or uncertain about it. A better approach would be to release them more randomly, as the player moves through the city. With fewer Splicers and a focus on exploration, the possibility for these more powerful enemies to show up at any time would greatly increase the tension throughout the game, and each fight would have a far more significant impact on the possibly prepared or possibly unprepared player.

BioShock 2was a wonderful experience, but what made it wonderful was tarnished by what made it conventional. The allure of Rapture and the drive to explore that world could easily carry the game without the comparatively banal, interstitial combat. I would assert that many other games could survive off of non-combat mechanics, as well, if only the effort were made. Are publishers and developers too afraid to find out if I’m right?


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Author: Eddie Inzauto View all posts by
Eddie has been writing about games on the interwebz for over ten years. You can find him Editor-in-Chiefing around these parts, or talking nonsense on Twitter @eddieinzauto.

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