Bioshock EP6: The Hazardous Vector

By Shamus
on Jun 21, 2013
Filed under:
Spoiler Warning

65 comments


Link (YouTube)

We make fun of the game here for having a situation where somebody dies just as you’re about to meet them face-to-face. I don’t know if there’s a trope for this; it would need to be specific to videogames. Of course, this is done because having two characters meet creates immense and ever-expanding design problems.

  1. If we don’t have anyone else alive in the world, then the game feels “empty”.
  2. If we have other people alive but kill them off (or trap them away from the player’s reach) then it feels contrived.
  3. If we let the player meet them then the player will expect them to have something to say.
  4. If we let them speak, then players will inevitably demand that their character be able to reply. (See the comments of my defense of silent protagonists.)
  5. If the protagonist speaks, players will inevitably find some kind of disconnect between how they view the game world and how their character views it. They will want the option to say different things.
  6. If we give them different things to say, then players will get irritated when they discover the choices don’t “do anything”. If they’re making choices, they want those choices to have consequences.
  7. If we give them short-term or isolated consequences (save the life of this nameless NPC you’ll never see again) then players will complain that the choices offered in the game are empty.
  8. If we give them meaningful, long-term choices then we run into multiplicative outcomes. If choices impact each other and branch off in meaningful ways, then we end up with rapidly escalating design costs. If all choices are binary, then the number of outcomes we have to write, script, animate, code, and test is 2n where n is the number of choices in the game. And players will complain because all outcomes are binary and don’t allow for shades of grey. (How come I can only murder this villain or let him go without harm? Why can’t I break his legs or something to make sure he doesn’t cause any more trouble?)
  9. And if you want offer the player multiple long-term choices with divergent outcomes and shades-of-grey decisions, then you are probably crazy. And players will still complain because it’s impossible to get all those systems working just right. Mass Effect and Alpha Protocol come to mind.

This isn’t because players are unreasonable and entitled. Well, it is, but when a player asks for the first item on this list it’s not because they plan to drag you all the way to the end. They’re not really demanding an RPG. It’s just that we get frustrated when the systems of a videogame break down, and interpersonal stuff is something videogames are really bad at.

It’s not like there are players who complain at every point in the list, either. (Well, aside from me. If anyone else wants to own up to it that’s your business.) Every player has their own little sticking point on the list. One person says “If my character is going to talk, I should be able to control what they say.” Another player will say, “I don’t mind not having dialog choices, but if the game does make me pick what to say then those choices need to matter.”

You can end up spending a ton of money without improving a game at all – you’ll just move the point of failure a couple of bullet points down the list.

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Footnotes:



202020565 comments? This post wasn't even all that interesting.

From the Archives:

  1. #8 is actually incorrect–I discovered this when writing game dialog using the Aurora toolset. You don’t remotely need 2^n outcomes because you can have your outcomes merge back together later on. It still feels like you had an impact if you change the ROUTE by which you arrive at the merge point without changing a LOT of the outcome–as long as the player is doing something different at some stage they are generally pretty happy. It’s when you do ALL of the steps in EXACTLY the same order that the choices feel completely without impact. After doing this myself, it AMAZES me how BAD professional game developers are at writing this kind of merge. I almost NEVER see it in actual games.

    It’s also necessary to at least reference the choice again going forward to avoid the lack of long-term impact.

    • Paul Spooner says:

      Yeah, re-merging story-lines is difficult, but really super necessary, especially for pre-authored stories. A lot of times, all that is required is some leeway given to the NPC’s to “choose for themselves” what they want to do. If the event is far enough removed from the “cause”, then it even seems plausible.

      But, with that in mind, I still agree with Shamus. If you want it to be utterly convincing, every choice needs to have lasting consequences until the end of time. It’s like this in the real world, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be so in games as well.

      However, consequences suffer erosion over time. Sure the position of the dirt in my back yard may be affected by the choices a farmer made a hundred years ago, but it’s more affected by the choices I made a few days ago. Using such a philosophy, it should be possible to have choices be “meaningful” and still phase out the effects of early choices on late-game events.

      But yeah, current “game writers” seem particularly terrible at this. They should hire people with both writing and GM experience, instead of screen writers.

      • jarppi says:

        Regarding your last paragraph I’d say that teamwork could be the solution here. Get at least one skilled author and team up that person with someone who understands games and knows writing. Because trying to find a good writer who understands games as a medium can be like finding a needle in a heystack.

        Btw. I don’t mind having choices without clear consequences. Every time I face an ovbious “you have n choices” situations, I always start that meta game called “what kind of ending I want”. It is no longer about what I would personally do in that situation, it is all about the final outcome and that feels disconnecting.

        Actually my favorite type of choice is the one where you aren’t directly told you are making a choice and you do make these choices by playing the game, not by pressing a button in a conversation tree. Neither I mean “go to place A or B to make you decision” type of dialogua. These type of choices are rare but not nonexisting. Stealth / not stealth is a good example. Although my personal favorite goes to (yes, I know I’m fanboying around that game) Metro 2033 in the Frontline-chapter: If you sneaked past the line, you will see a guard talking to some prisoners. You can ignore them which leads to dead prisoners or you can kill the gurad and prevent him from killing those prisoners. That may or may not have effect on the ending and may alert rest of the guards. Whatever you do, it is a valid option and it doesn’t feel like a ham-fisted binary choice.

        • I also vastly prefer to have myriad choices that come through gameplay rather than those that are restricted to “select between these dialog options”. I like there to be a fair mix of both, and the one to react to the other. You should get different dialog from the boss if you arrive via the secret passage. If you’re (successfully) sneaking, you shouldn’t get Ambush Dialog. Games are usually not too bad at suiting actions to words, but the other way around? Forget it.

    • False Prophet says:

      Would it be accurate to classify the oldschool BioWare approach this way?
      I.e., you’re provided with the four major quest hubs which you can do in any order, and each one usually has 3 or 4 quests with binary (or occasionally more) choices, but most of them have little long-term impact outside of that particular quest or game, and you ultimately go through the same ending paces, just with different epilogues?

      • Thomas says:

        I’d classify that more as one Shamus’ conditions for no.7 It wasn’t a bad system though, they made a mistake moving away from that, especially since Bioware choice has always been more of a self-expression thing instead of a story thing

    • Tizzy says:

      Very good point. And, in my experience, branch-and-merge is fair to the player. It is enough to fulfill the need for meaningful choices.

    • MrGuy says:

      Disagree. I remember a ton of people on this site complaining during the Walking Dead season that (to pick a prominent example) the Carly vs. Doug choice “didn’t matter!” because regardless of which you chose the paths merged back together later in the plot.

      It never really bothered me personally. But then, none of the “Oh Noes! If I replay the game I might find out my choices were less impactful than I thought so the game CHEATED” hand-wringing about Walking Dead really bothered me. But if definitely bothered a number of people very severely.

      • Thomas says:

        Doug/Carly never split though, in that they basically did exactly the same actions with a different flavour text, were then written out of the only episode that would have involved them in some considerable faction and then it merged.

        And it was worse than that, because that wasn’t two different options that ended up having the same overall effect on the story. That was ‘choose A, have A unhappen later on to continue the story’
        It’s not like you save someones life and then ultimately have them part ways and are no longer part of the story. It’s, you save one person’s life instead of someone else and then later on that person dies as well

        The best way is to split, spin-off some consequences into Bioware dead ends, where things have changed but not things that affect the story and then merge as you go forward. Doug/Carly never ultimately changed anything consequential or not

      • Soylent Dave says:

        It’s the difference between players who want their character’s decisions to be meaningful for their character(s) and those who want their decisions to be meaningful for the game world.

        That’s probably why The Walking Dead pissed fewer people off than Mass Effect 3 did – TWD sets much lower expectations in most players; we pretty much only ever expect to change things for Lee & Clementine, and not to change the world around them much (nor even the actions of the other characters – we can influence how they feel about Lee and Clem, and vice versa, but that’s about it)

        Whereas Mass Effect keeps building this whole ‘Shepard can save the galaxy’ storyline (which rather conflicts with the nihilistic ‘no-one can change the cycle’ backstory they keep feeding you); raising expectations, increasing the number of disappointed players when it turns out the nihilism isn’t actually just backstory, it’s foreshadowing.

    • Alecw says:

      The game that does this best is The Witcher.
      There’s a heap of long-term consequence for big decisions or whole attitudes, but most of the minor choices have mini-branches that transparently re-merge with the story. One way they really win at that is by having a tiny bit of dialog or environment change with a choice, but everything else is normal: You feel like you are living in the universe of your choice without having to face 2^n issue.

      Also, I would again comment on the irony that Witcher, infamous for its collectible nudie girl cards, actually has the most mature courtship/relationship with a female character, with outcome and consequence, of ANY story-driven game I’ve ever played or heard of. And the relationship plots exemplify the best way of handling player choice.

      • Jeff says:

        Witcher 2 did it rather nicely, in that even though Act 3 is more or less the same, which Act 2 you did affects how you go about Act 3, as well as the final ending choices. Then it gets completely merged in the conclusion.

        I want to see if Witcher 3 will import the choices we made in Witcher 2 (which I played twice starting from Act 2, just to see the differences in story).

  2. anaphysik says:

    vector = means of transmission <_<

    Sure, it's all technobabble to (not) explain why you’re doing whatever, but it's not like they *totally* misapplied terminology -_-

  3. Paul Spooner says:

    Yeah, I’m with you all the way to the end. In fact, I’d like to push it past item 9. Here are my extra complaining points! (yes, it goes up to eleven)

    10. If you get all your multiple shades of grey consequential choices working, players will complain that they can’t come up with their own options for things to say. They will demand true AI that can understand the core meaning behind what they are trying to communicate to their character, and through the character, the world.

    11. If you somehow get the character to have a facsimile of real intelligence and understanding, the players will demand that this behavior be extended to the entire game, and that every character, every physics interaction, every story-line, and every scrap of history be generated on the fly by perfect artificial intelligence in response to their inputs.

  4. anaphysik says:

    Oh grav, that French accent (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbD3YUg9GTc&t=18m48s) was HORRENDOUS. Trust me, I know a thing or two about bad French accents.

  5. Personally, it sounds like a lot of these issues can be mitigated if not outright removed entirely if the game properly communicates who the character you are inhabiting is and that their personality is appropriate for the mechanics/design of the game.

    This is why I tend not to have issues with games that do not give me immediate control over a character and their actions in the very beginning of the game (Human Revolution comes to mind). I may or may not like the decisions they make while I’m not in control, but I can’t say the game didn’t prepare me for how this character behaves when I’m not in the driver seat. It also establishes for the player that such moments may occur in the game itself where they will not be in control.

    It’s kind of like the narrative equivalent of a tutorial level, where you have the teach the player how the game’s story is going to be told. If it’s done poorly, you’re going to have people raging just like you said. Boiled down, I suppose it’s just a matter of the game being honest with the player.

    • CunningChaff says:

      I prefer characters with distinct personalities to Gordon Freeman-style protagonists in my linear shooter games; and, if I can’t have that, then I’d like a character that at least interacts with the characters nonverbally (beyond throwing crap at their heads or moving their guns up and down or left to right to simulate head nods and shakes). Master Chief’s a better character, in my mind. He has a personality, and interacts with the characters around him (in cutscenes, sure), making everything more natural than having a silent, Gordon-shaped turret carrying an inpractical amount of weaponry who silently stares at everyone who speakes to him.

    • Joshua says:

      I agree that I think it would be helpful for the game to set up the expectation of what they kind of imagine the protagonist acting like, and then allowing behavioral choices within that specified scope instead of seemingly allowing you to play whatever character you want but then limiting you to choices within their desired range that may conflict with the character you thought you were able to make.

      Talking about a story merge done poorly: Someone mentioned the first Neverwinter Nights as allowing you to make a choice about where you wanted to go in each chapter. On the flip side, Neverwinter Nights 2 allowed you to play what was either a heroic or non-heroic character(City Watch or Thieves Guild)in the first chapter, but then abandoned that choice going forward so you basically were playing a good character from that point on, no matter if it conflicted with what you had done for the Thieves Guild.

      It should also be said that playing a completely evil scumbag made no sense for how your character was brought up in your village. Overall, it would have been better for the game to have just told you at the beginning that “this storyline is designed for heroic characters”, and given you the option to play within the spectrum of Luke Skywalker to Han Solo, not Captain America to Ramsay Bolton.

  6. anaphysik says:

    Your guys’ nitpicks about the insect swarm plasmid are pretty spot-on. At best, it’s a B-list power.

  7. bucaneer says:

    Bee plasmid is probably the most plausible of the lot. Yeah, it would be complicated, but genetics that produce a bee are a known thing. The genetics of producing lethal electric bolts, instant freeze, flame projectiles or telekinetic powers – not so much.

  8. Scampi says:

    If we let the player meet them then the player will expect them to have something to say.
    If we let them speak, then players will inevitably demand that their character be able to reply. (See the comments of my defense of silent protagonists.)

    Funny. I just thought there might be the opportunity of having a guy appear, speak a few lines in an uncomprehensive language (something else but the language of the country the game was shipped in) that makes actual sense, but where nobody expects the player to have something to answer, just because the average player is not expected to understand a word he just heard.
    I’d find it interesting, trying to find out what the guy I just heard had to say or is trying to explain to me while I stand by as if being a big dull idiot, while I just have a communicative malfunction.;)
    This might be especially interesting if he’s actually giving out hints as how to deal with a problem in a way that’s not obvious, leading alternative paths through the game, which the player might not realize himself. Maybe this might encourage players to find out about the language that is used. At least I’d like it.

    If we give them different things to say, then players will get irritated when they discover the choices don’t “do anything”. If they’re making choices, they want those choices to have consequences.

    I’m not sure if I’d always expect that. I encountered numerous occasions in real life where different dialogue options with real people wouldn’t cause any consequences to events or even relationships with people. I guess there are relationships where people might just communicate like professionals, only wanting to solve a problem with only one solution or not really caring about the input from other people, but only talking to add some entertainment while being otherwise isolated, just to maintain sanity.

    If we give them short-term or isolated consequences (save the life of this nameless NPC you’ll never see again) then players will complain that the choices offered in the game are empty.

    So what? Many choices I make are, to me, empty in the long run. I currently do the editing of someone else’s bachelor thesis. I don’t think it’ll have any long running consequences. Yesterday I finally dumped my cat’s litter in front of my annoying neighbor’s window in hopes of pissing him off. Do I think this will have any enduring effect? No, it won’t-I don’t even think he’ll realize it, as long as he doesn’t randomly step into it. I wouldn’t mind making choices that don’t matter or talking insignificant stuff, if it increases my immersion in the world and maybe the entertainment value of the game. I remember in graphics adventures there were often lots of pointless whimsical dialogue, which were written with the one and only intent of being fun. So: why not have dialogue of that kind?

    If all choices are binary, then the number of outcomes we have to write, script, animate, code, and test is 2n where n is the number of choices in the game. And players will complain because all outcomes are binary and don’t allow for shades of grey. (How come I can only murder this villain or let him go without harm? Why can’t I break his legs or something to make sure he doesn’t cause any more trouble?)

    The complaining comes naturally to players, I guess (me too, but I can still enjoy games I complain about;) ), but game designers have, of course, limits and have to meet deadlines sometime. I think the problem is that many people have absurdly high expectations about the games they think they play and are disappointed there are limits to their freedom…has anyone ever wondered why there are arbitrary invisible borders to the worlds of Bethesda games? ;)

    And if you want offer the player multiple long-term choices with divergent outcomes and shades-of-grey decisions, then you are probably crazy.

    And if you even tell them you were able to create a game with such, you’re probably a liar.

    Whatever, I like the idea of having different kinds of characters in game, where in game a) my avatar is just a voiceless player-insertion guy while in game b) I play someone else’s story who has a voice, thoughts and motivations of their own and I’m just in control of how heroic, awesome or insanely crazy that person acts in their attempt to realize their ambitions. I think it’s still the designer’s choice how to create a game and my choice to like it or not. Design should imho just be good enough to create the effect the designers were going for. So, if I’m presented with dialogue, it might e.g. also be aimed to distract me from something else that might elseways be obvious to me, or any other sake. Whatever design choice is made should increase my immersion.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      “I just thought there might be the opportunity of having a guy appear, speak a few lines in an uncomprehensive language (something else but the language of the country the game was shipped in) that makes actual sense, but where nobody expects the player to have something to answer, just because the average player is not expected to understand a word he just heard.”

      Fez is the game for you.

  9. Thomas says:

    It’s amazing how annoying minigames become when they’re even close to frequent and you’re watching someone play a game passively

    • Alexander The 1st says:

      Funny you mention that – from what I understand, Remember Me is getting the “Why wasn’t there more of this?” problem from the memory remix sections, of which there are apparently four in the entire game.

      That said, I do hope that Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flags takes the “Do more of that ship minigame – it was the best” criticism and actually finds the appropriate balance for it.

  10. Paul Spooner says:

    Oh, and on item #8 and #9, if A is the number of options we have at each choice, and N is the number of choices we make, then the total outcomes (denoted as T) are:
    T = A^(N)
    just as you say. However, including intermediate states, the total number of states (let’s call it S)are:
    S = ((A^(N+1))-1) / (A-1)
    Which is a larger number. Larger by T*1/(1-1/A)-1/(A-1) in fact. Since this ratio shrinks as A grows, the total number of final states approaches the total number of cumulative states as the number of options per choice approaches infinity.

    So, basically, yeah, it’s a huge headache to write, animate, record, and play-test all those different scenarios.

  11. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Undead bees?Braainzzzzzzzzzz!Braainzzzzzzzz!

    Also,seeing how honey comes from a bees behind,I doubt anyone would want to use a honey plasmid.At least for themselves.

    • Aitch says:

      It was my understanding that bees have a secondary stomach sac where they store the nectar they collect, but it isn’t tied into their main digestive system – it all gets in from and comes out of their “mouth”. The nectar sits in this sac and digests for a bit while secreted enzymes crack the sucrose into glucose and fructose. After it’s buffered to the right pH, it gets regurgitated into a honeycomb cell where they fan it with their wings until it evaporates to a point of supersaturation. Then it gets capped off to be stored indefinitely.

      No anus involved! Yay!

  12. arron says:

    Branching storylines is something I really like, and I collected dozens of Fighting Fantasy books and other series just to see how the story had outcomes from how you played it.

    I discovered a game recently called “Virtue’s Last Reward” on the 3DS and I’m fascinated by it. I won’t ruin the incredibly complex story, the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” Ambidex game that ties it all together and how the characters have a lot more in common than you might think, The real innvovation is that each choice you make has a direct outcome on the ending, but unlike other games..you can go back and take the other choice as part of the game design. You will need to experience the failure many time to learn enough about your story so you make the right decisions to unlock the true path. Imagine an old-school computer game based around Schrödinger’s cat. Plus there are about 20 endings for it, so you know that they’re not going to be all happy endings! :)

    Fallout NV was another game I loved for the faction system. It wasn’t enough to complete missions in Fallout 3, but being able to shape events of the game through doing missions for a faction in the game gave me the sense of freedom to decide the future.

    I wish more games had a story line with multiple branching dependencies like this, but it’s nowhere as common as you might expect. I think the first reason is that the public aren’t expecting it. Your average game in this age likes to start and finish without having to think too much about making choices that may affect them later on. That’s why the likes of Bioshock struggle to include meaningful choices in the games because they might scare the gamer off. The second reason is cost as the developer would need to include some additional assets, but thirdly someone needs to plan the entire thing out in detail before hand. I think that this is the major cost because you have to consider everything very carefully before you spend a lot of money on development.

    I think this third factor is the most important as it requires a level of skill to document and obsess over detail that most people would consider as trivial. You have to ensure that your choices and outcomes fit with the characters and situation you are building them into. And you need to get this right at the beginning, because once you’re halfway through, it’s going to either crash and burn..or be an expensive change to implement.

  13. ChoppazAndDakka says:

    I am ashamed of Rutskarn for not making the pun “Zombees”. I cannot believe he missed this obvious pun.

  14. Phantos says:

    …[big list of things]…

    All of these challenges with making a player character could be solved, if they just let us play as a Wookie.

  15. Alecw says:

    Ok Shamus:

    SS2 did this trick THREE TIMES successfully in one game. Shock 2 wrote the DAMN BOOK ON THIS. I wonder where the guy who did that work ended up when Irrational was hiring LGS staff.

    Dr. Janice Polito, Dr. Marie Delacroix, SHODAN. All three are characters that interact with and guide you without you meeting them, and the game never really feels like it cheats but thereby avoids all the pitfalls you mention.

    I was especially impressed that when one of those characters turns up dead MINUTES before you get there, instead of feeling ripped off and pulled out of the immersion, I was instead emotionally racked and angry at the Bads. K U D O S and PROPS, writers.

    • silver Harloe says:

      Plus you get to see the escaping couple whom you sort of know if you’ve been reading their logs about their attempts to get together and get out (and their logs let us know they are aware of you, too). But alas, the door opens too slowly for you to interact with them (or even kill the big meanie chasing them), and for some reason you don’t call out to them even though you can speak (you say a single(*) word in the final cutscene)

      (*) cheesy, melodramatic

    • JPH says:

      “All three are characters that interact with and guide you without you meeting them, and the game never really feels like it cheats”

      It felt like it was cheating to me.

    • Astor says:

      You are forgetting Captain Diego and Korenchkin (and I think Prefontaine too?) and I don’t think SS2 pulled it off so successfully, this is something that stood out for me. Of course there were technical limitations (maybe monetary too) and it does indeed work, but I think it works because it made the experience close and personal with SHODAN and kept the Von Braun a creepy, deserted spaceship haunted by ghosts and monsters (not to mention the oppression you felt every time a potential ally turned out to be a false hope).

      Bioshock did exactly the same thing as far as I’m concerned and it helped it be a true spiritual successor (haters be damned)! Yeah, for all the technical and monetary progression there was still no way of having a meaningful and recurring interaction with any character, but it mostly made sense in the context of a weird city ravaged by madness and dehumanization.

      I do think that nowadays there’s no excuse for doing this again and again. Deus Ex did the character interaction and consequences flawlessly, and it was still mostly linear. RPGs used to do this all the time, Alpha Protocol is the modern example that managed to handle this issue almost perfectly. I mean, if you are gonna keep throwing us shooters with RPG elements, well how about adding some *other* RPG elements outside of leveling trees?

  16. Lachlan the Mad says:

    Dear Americans:

    You aren’t allowed to complain about your $60 games when we Australians have to take $100 games up the he said a bad word!

  17. AyeGill says:

    I have to disagree with mumbles. The best plasmid is definitely not the bees

  18. Anachronist says:

    I don’t consider myself a gamer, but occasionally I have come across a game that has multiple possible endings (like 3 or 4 endings). The choices you make have consequences that branch and merge, converging on one of the endings.

    I also remember a detective game on the Amiga in the 1980s that did something similar. Although there was one ending (besides being killed), there were multiple paths to get there.

    The idea, I think, is that the journey matters. The final outcome isn’t as important.

    Something I’ve always wanted to do, if I ever get the time, is to write a D&D campaign in the form of a huge thousand-page tome, where player choices direct the DM to refer to this page or that page, with quests forming more or less organically, including guidance for adjusting the DC of encounters and other situations based on the party’s abilities.

    Such a game would involve true free will on the players’ part, the opposite of most D&D campaigns that run on rails with enough variation to give players the illusion of free will.

  19. JPH says:

    I feel I can summarize that big numbered list of yours with one sentence:

    No matter what you do as a game writer/designer, some players will complain because they are not getting the exact style of narrative they want.

  20. wererogue says:

    “And if you want offer the player multiple long-term choices with divergent outcomes and shades-of-grey decisions, then you are probably crazy.”

    Isn’t that pretty much what Rutskarn’s doing with Unrest? And Torment:TON seems to be making a go of it, too…

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