Monthly Archives: March 2013

Elizabeth is “the heart and soul” of Bioshock Infinite

On Tuesday, I finished Bioshock Infinite.  

According to Steam, I’d sunk 22-plus hours into it but then I realised that about five of those were when I had to go out and left the game paused, so I’m putting it at around 16 hours. 

Since I finished Infinite, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It left me with a lot of questions. And while I felt that the game lost its momentum a little at times and one of the game’s  most hyped “characters” (Songbird) was underutilised, Bioshock is a thoroughly enjoyable game that is one of the best I’ve played in a long, long time.

It’s crowning glory, though is  Elizabeth, the young girl that the game’s main character Booker DeWitt has to rescue from Zachary Comstock, a self-proclaimed profit prophet who rules over the city-in-the-sky Columbia. It’s a game of twists and unexpected events. 

I’ve got a review coming for the game soon but until then, here’s an interview I did with Irrational Games’ Bill Gardner about the game and Elizabeth, one of the best game companion’s I’ve encountered in a long, long time. 

26-BioshockElizabeth-fxOf all the achievements Irrational Games has made in Bioshock Infinite, the one that Bill Gardner, Irrational’s user experience specialist, is most proud of is Elizabeth, the young girl that Booker DeWitt must protect.

Gardner, who has worked with Irrational’s founder Ken Levine for 11 years, said he hoped gamers formed an emotional attachment to Elizabeth.

‘‘We spent a huge portion of our effort in getting her right. She is very much the heart and soul of the story and in a lot of ways in game play. When we initially set out to build the game we said we wanted to have a companion character, primarily because we wanted to find these new ways to innovate in story and to take our unique brand of game play and narrative and merge them together.

“With Booker and Elizabeth we had this opportunity to create this attachment, to create this relationship that the player doesn’t really see in other games. When you see her [Elizabeth] from start to finish and see the path that she goes on I think that is the piece that I’m most proud of and the piece that will turn the most heads.’’

It wasn’t an easy task creating Elizabeth, says Gardner.

‘I think we all have recurring nightmares about the uncanny valley. It’s incredibly challenging [creating a character like Elizabeth] but that was why we were drawn to it: To get a character that’s not only believable but endearing. We spent a tremendous amount of time getting her eyes right. I don’t just mean the look of them but we spent a lot of time studying the human eye and the way it moves and the way it tracks people. There are all these subtleties and you put it into the game.

“‘Eventually people start to react to her as a human and starting to react to her as a character. And when you can do that, and people start talking about her as a person, then you know you’ve done something special. We hope people will get an emotional attachment to her. I really do believe people will.’’

Gardner describes himself as Irrational’s “internal editorial force” and much of his job on Bioshock Infinite was giving feedback and offering suggestions to both game play and narrative.

‘‘How can I try and help the game get better? I look into my crystal ball and find what is and isn’t working. I put myself into the shoes of the gamer, something that is difficult to do. Ken [Levin] noticed that I had the ability to do this.’’

One of the most notable game modes in Bioshock Infinite is 1999 Mode, which, in part, harks back to the game play found in the acclaimed – and scary – System Shock 2, which influenced the original Bioshock. 1999 Mode made player choice matter, says Gardner.

‘‘When you think back to games like System Shock 2 and the way Bioshock evolved as a spiritual successor, in that evolution there were a number of gamers who felt that the choices weren’t as meaningful as they used to be … we got feedback that people wanted some more meaningful choice.

“When I played System Shock 2, I remember standing in front of a weapon or an upgrade station and being ‘‘Oh, my God, what do I want to pick?’’. I’m sweating over that choice so we wanted to make sure that [in Bioshock Infinite] we captured that feeling that when you make a choice it means something and you don’t go ‘Oh, I made a choice. Big deal’.

‘‘To some degree Bioshock was about letting players have a huge toolset and let them have fun and if you make the wrong choice, just try something else. With this mode [1999 Mode] you’re basically forced to make very careful decisions in your upgrades, very careful decisions in what tools you’re using and if you deviate from those positions you’re going to have a much harder time and you’ll probably end up seeing the ‘Game Over’ screen’.‘‘
Gardner says Bioshock Infinite’s game world, set in the floating city of Colombia, has a unique visual feel to it and while it feels ‘‘eerily familiar’’ to Rapture in Bioshock it is very different from the ‘‘dark, dank, oppressive’’ environments of that game.

26-bioshockinfinite-fxThe stakes are high with Bioshock, says Gardner, but Irrational didn’t want to take the easy road with the game.

‘‘We could have easily taken the easy route but we’re challenging ourselves, and gamers themselves want to be challenged. We want to amaze people with a world that they haven’t seen before and with a narrative where they’ve never been before.’’

Gardner believes part of the appeal of the Bioshock universe is the “unique vision and aesthetic” and the interactivity in video games sets it apart from more traditional forms of media.

“The interactivity is what sets us apart so embracing that is important, not only in new ways to innovate but in new ways of storytelling. We pushed the narrative in a different direction by introducing Elizabeth and Booker, two characters that really evolve as human beings, and to see that evolution is really unlike anything that I’ve seen in a game.

“We take these chances because I think gamers appreciate them and I think gamers are willing to take on challenges and new things. Frankly, I don’t think enough games give gamers that kind of credit and give gamers that leeway and they kind of have a tendency to go with what is safe.  We take risks.’’

Tomb Raider: teaching an old girl new tricks

New-look Lara: younger, less sure in the world but just as deadly.

New-look Lara: younger, less sure in the world but just as deadly.

This talks about some of aspects of the new Tomb Raider game in detail but it doesn’t spoil any of the story. At least, I don’t think it does: what I think isn’t a spoiler, someone might think is. If you don’t want know about things in the game, then perhaps wait till you’ve finished the game before you read this. Just a thought.

Perhaps the most shocking moments, for me, in the re-booted Tomb Raider were Lara Croft’s deaths.

They are deadly and gruesome, each one seemingly more horrific than the last.

The very first time Lara Croft died while I was playing through Crystal Dynamics’ origin story of the famed English adventurer (who is a much more realistic and naturally proportioned  than the original large bosumed one) I was shocked.

Croft had to escape a collapsing underground cave and as she runs through a gap in the rock, a rough hand form a pursuer grabs one of her ankles, trying to pull her back.

A quick time event is activated but if you get a “waggle the stick/keys  left and right then press the right button” sequence wrong she’s crushed by a giant bolder, her left hand stretched out towards the camera, twitching as the life drains from her now crushed body. The screen is drained of colour and the last checkpoint is reloaded.

In another death, while Lara is parachuting through a thick forest, tall trees needing to be avoided, clipping too many outstretched branches results in our young adventurer being impaled on a spiky branch, the wood piercing her chest. In another death sequence, Croft is impaled through the throat by a steel spike. This is a much more violent, much more graphically jarring Tomb Raider.

This is a Tomb Raider for today’s gamer, too: gritty, realistic and unflinchingly violent that sort of feels like a cross between Uncharted and Lost, the TV show. I didn’t like Lost but I liked Uncharted, so I’m OK with that  comparisons.

When we first meet young Lara Croft she is on-board the research vessel Endurance, excited about the adventure ahead and what she will find, but shortly after the ship that she and her companions are on snaps in half in a violent storm, and they’re shipwrecked on the mysterious Yamatai  island in the infamous Dragon’s Triangle, she’s a scared, lonely young girl – barely in her 20s –  forced to fight for her life and rescue her friends, captured by violent mercenaries led by a deranged man called Mathias.

It’s the game’s opening moments that you find that this is a more vulnerable, more innocent Lara Croft than the one we’ve been used to. In an attempt to weather the storm, she starts a fire under a rocky overhand, and in an effort to keep warm, pulls her knees up to her chest, desperate to heat the chill running through her bones. She looks scared, vulnerable and out of her depth. It’s a Lara Croft the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

10144WWIISOS_MachineGunKillThat said though, this is a video game and gamers demand action, so it’s isn’t long before Croft becomes a merciless killer,  necessitated by the situations she finds herself in.

The first death at her hands comes moments after she is forced to fight for her life with a mercenary, shooting him dead after a struggle with a loaded pistol.

It’s at this point that any chance of a passive Lara Croft trotting through to the end of the game is ancient history and it’s a case of kill or be killed as she searches for her friends and a way to get of the island, a place shrouded in Japanese mythology and the supernatural. As the game progresses, and her abilities increase, she’s able to silently kill enemies by choking them with her bow, dropping them to the ground quietly.

Tomb Raider initially arms Croft with a meagre but still formidable arsenal: a bow and arrow (scavenged from a dead body), a pistol (taken from the mercenary she shot) and a rudimentary climbing axe (found embedded in an animal carcass in an underground bunker). A neat thing is that all the weapons can be upgraded, using skill points and salvaged weapons parts, recovered from dead bodies and small crates littering around the island, so soon enough her meagre weapons are quite powerful, especially the bow which I favoured quite a bit.

10143WWIISOS_ContactFor me part, the reason this Tomb Raider is so good is the strength of its exploration. Yes, there’s the obligatory on-screen objective marker activated at the push of a button, triggering Croft’s Survival Instinct mode (her form of Batman’s detective vision), but there is so much to explore that it’s easy to put the main objective aside and search for relics, lost diaries and other interesting items.  Explore as much as you can. I recommend you do.

As far as tomb raiding goes, hardcore fans will be disappointed as the actual tomb stalking takes a back seat in this Tomb Raider – exploring tombs and crypts is now entirely optional –  but it’s worth deviating and investigating tombs when you stumble across them. The puzzles in these tombs aren’t as taxing as those of old but they’ll do.

Sometimes, though, the game wrests control from the player to maintain its cinematic presentation, such as automatically crouching to get under an object or will initiate a cut scene mid-action, and that will annoy some gamers. Last year, when I first played the opening sequence to the game at Tomb Raider demo at last year’s EB Game Expo

10140Monastery_Tomb

in Sydney I did fear that the game might be too reliant on cut scenes and cinematic sequences, and there are plenty, but such treatment didn’t seem to detract from the game play. Other times, the game will hold your hand by highlighting what objects can be climbed (wooden walls are splattered by white paint), but it didn’t worry me. And, as if in a nod to traditional gaming conventions,  orange barrels that can explode are here in abundance, especially in tightly compacted environments. When will bad guys learn?

I felt that the Quick Time Events were overused at times during the combat, especially to take down larger, heavily armoured enemies, and it does make me question whether we really need QTEs anymore.

Personally, I found the re-booted Tomb Raider a shot in the arm for the series, and it was pleasing seeing a Lara Croft that is more grounded in reality than previous incarnations. It’s also amazing to think that this Tomb Raider is from the same console generation that also bought us Tomb Raider Legend:  The differences between the two games are stark, not only graphically.

I found Tomb Raider a lot of fun and it shows that there is still life in the old girl yet.

The Last of Us: a new take on survival horror?

Happy to see me? Joel has his hands full with one of The Last of Us' clickers.

Happy to see me? Joel has his hands full with one of The Last of Us’ clickers.

Clickers are not the sort of thing you want to tackle head-on.

Appearing in Naughty Dogs’ post-apocalyptic The Last of Us, clickers are humans turned into monsters by a deadly fungal infection. Clearly, it’s something a little more potent than athelete’s foot then.

They might be blind and have a head that looks as though a mushroom has imploded in on itself, but they’re deadly, thanks to their heightened sense of hearing and a guttural sonar-like clicking sound.

If they hear a noise they’ll become alert, their head moving from side to side to locate the source.  They can move pretty quickly, too, and trying to down them in a frontal assault results in a painful death – as I found out several times during my hands-on time with alpha code of the game. Clickers go for the neck, leaving little to the imagination.

In his first encounter with a clicker, in an abandoned, shadowy, partially-destroyed building, Joel, the hero of The Last of Us with a sketchy past, has two options:  skirt around the creature silently, making sure not to attract its attention, or pick up one of the myriad objects lying around – say, a bottle or a brick – and throw it, creating a distraction.  That’ll get the clickers attention.

I guide Joel behind a set of drawers, picking up a brick then lob it towards the corner of the room. The lone clicker perks up – what’s left of his head turning to the direction of the noise – and he shambles forward, trying to pinpoint where the noise came from.

Before entering the room I fashioned a shiv – a makeshift knife – out of a pair of scissors and some tape that I’d found discarded in a room. Supplies are in short supply so you quickly learn to pick up whatever you come across. You never know when you’ll need it.  The shiv is going to come in handy with clickers. Of course, you can use guns and pipes against them, but clickers are a hardy bunch and take a lot of bullets to down, leaving you open to attack from other infected nearby. Ammunition is also in short supply so stealth is often the best option in some situations.

But back to our friend the clicker.

The shambling monster is now sniffing around some desks in the corner of the room, investigating the noise. His back is towards me. My PR minder urges me to run towards the creature  – done so by holding down the PS3 controller’s L2 button – hoping to initiate a silent kill. I hesitate too long and the clicker turns around, his teeth sinking into Joel’s neck. Clickers are only distracted for around a second so stealth kills need to be quick and without hesitation.

I try again: tossing a brick into the corner of the room, attracting the attention of the clicker. I run towards him but this time I had realise I’d forgotten to fashion a shiv so have nothing to stab him with. The last checkpoint is reloaded.

I try one more time, shiv made and no hesitation. I rush the distracted clicker. An on-screen prompt appears.  I press the triangle button and Joel stabs the clicker, its twitching body falling to the ground. Be warned: Stealth kills on clicker must be flawless and perfectly timed. There is no room for error.

This was an easy kill. It was just one clicker, but things get much tougher when confronted with several clickers and runners, a form of infected human that can both see you and runs towards you. Fast.  A variety of strategies need to be used if you want to survive in The Last of Us’ unforgiving urban wasteland.

Unlikely pairing: Joel is gruff and has a mysterious past; Ellie is a 14-year-old girl is a dab hand with a handgun.

Unlikely pairing: Joel is gruff and has a mysterious past; Ellie is a 14-year-old girl is a dab hand with a handgun.

Tagging along with Joel is Ellie, a 14-year-old girl that he met while exploring the city, and Tess. Ellie’s had to grow up fast and she’s handy with a gun, although in my time with the game she was a little too eager at times. I died a couple of times from clicker attacks to the neck while silently creeping up behind one because she decided to start shooting at it!

The Last of Us forces you to assess a situation then act. Gung-ho actions will result in death.  If there’s a lone runner, then taking him out quietly, usually by strangulation, is the best option. And never use your gun if you don’t have too, especially if other infected are nearby. The noise will attract nearby infected.

To help in assessing a situation, Joel has the ability to go into “listening” mode, activated by R2, which lets him see where the zombies are and plan his moves accordingly (quite how he is able to do that, I’m not sure). It’s a handy tool for seeing where clickers and other infected are.

Another useful item that can be crafted is molotov cocktails, fashioned from scavenged bottles and petrol. Molotov’s are incredibly useful in clearing out three or four clickers congregating together, especially in the infected’s hive. A shotgun works wonders, too, but again, ammunition is in short supply and is the noise it will create worth it? Taking several clickers out at once is less terrifying than creeping around in the shadows, fearful that one will appear around a corner when you least expect it.

The Last of Us manages to give you edge-of-the seat scares without being over-the-top frightening. It’s a survival horror game that forces you to think before you act and use your resources wisely. I like that.

It’s out in June on the PlayStation 3.