12 Jun 2012

Struck down by the flu, I'm spending my time in a hazy, feverish world of surprise attacks, deadly foes, and careful resource management.

It feels very familiar.

A lot of Bioshock is about shooting things in the head, but that's not the familiar bit. In between, it forces you to constantly upgrade yourself. Just about everything you do in the game, from running to shooting to surviving attacks to hacking security, you can get better at. There's even a bar chart of two key abilities permanently on screen. Things you choose to focus on, you improve. It works like real life.

And I'm finding that I even play it like life. Every combat is an opportunity to build skills and resources. Instead of simply defeating enemies I spend most of my time working out how to dispatch them with 100% efficiency, always saving up my most valuable ammunition for a time of greater need.

But the simulation is incomplete; half of the cycle is missing. In Bioshock, once you get something, it's yours. Learned to throw fireballs back in level 2? You still can, even if you've moved on since. Once a gun is upgraded, it stays upgraded. This can even work against you; taking certain paths permanently closes others.

And that's not how things are. I used to be able to run a half-marathon in two hours. I worked for that ability, running 10km most mornings before cycling to work. I used to speak better French. Hell, I used to be a first-rate Ruby programmer.

In real life, the moment you turn your attention away from something - be it a connection, skill, opportunity or ability - it starts to disintegrate. You don't get to keep anything; you can't grind Fireball up to max level and then relax forever. Your ability profile is not a bar chart; it's a pie chart.

You are what you do. Not what you have done.

I'd like to see a game that models the full cycle. Each turn, you gain ten points in any ability you used - and lose one point in every other. Instead of levelling up you level sideways, changing your mix towards what you need right now, without being able to accumulate anything. I'd like to play that game.

But it would probably be very depressing.