Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
When I left PC Gamer a few months back, I wrote up five things I learned from my 9 years there. I also promised to pick apart something I’d written to show how I’d tried to apply this stuff in practice. Continued
“It has the atmosphere of a cheerful village fete, but in a village that couldn’t exist. At one point, we seem to be in a cloud: a thick haze turns everyone in the street to silhouettes, picked out by spectacular rays of golden sunlight. Confetti floats through the air, and hummingbirds pause to probe flowers. Two children splash each other in a leaking fire hydrant.”
“Half an hour later, for reasons I won’t go into, I’m ramming a metal gear into a man’s eye socket until blood geysers all over my face. I’m drenched. Everyone’s screaming. Four more men are coming for me, and this blunt steel prong is all I have to kill them with.”
This will sound bad, but the last thing I expected was for BioShock 2 to be worthwhile. It’s like making a Fight Club 2 – either you’re not gonna have that twist, or we’ll kinda see it coming. It wasn’t any lack of faith in the team – BioShock was very much Ken Levine’s gig, sure, but the prospect of a Jordan Thomas gig is just as enticing. But starting from a position of Least Necessary Sequel Ever, given too little time to both form a studio and significantly reinvent the game (MoonShock!), and committed to the obsequious inclusion of multiplayer – I could see fun, I could see interesting, I couldn’t see “I’m glad they made this.”
I am glad they made this. It feels like a remake, a ridiculous thing to do immediately after a great game, but some of BioShock’s systems needed it. By the last third of that game, you’d found enough interesting plasmids and tonics to develop some properly demented playstyles, ones very personal to your preferences. BioShock 2 is saying: what if that moment was just a few hours in, and you could just keep getting more bizarre, manipulative and powerful from there? Mechanically, it finishes BioShock’s clever sentence.
Plot-wise… I guess my only problem with the plot is that I missed almost all of it. As a Big Daddy might, I grasped that I was after my Little Sister, but all the other voices in my head seemed like a very long list of names all angry at me for something I didn’t understand. After hours and hours of hearing her talk about it, I still have no idea what Lamb’s plan for Eleanor was, or even what she believes in – except that it isn’t ‘the self’. I thought doing philosophy at uni would help, but I think I need a degree in listening. I can barely process basic information in a game unless it affects the level in front of me.
Both BioShocks often feel like two different game ideas, layered on top of each other but not convincingly connected. There’s the Ecosystem, this alien world of inhuman protectors stomping around with delirious gatherers, while packs of crazed aggressors try to steal them away. Then there’s the Backstory, a tawdry tale of fifties dames and johns doing the dirty on each other while high-minded well-to-dos carry on like they own the joint.
I buy into both, and I even buy into the Backstory leading to the Ecosystem, as the failed utopia finds a physical outlet for its neuroses in Adam, and creates something monstrous. What never works for me in either game is that the Backstory is still going on. Ryan set these Splicers on me? Why, don’t they just attack everything anyway? And now these Splicers are working for Lamb’s Family. They came to see the fundamental validity of her ethos in the last ten years, did they? In between screaming “Semen! On EVERYTHING!” and scampering across the ceiling with meathooks?
It makes it hard to understand what’s happened in the ten year gap. Lamb’s seized control – of what? What does control constitute in a leaking city of lunatics and corpse-sucking drones? And it leads to a structural clash: you must find your child and stop the demagogue psychologist as soon as possible! WAIT: You have not harvested or saved all the Little Sisters on this level, are you sure you wish to proceed?
WAIT: The rest of this post contains ending spoilers, are you sure you wish to proceed? Show.
BioShock 2 is hurt by the disconnect more often than the first game, whose story was more about uncovering the past than following an unfolding plot in the present. But funnily enough, 2 has the one moment when the two really gel. You become a Little Sister – a great nod to the first game’s sojourn as a Big Daddy – in what initially seems an unspoilt area of Rapture. Then, as you approach a parlour-perfect body to extract some Adam, you get a flash of reality: you’re in a dark, wet, broken hellhole kneeling over mutant corpse to drink its blood. You get to experience a little of both worlds, which makes the ruins of Rapture feel horrific rather than drab.
I wasn’t as crazy about the bit after that, where I had to break into two pediatrics wards so that Eleanor could turn the children into lava to boil away some ballast water. Wouldn’t turning the water to steam leave the ballast container with the same overall density? Also the lava children thing, in the form of a question? As usual, though, I didn’t grasp a word of what was being said to me, so I’m probably misunderstanding.
Eleanor’s final decision about whether to kill Lamb, and what to do about your death, depends on how you’ve treated the Little Sisters and the three killable characters during the game. Jordan calls this refraction rather than reflection of your moral choices: instead of the game saying “LOOK WHAT YOU HAVE DONE!”, it says “This is what your kid did, following your example.”
Both BioShocks read me wrong: I killed the Sisters in the first, but I wasn’t planning on hijacking a nuclear sub with Splicers as the ending presumed. I saved them in the second, because the first taught me that doing the right thing is also more profitable in this moral universe – helpfully removing the decision-making process. Eleanor’s response to that was to spare Lamb, when I would have much rather she skewered the twat.
The difference is that in BioShock 2, it made sense: I inadvertantly had set a good example, Eleanor probably would have learned mercy from me. And in BioShock 2, you don’t have to fight a giant award.
The issue of PC Gamer with my BioShock review in is now on-sale in England. I wrote it mostly with lunatic fans like myself in mind, so I don’t spend a lot of time saying what really should be the first thing you say about BioShock: holy shit! Someone made a game about a subaquatic capitalist utopia for the intellectual elite! And it’s going to sell? This is a game in which you have to know some of the history of Versailles to understand one of the villain’s insults to you.
There are ways in which BioShock does more with its subject matter than any other game I can name, but mostly it’s just amazing to have something to sink your brain’s figurative teeth into. It has ideas. There are themes. I think I even saw a paradigm.
I’ve started capitalising the ‘S’, you’ll be riveted to hear, because a) it’s correct, and I’m a fan of correct, but also b) it’s very System Shock 2. You can even draw a line from each of Rapture’s districts to each of Shock 2’s decks. They might not be able to say so legally, but there is a Shock series of games and this is one of them. The best, in fact.
I was slightly bemused when I first heard that they wanted to make a game set somewhere “more interesting than a spaceship”, because Shock 2 did such an extraordinary job of making that ship a vast and exciting place to explore. But yeah, I get it now. This is an order of magnitude more artistically exciting.
I’m not talking about the bits where you kill children, because they’re not very good and they don’t need to be. Everyone will fixate on them forever and ever and it will be boring and terrible and that’s a shame. They’re not important, either emotionally or mechanically, and the game has so much more going on that is provocative and brave and weird and brilliant.
The lunatic fans seem to be satisfied, by the way – although they frantically crave documentation of every microsecond of the infanticide. And one called me a ‘filthy worm’ for giving it a score as low as 95%. While I was away in France last week, the first copies were delivered to subscribers, and one guy on the official forums got to be a mini-celebrity for a few days by being the only person who’d read the first ever review of their holy game. People grilled him for info and implored him to type in the first few sentences. I love being a part of something that inspires that level of excitement, even if I’m just riding Irrational’s coat tails.
There’s a line in my review that starts “So kindly avoid any…” I would just like to say, for the record, that this line originally read slightly differently, and you will probably be able to guess precisely how once you’ve completed the game. It was a very obvious and weak in-joke that hinges on something enormously spoilerific but invisible to the uneducated eye. I couldn’t ask Tony to make sure he kept it intact when he was sub-editing my review because it would have entirely ruined the game for him, so I’m just going to have to ask you to come back here in a month, sneer slightly at my failed attempt at a bad joke, then switch your neural interface back over to whatever Zero-G Hyper Sports event the future will presumably be full of.