It just occurred to me that I never actually wrote that comparative review of Prey and Bioshock. Also, I've been advised to avoid cliche titles, so I'm dropping the allusion to "a tale of two cities" in my title. Not that cliches are always bad. But that's for another post. This post is about two video games. I bought and played both video games at around the same time period. I played them both on the XBox360 (actually, I first bought Prey for the PC, but my home computer couldn't handle it, so I bought another copy for the Xbox).
What was interesting to me is that Bioshock seemed to be a lot more popular, and it won more awards, but it was clearly an inferior game. Bioshock had impressive production values, but poor game play. By production values, I mean the visual artwork, the voice acting, the dialog and similar sorts of things not related to game play (except for the predictable cliche of having the narrator who leads you through the early game turn on you near the end). But, as good as the production values were, Bioshock was rather unimpressive as a game. There were only four different kinds of opponents. The special abilities were cliche: you've got your fire, you've got your lightening, and you've got your ice attack. And the special abilities didn't fit the scifi explanation for them. Also, the game takes place in an underground city but one of the attacks was a swarm of bees (actually just fire with a different special effect).
There was nothing original in the game play at all, unless you count the "hacking" subgame. More on that later. There was a beautiful underwater city and you wandered around in it, killing bad guys. Stairs and elevators were about the only obstacles. You are in an underwater city, but there is no swimming except for the very beginnin where you fake-swim on the surface. There is also no climbing, no crawling, no driving ... In terms of game play, this game was less complex than Quake. And that was disappointing because once I saw the setting, I was looking forward to game element like scuba, driving submarines, and maybe a scene where you have to leave an airlock without breathing gear and make it to another airlock before you run out of air. But no. Just run and shoot, run and shoot, hide, run and shoot. That's the game.
One thing about Bioshock that seemed to impress other reviewers was the hacking feature. This is where you want to hack a computer or electronic lock or something, so they bring up an related arcade-style game. If you win the arcade-style game then you have hacked successfully. I don't care much for this game mechanic. If I wanted to play an arcade-style game then I would have bought an arcade-style game. Actually the arcade-style game was fairly entertaining, but if they had chosen a different one, I can easily see myself hating the entire Bioshock game for forcing me to waste my time playing a game that I don't like just to go on with the game that I wanted to play.
By contrast, the production values of Prey were not very good. The scenery was a bit plastic, the dialog and voice acting were cringe-inducing, and the plot was uniformly bad. But the game play was awesome. They introduced a number of new features that were really cool, and the levels made excellent use of them. They had changing gravity. There were silver pathways with their own gravity. You would walk into a room, walk up the wall, and soon you could look upside down at the door you just entered. Some of the walkways could be turned on and off, by you or by opponents. There were portals -- holes in space that connect two different game areas --step through a portal in room A and end up in room B. And there was a new kind of player ability, astral projection. You could have your spirit step out of your body. The spirit could bypass some barriers that would stop the body, but it couldn't use the artificial gravity of the silver walkways. There were lots of obstacles involving the walkways and portals, where you had to use your wits and astral projection to solve the problem. There were space vehicles to pilot. And there were some very cool effects combining portals and scaling. Prey is arguably the most interesting game in terms of in-game effects since Duke-Nukem 3D.
I'm afraid that what the game companies are going to learn from this pair and their relative success is that FPS games are just interactive action movies. Get good production values, a couple of charismatic characters, and a predictable plot, let the player pull a trigger once in a while, and you've got a prize-winner. And that would be too bad, because those games just aren't much fun. I didn't even finish Bioshock. I was bored near the end and just stopped playing.
One thing really struck me about both games --the use of violence against children. In Bioshock, you are encouraged to kill little girls and suck the life out of them to increase your own powers. If you refuse to do it, then you still get to play, but it is more difficult to win. I wouldn't do that even in a game. The whole idea of playing an evil person doesn't appeal to me at all. In Prey, there are a couple of pointless scenes where you have to fight the ghosts of murdered children. That didn't strike me as being as bad as Bioshock because, first, the ghosts were actually attacking you and would kill you eventually if you didn't fight back, and second, they were ghosts rather than real children.
Still, I wondered if this was sign of things to come. As video games compete with each other to be more violent and more objectionable to parents, we might be seeing more and more of this deliberately-shocking violence. And that's something that worries me, not only as a social event but in terms of what it means to the future of games. Shocking violence doesn't appeal to me at all. I have no interest in slasher movies, and if FPS games start to look like slasher movies I'm going to lose a form of entertainment that I used to enjoy.