The contemporary big-budget FPS has a few different strains: blood-n-guts military settings a la Call of Duty, open-world environments like Far Cry, and high-concept dystopias. Outside of open-world most of these styles were first codified in the 1990s, and FPS games then and now share an enormous amount: primarily a core mechanic of shooting many hundreds of enemies in the face over and over again, as well as crossover in areas like structure, goal-chaining, and narrative delivery. FPS games, in other words, have for a long time been constructed on resilient and proven principles. And many of them come from Looking Glass Studios.
Looking Glass lasted around a decade, but in that time the Massachusetts-based developer co-founded by Paul Neurath and Ned Lerner had an enormous impact on the FPS genre: not least with the pioneering Ultima Underworld, the sight of which inspired a young John Carmack to try and do better. The psychological horror of System Shock or spatial complexity and enemy AI of Thief resonate through first-person games to this day.
Excuse such a brief introduction for a truly gold-standard developer, but in-depth articles on any one of Looking Glass’s games are plentiful, and the focus here is on what happens next. A disproportionate number of notable contemporary FPS designers are Looking Glass alumni: Doug Church (Portal 2), Austin Grossman (Deus Ex, Deus Ex: Invisible War, Dishonored), Ken Levine (Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite), Emil Pagliarulo (Fallout 3, Skyrim) and Warren Spector (Deus Ex) among many more. Others such as Harvey Smith (Deus Ex, Dishonored) spent significant time there as contractors.
The history of Looking Glass, in this light, goes far beyond the studio’s demise. One through-line I love thinking about, in terms of how a core mechanic can change and adapt over time, is Thief into Deus Ex into Dishonored. All have large, complex environments offering a multitude of ways to approach or avoid enemies, complete faith in their core mechanics, and weave themes through the objectives. I’m not arguing that this is a direct line, that Dishonored is Thief’s ‘true sequel’ or anything, but the three games show what happens when core systems and their principles are examined by great creators and re-invented in future work.
Among the most well-known alumni of Looking Glass is Ken Levine, and the biggest influence on his career was 1994’s System Shock. That much is obvious from the names of the two games for which he’s best known, BioShock and its second sequel BioShock Infinite. But while, like Dishonored, those games represent a continuation of ideas and principles forged at Looking Glass, the BioShocks also act as a full stop to at least some of those ideas.
In the FPS System Shock, the antagonist SHODAN mocks the player constantly, icily noting your progress and making threats as you approach key objectives. I can’t find a videogame precedent for using an antagonist as such a constant narrative presence and tool, not only the player’s eventual goal but also the master of their environment. It also removed dialogue trees, through the simple method of having only dead NPCs, and told the story through logs and emails found around the environment.
The first project of the studio Ken Levine co-founded, Irrational Games, was System Shock 2 – in partnership with Looking Glass. Levine’s original idea was apparently for a new game but publisher EA owned the System Shock IP, and this compromise meant the game has an early but unforgettable twist for those familiar with the original: working alongside the delusional ship-controlling AI SHODAN.
At a stroke this confuses and isolates the player by using exactly the same central mechanic but inverting it. SHODAN is clearly the worst kind of ally, one that is likely to stab you in the back at any moment, and yet aboard the Von Braun spaceship there is simply no other option. As you proceed SHODAN taunts you with this, offering constant reminders that the “meat” of your body is alive only through the cybernetic enhancements she grants you.
You can read countless paeans to System Shock 2 and SHODAN (most of the best written by the good Kieron Gillen), but the takeaway point here is that it flips an effective narrative technique to disorient the player. It shows Irrational engaging with the idea of the omnipresent antagonist, and adapting rather than merely re-using it.
Thanks to a cool commercial reception, it would be eight years until System Shock 2’s ‘spiritual sequel’ Bioshock (2007). Bioshock’s setting is the greatest FPS games have so far produced: Rapture, a city at the bottom of the ocean created by uber-capitalist Andrew Ryan as an escape from the “petty moralities” of surface-dwellers. A world where the scientist is free to pursue his research, where the artist need not cater to popular taste, where a man can choose his own destiny. Your first glimpse of Rapture, at the climax of an Andrew Ryan speech, is spine-tingling.
Ryan is another ever-present antagonist, in this case paired with his rival Fontaine, and Bioshock owes much to System Shock 2’s other core mechanics – this too is an FPS with upgrade trees, a background antagonist, environments that tell stories and seriously creepy noises everywhere. But Bioshock’s great achievement is unique: it uses these techniques to question the nature of player control, and our unquestioning acceptance of narrative conventions.
As you move through Rapture, guided by unknown benefactor Atlas and hounded by Ryan, a code phrase unobtrusively creep into the script in a manner that first-time players rarely notice. By the time you reach Andrew Ryan, around halfway through the game, he’s worked it out and explains how you’re being controlled in a scripted sequence – outside of the opening and ending bookends, Bioshock’s only cutscene. The centre of Ryan’s philosophy is that “a man chooses, a slave obeys.” The centre of this meeting is that your lack of agency makes that point.
As a final gift from father to son, Ryan demonstrates your pitiful condition in a series of commands prefaced by “would you kindly” – Sit… Stand… Run… Stop… Turn… Such are the typical actions a player performs while playing an FPS. Powerless, you watch each command followed. The final instruction is to “kill.” As you hit an unresisting Ryan, he pulls the screen towards his bloodied face and screams “obey!”
As Ryan’s corpse drops to the floor, so does the illusion of agency. All that players ever do in FPS games is follow commands, whether they be from an SAS commander or simply on-screen text, and this moment shows what kind of control the audience has in such worlds. A developer chooses, and the player obeys. In its way this is one of the most self-lacerating themes a game has ever had, with more than a touch of patricide – what of Bioshock’s great predecessors after this?
It is a great tragedy that, following such a climactic moment, Bioshock can’t take it home with a second half that delivers – or even suggests – an alternative. It really should have ended with Ryan, but instead plays itself out in objective-led fashion, expecting players to somehow forget what’s just happened.
Irrational Games spent six years working on Bioshock’s ‘true’ successor, Bioshock Infinite. Again the setting is visually outstanding, though not quite as well-explained as Rapture: the floating city of Columbia, seceded from the United States and run by religious zealot Zachary Comstock. What immediately intrigued me about Bioshock Infinite was what Levine planned to do with a central antagonist, as Comstock was positioned, after Bioshock had shown the smoke and mirrors at work.
The answer is probably lost to time, because there’s no doubt that Bioshock Infinite is an incomplete game – or, at the very least, a compromised one. It’s common knowledge that Rod Fergusson was parachuted into Irrational with nine months to go, a project that in his words was “in dire need of help,” and Fergusson’s job is to get games finished. Bioshock Infinite was delayed by a month after his arrival but shipped on March 26 to a generally positive reception.
There are certainly things to be said for Infinite, but almost all of its best moments come when you’re allowed to simply explore the world, rather than grimacing through regular and samey attritional engagements. I enjoyed the first few hours but found the rest an utter slog, and only ploughed through out of curiosity for what Irrational had planned for an ending. The final hour concertinas into a tonne of narrative explanation, not all of which is convincing, and where Bioshock questioned the nature of the shooter by this point Infinite is making you wonder why it’s a shooter at all.
Nevertheless it is a game with grand ambitions that, on occasion, still shine through. The interest is not in the hamfisted co-option of quantum mechanics and multiple-world theory, but what the narrative devices say in the context of Irrational and Ken Levine’s previous work.
On the surface Infinite’s ending elegantly establishes a get-out-of-jail free card for all future Bioshock games by saying that, basically, there are infinite worlds with “constants and variables.” This can be seen as a kind of rebuff to the Andrew Ryan theory – that is, the path may be fixed but how you walk it still comes down to choice.
Infinite also changes course on one of Bioshock’s biggest fudges – the ‘moral choice’ of saving or harvesting Little Sisters. Infinite makes no pretence of offering moral choices, instead focusing on small-scale decisions and then sending up the very idea with the Luteces’ coin-toss experiment (where it lands ‘heads’ 122 times). The latter references Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, where the pair flip a coin that keeps landing on heads, the point in the play being that these two characters are trapped in a larger narrative arc (i.e. Shakespeare’s Hamlet) that they can’t control.
These two refrains work on a few levels. The first is the surface explanation. Everything and nothing you do as Booker matters, because those paths will be followed anyway by someone else – some other Booker. By extension games which offer players moral choices, a popular industry selling point, are offering you an illusion of control where there is none: each path has already been created and followed countless times.
So far, so reasonable. But the type of narrative game that Looking Glass and then Irrational Games had been making for around two decades are exactly what Infinite is ‘exposing.’ Infinite tries to suggest consolation lies in the constants and variables. It also suggests, in an awfully clumsy manner, that free will does somehow matter – because Booker ultimately decides to become neither future Booker nor Comstock, but instead die by drowning (an incident he somehow survives.)
If ever there was an ending that makes sense initially but falls apart when you look closer, Infinite is it. The conclusion is hotly-debated but, despite all the sciencey mumbo-jumbo, what Irrational’s final game is saying seems simple. In their overwhelming focus on traditional narrative forms, at the dawn of a new medium, both games and players have been looking for agency in all the wrong places. The Looking Glass model that so influenced Irrational Games was not a waste of time, not pointless, but a model where the trade-offs – in 2013 – are simply too large to be ignored any longer.
You have to suspect that Irrational and Levine knew this idea would not impact the mainstream FPS – we can expect FPS narratives to use these structures for decades to come, because they kind of work, and more than anything they’re proven. But that’s all they will ever be. This is a more personal statement, a closing of the door on decades of work. Shortly after Bioshock Infinite’s release Irrational Games closed its doors – something that senior figures surely knew was in the air.
It makes Infinite feel like a goodbye, a farewell to all that – to the younger selves in other timelines who had grafted and sacrificed to make it and all the others. The studio’s final game is, to me, no classic – but it is a powerful statement about modern FPS design, and the confines within which it operates.
It’s no accident that Infinite uses cardboard cutouts for its tutorial. Later you find the Hall of Heroes, with its elaborate cardboard dioramas of Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion, and even fight on the stage of the Good Time Club. Columbia’s atmosphere smacks of vaudeville, of showmanship and greasepaint, sets and rehearsals. Irrational Games makes clear, in many ways, that it’s all just a show. The only problem is that, if the show must go on, Bioshock Infinite can never quite heave its heart into its mouth and muster up a single reason why.