Bioshock Through The Looking Glass

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.

[Editor’s Note: Spoilers follow for System Shock 2, BioShock and BioShock Infinite.]

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.


  1. Beelzebud says:

    Bioshock Infinite was one of the few games that I found myself thinking about its meaning after I had finished it. I can’t say that about many games at all. To me this is a good thing. Some of my favorite movies play out like that.

    • MrFinnishDude says:

      Yeah, the ending was mind-bendingly -fuckingly -blowingly fantastic. I didn’t even check out any explanations on the internet so I could figure it out myself and shamelessly stroke my own ego.

      • tormeh says:

        Personally I thought the ending was crap. The commentary on American exceptionalism was pretty cool, but mind-bending just to bend minds has no meaning. The ending was confusing, yes, but being confusing is not the same as being interesting. It comes off a bit like Cloud Atlas – the Michael Bay version of philosophy.

        • -Zarathustra- says:

          I also thought it was crap. Bioshock Infinite’s story was not thematically deep, it just hit you with many narrative events in a short space of time so you couldn’t keep up. Narrative complexity isn’t depth.

          • AngoraFish says:

            Also, confusing false moral equivalence for nuanced storytelling is embarassing enough in first year creative writing assignmnents. That many players and reviewers managed to read something profound into the narrative, however, reflects especially poorly on the quality of writing in the game industry more generally.

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            FhnuZoag says:

            I did not like Bioshock Infinite’s ending. I thought the main problem was that there was no real connection between the two themes – american exceptionalism/transdimensional hijinks, so the transition between them basically grinds up everything that is human and interesting about the characters. There’s a palpable moment where you feel that Levine is announcing ‘okay, story A about racism etc is over now, can all the actors get off the stage so we can start story B about interdimensional travel!’

            HOWEVER, I disagree with your cynicism about the reactions of players and writers. I think it actually speaks to something hopeful – that the medium of games creates the sort of close engagement, that allows players to apply thought and consideration to works. One interesting thing to note is that perhaps videogames are the works people spend the longest time actively engaging with, outside of professional academic study of literature.

        • Cinek says:

          I very much agree. Your comparison with Cloud Atlas seems to be perfect. Forced pseudo-intellectual philosophy trying to look fantastic, but ultimately failing. The whole stuff with alternative universes is very much like beating a dead horse by now, and to make it even worse – it’s beating a dead horse in very uncreative way. Somehow it felt more like one of Star Trek episodes released 20 years too late instead of something I would expect from otherwise decent game.

          • Booker says:

            I don’t know that many game stories that employ this and also the game was in development for 5 years. so it couldn’t be helped if similar stories would come out in the meantime.

        • Lakshmi says:

          Please tell me you mean Cloud Atlas the film, not the novel.

        • Booker says:

          I honestly think nothing about the ending is confusing. It is pretty straight forward and doesn’t allow much room for interpretation. It’s all in the game from the beginning and fits. I even saw it coming, because it was all in there from the start.

    • dethtoll says:

      By contrast I found the ending to be really trite, ham-fisted schlock. I don’t particularly care for alternate universe nonsense outside the pages of comic books where they belong, and that they threw the plotline with half-interesting sociopolitical commentary (and Daisy Fitzroy’s characterization) under the bus in favour of an uninteresting paperback sci-fi one is one of the bigger failings of Infinite, of which there are many.

      Bioshock 2 is the best one because Levine had nothing to do with it.

      • Booker says:

        Without Levine BioShock 2 wouldn’t even exist. Hope it’s not too alternative reality for you guys. :P

  2. DrGonzo says:

    I thought the first Bioshock felt like a goodbye to the linear shooter, the twist felt like a joke on it even. But then Infinite came out and was a load of balls :(

  3. Monggerel says:

    “I am an animal; you see that. I don’t know the words, they didn’t teach me the words. I don’t know how to think, the bastards didn’t let me learn how to think.”

    It was a recent realization that thinking about games the way one might think about film or literature or theatre is entirely abnormal. That to see meaning in games is a mark of skewed priorities and arrogance.
    Great stories are apart from others because of “the feels” they give you.

    • padger says:

      Yep. RPS looks like some ’90s era tabloid blog, but it’s actually the game equivalent of a Parisian cafe where existentialists fail to understand each other under their berets.

  4. padger says:

    “It really should have ended with Ryan”

    Infinitely this. What the fuck were they thinking?

    • Xocrates says:

      I would one day honestly like to ask Ken Levine what his goal with Bioshock was, particularly after Burial at Sea 2 essentially deified Jack and Bioshock that it actually felt like fan fic.

      I believe I’ve once read (though can’t find the source) that the metacommentary of the twist was actually unintentional, which would go a long way to explain “what the fuck they were thinking”.

    • ffordesoon says:

      If I had to guess, they probably didn’t want to end the game on such a downbeat note. Or the publisher wanted it to have a more upbeat ending. Or they thought the publisher would want a more upbeat ending, and created one. Or they were worried about the game being too short, and players not feeling like they got value for their money.

      In other words, I think it probably boiled down to “Will the Average Gamer like this?” Which is kind of death, at least artistically. I feel like Infinite suffered just as much from that sort of second-guessing, if not more. That’s probably one of the reasons why so much of the game consists of shooting and nothing much else.

  5. Artea says:

    The sheer crappiness of all the Bioshock games (in particular the silly ‘mature’ themes) makes me suspect Ken Levine’s involvement in System Shock 2 wasn’t that significant.

    • UnholySmoke says:

      It’s possible you’ve clicked on the wrong website.

    • dethtoll says:

      Now now let’s be fair here, Levine also wrote the original Thief — isn’t that another title hailed as the Second Coming of Video Game Christ? But that one, unlike SS2, actually WAS good.

      • Cinek says:

        “isn’t that another title hailed as the Second Coming of Video Game Christ? ” – nope. But a lot of people who played tons of Thief back in their childhood tried to make it exactly that before the New Theif release.

  6. Shazbut says:

    Very nice article. Really I wish all articles were an endless analysis of Looking Glass studios’ games until the industry Got The Point and started making more of them, or at least liberated the System Shock license.

    I do find the meta aspect tiresome though. It’s the oft celebrated part of Bioshock – “look how it comments on the nature of game design”! – but apart from being clever and good for writing words about, I don’t care. It wasn’t that that made System Shock genius. It was the depth of the atmosphere, about just how profound the feelings of isolation, fear, horror and wonder were. And the fact it was an RPG. And other things. But not how it was a commentary on player agency, as interesting as that is

    • Bart Stewart says:

      This is pretty close to my own feelings, although the very best articles I’ve read on BioShock Infinite were by Eric Schwarz at Gamasutra: one on mechanics (link to and one on Infinite’s story (link to

      Looking Glass Studios remains important to me because I think you can trace a definite arc of a particular kind from Ultima Underworld through System Shock, and then branching into the Thief/Deus Ex/Dishonored path and the System Shock 2/BioShock/Infinite path. And that arc is indeed about player agency.

      But it’s not about agency as immediate actions taken by one player, such as “can I choose to shoot that enemy in the face for more damage?” It’s about designing for multiple kinds of players.

      UU deeply incorporated the idea, if imperfectly, of supporting multiple solutions to gameplay challenges. In part that was environmental; levels were designed to support different kinds of movement. Combined with multiple modes of action (melee or magical combat plus some conversation), players who preferred different ways to solve problems were supported. The game was deliberately designed to be fun for different styles of play. It was fun mechanically; it was interesting dynamically; and it was satisfying (within the constraints of early ’90s tech) aesthetically. It’s not a surprise, seeing UU in that light, that LGS alumnus Mark LeBlanc would contribute to the MDA model for understanding the design of computer games.

      That notion of providing multiple ways of solving play challenges was retained in System Shock, although diminished by the use of audio logs rather than active dialogs with living NPCs. System Shock 2 preserved this. Meanwhile, Thief added NPCs but still had no active dialogs, instead highlighting the use of the environment for different ways to solve challenges.

      Deus Ex did it all. I think it’s fair to say that Deus Ex, one of the last big PC-only games, was the greatest moment in player-centric design. You could shoot, or hack, or hide, or evade, or circumvent, or converse, and in many cases throughout the game all of those different approaches were relevant and fun. The two Deus Ex sequels and Dishonored had fewer options, but the soul of the “multiple solution types” philosophy was still visible and still worked.

      And then there were the BioShocks. From the original, to BioShock 2, to BioShock Infinite, each game simplified the experience. The environment became nothing more than a backdrop. The levels became more linear. The story more frequently planted a boot in the player’s backside, saying “Get on with it! Go see the next attraction I planned out for you!”

      I know it’s tempting to want to read that as a meta-commentary on “a player obeys,” but I wonder if that’s not just a convenient excuse for what may just have been AAA-itis: the fear that some player, if given problem-solving freedom, might get bored or confused for a moment and quit playing.

      The true greatness of the pre-BioShock games is that they never condescended to players in that way.

      If anything of the Looking Glass games should be retained and built on as the unique selling point of computer games over other entertainment forms, it’s that — their respect for players and their preferred ways of playing games.

      • Josh W says:

        Agree with this, and I think one of the problems of self-referentially closed game structures – where the narrative admits its restrictions – is that we’ve already seen games that circumvent them. The stanley parable is a far more impressive game from that perspective, because it is jokingly aware of forms of limitation that are outside of those many other games have reached. (Of course, the simple nature of the game world allows this, bioshock was drawn in two directions from the start; even after the hollowness of the game’s purposive structures is revealed, there is still more of rapture to see. The real self-referential question to be answered is one about tourism, about going to a place that is so beautiful in it’s corruption, and deciding the extent to which you want it to retain it’s internal madness for your entertainment. Comstock’s more theatrical but also fundamentally racist and awful world, plus the themes of alternative worlds, could have allowed them to play this element up even more strongly.)

        When you start thinking about not what these games say, but how they feel, and the hybrid player modelling going on, the striking thing about them is how differently they can feel within a few plays of a single level, how diverse the potential different emotions to the world and it’s contents is, because of the breadth of ways we can direct ourselves towards them. If you get attached to an NPC, you can express that attachment, and the game wraps around it. If you want to subvert the levels and live within the walls, or come in the front door panicked but also surprising, then those all apply. The fact that I could be interchangably talking about deus ex or dishonoured there is an example of what I mean; they didn’t just present you with choices, they supported attitudes to the world.

        This is why the books and background are not just a nice element on top of the true agency of branching paths, they are support to an attitude of responding to the world, look at it, think about it, etc. and maybe even respond to someone differently because of what you have heard.

  7. Tychoxi says:

    I’m sorry but removing the morality system altogether doesn’t fix it or work on any level. The same goes for the linearity. Infinite was the culmination of bringing System Shock 2 down to the lowest common denominator.

    • dethtoll says:

      More like Levine believed his own hype. Bioshock 1 was fine as a stripping away of a lot of the shittier bits of SS2 (you will never ever convince me that SS2’s luck-based hacking or Inventory Tetris or weapon degradation or chem-based research or fucking goddamn psychic monkeys were good ideas, ever) but it was typical Levine in that it climaxed too early and overstayed its welcome, like the drunken frat boys Levine clearly envied and despised while getting that liberal arts degree. Bioshock 2 was what BS1 should have been. Bioshock Infinite was Levine the Man being overtaken by Levine the Ego and constructing a game mashing two concepts together in as messily as possible.

  8. Ryuuga says:

    Great read, tho kind of ending on a bit of a sad note. Surely there is a way forward? Sure, a game like Planescape Torment is almost entirely linear, yet it tells a great story. But I guess it would be hard to make a game that both made good sense and had endings the developers did not foresee or create. It sure would be a challenge to procedural generation…

    • mpk says:

      But surely to have a narrative ending, the developer must create it?

      EDIT: Wait, oh I see what you did there. You wrote that paragraph so hard that it completely changed meaning after I read it properly! Erm. Yeah. Basically, I agree with you.

      • Ryuuga says:

        Ah, um, yeah I guess I kinda switched from one thing to the next on the fly there.

        Surely someone has done some sort of experimental procedurally generated narrative at this point? Not that I really play these things, but seeing as to the stuff that gets posted about here on RPS, I would be surprised otherwise. Now, of course, the trick would be to get this to feel like a “real game” or “proper story”. Not necessarily being the same kind of game as Planescape Torment, or delivering the same kind of metacommentary as Bioshock, but being a good story in its own right? Maybe more on the lines of Vonnegut, who I seem to recall disliked the idea of a clear-cut “important protagonist” (in that it justified said protagonist walking all over the less important other people), but applied to the story? Ah. I hope this is an easier read than the last post I wrote..

        • Skull says:

          If you are talking about what I think you are, look up Sleep is Death. I am not sure anyone plays it any more but the idea was to have one player be the ‘storyteller’ and one be the protagonist. Storytellers could host their game online and someone else would connect to it. There were obviously a lot more protagonists that storytellers but some people were really creative.

          Although it sounds really gimmicky, it was actually really intuitive and easy to craft out a story using the in-game assets and programming. Something you will only see in indie games for sure.

          Edit: What I was supposed to say was that even though you had a ‘storyteller’ narrating the experience. The protagonist was free do do whatever action they liked which the storyteller could then react too. This created fun improv where the narrator was trying to steer the story one way whilst the player was doing something else. This meant each story was unique even if the storyteller was repeating one they had done in the past.

        • Bart Stewart says:

          “Surely someone has done some sort of experimental procedurally generated narrative at this point?”

          Interesting that you should ask that, as Ken Levine has been quoted following his departure from Irrational as being interested in something like “narrative Legos.” That’s not necessarily semi-randomly generated storytelling, but it’s a meaningful step in that direction.

    • grom.5 says:

      I remember there was one presented by RPS but I can’t managed to get the name. It was for a kickstarter… Yes found it again !

      Elegy for a dead world ; link to

      It’s a game about writing your own story. So, by definition, the developers didn’t foresee all the possible ending.

  9. Smith Replica says:

    “because Booker ultimately decides to become neither future Booker nor Comstock, but instead die by drowning (an incident he somehow survives.) ”

    No he doesn’t… not in THAT universe at least.

    • Cinek says:

      You sure of that? Cause unless I missed something – there is no point in a game to confirm what you are saying.

      • wishinghand says:

        It’s been awhile since I played it, but what was the evidence that he did survive that drowning?

      • fish99 says:

        Well obviously because the game immediately ends, but there’s absolutely no reason to think he would survive, and no suggestion that he does. Him dying there is pretty much the whole point of the game.

        Of course the idea that killing him in that reality would end his influence in every other reality is one of the main fallacies of the story, but that’s a separate debate from Rich apparently forgetting the basic story.

  10. Farsi Myrtle says:

    It’s not clear to me what you’re defining as the Looking Glass tradition here. I agree that offering ‘moral choices’ is a hollow illusion, but that’s more Bioware-style design where branching narrative reigns. The Looking Glass tradition is about systems design, about player agency within the constraints of those systems, and the emergent potential of them. The emergent properties of systems is the way to escape that problem of all ‘choices’ being pre-written, endlessly repeated, and ultimately meaningless. It’s also what the Bioshock games downplayed, preferring instead to focus on self-important scripted narrative. The poorly-handled collision of these approaches in Infinite is, as you say, what makes you wonder why it’s a shooter. That’s a question no one asks of System Shock 2.

  11. fuggles says:

    It’s an eternal shame to me that Terra Nova, one of my all time favourite games, and a looking glass one to boot is never remembered; never commented on, even though PC Gamer gave it a phenomenal write up. Personally I could write hundreds of words about its majesty, but alas. Please remember RPS, please! I will jog your memory if I have to.

    Flight unlimited was also fun, it had jelly on a plate.

    Ever since Binfinite, I cannot stop humming “God only knows” all the bloody time. Some of the architecture was overwhelmingly lovely – Battleship bay and Paris spring to mind. Perfectly lovely.

    • Bart Stewart says:

      Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri definitely was worth playing.

      It did have a couple of negatives, though. One was the full-motion video. It wasn’t Night Trap bad, but it still felt jarring (at least it did to me).

      The other was its use of UniVBE, which made it very difficult to get running correctly and even harder to keep it running under newer operating systems.

      The in-game content, though… that was great fun. Not the same kind of smart fun as their RPGs, but a blast to play taken on its own merits.

      • Shadowcat says:

        The FMV isn’t great, and I know there was plenty of cringing when I first watched it; but it really grew on me over the years. I can’t claim that I think it’s good… but I kinda like it now :)

    • Shadowcat says:

      You’re not the only one who loves Terra Nova.

      I still play it on the odd occasion, and I even recent(ish)ly achieved an old challenge I’d set myself: to complete the final mission, on world war difficulty, with no evacs, and with everyone in scout suits. There were some serious celebrations down at The Wreck that day, I can tell you :)

      Leading up to that I played the whole campaign on world war difficulty with Nikola in a scout suit whenever possible (I allowed the others to use standard suits, and didn’t worry about evacs), and I can also highly recommend that if you’re looking for a good challenge :)

      • Kaeoschassis says:

        Yeah, I’ve been making a point to yell loudly about Terra Nova at every available opportunity, it does seem to be neglected compared to the rest of Looking Glass’ triumphs – which is fair, I suppose, Thief and System Shock are arguably better games, but come on, TN was so far ahead of its time that it still has moderately revolutionary elements NOW.
        And yes, I am bitter because I don’t actually have a working copy anymore, does it show?

        • Shadowcat says:

          Do you still have your CD? Because the game runs beautifully in DOS Box on modern hardware! It took a long time for hardware to get to that point, it being one of the most system-intensive DOS games ever made, but for the past several years this has really been the way to run it.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      Terra Nova is brilliant! It even had procedurally animated sprites for the AI companions that looked bizarrely good. And said AI was staggeringly excellent as well, even by today’s standards. It’s a shame the entire game can easily be finished in an afternoon though.

      • Shadowcat says:

        You’re not making the game nearly hard enough for yourself if you’re finishing it in an afternoon :)

    • Shadowcat says:

      Screenshots for the nostalgic: link to

  12. Rodman1_r2 says:

    I don’t quite get the point of the piece. In my view, Infinite was one of the better recent narrative based games. It’s not perfect, and not a masterpiece, but it’s pretty good. Was there a narrative based FPS game released the same year as Infinite (judging Infinite on its own merits, not compared to or with the the first Bioshock in mind) that did a better job of telling a compelling story?

    • basilisk says:

      I’m not sure about that either. Where BioShock clearly builds on the Looking Glass legacy, Infinite has left it behind and is much closer to the model of the FPS pioneered/established by Half-Life 2. Which I should think is a rather obvious observation, making it unclear what exactly is the point here.

      But yes, reminding the gaming world of the work done by Looking Glass can never hurt. It’s a tragic shame that there is no modern game with the ethos and design principles of the incomparable Ultima Underworld.

    • drewski says:

      Yeah, I don’t think Ken ever really subscribed to the Looking Glass ethos in the way that, say, Warren Spector did. Even System Shock 2 wasn’t emergent in the same way that SS was, although it was obviously a lot closer than the later Irrational stuff.

      Which I’m fine with, but it seems to me to be yet another example of why Irrational Games are never allowed to actually just make the game they wanted – analysis always has to be about how they’ve failed to make something some other guy would have made and therefore Ken Levine’s the worst game designer in history.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Oakreef says:

    Never proper appreciation for System Shock 1!

  14. The Sombrero Kid says:

    It was heralded at the time but the truth is BioShock pulled a bait & switch, the solution to the problem was in its predecessors, it’s because it abandoned the principles of an immersive sim that it suffered from the lack of agency at all. And it’s sequels proved unwilling to rectify that actually following the linear narrative more closely. To class it as an extension of Looking Glass’ principles is sacrilege.

    • Volcanu says:

      I’m inclined to agree. I thought Bioshock was ok, the ‘comment’ on player agency (or the lack thereof) was interesting if a little glib when the game itself was hugely linear and adopted a ‘lead by the nose’ narrative structure.

      In some ways it reminds me of those ‘aren’t we terribly self aware’ genre films (think Scream 3), which actually rely on the same old cliches/genre conventions they that they are supposedly skewering.

    • MakeSkyrimGreen says:

      Indeed, IMNSHO the open world survival-crafting / build what you want within the possibility space of Minecraft is more in keeping with the spirit of some of the earlier LGS games. It puts so much agency in your own hands that you have to choose what you want to do within the options available (even if they are all variations on a theme at the end of the day, but what repeatable game activity isn’t variations on a theme?).

  15. MakeSkyrimGreen says:

    ” and where Bioshock questioned the nature of the shooter by this point Infinite is making you wonder why it’s a shooter at all. ”
    Please don’t flame me for this post, I’m not saying that they shouldn’t have made the Bioshock series the way they made it, just suggesting an alternative that makes more sense to me.
    Seriously, looking back on Bioshock I tend to wonder if as a gaming series it would have made more sense for them to have made a Telltale Games style adventure game (like Tales From The Borderlands or Walking Dead which I haven’t played yet). The ability to walk around these environments and have dialogue choices and interactions with “living breathing” characters from the game makes more sense to me.

    Not necessarily a pure adventure as the designers love giving people agency with toolsets, so maybe a kind of Fallout 3/New Vegas/ Deus Ex scenario set in Rapture etc.

    Of course it would probably have been too risky a gamble to have such a massive departure from the tried and established genre that Irrational Games (and their staff) were good at doing. Hey I was pumped to see what they’d do next back then. (And still am interested in what their alumni do next).

    I would like to see what sort of games the kids that are currently growing up and are inspired by playing games like Minecraft (which to me feels like a plot free evolution of the part of the LGS aesthetic) , and Spelunky grow up to make.

    • Ravey says:

      Speaking of adventure games, just wanted to share some thoughts on agency and different approaches I’ve seen… In particular, the Indy games were interesting and tended to deviate from other adventure games:

      – Last Crusade had an early attempt at social-stealth gameplay:
      You could sneak past guards, wear disguises that guards would make note of, and being caught forced you into a dialogue where you could try and talk your way out, offer an item, or (as a last resort) to fight.
      – Fate of Atlantis had the three paths built around different playstyles (fists, wits, team), each feeling like a slightly different story, with multiple endings on top of that.
      – Desktop Adventures was an attempt to push that further, to have a story game that could be replayed, that retained some novelty.

      Other approaches to adventure games:

      1) Come up with a goal and give people the tools to overcome obstacles.
      Ex. Adventure, Zelda, Underworld, Thief, Deus Ex

      2) Offer the illusion of choice, but design the game so tightly that you’re drawn towards the correct path/solution.
      Ex. Monkey Island, Half-Life

      3) Acknowledge lots of actions, and make failure short-term and fun.
      Ex. Shadowgate

      4) Boil it down to the underlying mechanics.
      Ex. Phoenix Wright

      5) Focus on participatory storytelling, rather than puzzles.
      Ex. Heavy Rain, Walking Dead

      As that relates to Infinite, the HL2-approach made sense. HL2 did a great job of taking the best bits of adventure (problem solving & participatory storytelling) and the best bits of Looking Glass-style immersive simulation (first-person, emergence & environmental storytelling) and combining them without feeling entirely on on-rails.

  16. drewski says:

    The best part about articles on Bioshock Infinite or, really, anything Irrational Games did, is all the ceaseless whining in the comments.

    • AyeBraine says:

      Thank you. I think that most of the time, when smart critics find a game worth discussing, the sizeable part of the audience starts to endlessly turn the millstones of their minds in search to say something smartly condescending about it, somehow “expose” it, and otherwise bravely buck the boring trend of glamorizing such a derivative, artless schlock etc.

      I mean, the very fact that the game had deserved a host of publications, critique, analysis and debates in quality media and industry circles is, in itself, the indicator of its quality. It’s not that it’s perfect, it just means it was more or less artfully and professionally executed, strongly innovative or thematically challenging, and artistically sound in many ways. And, of course, it’s a product of the multi-year labor of hundreds of people (earnest motivated labor, not just phoning it in for a derivative clone or a sequel).

      I mean, let a hundred flowers bloom, let people criticize the flaws all they want. But if their idea of critique is posting a two-paragraph condescending comment that shockingly exposes that everyone who “fell for” a game are fools and simpletons (while the whole reason it’s discussed at all is that experts “fell for it” in the first place), this is getting silly.

  17. FreeTom says:

    For all the articles and millions of development dollars that have been used to try and explore these ideas, I don’t think anyone’s done it more pleasingly and concisely than The Stanley Parable.

    It doesn’t get too deep about it either. It just points straight at the contradictions and laughs.

  18. GapToothedGipsy says:

    I appreciate BI:I is perhaps not as well regarded as the original, but I find it utterly beautiful. I enjoy just being it its world, even if there is not much to do in the non combat sections.

    Far more enjoyable than the dark squalor of Rapture.

  19. Jamesworkshop says:

    link to

    pretty much explains bioshock infinite

  20. AyeBraine says:

    Thank God. From some of the articles before, I thought that it is an established tradition at RPS to dislike Bioshock Infinite with passion. It hurt me then, because I love RPS, but I also love this game so much – it got through to me like I was 17 years old again, watching some mind-blowing moive on a VHS and screeching my brain cogs. And it managed to scare me, for reals, with some of the implied, hinted-at stuff – a cerebral horror, the only kind that excites me. (I’m a coward, but, unfortunately, regular “scary” media just makes me bored most of the time.) I’m gonna go over this text properly later in the night. Thanks in advance!

  21. innokenti says:

    Spec Ops is a far more subtle and successful modern commentary on linearity and choice.

    It might not be in line of DNA with the Looking Glass Games, but I think it took on board some of the lessons.

  22. TekMerc says:

    Call of Duty? A ‘blood and guts’ FPS? I’d liken it more to the A-Team in terms of gore tbh.

  23. fish99 says:

    I’m more interested in whether they’re good games than what people perceive them to be saying about player agency, and whether every last detail of the story hangs together (let’s face it, you can pull any story apart). So I find it odd that you would say the Looking Glass legacy is dead due to the narrative in the ‘Shock series. The series has largely abandoned it’s legacy.

    First Bioshock dropped the RPG elements, inventory and backtracking, and then Infinite abandoned the hub based levels and was basically just a linear shooter with some ‘Shock remnants hanging about. And while they are still fine games, the series has definitely suffered through this simplification, which was surely done to make the games palatable to a console audience. If you came up with a game today that followed the SS2 design, with that amount of world interactivity, that flexibility of play style, and that intelligent design, it would still be as great a game now as it was in 99.

    Also Dishonored shows the Thief legacy still alive and kicking, and I can only imagine where Looking Glass could have taken the Thief and Underworld series had they still been around today.

  24. piedpiper says:

    I would say this plainly – Binfinite is just fucking horrible. I love Bioshock, and System Shocks and Thieves are my favourite of all times. But Infinite is just so going nowhere and so dissapointing all the time so it is hard to sa which game in my life i hated most. BTW, dlcs are much better and somewhere near original game in quality.