BioShock Infinite director Ken Levine announced this week an optional special mode for his highly anticipated FPS, one that will challenge gamers to make permanent choices in the development of their player character. Instead of being able to swap out upgrades as situations warrant, as seen in the original BioShock's tonic system, this new option is meant to challenge gamers to make better decisions and live with the consequences for the duration of their gaming experience. In addition to the permanent development choices, it will also alter BioShock Infinite by limiting resources and making it more difficult to simply respawn if killed.
The developers are calling it “1999 Mode,” subtlety referring back to the BioShock franchise's spiritual predecessor of a game: System Shock 2, which was released in that year for PC. In that acclaimed sci-fi FPS, also by Ken Levine, players who found and/or purchased upgrades where forced to make a permanent choice on how they were applied. BioShock Infinite’s newly announced game mode is the latest in a subtle counter-trend that has snaked through all of gaming over the past few years.
As casual gaming and gaming’s general overall popularity and cultural acceptance expands yearly, games are increasingly made to appeal to potential players of all stripes and skill levels. In many, many cases this means that new games are easier on the player, even new games in old franchises. Kirby’s Epic Yarn, for example is infamous for the player character being invulnerable to damage throughout the bulk of the experience, or the auto-playing ‘Super Guide’ feature in New Super Mario Bros. Wii that will play a level through to the end for you if you repeatedly fail at it. So-called ‘core gamers’ were not alone in bemoaning this trend.“I’m an old school gamer,” reported Levine in his statement announcing “1999 Mode,” “We wanted to make sure we were taking into account the play styles of gamers like me. So we went straight to the horse’s mouth by asking them, on our website, a series of questions about how they play our games. 94.6 percent of respondents indicated that upgrade choices enhanced their BioShock gameplay experience; however, 56.8 percent indicated that being required to make permanent decisions about their character would have made the game even better.”
This hazy fondness for overcoming tricky parts of games without hand-holding and forcing players to make game-altering, or even game-breaking, choices has inspired new and/or attentive developers like Levine to fill the need for aggravation and the resulting satisfaction that comes with will earned triumph. However, difficulty and challenge are not the same thing, and just adding more foes and/or making players more susceptible to damage and calling them by progressive synonyms for ‘hard’ was not it.
By virtue of being closest to the end user as possible, independent developers, working in Java or in similar fields, reacted the fastest to this need. Games like I Wanna Be The Guy and Super Meat Boy delivered challenge in spades, and the big studios were not far behind.
While they might be forced by market pressure to simplify their games, “1999 Mode” is just the latest example of developers finding a way to deliver a more challenging experience to those looking to take one on. Fallout: New Vegas introduced a ‘Hardcore’ mode, which strived to make the experience of surviving in a post-apocalyptic Mojave Desert a bit more realistic: challenging players to find and intake food and water just to stay alive atop of the game’s more direct threats. It also removed seemingly passive conceits: like the weight of individual bullets and the ability for players to heal broken limbs with just a night’s sleep, and the speed at which would heal. This had the effect of forcing players to use more caution in both inventory management and combat.
Every additional example of challenging gameplay and hardcore modes in major releases preserves the classic gaming experience, warts and all, and works to strike a balance between the twin goals of all developers and publishers: appease longtime fans and appeal to newcomers in a way that’s not intrusive or damaging to the overall experience. Gamers old and new can test their old school skills when BioShock Infinite, compete with “1999 Mode” releases later this year for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.