An Interview with Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda – Part III

Here it is, the final part of this three part interview with Annie, from SoZ, Alpha Protocol, NWN2 and Dead State fame.

Inspiration & Craftmanship

What’s the trick in keeping the inspirational mojo flowing?

I wish I could lie and say that desperation and deadlines never play a role, but the truth is, having a milestone approaching at warp speed has at times turned my brain into Hypercreative Panic Mode, and somehow I pull through okay (and irritatingly enough, even though I can hardly remember writing some of the things I did while in that mode, often what I write is way better than my usual stuff…). On the whole, I can offer three solid chunks of advice on this:

ONE – write all the time, about anything. Doesn’t matter if you’ll never use it directly – often it helps to bring something else to fruition. I wrote a large backstory for Finch, one of SoZ’s cohorts, and it never appears anywhere in the game: however, in doing so, I learned a little more about who he was as a person, and how that should appear when he interacts with others. Little bits of information like this can help not only round out a character for future use, but help you break through writing blocks and dead ends by giving you a solid foothold in the structure of their personality to back up to and reexamine.

I should add that this step isn’t just about characters and things you know you want to develop – even things that fall by the wayside can be reborn into alternate roles. Early drafts of SoZ’s cohorts included a fire genasi called Reshoone – she didn’t make the cut for the final cast, but what I’d developed of her sly, charming character was reborn into the tiefling merchant Vadin’ya, whom I ended up liking better anyway.

TWO – that which is good is never gone forever. I’ve seen people seethe about good ideas they had and then somehow lost before they wrote them down, and then they proceed to waste a ton of time vainly attempting to reproduce them. If you’re stuck on something, stop banging your head against it – back up, move on to something else, and if what you had before was really worth keeping, it’ll pull itself back up from the tar pit of your subconscious and start lumbering around again. Don’t let yourself get frustrated. And even when you have good ideas moving along at a decent clip, sometimes a break is not only well-deserved, but the best thing to do to replenish your creative strength.

And that leads me to THREE – find what inspires you. Go actively out there and search for it, and keep it on tap for when you need a little kick in the pants. Find a situation that you think helps you, or somewhere you can think. Find out what works for you, and make it so.

After creating hundreds of characters how do you still find inspiration in creating new and fresh
characters? In IGN’s Alpha Protocol interview one of the designers mentioned you as the writer of the game’s colorful and interesting villains.

That’s kind of them, but as much as I wish I could take credit for AP’s characters, they all sprang from Brian Mitsoda, not I… well, except for one, a Russian information broker named Grigori. I originally conceived of him as the polar opposite of what one thought of as an “informant,” which usually meant a thin and frightened little weasely guy. Instead, I saw Grigori as calm, unflappable, intelligent, and tremendously difficult to impress. I don’t really know who Grigori changed in the second version of the game, but he – and all of Alpha Protocol’s other characters that I was allowed to write – was a lot of fun to work on, and a challenge that I relished.

In broader terms of what inspires me to create characters, I think I actually draw a lot of inspiration from stereotypes… not by deliberately defying them (which tends to draw a lot of attention back to the stereotype itself) but by examining where they came from, and unraveling them to find the far more complicated origin – that’s where the meat is. Like Grigori, who is a reaction against the common stereotype of informant – he’s a thought experiment of “well, what if that informant isn’t a young guy, but a old dude who’s been at this for decades? He’d hardly be a cringing little ferret, wouldn’t he? You talk to this guy to find out about the Russian mob, for crying out loud, and he’s obviously had to deal with KGB and international intelligence agents over the years – he’s got to have learned how to keep his cool!” My favorite writers are those who toy with the player’s conceptions of genre and their expectations of how a story will go – I want to do that with characters, and force a player to look past a character’s face value and try to find out how they’re put together.

Another thing I tend to thrive on is culture, and how the character in question is supposed to react to it. World-building is something I’m kind of obsessed with, and creating characters is just an extension of this larger process. Also, I’m admittedly a poor artist, but ever since I was a kid, I’d sketch as I developed stories, and vice-versa: often a single strong image will push me to create a larger tale for what it is, and it’ll snowball into larger and larger concepts as it goes along.

Do you think it’s important to players to see their character change through dialog options? For
example a more experienced character might be more calm in dire situations while a character who is new to adventuring be more immature and be more rash about his own actions.

While I do agree that it’s important, I do so with two reservations: one, that this change is being communicated correctly to the player, so they understand that their character is in fact changing, and two, that this change never feels like less options are available to them. This goes hand in hand with the expression of “don’t write yourself into a corner,” but it’s adding another layer of complexity not only to the dialogue structure, but the systems within a game. I think a good rule of thumb is that dialogue should never be something that the player is scared to engage in, something where any given moment could screw up everything they’d been trying to build. This comes down to working very hard on establishing a level of meta-communication with the player: basically, that players understand the severity of any given situation particularly well, and decisions they make during it are deliberate. Often I’ve selected a dialogue choice in a game only to be startled and annoyed as to where it takes me – unexpected moments like this make it all the more critical that if a character is growing in the way we decide, that we are actually deciding that direction, instead of just hoping that we are… which reminds me again how passionate people seem to sometimes feel about dialogue skills in games. There’s something comforting about numbers there, and the appeal of something we can grow. Communicating through numbers is simple! Getting that across purely through UI and dialogue itself is a great deal more difficult.

That said – while I enjoy greatly feeling that my character is changing through the course of the game, and I as a player am directly advancing that change purely through the decisions I make, I don’t imagine that any RPG has suffered in sales because of either that system’s inclusion or removal. If you’re going to do it – and again, I really like this system – please do it carefully! Take the time needed to communicate the depth of the player’s decisions to them, so if they decide to be a super jerk, they feel they very consciously made that choice, and the game is reacting to it in kind.

What do you think is a key component in a story, that will keep players moving forward?

I think the key lies in establishing a personal investment with the player – solidly answering the “why should I care?” question, and following up on that with moments where the player feels like they’ve got a growing attachment to something in the game. Maybe this is a player character that has a massive web of dialogue options in most conversations, maybe it’s a linear story that blends so well with the action of the game that the player feels that their efforts are truly needed to progress things, or maybe it’s a landscape that beckons you to interact with it. Stories are vague and flexible things, and are so curious that instead of a blank slate scaring away people who want this investment, perhaps it’s the very potential of this environment that draws them in.

This answer almost feels like cheating – aside from “find a good gameplay hook and flesh the heck out of that sucka,” establishing a personal investment in the player is one of the things a game needs to do. If my presence as a player in the game world doesn’t make a difference, why should I bother playing? Establishing that personal investment can begin with something simple – the ability to design the look of a character, for example – but that connection is just planting the seed, and keeping it requires maintenance: new abilities, new choices, new challenges, higher scores, new characters, new knowledge. I’m not going to go totally up my own butt here with concepts about ludology and theories of play, but to me, games seem to be about beginning and maintaining a process of growth – this has a lot in common with traditional story structure, but has access to a lot more tools to keep that connection with the player even when the narrative has perhaps stalled a bit.

I kind of enjoy this concept in operation as it appears in Persona 4: a mystery embroils the plot of the game, but there’s still the day-to-day life of the player character, and the decisions they make about what to do with their time and who they want to hang out with. The plot itself isn’t changing, but you’re still invested in the world of the game – studying improves your Knowledge, talking to someone improves your relationship, and a little bit of grinding in the “dungeon” area grows your level. Conversely, while I was extremely curious about the complex plot of Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter, the fact that you actually had to restart the game multiple times to see that plot and help grow your character’s skills left me with less and less of a sense of impact – I was seeing more of the story, but feeling increasingly detached from the world in which it existed.

As a side note, I think that a sense of personal involvement in MMOs often runs into a number of issues that end up turning many people off from the genre. Seeing someone who might have a character that looks precisely like yours undergoing the exact same experience is something that can be entirely shattering to the other elements of that personal connection the game has been trying so hard to build, and the persistent nature of the worlds therein make it difficult for the player to leave a lasting impression of their personality on anything. Who they feel their character is either gets moved into the realm of the meta – an identity that one builds entirely independent of the game itself in order to prolong their interest in it – or persists in the purely physical, i.e. their phat loots. The former can actually enter into conflict with the story that the game itself is attempting to establish, while the latter can outpace the player seeking it with frustrating ease. Two years ago I was somewhat doubtful as to the ability of MMOs to break that pattern, but now I’m positive they’re going to, and I’m tremendously excited to be a part of that.

What games are good examples of good writing in your opinion?

I really enjoyed Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, Persona 3 and 4, Portal, Red Dead Redemption, and – despite its ridiculousness and tongue-in-cheek ultra-thug pastiche – I did very much enjoy Saints Row 2. In a more old-school vein, I still love Fallout, System Shock 2, and old LucasArts adventure games like Sam & Max: Hit the Road and The Dig (and their descendant via Double Fine, Psychonauts). Overall, I appreciate humorous writing more than serious writing because I think it’s much harder to get right: humor has to sound natural or the joke comes off as false, goofy, and flat.

In your experience do you think players enjoy getting a reward or accomplishing something more meaningful inside the story?

I hate to say it, but by and large, I think players want that reward – as a writer and a gamer myself I would want to experience the something meaningful, but as a designer and someone who knows the average gamer mentality, I know a lot of folks couldn’t care less about the story and just want to go back to smacking stuff around. Even if RPGs really don’t cater specifically to that gamer type, they do exist… and bear in mind as well that even story-loving players don’t mind getting some cool loot now and then, even if their goal isn’t the loot itself but the idea that it might have some influence on the rest of the game (RE: that “personal investment” stuff I mentioned).

Ideally speaking, I think meaningful story elements and rewards work best when they’re paired. Take Persona 4 for example: Social Links are connections with other people that are linked to a specific Tarot suit, which influence the types of Persona related to that suit. However, Social Links are advanced not through fighting, but through interacting with other characters who are associated with that Link. Advancing a friendship with another character and helping them out with their problems grows their connection with the main character – just as in real life – and that Social Link grows in strength. The interesting thing about the Persona series isn’t just that it has some super rad creatures in it, but that your success in the game is directly connected to how much you go out of your way to interact with and care for other characters in the game. The game pushes you to care because of gameplay mechanics, sure – but it’s well-written enough that you’re motivated to pursue Social Links more because you want to see what happens with that relationship almost as much as getting that powerful new Persona. That is the kind of success with writing and game design that I think more titles should aspire to.

What’s important to have in mind when writing Quests?

Not to sound too mercenary about this, but the key thing to have in mind is practicality. For example – while introducing an entirely new combat mechanic for a quest might be interesting, it’s going to be tremendously difficult (if not impossible) to get finished, and players may well actually be upset that it discards the very systems that they’ve worked so hard to get good at. It’s not about thinking small, it’s about thinking ahead, and being aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the tools at your disposal. New systems need to be tested, then taught to the player, then (ideally) supported throughout the game. Knowing those needs ahead of time will save you a lot of frustration and scrambling later on, and allow you to figure out new and creative ways of using what you’ve got.

Second to this is organization. It’s easy to talk about the flow of quests in terms of ideas and vagaries, but actually sketching out ideas not only saves you a great deal of implementation time later, it lets you conceptualize a much greater structure for how quests intersect with one another. And – well – it lets you know at a glance how difficult it is to actually parse what the player should be doing at any given step of the quest, and how to avoid the confusing curse phrase of “designer logic” that can plague any complicated-but-well-intentioned quest idea.

Once you know what your tools can do and what’s necessary to get a quest functional, you can proceed on to those more “B Priority” issues that will elevate a quest from interesting into truly memorable.

So when is Dead State coming out?

When it’s ready! 😉

I’d like to thank Annie over at DoubleBear for this engrossing, exciting and incredibly awesome interview. Thanks!

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An Interview with Annie Vandermeer Mitsoda – Part II

Design Documentation

What do you think is important having in a design documentation?

That’s tricky. I’ve dealt with multiple different methods of documentation, and while a couple years ago I would say I favored big aggregated Word documents, I’ve found consistently they’re tricky to update piecemeal, and as they grow in size, they’re more and more daunting to have to deal with. On Alpha Protocol, we used an amalgamated story document that contained story background, themes and goals, influences, both a general and a detailed overview of the action, a character list, and secondary themes and ideas… and the frickin’ thing got to be over 80 pages!

For Storm of Zehir, major documents that were key to the core of the game were kept far smaller, and weren’t updated as frequently: I combined research and jotted-down thoughts with first-draft pre-production concepts to create a master story doc that was my sole responsibility to update, but was shared with the team. Beyond that, there was a master document for each of the major systems introduced or revised, and for each area of the game, the designer responsible for it would write up a Module Document covering the basics of the area – from story to gameplay to art – and those would grow from a basic overview (5-8 pages) to a large master document (20-30 pages).

Nowadays, I work with a wiki for both Guild Wars 2 and Dead State, and have found it to be the absolute best thing for documentation: it tracks revision history, links easily to other relevant topics, and is really easy to update. The world of Guild Wars in particular has a vast amount of history to it, and having each major topic have a dedicated page that links to minor ones is amazingly helpful for becoming swiftly familiar with previously unknown topics. And at home, working on the Dead State wiki makes it really easy for me to catch up on things Brian has worked on during the day, and keep myself up to date on any changes.

I hope the tl;dr version of “put it on a wiki” doesn’t seem like a cop-out, but seriously, if you’re working without a source control solution (i.e. a program that saves various iterations of files and allows you to revert changes to previous versions), do not risk possible deletion or corruption of major documents if you can help it. If you have to deal with that, or you really don’t like using a wiki, make sure you’ve got lots of dated backups (and include a section at the end of the document dating and detailing each change that was made to it) in case of a disaster. If you do have a wiki, just start with the big topics and branch out from there. If you can think of more than a paragraph or 2 subsections dealing with a subtopic, summarize it on the main page and create a new page dedicated to the topic, then link it back up to the main one. Don’t go too crazy with the individual pages, but honestly, when it comes to a wiki page, it’s often best to go many shorter pages than several really long ones.

For Storm of Zehir, major documents that were key to the core of the game were kept far smaller, and weren’t updated as frequently: I combined research and jotted-down thoughts with first-draft pre-production concepts to create a master story doc that was my sole responsibility to update, but was shared with the team.

How are influences planned? I’m talking about Mask of the Betrayer’s and NWN2 influence system. I don’t know if there is any of that in Storm of Zehir, or even if Alpha Protocol has something like that (perhaps the way you influence factions is comparable).

This is tricky for me, as I didn’t get involved in the influence system for the NWN2 games. For AP, it waseasier, as the dialogues were more condensed, and usually just followed small iterations (either Boolean yes/no settings, or a small sequence of checks). So if a character liked being treated Professionally, a counter would note how many times you reacted to them that way, and have the NPC react more favorably to them. If major decisions happened within a dialogue, that key “either-or” decision was a variable that was tracked throughout the game.

For the purposes of organizing influence checks, I’d say the first step is to set up a simple timeline (or tree, as the case may be) representing the action of the game, and put down major moments for an influence change as key points on that line. What levels of influence should characters have a reaction to – simple like/dislike, or a more nuanced kind of scale? If it’s more nuanced, then numerically, what are a character’s “breaking points” – when they either attack/leave because they hate the player, or they confess their eternal friendship/love? Where is the earliest point on the game’s timeline for the player to hit each of these breaking points with each influenced character? Furthermore, are there points in the game’s timeline that force decisions on the player that could really drastically alter a character’s perception of the player character? Make-or-break moments like these up the tension in the game, but if they happened everywhere, they’d just end up being frustrating. Taking a very careful long view of the flow of the game helps to ensure that these moments are seeded throughout so they feel satisfying and natural, not random and confusing.

How was the innovative multicharacter Storm of Zehir dialog system designed?

The Party Conversation system was one of the ideas that took shape very early in development – pre-production, in fact, and prior to my involvement in the project – and one that pretty much cemented the intent of the game to be a title that didn’t focus on continuing the story of the Knight-Captain from the Original Campaign and instead branched off in an entirely new direction. I recall very early on in NWN2’s development that the dev team wanted to make the game feel more like an actual D&D campaign, something that focused on a party instead of just a single character. NWN2’s original campaign emphasized the mechanics of needing a party in combat, but didn’t shape a sort of situation where a player felt like they “owned” the non-player characters in the same way as they did the one they created. Mask of the Betrayer veered further from this original path by making the plot a very personal story to the player character, and emphasizing the other characters as side players in this journey. Storm of Zehir was always intended to be a departure from the other two games, and that was a key feature of it.

The design of the Party Conversation system was supposed to allow the player to develop the personalities within a full adventuring party in single-player, and allow people in a multiplayer format greater freedom to participate in joint conversations. One of the factors that we knew this would affect early on was that we had to cut out the cutscene-style conversations of NWN2 and MotB, while another was that it required a great deal more writing to properly implement, so that players saw enough variation in each conversation to not miss the aforementioned cutscene-style format. In practice, this led to me having to meet a kind of “diversity quota” with the amount of responses I had to write to each NPC line – how many lines were needed that would be reactive to stats, skills, classes, etc. The “by the numbers” approach made me a bit nervous at times that we were dictating personality by elements of a character sheet rather than letting it evolve in a more organic way (through alignment-changing decisions rather than alignment-reactive ones), and I did my best to make sure that there were appealing responses for people who didn’t just want to make either a trait-based choice or a totally vanilla option.

That’s it for the second part, check back tomorrow for the last part, on Inspiration & Craftsmanship!

An Interview with Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda

Welcome to the first part of a three part interview with game writer Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda. You may know her for her work in Neverwinter Nights 2 – Storm of Zehir and Alpha Protocol, both developed by Obsidian Entertainment and published by Atari and SEGA respectively.

Tools

When you wrote for Obsidian, did you work with any sort of development tools? If so, which ones? And did you find them limiting your work? Or did you simply write a regular word document and sent it over to the programmers?

It depended on the project. For Alpha Protocol, Brian Mitsoda and I would talk about what a particular dialogue needed to accomplish, chart the basic flow out on a whiteboard, then write the actual conversation in a normal Word file. From there, I’d put it into a Word dialogue template specially-made by our lead programmer, which could get run through a special program to transfer the lines into Unreal 3’s Matinee format. For Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir, everything was done in NWN2’s toolset – the only things done outside of it were the actual in-depth coding and model creation. Designers basically hung out in the toolset constantly – it was pretty much our one-stop-shop for all the development items we needed.

A quick note on tools: I’ve worked with several different types now, and I’d say that their suitability really depends on what the writer is trying to achieve. The NWN2 toolset’s tree dialogue formatting was pretty easy to use, but Brian and I didn’t really need very complicated tools when working on Alpha Protocol because the dialogue branching worked out in an entirely different way.

A quick note on tools: I’ve worked with several different types now, and I’d say that their suitability really depends on what the writer is trying to achieve.

How do you organize a thick web of dialog consequences? I imagine that organizing all those stat checks and branching dialog trees must be nerve wracking.

Absolutely! Writing for RPGs with a extensive amount of player choice involves a lot of careful organization, which is one of those things that doesn’t seem like a big deal until you really realize how massive an amount of text your average RPG deals with. One thing we did for AP – that I would recommend to anyone working on dialogue – is we charted out the direction the conversation would take ahead of time. Brian and I would meet up and talk about what each scene was about, what it was trying to achieve, and what the player would want to ask. From there, we distilled the direction of the dialogue into a node structure, and went from there. Tree dialogues – like in SoZ – had a structure that was way more difficult to work out ahead of time, but even jotted notes and charts on notebook paper helped me keep stuff in order.

Aside from the scripting side of setting up dialogues (which I would recommend keeping track of via Excel – I carefully tracked the state of completion for every single dialogue in SoZ that way), I recommend sketching out bare-boned outlines, adding in interesting elements in a quick edit, and then actually attempting to do a solid first pass for readability. Once you’ve got that, try to take a longer view of what you’re trying to do – the flow of the dialogue in the mission, the area, etc. – and run a second pass. Ideally, once you’re on the third, you’ve got the tone of the entire game in mind.

Once you’ve got that, try to take a longer view of what you’re trying to do – the flow of the dialogue in the mission, the area, etc. – and run a second pass.

Do you have any idea how your dialog is converted into the code and then read by the game? Did you mostly use NWN2’s own toolset for Storm of Zehir?

For SoZ, it was only made using the toolset. For AP, it was via a template macro within Word that basically allowed the dialogue to run through our face modeling program (to get the lip-flap right), find and hook up the VO files, and basically put things into pre-made scenes for Matinee. That’s about all I know, regrettably: I’m not familiar on the particulars of the conversion, especially for Unreal 3 – the macro was a necessity since the engine wasn’t originally made for RPGs, and required some retooling for the game mechanics to work properly. The NWN2 toolset was built from the ground-up to make dialogues very easy to create , so that was a lot handier for making quick changes and check them out in the game.

That’s it for the first part, check back tomorrow for more!

A Hacking Retrospective

System Shock, the precursor to System Shock 2 and the recent BioShock, had a vibrant hacking system where the player is immersed in cyberspace, similar in appearance to the movie Tron or Lawnmower Man. Various colored shapes roam about, Cyberguardians and Watchdogs attack, and functions are objects in this virtual world.

Cyberdog

At the beginning of the game, the player needs to hack the medical suite’s door open, and so he jacks into cyberspace, picking up hacking softs along the way that allow him to shoot at these Cyberguardians. In order to succeed at the hack, the player must navigate through cyberspace until he reaches the shape that represents the door lock he wants to open. To leave cyberspace afterwards, he must find a portal, similar to the rings in Starfox, that will allow him to exit.

This system can be considered cumbersome and outdated nowadays, but in System Shock, you were the Hacker partially responsible for the AI’s rise to power, therefore the elaborate hacking system made sense, and was an intriguing twist that went beyond being a mere minigame. Since then, game designers have been finding different answers to hacking.

For System Shock 2, Ken Levine and the rest of the designers of Irrational and Looking Glass implemented a system that worked the same way for 3 different skills: hacking, repairing and modifying weapons. Presented with a grid that abstracted the electronic innards of the object you were interacting with, the player had to connect three nodes. The chance that each node had to be successfully hacked depended on the skill being used and the player’s Cyber-Affinity statistic. This statistic determined how many red nodes would appear on the grid. If hacking these red nodes failed, the system would respond differently depending on the skill: while hacking security stations, it would set off the alarm, while hacking locked boxes, it would destroy them, while repairing a weapon, it would damage it.

SS2‘s grid system was spiced up by describing an event every time you clicked on a dot. If the hack worked on that dot, it would display a line of text saying something like “Re-routed security system successfully.”, and a contrary phrase in case of failure. These lines also refer ICE, Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics, a term popularized by William Gibson in his cyberpunk masterpiece Neuromancer.

This grid system required nanites, System Shock 2‘s currency to be used, and every time you tried to hack again you had to pay the nanite cost. Nanites were the currency of System Shock 2‘s world.

So while it was at its heart a minigame of connecting dots, there were at play several statistics, whose evolution was chosen by the player during the course of the game. It’s definitely a simpler method than the first game in the series, but it’s still pretty complex and interesting.

After System Shock 2, Deus Ex was released by Ion Storm. This game was much more of an FPS than the Shock series, but it borrowed the idea of skill levels for various possible actions, and with it, the hacking skill. This skill’s progression was more linear than SS2‘s. Only one skill was used, and it determined how fast would the player hack, and how long would it take to be detected while interacting with a hacked terminal. One important thing to note is that the player had to spend the skill points to obtain the first level of Hacking if he wanted to hack at all, like System Shock 2, it wasn’t given to the player from the start. Also like SS2‘s system, Deus Ex‘s hacking also featured flavour text and also mentioned ICE.

Hacking in Deus Ex allowed you to read emails of the accounts you hacked or change security settings, such as altering the turret’s affiliation, remotely controlling cameras or shutting them off. With higher levels invested it was possible to discover the killswitches to two of the hero’s nemesis.

It was a streamlined but immersive way to implement hacking, as you had access to several computers spread across the game and could interact with them. Logging on them, either by hacking or by finding out the password through datacubes (similar to the audio logs of System Shock 2, but not as intricate or colorful), allowed you to learn more about the story of the game, be it from the logo of the company that owned that computer, by the net address below that referenced Daedalus, a being that contacts you in the middle of the game, or by the emails themselves that not only enhanced the personality of the various characters in the game but also contained key data that could help you.

This was lost with the sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War. While the datacubes remained, hacking computers became merely watching a purple loading bar reach the end, accompanied by sounds resembling a 14.4 modem, and you couldn’t read any email, only the security settings remained. To perform a hack you required a biomod, which were basically the same as the first game’s augmentations, and can be equated with BioShock’s plasmids. Once you had the biomod, you could improve it two times, the first to control cameras and shut off turrets, and the second time to make the turrets attack your enemies.

Gone were all possibilites of finding out secrets that could be used during cutscenes or to avoid a boss fight. It was a simplified system that removed all the flavor and most of the fun of hacking.