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How Valley wins big by going small

Blue Isle Studios' Valley can feel a lot like BioShock sometimes, and that's not just because it's a retro sci-fi dystopia. But by aiming a little smaller, it may succeed at some things that BioShock didn't quite land.

This week, 2K games released the HD collection of the BioShock series, giving developers and writers (like myself) a chance to revisit the 2007 science fiction shooter and think about how it’s affected the world of game development. 

Coincidentally, this week was also the week I finished Valley, a first-person exploration game from Blue Isle Studios that we streamed on our new Twitch channel last Friday, and despite the fact that it had no guns, no choice system, and no spectacular plot twists, it was a game that constantly reminded me of BioShock even though it comes from a different group of developers. 

Most importantly, I think it reminded me of something I think BioShock was TRYING to do which didn’t quite succeed at—it’s a game that loads its entire meaning and metaphor into the central loop of play, even though that meaning offers fewer “consequences” then BioShock’s did. And since it comes from a smaller company, it’s a good study for developers looking to get the most bang for their buck out of designing their mechanical interactions. 

There are some superficial similarities. Both games feature a protagonist visiting a somewhat retro-era setting in the wake of a science fiction disaster, gaining new powers and abilities as they explore an isolated area to uncover the secrets of Why Things Went Wrong™. Both games feature audio logs, the ranting of mad sciencists, and some vague pseudoscience about that justifies their death and rebirth mechanics without interrupting the flow of play. 

Those similarities have been itching at me for the last week, and while I largely think Valley is a notable game worth studying because of how beautifully it manages its traversal mechanics (seriously the platforming and high-speed running is an amazingly thrilling experience, go check it out), it also may be worth looking at because of how sharply it differs from BioShock in going beyond just being a “game” and trying to explore ideologies through a science fiction metaphor. 

You see, despite the similarities mentioned above, there’s one significant way that these two games differ. As plenty of writers and developers have noted, BioShock is a game that’s loaded with imagery and mechanics asking players to think about choice, identity, and Ayn Rand’s philosophy objectivism, but it’s also a game that divorces those concepts from its central play. 

But by contrast, as we discussed on last week’s show, Valley’s entire energy system—and all the metaphor and meaning it comes with—is baked into the central gameplay loop. As the player, you can give and take life from the titular valley, and if you die while playing the game, you’re resurrected at the expense of some of that energy from the valley. The whole thing winds up being a kind of high-speed meditation about death, rebirth, and balance. 

On the surface, that might seem to lend itself to some kind of consequence system, but it ultimately doesn’t. Our own news editor Alex Wawro expressed surprise when I told him that killing or preserving the valley during play doesn’t alter the ending of the game. It’s an experience that manages to be more about the journey than the conclusion, and maintaining the balance of life in the valley becomes an act central to your character’s survival as it is a Big Thematic Idea™ that characters keep talking about. 

And because of that, I think Valley is a good case study of how a smaller developer can tackle big metaphorical ideas through the lens of science fiction using the very nature of its smallness to put out an effective game. Because every new idea about the world is introduced hand-in-hand with a gameplay mechanic, it gives the player more opportunities to explore what Blue Isle Studios was interested in when they made a game about life, death, rebirth, and the people who tried to take advantage of it.

Valley and BioShock both benefit from aping the metaphorical nature of pulp science fiction novels; using bigger philosophical ideas as a backdrop for a high-speed, action oriented experience, but if you’re a dev on a smaller budget, looking to explore these kind of ideas in a first-person game, Valley is definitely a game you should study in connection with BioShock and other games of the genre. 


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