Persistent World - A Question of a Universe without a Protagonist
Part of my problem with BioShock is that the world seems so haphazardly placed. It's a beautiful, well designed stage through which we see the events of BioShock unfold in beautiful form. The problem within this enclosed bubble of Rapture is that nothing ever happens. The game's events are so specifically tied to the player's actions that the world doesn't breathe, turn, or exist were it not for the player's hand. Which is odd, given that the player's actions cannot in any way affect the outcome of the story.
The problem is the world seems to have no soul outside of the specific events in the game. Little Sisters arbitrarily patrol to steal ADAM, as do Big Daddies, and Splicers are always out looking for... non-splicers to kill for... uh... ADAM? I guess? Blood lust? It's that everyone is in such endless want for this narcotic that they serve no other functions for themselves. One splicer is up-turning an office, two splicers are dancing, one or two may hack a sentry or too, but never are they feeding themselves, going to the john, or anything. Their world, in its entirety, is waiting to ambush the player for access to some lovely, lovely ADAM. They serve no other purpose, have no other point, and outside of that, have absolutely no life. They serve only as Elite Mooks, to serve as serviceable but weak antagonists to the protagonist. After they're killed, there's no harm because they had no lives, and the protagonist moves on with his day. What's worse is that the bosses also fall into this trope, being palette-swaps of regular enemies, and to the Research Camera, appearing as regular Splicers themselves.
Granted, the Little Sisters seem to have some kind of soul. They scream in fear, recoil in horror, and hide behind their Big Daddy overlords. The problem is given the recycled animations and mirror perfect recreations of actions every time one is harvested/saved/separated, the life is swiftly lost to the feeling that it's all been done before, and will be done again. The entire feeling is lost, and pre-scripted events are the only thing they have to look forward to.
However, BioShock is just a recent example to the problem I'm trying to address, which is a world that doesn't even feel real external to the events of a game. This was my driving point in a different piece I did, but the point still stands. Although not from an NPC point of view, but also from a universal level. Why don't games have a persistent world that feels persistent when playing.
Buildings don't seem to serve a function except to the protagonist. Granted, this shouldn't be a surprise, as their creation was unique to the circumstances they were created for. The problem is that it ends up feeling like a set. The life ends up being bled out of the framework, and can at times leave the player feeling like it's all just a little too convenient.
However, unlike the daily lives of the game's AI, this can be rectified with good stage design, art direction, and overall setting design and atmosphere. Games like BioShock are bad examples of design, handling the in-game setting to be brilliant set pieces, but terrible worlds. To contrast, have a look at Bioware's Mass Effect series, or Dragon Age. The towns and settings in this game feel like the world breathes, are persistent. This can be in the small details of the townspeople, or even the town layout managing to convince the player that they're unimportant to the grand scheme because the game can go without them. It's details like these that really set the world apart from the player, without excluding the player entirely.
Granted, this isn't the only mark of a good game. Fallout 2, a wonderful game by many accounts, really hinges all of its narratives on the workings of the Chosen One, and manages to be enjoyable despite that. However, when it's used to good effect, the results can be just as good, if not better.
Games need to have a little more ambition with their settings. Though not the only feature necessary in a game, its often in the details where the big picture comes to fruition.