Did you ever look at an evolutionary tree of life? The kinds of diagrams they show in biology class that show when different species diverged from each other and the paths they took. If you’ve ever seen one, you know that life can split off in amazingly divergent directions. Hippos and whales sharing a relatively recent common ancestor for example. Or a small group of African primates splitting into three directions giving the planet intelligent humans, barbarous apes, and amorous bonobos. Games are much the same way. A single game may inspire dozens of others that all go in their own direction. Wizardry for example inspired game creators on in Japan and the west, the former gave us Final Fantasy XIII and the later Mass Effect, two titles that could not be more different, yet they their ultimate source is the same.
The Bioshock and Deus Ex series also share a common ancestor, System Shock. The frightening 1994 title is less remembered than its more famous sequel, but its progeny are some of the most beloved games of all time. Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Bioshock Infinite are the most recently announced game to follow in those footsteps. Looking at the two games, it’s hard to imagine they share a common ancestor, and it’s not much easier once you look at the game in question. After all Deus Ex is about choosing to talk, sneak, or fight yourself out of a situation. Bioshock has a similar emphasis on choice, but it’s mostly just choice within combat. How will you take on a big daddy. While we’ve seen very little of Infinite, it’s debut trailer didn’t give us the impression that it’s stepping back and following a more chatty or stealthy Deus Ex style path.
System Shock was itself an evolution from Ultima Underworld. Like Ultima it had a first-person perspective, but the team making the game wanted to set it apart from its dungeon crawling predecessors. It took place on a massive space-station and while it had action elements, no one would mistake it for a first-person shooter. So how did this game inspire two of the most beloved games of all time, games that clearly deserve the FPS label?
The path from System Shock to Deus Ex was paved by Warren Spector. Spector worked at Origin Systems, and was a producer on System Shock. After System Shock he worked on several unrelated titles until 1998’s Thief: The Dark Project, a game that added a spooky atmosphere and stealth mechanics to the already familiar FPS formula. That game was followed by the first Deus Ex in 2000.
Deus Ex was a revelation, it combined RPG leveling of skills, stealth, dialog trees and first-person shooting in a way no game had ever done before. It’s fair to say few have done them since. The ability to choose multiple paths, and solve situation in different way is something that was mostly forgotten in the years following its release. True some hard core RPGs maintained these mechanics, but it wouldn’t be until Bioshock and Mass Effect in 2007 or Fallout 3 in 2008 that anybody truly tried to create a hybrid like Deus Ex. Even the game’s sequel, the much maligned Invisible War, failed to live up to its predecessor. Once the mechanics that made Deus Ex became popular again (with the help of the games mentioned above) Eidos brought the series back from the grave and began work on Human Revolution.
The Bioshock side of the family tree doesn’t relate to one person but a group of people at Looking Glass Technologies, the developers of the original System Shock. They were also the makers of the original Thief, and when they left their parent company in 1997 Ken Levine, Jonathan Chey, and Robert Fermier created Irrational Games. Their first project was 1999’s System Shock 2, a game that combined FPS and RPG mechanics in ways very similar to how Deus Ex would a year later. It also added more than a few survival horror elements as well. Bioshock borrowed the dark, moody atmosphere of the game and became known as its spiritual successor.
The line from Bioshock to Bioshock Infinite or Deus Ex: Invisible War to Human Revolution is much more direct. Looking back on their common ancestor, which one most closely resembles its vision? While we’re excited for both games, we’d have to say the Bioshock has hewn more closely to the original template. The Deus Ex games involve talking to dozens of other characters and a fair amount of down time. While the Bioshock games have become renowned for making you feel if not alone, at least like you’re surrounded by violent and disturbed people.