Something weird happened while I was thinking of this week’s game to reminisce about. Bioforge popped into my head as a particularly fantastic, well received, influential but mostly forgotten game. Then I realized we didn’t just lose Bioforge, we lost an an entire genre and I’m not even sure why. It produced wonderful games.
If there was a scale with serene puzzlers like Myst or the Lucasarts classics on one end and an action brawler on the other Bioforge would fall exactly in the middle. I hate puzzle games and I get bored of brawlers but somehow letting me savagely beat a fellow inmate with his own severed arm provided the perfect mental cleansing I needed to enjoy the next puzzle.
The game starts in a way that was probably cliche even back then. You wake up in a cell with no memory. Most of your body is cybernetic. The prison is in the process of falling apart, some disaster prompting a hurried evacuation and apparently you were left behind. From there you unravel the mystery of the alien planet, how you got there and who you are.
It’s ostensibly sci-fi but with healthy dollops of body horror and disturbing themese. The prison’s purpose being a weapon-x style super assassin lab with the requisite horrendous mutations and experimentations. I loved it.
Tank Controls & Terrible Cameras
You control your cyborg through in 3rd person view. Movement was oriented to the camera, not your character (tank controls). All games that used this movement scheme were annoying as camera angles would switch when you crossed invisible lines in a room. Your entire perspective could flip mid-punch. It’s amazing we played this way for years before reorienting the movement to the character.
Despite the camera annoyances I loved the combat in Bioforge. I first played the demo that came with PC Gamer magazine. It contained only the first portion, where you wake up, get out of the cell fight another prisoner and use a severed hand to get through security.
I played and replayed that demo dozens of times. The characters were big and moved ponderously but didn’t feel sluggish so much as heavy. There was a satisfying weight to the actions and spamming the same attack key slowed your movements even further forcing you to vary attacks. It looked and felt more realistic than most fighting games at the time with their flurry of attacks and endless stamina.
Bioforge pushed technical boundaries and invented a number of techniques that were only appreciated by a wide audience with Resident Evil. What made the game brilliant is how the game was designed from the ground up with these technical limitations in mind.
The 3D, on-screen characters are huge and software rendered. Top of the line 486 computers struggled with the level of graphics so the game takes place on an abandoned planet. There are never more than 2 or 3 characters on-screen at a time. Because of the tailored setting it feels lonely and appropriate. Less thoughtful games of the era instead presented real “towns” populated by a handful of humans which always snapped my suspension of disbelief.
The motion captured skeletal animation system (also a first) was too rudimentary to handle smooth human motion so your hero is a sluggish cyborg lugging his metal mass with a Robocop lack of agility. Despite the limitations this still provided some of the best animation available at the time as the system smoothly transitioned from player controlled movements to perfect motion captured animations. Changing the model textures so damage visibly accumulated over time made it all feel brutal and deadly.
Real Interactive Movie
The story is technically and narratively impressive. Your identity, one of the central puzzles and motivating forces in the game is dependent on your actions. It’s a testament to how smoothly this was implemented that I had no idea at the time of playing. I thought I was playing a much narrower piece of interactive fiction. I’m curious what the other identities would have been and how they played out with the rest of the dialogue and quests. Peppering it all are audio logs and bits of data on the terminal that shed light on what happened to you and the larger world.
The puzzles were difficult environmental puzzles that required logic, not inventory items or brute force. I think I didn’t hate them was because of how well they were integrated to the story. Most involved hacking and controlling remote robots and machines, it felt like how an advanced cyborg would go about solving those issues unlike most adventure games that forced a contrived puzzle independent of the narrative.
I remember the game ending so abruptly that I was sure a sequel would quickly follow. Alas, despite narrowly losing out as PC Gamer’s 1995 Game of the Year (back in the days when people cared what a magazine thought) to Beavis and Butthead Save America. Bioforge sold poorly and lead to Origin’s financial difficulties, layoffs and cancellation of the Bioforge + sequel.
As for the action-puzzle genre; Alone in the Dark was excellent and massively successful if less technically inspiring. Resident Evil partially carried the torch but has slowly morphed into a much more action focused series. After that I run out of examples, modern or old. There are many 3rd person games nowadays but they rarely veer into puzzle territory as much as Bioforge did. If it wasn’t for Bioforge I would incorrectly say that’s a good thing.
I assumed you’d have to emulate a Dosbox to play Bioforge but it’s available on GOG. It has not been remastered and I’m not sure it would hold up. I expect the story (if not the voice acting) will still seem fresh and original. But the game was hard in an era of hard games and the controls don’t help. Death will be frequent, but at least you’ll get to see the damage build up on your character in gory detail before you croak.