I agree with your larger point about most encounters emerging from rules banging into each other being more interesting – certainly for repeat play – than every encounter being pre-defined with only very minimal tactical differences. As Jon Chey put it in his wonderful System Shock 2 post-mortem: “When you throw together many such systems (as we did), you end up with a lot of game play.”
More about that in a moment. First, though, it’s maybe interesting to consider that the first time you see an in-game hybrid in System Shock 2, it’s actually a scripted sequence! This is the bit when you’ve just entered the first code after waking up on the Von Braun and walked through the doorway – when you hear the screams and look to your right, a shotgun-toting hybrid is chasing a female crew member down a hallway you’ll soon explore for yourself.
I don’t think this undercuts the later “oh, hello!” moment when you open the door and that first hybrid tries to take your head off. But it does mean that the SS2 team wasn’t averse to a bit of scripting themselves, even if it was of the non-interactive variety.
Which brings me to my other counterpoint, which is that a game with scripted encounters isn’t automatically a bad game. This is how all the Half-Life games rolled, with scripted events that were both interactive and non-interactive, and all of them are still fun to play today.
And that did have an effect on System Shock 2. In that SS2 post-mortem, Jon Chey says:
[W]e realized that our design time and budget were very tight and that we would not have time to carefully hand-script complicated game-play sequences in the engine. Instead, in an attempt to shift the battlefield, we chose to focus on simple, reusable game-play elements. The success of [i]Half-Life[/i], which launched while we were in the middle of [i]System Shock 2[/i], confirmed our intuitions in this respect. We simply didn't have the time, resources or technology to develop the scripted cinematic sequences used by [i]Half-Life[/i].
But later in that same post-mortem, he acknowledges that the team did, after all, feel they needed to implement scripted cinematics in SS2:
Motivated by the dramatic scripted sequences in [i]Half-Life[/i], we attempted to introduce similar elements into [i]System Shock 2[/i]. In doing so, we broke one of our rules: we tried to step outside the bounds of our technology. Although we attempted relatively simple sequences and ultimately got them working, they were time sinks, and the payback was relatively slight. For example, we scripted a hallucinatory sequence in which the player character rides through the interior of the alien boss-monster, known as the Many. This so-called "Many ride" was the source of innumerable bugs -- the player would be thrown off the moving platform, manage to kill his projected self, bump into walls, and so on.
Despite this, I’d say that the SS2 team understood that the real strength of their game was in creating rule-based systems in an evocative setting and then letting those systems interact in fenceposted but otherwise unscripted ways. And I think that does give the games of Looking Glass and its immediate descendants a feeling of being a living, breathing world to explore that many other games lack.
So why don’t other games do this? Two possible reasons come to mind:
Generating surprising content by letting rules interact in unexpected ways is scary. The benefit of this approach over scripting is that the player doesn’t know exactly what will happen. The danger is that the developer doesn’t know what will happen. Some of the funnier AI bugs happen as a direct consequence of this kind of thing – a few you can let survive into the game, but most have to be fixed, and that takes time. Worse, this model increases the risk that bugs might be discovered by players after the game launches. There are lots of gamers who like to beat up on Bethesda for exactly this perceived flaw – Zenimax might tolerate this; other publishers won’t.
Either the developers or the publisher don’t trust their players. There almost seems to be a fear: it’s like they’ve decided that most players have the attention spans of a juvenile mayfly, so no player must be permitted even a fraction of a second in which they don’t know exactly what they’re supposed to do and how to do it. Consequently, these games are massively signposted, with minimaps and giant exclamation marks hovering inexplicably over characters’ heads, and they slavishly follow the “linear corridor shooter with one distinct gimmick” philosophy.
I like the Looking Glass style of game better myself because their developers aren’t afraid to build interacting systems for me to explore, and because I appreciate that these developers trust me to explore their game in whatever way(s) I enjoy. I want OtherSide to succeed not just so I can play Underworld Ascendant and all their later games, but so that other developers can see that making highly systemic computer games that respect players is a winning design philosophy.
…this ran a little longer than I intended. My thanks to anyone who managed to plow through the whole thing.