Games offer us a unique way of exploring a character. We not only see the world from their eyes, but we actually interact with the world through their choices. We use abilities in games that echo the choices the character would make when presented with a certain situation. These sorts of abilities define the characters in our video games more accurately than even the narrative that we are presented via sound or text. When the two don’t align, we automatically look towards the actions of the player character to tell us what kind of person they really are. After all, actions speak louder than words.
Given this, I would like to take a more in-depth look at some of gaming’s heroes
In this article I look at Booker DeWitt, gun-toting protagonist of Bioshock: Infinite. Bioshock Infinite has quickly become the post child for Ludonarrative Dissonance, the idea that a game’s actions and story might not align. In this article I take a look at the actions of the DeWitt in the game with the intention to understand how he does or does not mesh with the gameplay mechanics. At the end I will try to map him onto a Meyers Briggs personality group, and then discuss what this pursuit has taught me.
So let’s get going!
First off let’s look at the primary verb of the game: Shooting. Bioshock: Infinite is a First Person Shooter title. You have an interact button that allows you to collect items from the world, but the majority of interaction is done through your gun. You never put the gun away, except during moments when the player is not in control. You get a variety of guns and magical powers called Vigors, but you use them all effectively the same way. Aim at an enemy, click the button, the enemy dies. The means of that death vary pretty wildly, but the action is always the same at its core. You also have a melee attack, but it basically serves as “shooting” with limited range and no ammo requirement.
Your secondary verb in the game is “looting”. You can search the world for a variety of objects hidden in interesting places. These objects include health and mana (salts), as well as money, ammo, and etc. This looting mechanic incentivizes players to explore the world around them, providing them with the tools needed to proceed through the sometimes-quite-difficult campaign. You can also find optional voice recordings lying around, which explain more detail about the story. All of these “looting” options serve as breadcrumbs to keep players moving through the campaign.
Because your two main verbs are “Shooting” and “Looting”, Booker’s progression through the game is just a murderous rampage. He shoots and steals at every possible opportunity. In fact, if we look at only mechanical interactions, this is where this game ends. Throughout the game you are treated to a plethora of cutscenes, audio logs, and acting sequences that tell a grand tale of dimensional travel and the fallibility of man. But that story is never touched by the interaction the player is doing. Players may make choices, such as saving one person or another, but the core gameplay is never changed. The story you experience is really Elizabeth’s story, Booker is simply along for the ride. He's still an important character, but his choices are not. As an example of this, there is a moment in the game where you first shift through a tear in the fabric of reality. When you enter that rift, the enemies you’ve killed are alive again, undoing your every action for the last several minutes. You even enter that rift specifically to undo a death. Given that your primary interaction with the game is Shooting, the ability to undo the deaths of enemies effectively negates every action you can take. The ending of the story later doubles down on that. “There is always a lighthouse” is basically the tagline of the game, which encapsulates this nicely.
Since looking at just the gameplay tells us nothing here, let’s look at the cutscenes and scripted sequences to try to reveal the character.
Immediately, this becomes a thousand times easier. Booker DeWitt begins the game as a passenger on a boat being shipped to a lighthouse in order to “deliver the girl and wipe away the debt”. He is presented as a ‘Pinkerton’ which seems to be some sort of mob for hire that does the dirty work of anyone who might need their service. He doesn’t seem overly proud of this job at all, but is resigned to do it anyway because he has gotten himself into this situation and it’s the only way he can see to get himself out. As the game progresses, he becomes more and more uneasy with his choice, eventually changing his mind about delivering Elizabeth, and working to set her free and give her a decent life instead. He works to save a group of downtrodden rebels who are fighting against injustice, he fights to overthrow an oppressive regime who is maintaining strict authoritarian control, and in pretty much every way he becomes your standard anti-hero rogue who decides to do what’s right half way through a mission that would otherwise have led him down a dark path. Honestly, just from the narrative here, his personality pretty quickly and easily charts onto a Meyers Briggs (if you need a refresher on those archetype choices, there’s a brief summary just above the chart here). He has an extensive social network that has gotten him into his job and has absolutely no trouble diving into new social interactions and making new friends/enemies, making him somewhat clearly an Extrovert. When presented with new information, he takes it at face value and judges what he can see as he does. Clearly a Sensing individual. He becomes emotional throughout the game, but he never lets himself get lost to that emotion. He’s always got a plan, he’s always trying to think his way through the next step and figure out a solution, making him clearly a Thinking person. Lastly, he begins the game with a strict plan: Deliver the girl and wipe away the debt. He pursues this goal relentlessly, never varying from his goal until his mind is changed, at which point his goal changes to rescuing Elizabeth, which he pursues equally relentlessly. He is clearly a Judging personality, preferring strict plans.
So, great! He’s an ESTJ! Our work here is done!
Except, that doesn’t exactly line up with the gameplay.
So let’s take another look at that, but looking only at mechanical interactions instead of dialogue or cutscene actions. Dewitt is still definitely an Extrovert, he’s never alone for long in the gameplay. He starts with a couple of escorts, tries blending in with the crowds in the city and eventually ends up with a permanent partner in Elizabeth. So that one clearly matches. Mechanically, his decision-making process is kind of a black box. Every decision DeWitt makes is during a cutscene or other story moment. Gameplay-wise he only makes decisions to open tears and doors and such, all of which are prompted by someone else’s decision. There are a number of binary choices he makes regarding moral choices, but since the player is free to choose their approach, this tells us that DeWitt could go either way. In the end, I’ll stick to Sensing simply because he doesn’t do anything mechanically to contradict that. Emotionally, DeWitt’s gameplay actions couldn’t possibly be more clear. The man rampantly murders everyone in his way, he makes every gameplay choice he makes for the sake of continued violence, and his primary interaction with the world is through his gun. His other main interaction is to steal everything, regardless of how it might affect others or his current situation. He is CLEARLY an emotional person, not a thinking person. Lastly, he keeps no log of missions, he simply moves from one objective to the next, responding to stimulus in the moment as it is presented to him. There is no checklist, there is no arrow pointing him to his next goal, he simply moves from place to place hoping to find his way further forward. Very clearly a Perceiving personality.
So…. he’s an ESFP?
Well, we clearly have some dissonance happening here! So what do we do about that? Having these two different defined metrics to point to allows us to realign specific features of our character’s personality as it’s presented through its narrative and gameplay. In this instance, 2 of our personality features are aligned, so we don’t have to change anything about the way those parts are conveyed. Instead, let’s focus on the latter half of our Meyers Briggs.
I’d actually like to start with Judging/Perceiving because it’s the easier of the two to realign. Judging/Perceiving is grossly oversimplified as ‘do you prefer structure or flexibility?’. If I were doing legitimate psychology here, that would never fly, but we’re simply using this as a framework to understand character traits as presented in games, so it works just fine for our needs. Booker DeWitt, in the written narrative, prefers structure. He appears in the game with the goal of finding the girl and he chases that goal until being confronted with the reality of the situation. He starts the game with a box of objects that lead him directly to his goal. When he changes his mind about his plan, he struggles against the plan he had already set in motion to abduct her. At first, he sticks to this plan, which leads Elizabeth to attack him to get away. Only after this sequence do we see him switch gears into improvisation for the sake of Elizabeth. In the gameplay, however, he’s simply being dragged along as other people decide everything for him, always in that improvisation mode. To reconcile these two personalities, I would start by making Booker have a specific checklist of missions. He has his ultimate goal, and then he adds sub goals as he progresses towards that goal. I would also have Booker make specific gameplay decisions. Setting up an escape path by opening particular doors, or clearing enemies from a particular hallway for the same reason, would be a solid way of showing that he is making plans, even while improvising. If we are doing a story about free will and authoritarianism, our protagonist’s arc needs to reflect that. Their actions should be definite, and the story should center around those actions, and the consequences. When all that lighthouse stuff starts happening and we find out his free will doesn’t really exist, it should hit that much harder.
Moving into the Feeling/Thinking area, we have a little more esoteric work to do. How do you show a character as Thinking rather than Feeling in a video game where the player controls their actions? As I’ve illustrated in this series of articles, the possible actions a player can make in a game reflect directly on the type of personality we see in the player character. If we can pick a can out of the trash, that means the player character is the type of person who MIGHT pick a can out of the trash. The in-the-moment decisions made by the player will always vary, but the actions allowed by the game define those possibilities. In order to convey a character who uses logic as their primary decision-making tool, we must limit the possible player actions to logical choices. Instead of Booker DeWitt responding to everything with anger and violence, as he changes his mind about his situation, that should be reflected in his actions. As it no longer makes sense to kill enemies (because they can just be brought right back through rift magic), he should focus on combating them in other ways. Subduing them, or using stealth, would make the later half of the game make much more sense (in point of fact, the Boys of Silence already introduce this combat-avoidance, showing that the game is already set up for this idea). If the Vigors were designed differently, they could easily fill the gap your lacking gun violence leaves. It would also make sense to ramp enemy combat in the later half into being so strong that your weapons simply aren’t as effective, making you fight through puzzle solving more (or giant turrets. Giant turrets is also an option here). It would also be reasonable to lean more heavily on avoiding combat entirely in the later portions. If combat isn’t required, and the enemies are becoming more and more difficult, players may choose other paths instead. All of these options would require additional tutorialization to make them flow smoothly through the game (you’d have to set them up before they became a primary mechanic), and they would have a great impact on how the gameplay flowed into the later half. It would require a significant overhaul, but we’re writing this article in a void where things like budgets don’t matter at all, and narrative is king. As far as the narrative, Booker slowly realizing that he doesn’t want to partake in all the violence would make a great arc for his character, and make the ending that much more tragic. There are other ways of approaching this as well, of course, but so long as the goal is “make Booker’s actions more logical” I think we’ll reach the goal we want, regardless of the approach we take.
So there we have that. I do want to discuss, briefly, that in this case I chose to align the character with the written personality. The personality shown through the gameplay, in Bioshock: Infinite, is notably less defined when compared to the one written into the narrative. The written story in this game relies quite heavily on who Booker DeWitt is, as a person, and so retooling that version of his character would require a far more significant rewrite of the overall story. I think the personality conveyed in the narrative also makes more sense FOR the narrative, and for the themes present in the game. Whereas in a game like Metroid: Other M I would be inclined to rework the protagonist’s written personality to match the gameplay personality, in Bioshock I feel like the inverse is the better choice. Honestly, I imagine that the gameplay was decided for Infinite basically in a void away from the narrative. It’s a sequel to a popular game, so it had to follow the original design with some few differences allowed. Video Games are a new medium, so this sort of thing is not at all unreasonable while planning your story. We don’t have many rules to follow, so it’s impossible to know if what we’re doing is going to work. Fortunately, hindsight is 20/20, and people like myself can come in years later and dissect the game to figure out how it ticks.
I believe that by better understanding these sorts of gameplay idiosyncrasies and what they say about the character you are playing, we as game designers will have an easier time presenting our stories as we intend. This article series aims to give us the ammunition we need to accomplish this task. Hopefully you’ll have learned as much from this as I have, but either way thanks for reading.
See you next time!