[BioShock effectively toyed with players' perceptions of free will, all within the confines of a linear narrative. In this spoiler-inducing piece (warning!), Gamasutra looks at how the game gave players a feeling of control without actually handing it over.
In linear games, there’s always the lurking danger that players will think they’ve got a shred of influence on how the game unfolds. In an effort to resolve this, many games employ a narrative voice to let players know what exactly what they’re supposed to do and give them at least a bit of motivation for doing. Despite how commonly it’s used, this device has a tendency to backfire when the commanding officer/mysterious stranger/computer geek is annoying or patronizing.
So it’s nice to see BioShock
not only manage to make this narrator and guide an interesting character, but also critique the entire relationship between this figure and the protagonist and player.
isn’t the only game to play around with this relationship. In Portal
, the increasingly malicious AI begins asking your character to politely die, and the original Zone of the Enders
withheld the tutorial until after your first fight in order to simulate the feelings of a panicked child forced into combat for the first time. But BioShock
not only involves the betrayal, but really makes players conscious of how much the game controls their actions, rather than the other way around.
Despite the fact that BioShock
’s story plays on the conventions of a linear narrative and the lack of free choice inherent to that, most of the discussion around the game revolves around issues of choice. The Little Sisters, and the hold the player has over their lives, are provocative enough to monopolize most discussion of the game. It’s easy to see why, as a life or death choice like this is so stark it can’t help but inspire a strong reaction.
But this limited binary choice and the unsubtle endings that resulted from it didn’t sit quite well with players (or BioShock
’s developers, for that matter). And unambiguous choice with nonsensical consequences like this doesn’t really make the player feel in control. Since this is the one of the reasons for letting the player choose in the first place, it’s a bit of a step backwards.
Control is extremely important, and one of the greatest annoyances of authoritative voiceovers is that they take that feeling away. It’s easy to tell a player do something, but what’s less easy is to make players feel motivated about their place in the narrative. They may be happy with killing monsters, but if they’re patronized every time they try and do anything else it becomes grating.
Life in a Collapsing Underwater Hellhole
If the Little Sisters are the face of the game, it’s Jack and the ugly secret of his birth and brainwashing that is BioShock
’s heart. This is the core of why the player should care about their narrator as more than just a voice that tells them what to do. It’s where the story’s narrative strength and player motivation come from, and It’s what makes the relationship with Atlas and Fontaine so interesting.
The impact of Atlas’s betrayal is made through strengthening the player’s trust of him throughout the first half of the game. Atlas feels trustworthy, and it’s due in no small part to the fact that his motivations mirror the player’s. In a collapsing underwater hellhole, escape is the natural conclusion. Not to mention that, with Andrew Ryan doing everything he can to kill Jack, trusting his enemy is a fairly logical step. Ryan’s dispassionate and patronizing attitude towards the player also gives the tension a personal touch.
takes advantage of video game conventions to set up a relationship of trust between the player and Atlas. The player is forced to trust him to certain extent because he provides the player with the means to progress through the game. Even though there are moments that cause the player to question their relationship, the player is helpless without him. In this way, at least some degree of trust must be built up between the player and Atlas by the time it’s revealed that Atlas isn’t what he appears.
Players like to feel in control, but this sensation doesn’t necessarily come from having the ability to choose. Having control is as simple as doing what you want to do. It’s possible for players to feel in control even if they don’t actually have the ability to choose, as long as the what the game asks and what the player wants aligns. A good narrative should foster this.
Would You Kindly Do As You Please?
So when it’s revealed that Jack has been controlled by the person he thought of as an ally, the violation of trust stings that much more. Before, the player is free to imagine their relationship as anything from genuine trust to an alliance of convenience. The effectiveness of this moment all comes through exploiting the fact that players aren’t often able to question what they’re told.
The control phrase, "Would you kindly?", which seemed like nothing more than a quirk of Atlas’s speech, now inspires a retroactive horror. Before this point, trusting Atlas felt like an option, but at the most critical point, when the player really wants the chance to exercise free will, that option is firmly denied.
It is a very disturbing sensation, but an effective one, an original twist of plot and emotion unique to the medium. It forces the player to seriously thing about their own agency. Being betrayed by others is a common twist, but being betrayed by yourself is something else entirely.
And it’s this feeling of violation that drives the rest of the game so well. First, there’s the desire to take back your freedom and remove Jack’s mental conditioning. Technically, Jack was never free, and for that matter neither was the player. But the sensation of freedom was real, and the loss of that feeling is more than enough motivation for the player to want to regain it and ultimately seek revenge on the person who took it in the first place. The player’s reaction to this violation of a freedom they never had is exactly what’s necessary to move them through to the game’s conclusion.
Choose The Possible
Even Rapture itself is constructed with the intent of inspiring driving emotions in the player. It’s a horrifying place, dangerous, oppressive, and the threat of the city’s collapse always seems imminent. Rapture never feels like a fun place to live, despite its wonders. Rapture’s final destruction is coming, and soon, and escape is a high priority. Although there’s no danger of this happening in game, the constant oppressive reminder is enough to make the player feel that rapture is a place that must be escaped.
This is a game that alternatively takes and hands back the player’s free will while the whole while keeping them on an unbending linear narrative. Nothing changes from the first half of the game to the second but the player’s perception of their free will. Just because there’s only one option that feels right doesn’t mean that there isn’t choice involved.
This examination, in this way and of this nature, is something that was only possible by capitalizing on narrative strengths unique to video games. For this reason alone, it’s important as an example of what games can achieve when they get over their cinematic inferiority complex and spot trying to become a movie anytime they want to tell a story.
[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which discusses video games and video games, and can be reached at [email protected]]