[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, thereís always the lurking danger that players will think theyíve 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 theyíre supposed to do and give them at least a bit of motivation for doing. Despite how commonly itís used, this device has a tendency to backfire when the commanding officer/mysterious stranger/computer geek is annoying or patronizing.
So itís 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.
BioShock isnít 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 BioShockís 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. Itís easy to see why, as a life or death choice like this is so stark it canít help but inspire a strong reaction.
But this limited binary choice and the unsubtle endings that resulted from it didnít sit quite well with players (or BioShockís developers, for that matter). And unambiguous choice with nonsensical consequences like this doesnít really make the player feel in control. Since this is the one of the reasons for letting the player choose in the first place, itís 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. Itís easy to tell a player do something, but whatís less easy is to make players feel motivated about their place in the narrative. They may be happy with killing monsters, but if theyíre 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, itís Jack and the ugly secret of his birth and brainwashing that is BioShockís 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. Itís where the storyís narrative strength and player motivation come from, and Itís what makes the relationship with Atlas and Fontaine so interesting.
The impact of Atlasís betrayal is made through strengthening the playerís trust of him throughout the first half of the game. Atlas feels trustworthy, and itís due in no small part to the fact that his motivations mirror the playerís. 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. Ryanís dispassionate and patronizing attitude towards the player also gives the tension a personal touch.
BioShock 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 itís revealed that Atlas isnít what he appears.
Players like to feel in control, but this sensation doesnít necessarily come from having the ability to choose. Having control is as simple as doing what you want to do. Itís possible for players to feel in control even if they donít 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 itís 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 arenít often able to question what theyíre told.
The control phrase, "Would you kindly?", which seemed like nothing more than a quirk of Atlasís 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 itís this feeling of violation that drives the rest of the game so well. First, thereís the desire to take back your freedom and remove Jackís 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 playerís reaction to this violation of a freedom they never had is exactly whatís necessary to move them through to the gameís conclusion.
Choose The Possible
Even Rapture itself is constructed with the intent of inspiring driving emotions in the player. Itís a horrifying place, dangerous, oppressive, and the threat of the cityís collapse always seems imminent. Rapture never feels like a fun place to live, despite its wonders. Raptureís final destruction is coming, and soon, and escape is a high priority. Although thereís 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 playerís 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 playerís perception of their free will. Just because thereís only one option that feels right doesnít mean that there isnít 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, itís 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 AndrewVandenB@gmail.com]