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Analysis: Would You Kindly?  BioShock  And Free Will
Analysis: Would You Kindly? BioShock And Free Will
August 18, 2009 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche

August 18, 2009 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche
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[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]


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Comments


Ian Morrison
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I thought that was a brilliant moment... even after killing Ryan and being told to stop the destruction of Rapture ("would you kindly") I was in a state of disbelief, right up until Atlas started cackling at me over the radio.



At which point I managed to guess Atlas's identity a few seconds before the game actually spelt it out for me. ;)



After that point in the game tracking down Fontaine was quite personal. :)

Ben Sullivan
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Good to see more discussion on alternative narrative techniques. We've all had enough of "go here, shoot this, because the designer said so". Keep the discussion going!

Ava Avane Dawn
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"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."



Player emotion and will can be hard to predict. Is it easier to predict if the narrative is linear? If there is much fixed narrative, as compared to emergent game play leading to narrative situations?



This classic article on bioshock discusses control/freedom:



http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrati
ve-d.html



I sort of respond to this in my blog post:



http://mindinggames.blogspot.com/2009/08/on-bioshock-on-objectivi
sm.html



Sorry for the shameless self-promotion. ^^

Michael Edwards
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"We've all had enough of "go here, shoot this, because the designer said so". Keep the discussion going! "



I think Bioshock still effectively does this. As much as its obfuscated behind a supposedly benificent director and the small amount of open-word design in Bioshock, you're still running missions for the vast majority of the game. Personally I'm happy with it, directed games are simple experiences, easy to understand and have fun with. Not to say there's no place for the "emergent gameplay" style of game but Bioshock is IMO a definite example of directed/mission based gameplay.



--



One moment where Bioshock broke down for me that stands out in my mind is the scene where splicers are attacking the pod Atlas claimed his family is in ... I distinctly remember at the time thinking "What if I don't want to save them?" but it wasn't an option that the game design allowed me. Of course you don't succeed anyway, but there's no option to just stand and let events take their course. That fits the "would you kindly" scenario perfectly but at the time, even not knowing the twist, I found that scene particularly jarring in a game that had so far given me the illusion of free will.

Aaron Knafla
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For me, Bioshock lived on its core gameplay and production values. The game plays, looks, and sounds very nice.



The story was suitable enough. But, I quickly tired of Atlas/Fontaine; and I knew there was a "twist" coming from very early on. I was fairly certain that I was being used. You see, the idea of a person talking you through a task and turning on you isn't exactly a new one in gaming... It's actually a bit of a cliche. In fact, much of Bioshock was just that: cliche.



What was interesting in Bioshock was the propaganda and recorded diaries in the city. I enjoyed hearing the clever moral acrobatics required to live in the city. And, the workings of the economy were equally interesting... Smuggling--no matter how dangerous to the city's secrecy--was inevitable. No large city could be expected to function properly in a closed (isolationist) economy. Ryan's low quality domestic goods and high prices forced his citizens to look elsewhere... This peek into life in thriving Rapture is the only thing Bioshock did that was really special.



The rest of it--including the "shocking" (roll eyes) betrayal--was cliche...



Unlike Knight of the Old Republic, I never truly felt any freedom to make free choices. I felt restricted and unhappy listening to Atlas/Fontaine tell me what to do... I would have much preferred to explore and uncover the city myself.

Z Z
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Bioshock was good, but a lot over-rated in my opinion.

jaime kuroiwa
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Maybe this is the game tester in me, but when Atlas asked me to do something, I always did the opposite, hoping to get chastised or unlock a hidden bonus. When the big "would you kindly" reveal came along, it felt contrived, since the game wasn't really playing with my free will; it gave me no alternative.



Also, if we're going to talk about the heart of Bioshock, it was not Jack; the story of Jack is just the vehicle. The heart of Bioshock -- and what really got me interested in the game in the first place -- was Rapture.

Kevin Patterson
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I felt that Atlas was probably Fontaine fairly early on, as at the time I thought I heard similarities in the voices. However, The "would you kindly" realization moment was unexpected and blew me away.

The interesting thing was that I thought I heard that voice similarity, and then after beating the game, found out it was two different voice actors lol.

Reid Kimball
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How can narrative designers know if this will work or not? It completely failed for me, like Aaron I felt really annoyed with the obvious designer designed tasks throughout the game and when the big reveal happened that Atlas was controlling "my mind" I smacked my head, not in awe but in how ridiculous that was. It was a nice experiment but failed in my opinion. But obviously, it worked for others. So, how can a narrative designer know if they should go with this approach or not?

Adam Flutie
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Honestly, I completely avoided anything bioshock, even the previews / reviews. I only picked it up after trying the demo and knowing I saw the game in a lot of topic subject lines in the forums. As such I didn't know there was a twist coming.



I also spent my time completely ignoring Atlas the whole game. I would do everything I could before eventually realizing I had no other choice... in that sense the 'Would you kindly?" thing didn't even play a part until it was completely pointed out to me and the game took control of my player in the Ryan Scene, only at that time did I realize everything blocked at the next point he asked me to do at some point and that he was actually telling me to do it.



As such the game was great. Just like any M Night Shalamon movie, if you expect a twist or a place where all the pieces to come together at some point, you call the movie overrated or trash because you knew it was coming... as is with Bioshock. If any of this was spoiled too early via research, word of mouth or you were paranoid looking for a twist in the game, expecting something cliche to show up you probably thought it was overrated and didn't pack any punch.



Me personally though know it is a Single player gem that I will probably keep playing every so often I'm in the mood for a great FPS again years down the road.



The interesting thing will be how Bioshock 2 repeats / avoids repeating it. I mean, you put in a twist and you already fall in glory for being a repeat... or you avoid it and have the Happening that goes nowhere.

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