Skip to main content

Shoot, Strafe, Soliloquy: A Crisis in Videogame Narratives

'Would you kindly?'

Atlas (Bioshock)


The dialectic BioShock presents regarding formal structures is brought to a crux towards the game's first climax. After traversing most of Rapture and witnessing the terrifyingly polarised consequences of a culture 'set free' from conventionalisms, the player finally confronts Andrew Ryan. [Please refer to V. D3] In this moment the player discovers that Jack was created as a genetic experiment by Andrew Ryan. Designed to be a secret weapon, Jack was pre-programmed to obey any command when used in conjunction with the phrase 'Would you kindly?'. Jack's agency was an illusion, his choices were in fact made for him by Atlas (subsequently revealed to be Frank Fontaine in disguise), who has manipulated him via this phrase for the game's duration.

[V. D3] BioShock's first climax, in which the player confronts Andrew Ryan.

Rather than sacrifice his own autonomy by being murdered (a prospect which repulses him to the ideological core), Ryan orders the player to 'kill! Would you kindly?' thereby initiating his own death and maintaining agency. In this moment, the player is locked in a set piece, with no control over their actions and no way to change the course of events. Ryan's rebuke, 'A man chooses, a slave obeys' (BioShock) refers to Jack in the first instance, but it also functions are also a sophisticated comment on the player's condition. In the same manner that Jack has been denied agency, the player is has been similarly fooled. The most crucial decision of the game is whisked out of their hands after hours of exposure to the rhetoric of individualism. In this respect, the previous section of the game becomes a haunting reminder of the tension between form and content that exists in narrative driven gaming. For the game's current duration, the player has been submerged in an environment bathed in the motif of freedom. BioShock never lets the player rest without making them cerebrally analyse choices, whether they be their own, or those of others. This previous existence must be re-examined by the player with savage irony - is it really their choice to follow any of the objectives they are given?

BioShock lifts the curtain of ludic freedom, thereby revealing the true nature of narrative game-structures: linear, ordered, inflexible. Choosing how to kill, choosing what weapons and abilities aquire, even choosing the order of tasks actually has negligible consequences for narratives because they are representational structures that, by their very nature, require a specific trajectory. Narratives are artifice, not experimentation. Does killing Navarre in Deus Ex stop JC Denton from ultimately confronting Majestic-12? Of course not, it can't without violating the laws of narrative progression. Games, like novels or cinema, only provide one set of diegetic choices: you can choose to watch, play, or read the linear path, or you can choose to not to. That is the only significant choice a player can make. The instructions the player receives from Atlas over the radio serve to disguise this modus operandi: they give the impression of freedom, of organic, spontaneous tasking while actually functioning as the enforcer of the player's structural prison. In this manner, Atlas functions as an analogue for game developers themselves: guiding the player with an invisible hand, he must perform a complex masquerade in order to convince Jack (and thereby the player) he is engaging his free will. BioShock unveils the paradox faced by narrative-driven games: they must utilise clever diegetic deceptions to disguise how this narrative content distorts the ludic structure.

'Whatever you thought about right and wrong on the surface, well, that don't count for much down in Rapture.'

Atlas (Bioshock)

The climax with Ryan is by no means the finale of BioShock. After Atlas reveals himself to be the supposedly dead Frank Fontaine, Jack is found by Bridget Tenenbaum, who offers to reverse his mental conditioning. Tenenbaum was responsible for creating the 'little sisters' which the player encounters throughout the game. After Rapture fell into civil war, it quickly became clear that harvesting ADAM naturally (from sea-slugs) produced insufficient quantities. Therefore, Tenenbaum implanted the slugs into little girls who were then mentally conditioned to harvest ADAM from splicer corpses - and so the 'little sisters' were born. When the player arrives in Rapture, Tenenbaum appeals for their help to undo her handiwork. In desperate need of ADAM, the player is faced with a choice: they may 'harvest' little sisters they encounter, or 'rescue' them. Harvesting kills the child but produces high yeilds of ADAM, whereas rescuing returns them to a normative state for around half the amount of ADAM in return. Appropriately, ADAM, the substance intrinsically linked with individualism, becomes the centre of the player's only significant 'narrative' choice throughout the game.

It is disconcerting for the player that BioShock, a game of startling ethical complexity, provides a polarised moral choice such as this. That these decisions are directly linked to ludic benefits for the player is even more surprising. Did Ken Lavine not himself state that 'games are not story. Games are gameplay'? In actuality, Lavine does not betray this mantra, because BioShock ultimately undermines this connection of narrative choices to ludic variables. If the player continues to 'rescue' little sisters as the game progresses then Tenenbaum leaves the player gifts containing vast amounts of ADAM. These gifts are equal in proportion to the amount of ADAM a player receives from harvesting little sisters, rendering the entire system of moral choice redundant. There is a canonically established logic behind this decision: if games make challenges significantly harder for players based on non-ludic decisions, then players will feel 'cheated' by the system. The ultimate objective of playing games is to win, anything that impedes the players progress that is not related to their skill in playing the game is bound to be met with resistance. In this situation, all narrative decisions the player makes cease to exist within their own sphere of meaning and becomes distorted by a ludic system where the only wise choice is a choice that leads to victory.

Once the player has killed Ryan, Tenenbaum offers to help reverse their mental conditioning. At this point, one would expect the game to start offering the player a larger degree of freedom. If Jack is no longer conditioned, surely he, and therefore the player, can do as they wish? This is, of course, merely another step BioShock takes to remind the player of their subservient status to narrative demands: nothing changes. The player is still issued objectives which are non-negotiable, traversing the linear environments in a predetermined order. Although, it is vital to note here that BioShock can potentially end in two different ways. For the most part, BioShock is an undeniably linear game, however, the game may conclude with the player assuming absolute control of Rapture, or, leaving Rapture forever with the little sisters to start a new life on the surface. Unlike Deus Ex, BioShock does not overtly ask the player to make this decision at the game's conclusion, instead it decides the outcome based upon how many little sisters the player rescues or harvests: saving them all results in an escape to the surface, harvesting them results in the player assuming absolute control of Rapture.

This dynamic results in a narrative conclusion that is bathed in irony. In the final chapters of BioShock the player has been 'freed' from their mental conditioning, however, before they finally confront Fontaine their choice regarding the conclusion has already been made: the vast majority of little sisters have been rescued or harvested by this point. Once again, BioShock outwardly projects the notion of 'meaning through choice', and proceeds to subvert it by rending the player's own agency entirely irrelevant. Through bringing diegetic and ludic components into close proximity without ever letting them collide, BioShock illuminates the innate paradox of 'narrative gaming'. Perhaps it is this dissonance, both disturbing and simultaneously compelling, that causes critics, journalists, and players to return to BioShock again and again.

'It wasn't impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the sea. It was impossible to build it anywhere else.'

 Andrew Ryan (BioShock)

I believe, however, that BioShock also suggests a potential method for videogames to move forward from their current crisis. The history of Rapture, and current context of the player's situation, is expressed through a newly emergent diegetic method that has come to be known as 'environmental storytelling'. [Please refer to figure 6.4]. Rapture is littered with audio tapes, posters, journals, graffiti and destroyed scenery which contextualise its present by leaving phantom imprints of its past. Except for the audio tapes, the player does not 'interact' with this flotsam in any other manner than allowing it to subtly colour their experience of the game proper. This is not 'narrative' in the traditional sense, but rather, a phantom of narrative that provides isolated pockets of detail. Most importantly, it effectively conveys diegetic content in a manner that displays less of the incongruities with gaming form than other techniques: players need not surrender agency, nor need they indulge in awkwardly restrictive conversation. In fact this content could even be ignored by the player, it merely serves to augment the player's ludic experience[i]. However, BioShock simultaneously registers that this is not the dominant mode of gaming diegesis at present. [Please refer to figure 6.5] In a deeply symbolic moment just before the player confronts Andrew Ryan, they find a wall that plastered with environmental storytelling detail about Jack's past. 'Would You Kindly' is scrawled over this detail, a phrase representative of BioShock's narrative deceptions and inability to breach linear structures.

Figure 6.4 - The morbid diagrams of Dr.Steinman

[Figure 6.4] The morbid diagrams of Dr.Steinman's patients serve as a form of environmental storytelling in BioShock.

Figure 6.4 - The morbid diagrams of Dr.Steinman

[Figure 6.5] A room directly before the player's encounter with Andrew Ryan in BioShock.

For the moment, the videogame canon, like Rapture, is trapped by its own achievements. Ironically, Rapture's privileged location beneath the ocean subjects it to immense amounts of pressure, literally and metaphorically. The videogame canon is subject to a similar dilemma. Its unique, isolated position as a multi-faceted media places pressure on its differing formal structures. As Ryan suggests, it was 'impossible to build [Rapture] anywhere else' ,and I believe that videogames are bound by an analogous restriction: they must be both representative and configurative and there is no way to circumvent this construction, it is inherent.

Nevertheless, I do not believe that this confirms the arguments of ludologists like Eskelinen. Videogames descend from board games, but denouncing narrative content as irrelevant is sophistic: BioShock is not, and never will be a game of mah-jong. Undeniably, games have become vessels for diegetic content, even if this content causes friction with the gameplay dynamics. However, nor do I believe that most narrative theorists have sufficiently grasped the fundamental systems of engagement and technical limitations of videogames: Half Life 2 is not the next À la recherche du temps perdu. When, in regard to ludus and diegesis, Diane Carr suggests that 'understanding the coexistence of these elements might eventually require us to rethink what we mean by narrative in general' (38), she fails to grasp that 'narrative' is not what needs redefining; we already understand what narrative means. What really requires further investigation, and quite probably a whole new technical lexicon, is the emerging structures of interaction between play and diegesis in videogames. These compositions are emerging from their infancy through techniques such as environmental storytelling. As they evolve, the videogame canon is maturing into an unknown entity that requires a new way of thinking, not theory cobbled together from previous media, but a close, and thorough investigation of gaming structures as they exist in the present.

Contents . 1 . 2 . 3 . 4 . 5 . 6 . 7 . 8 . 9

[i] This emergent technique has become increasingly popular in contemporary games. The recent masterpiece Portal 2 (2011) utilises this technique to convey huge segments of its diegetic content.