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Friday, September 21, 2007

Game Play: BioShock Narrative

There are times when I see Ebert's point.

But first, this post is for people who have finished BioShock. If you haven't - there be spoilers.

So, back to our old friend Ebert - who threw down the gauntlet some time ago that games are, at best, a troublesome form of art. While I don't agree with him, and still don't, games like BioShock exist as a kind of sample of the trouble games have as narrative.

Firstly let's dispel one of the most common misconceptions people have with game narratives. A backstory is not the same as a storyline. In Doom, you start the game as a marine trapped on a Martian base with everyone else killed by a horrible experiment gone wrong. That is not the story, that is the backstory. Doom actually has a better backstory than most - in fact it had a much better backstory than most games of the time - but the actual story persists as "lone marine travels from room to room blowing crap up."

My problem with modern shooters is that most haven't progressed much more than that. Now the main mechanic is to add a goal to provide some excuse for the player to travel from point A to point B. These reasons are usually pretty artificial and once the player reaches point B - largely forgotten. Usually the most substantial character development is getting a new gun.

So while we have all these fancy graphics for rendering characters - we just don't do much of anything with them. Many writing classes will tell you that a story is essentially characters in conflict - but most game narratives never have characters complicated or rich enough to have any conflict other than pointing weapons at each other.

Which can make for a fine game, don't get me wrong, but it doesn't make for a fine story. A fine story is when you can remove all the shooting and still have something worth watching.

And backstory is important ... mystery novels for instance are mostly backstory - but there's always a tangled plot to get to that backstory. It's never as simple as breaking down a door.

BioShock tries - and in some places succeeds - to break this mold. A little bit, at least. I think the most brilliant moment in the game is when you kill Ryan because you're programmed to kill Ryan. It's almost postmodern in nature ... why do you kill him? Because you have no other choice. You have to in order to progress. And calling out the fact that Atlas has been whispering instructions in your ear and then you having little choice but to follow them ... it is a moment which excels merely in framing the typical shooter scenario into a clever frame. You just experienced a dash of character development, free of charge.

The ending though? The ending? What the hell was that?

Instead of framing anything within the game - you're submitted to a cinematic which barely makes any sense. You have no control over your actions - you simply betray the Little Sisters without any warning and then inexplicably escape into a hundred bathyspheres and ... nukes? What? Someone sent a rescue sub with nukes?

BioShock has a pretty lovely backstory - but honestly that is all for naught if it can't even arrive to a sensible conclusion. Can't even allow the player to achieve their original goal - to escape - by themselves. In the end, the player is robbed of both the experience and the narrative.

I still liked BioShock. Quite a lot. It ranks up there as one of the better shooters. Just don't try and tell me how great the story was, if you please.


Mark said...

I am always amazed at how pathetic most endings are. After spending dozens of hours working your way toward something you typically get a 15 second cheesy vid and thats about it.

As you say, a weird edgy "huh, why the cr*p did that happen" ending is not all that satisfying.

Of course, most games want a sequel so they have to leave at a cliffhanger or some such, but come on... Dark Messiah of Might and Magic used the same 15 second video if you picked the light or dark path. FEAR had a 2 second cliff-hanger video and no explanation. etc. I wish game designers would put as much effort into giving the gamer a satisfying feeling at the end as they do making the end so challenging.

Winkyboy said...

Sounds like you got the bad ending. I'd argue that the good ending is fantastic and makes you feel really good about the game. With the apparent contrast in endings, I'd guess that the designers originally planned the good ending, and came up with the bad ending as needed, which is too bad.

There are a couple of points in the plot that really don't make sense to me, still - for example, (Spoiler alert!) when Ryan dies, I was awake for a long time that night as I drifted off to sleep because it made no sense whatsoever. Ryan had control over you as evidenced by his "sit" and "stand" commands. Why, then, would he command you to kill him? Even if he thought he would just be resurrected by the Vita-Chamber, no one openly invites death at any time, at least just to "prove a point," and especially by violent bludgeoning. LAME.

Now that I know what the bad ending is, I'm gonna go watch it. :P I suppose you shoulda marked "bad ending spoiler" for those who haven't seen that - but you know, I don't care: I've got so many games to play that as good as BioShock is, I don't want to play through the whole thing again JUST to go see a bad ending.

Does that say something about the game? I played System Shock 2 through entirely, three times, and played it half-way through an additional two. Maybe it's because time passed in between playings, but .. I still feel SS2 was that much better than BioShock.

Winkyboy said...

I'm back after watching the bad ending. Totally agree. What the heck was THAT? I suppose there are other ways to make you feel bad about the game you just finished, but that ranks pretty high up there. Yeah, the good ending is worth it, the bad ending makes you feel unclean.

Josh said...

OK, I didn't realize what the requirement was for the good ending.

And can I say that's total crap?

Forcing the player to save every little sister in the game with a rescue basically makes the entire plot nothing more than choosing between H and L. I harvested ONE little sister at the beginning just to see what the ADAM difference would be like. Then I rescued every other one I could find and pretty certain I saved about 90% of that.

For that, the game responds to my actions by telling me that "I respond the only way I knew how .... with brutality" ???

Nonsense. Massive amounts of nonsense. If the game is going to try and approach concepts of morality in shades of grey - it needs to have the capacity to produce a narrative in like.

If the developers think I'd be will ing to replay the game under those cirumstances - they'd be dead wrong.

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