Lazy Saturday: Bioshock

Welcome to Lazy Saturday. I decided to start handling some Saturday entries for awhile. I’ve written a blog in one form or another since 2005, and weekend content has been an eternal struggle. I choose to relax on the weekend, unwind, and unplug. I also know there’s not as much traffic on the weekend, so that encourages some of my laziness. No more (I hope, heh)! I’d like to keep myself sharp. I tossed ideas around, and at last decided to take something that had been on the back-burner for awhile: I’m going to take a look at storytelling in video games, both the good and the bad, and examine them a bit.

Now, as a caveat, upfront, video game writing is drastically different than just about any medium that I can dredge from my mind. I recently read a post that compared writing in video games to creating a score for a film, in that the writer is often handed existing set pieces, situations, and characters, and the writer must take those disparate elements and weave some sort of coherent narrative. There are some exceptions (and today’s game is one of those), but considering that approach, it’s a miracle that any sort of captivating storytelling occurs in video games. But it happens, believe it or not! I’d like to examine some of the successful and not-so-successful examples here.

This week we’ll take a look at an easy one: Bioshock by Irrational Games. When I described this game to a friend, he just couldn’t wrap his mind around how it would work as a game, but it’s really quite clever. This is, of course, an example of the reverse of the process I described above. The game itself was developed in concert with the story. The concept:

In 1960, a follower of Ayn Rand’s philosophies, tired of living amongst the rest of us slobs and “parasites”, took the initiative to build a city beneath the ocean, Rapture, as “a laissez-faire utopia for society’s cultural and scientific elite to avoid the oppression of government and religion” (Thanks Wikipedia). In Rapture, objectivist ideas are  pursued to their extremes, which we’ll explore later in this post.

The protagonist (you), however, has no idea of this back story going in. The protagonist is simply a man on a trans-Atlantic flight who ends up stranded when his plane crashes in the middle of the Atlantic, near a bizarre stone obelisk. Desperate to survive, you climb the stairs of the obelisk and enter, only to discover this:

You also discover an elevator. At this point, what other choice do you have? You take it downward, and as you descend into the ocean, a propaganda film plays, shown below:

This is just brilliant writing. You’re presented with an intriguing scenario (and note the story starts in media res, which I’ve actually noticed is not very common in video games). The scenario grows, and as the sense of mystery continues to build, certain questions are answered, offering instant payoff and setting up even more questions. Soon you learn that Ryan’s experiment failed, and much of the game is spent discovering just why that happened and fighting for your life as you attempt to escape, led on by a mysterious helper character.

Now, I don’t want to spoil too much, but we also have a silent protagonist, a fairly overdone trope in video games. This game takes that trope and makes the silence mean something. The ongoing discoveries of what happened in Rapture as well as the nature of this mysterious helper character and Andrew Ryan make the silence mean something. It all leads up to a revelation wherein the silence and seeming obedience that you’ve displayed up to this point – doing things because you thought they were leading to escape (another video game trope that gets turned on its head) – are all in service to a larger plot point.

As you progress through the different sections of the city, which has become a demented madhouse, you learn just how things have gone wrong, peeling back the layers of the collapse of Rapture. You get a glimpse at how the Objectivist drive for the ideal human being led to the idea of plastic surgery that could never quite be satisfied with “good enough” and ended up driving its patients over the edge. We see how the drive to create a superhuman succeeded, strangely enough, but that race of superhumans was insane and part of what brought down the entire structure.

Another contributing factor to Rapture’s demise is Ryan’s hubris. He assumed that he was the sole guiding light, the one with the most drive to run everything and oversee everyone, but pretty soon a competitor arose, a strong-headed capitalist who was willing to cut corners even more than Ryan and began to challenge Ryan’s supremacy. I can’t talk too much more about that whole angle of the story without giving away major spoilers, but all of these events dovetail nicely with the plot point about the silent protagonist.

Irrational also works hard to immerse you in the world. Everything, even down to the tired “crate” concept, is in service to the story and the vision of the story. Even the normally very artificial means of revealing back story via notes that have been left behind take on new significance and fit well into the game’s theme and its time frame. I found myself emotionally engaged in a way that I rarely do when it comes to a game’s story.

One of the most engaging mysteries of the game is the question of the Little Sisters and the Big Daddies. Little Sisters are little girls who have been genetically modified to harvest the “juice” (called Adam) that creates and amplifies super-humans from the dead bodies of super-humans, passing them on the living members of that tribe. In typical Objectivist fashion, however, these little girls are fair game for those who would take the Adam from the little girls. Enter Big Daddies, who have been created specifically to protect these little girls. That’s one of the most compelling concepts of the story and explores how this dystopian concept would effect the family structure and the treatment of its most vulnerable members.

It’s very focused and a driven experience, with the story unfolding nicely along its points. I tend to favor games with open structure specifically because of the weakness of storytelling in most video games, but I was quite happy to be driven from Point A to Point B in this game. The linear narrative style also makes a lot more sense once you understand the nature of the protagonist.

If you haven’t played the game and think you might enjoy a first-person shooter with a plot, it’s definitely worth a chance – it’s very cheap now and available on PC, XBOX 360, and Playstation 3.

Irrational is working on a follow-up to the game, Bioshock Infinite, for which I’m quite excited. Irrational has stated the Bioshock name is meant as a franchise that explores philosophical ideas as applied to interactive media, and as such, this new game will explore a new concept in a new paradigm: a city in the air built on the myth of American Exceptionalism. It looks fantastic so far, and will probably end up here at some point.

There is also a Bioshock 2, which was not created by the same studio. It was a serviceable sequel, with slightly less worthy writing (not counting the add-on Minerva’s Den, which approaches the quality of the first game), but I found it enjoyable and still play through it from time to time.

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3 Comments

  1. Jonathan, what a cool concept to write about! I’m not a gamer, but I could see that changing if I were more engaged in the back story. Great idea!

  2. Thanks, Karina! Unfortunately, it’s so rare for games to do this, though there has been an increased focus on this lately, so the industry may be coming into its own at last, creatively speaking.

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