Bioshock Infinite and the Components of Video Game Storytelling
On March 26th – while still caught up in the throes of a nasty cold – I dragged myself out to my local GameStop and bought Bioshock Infinite. I started playing that same day, and finished the game (the first time around) a couple of days later. Because I thought my reaction to the game could largely be influenced by my somewhat hazy, cold-altered perception, I waited ’til I was back in fighting trim and then played through a second time. Alas, most of my conclusions were just as strong (if not stronger) after my second play through, and the experience overall has given rise to these thoughts on storytelling in the video game medium.
Since I know not everyone has finished the game, I’ll try to avoid spoilers.
The Fantastical Nature of Story-based Video Games
Story-based video games are inherently fantastical. Whether they are explicitly fantasy-inspired (e.g. Skyrim, Dragon Age: Origins, etc.), post-apocalyptic (e.g. the Fallout franchise or Dead Island), futuristic (e.g. Halo, Portal, etc.), or “contemporary” (e.g. the Call of Duty franchise), they face the same storytelling challenges as any speculative fiction story. Most significantly, to be effective they must:
- rapidly create a world the player can understand, and;
- establish character motivation which the player can internalize, and;
- provide the player with an emotional arc tied to the intersection of world-building, character motivation, and character action.
The video game medium itself makes these tasks both easier and harder than other forms of storytelling. The game’s visual design rapidly communicates world-building details to the player. Just as we quickly gain details of a movie’s fictional environment from the visual cues provided, so too does a video game’s initial FMVs and level design give us clues as to the type of world we are about to inhabit. As the complexity of video game environments has increased, savvy game designers have begun salting their games with telling details that heighten the player’s immersion in their fictional setting. Games like Skyrim and the original Bioshock provide the player with rich backstory independent of the game’s plot through in-game books, notes, recordings, and idle character chatter.
The promise of an entertaining experience is a large part of the player’s motivation for playing. Our own momentum through the story is aided when our in-game proxy has clear motivations, when the stakes are known, and when their desires are both recognizable and understandable to us. When we sit down to play a video game, we are actively looking for the character’s motivation because it suggests to us what we should do to proceed through the game. In Portal, Chell’s reasons for working her way through GLaDOS’ puzzles are easy to grasp, both initially (because she is told to and there is no other choice available) and subsequently (the character’s survival). In the original Bioshock, Jack’s initial motivation is even clearer (i.e. to save Atlas’ family since he seems the only one in a position to do so).
To ultimately be satisfying, the game must provide the player with an emotional arc which develops the game’s themes, and evolves the character’s motivation in line with those themes. Ultimately, the character either succeeds or fails in fulfilling their desires, and the character’s success or failure typically coincides with the player’s success or failure in our gameplay.
Just as with a book, or a movie, or a story, the more each game component (visual design, audio design, gameplay, dialogue, pacing, etc.) contributes to those three basic elements, the stronger the player’s overall response. The truly great games – those that move the medium forward in new and exciting ways, as the original Bioshock did – tend to closely align those game components.
Video Games Done Right: Bioshock
The original Bioshock got just about all of these elements right. Its primary strength, at least from my perspective, was its world-building. As with solid world-building in any medium, it begins at a conceptual level:
Rapture is founded upon Ayn Rand’s libertarian/Objectivist principles, and those philosophical concepts are communicated and explored at every point in the game. Shops and commercial freedoms, the dialogue and motivations of secondary characters, the contrast between player character morality and the “selfish” amorality of the Splicers, Ryan, and Fontaine – all apply, dramatize, and critique the underlying libertarian/Objectivist values in different ways.
Beyond the conceptual level, the visual design is arresting. The color palette and level design is firmly rooted in the aesthetic of the game’s time period (i.e. the science fictional visions of the 1960s), but with a notable diversion: by introducing us to post-collapse Rapture, we see a far darker and much more tense environment than what we might have seen at its height. Thus the player’s nerves are already tightened simply by the visual signals of societal collapse and decay.
The level design itself takes full advantage of the increasing capabilities of modern gaming technology. In particular, just about every nook and cranny of each game area is explorable, contributing to the game’s significant immersive quality. The varied little details scattered throughout the game – from broken children’s toys where appropriate, to strategically scrawled graffiti here and there – give the environment a “lived-in” feeling which makes it that much more compelling.
Equally important are the recordings scattered throughout the world. By giving the player the opportunity to find and collect these recordings, the game designers enhance our investment in the game’s world. These recordings provide us with valuable backstory that aids in our interpretation of the core story. They help us to contextualize the themes explored, and give us insight into secondary characters who often never actually appear in the game. Perhaps the game designer’s best trick is to give these (many) secondary characters their own motivations, their own storylines, independent of the main game. Because they are heroes in their own (often tragic, always off-screen) stories, they are actually developed as characters rather than merely serving a tactical info-dumping function.
The original Bioshock’s pacing also works well. The game designers wisely applied lessons from horror/survival games to offer us gradually mounting tension, offset by moments of humor and discovery, and punctuated by sequences of frenetic action. This contributes to the game’s emotional arc, and ties back into the game’s themes and plot.
So how does Bioshock Infinite compare?
A Flawed Narrative: Bioshock Infinite
Visually, Bioshock Infinite is stunning. The floating city of Columbia is arresting and designed with a strong and consistent aesthetic. However, being an airborne city, it is naturally more expansive than the claustrophobic underwater Rapture. It seems that the game designers chose to prioritize inaccessible backdrop over explorable environments. Most doors – houses, shops, alleyways, etc. – are inaccessible to the player. In other words, our exploration of this aesthetically fascinating environment is severely limited, and we only get to examine the parts of Columbia that are immediately relevant to the game’s primary storyline.
This unswerving focus on the game’s primary thorugh-line is, I believe, Bioshock Infinite’s greatest weakness. Every voxaphone recording found and every Kinetoscope watched contributes directly to the main story’s plot. Where are the character’s living their own lives with their own priorities? It seems that every one in Columbia lives only to inform the player of Important Plot Details. This badly diminishes the degree of environmental immersion, essentially cutting off the game’s world-building at the knees.
Bioshock Infinite’s pacing – particularly at the game’s opening – likewise harms its world-building efforts, though in this case I give the designers a little more credit. The original Bioshock puts us in an atmospheric, claustrophobic, collapsed environment. Rapture is desolate and savage. In Bioshock Infinite, we enter Columbia at its height, with citizens (specifically, those of a certain ethnicity and class) seemingly contented. This is an interesting choice, and no doubt presented the game designers with an interesting set of challenges. However, for such a choice to be rendered convincingly (and so add to the world-building and game immersion), the level design would have to offer more scope for exploration and the gameplay mechanics would have to allow for actual interaction with the non-player characters. As is, our inability to meaningfully interact with the NPCs and the significant amount of time before the fighting starts simply highlights the superficiality of the game’s world-building.
The main character’s initial motivation is likewise hollow. Having played through the entirety of the game, I understand that Booker DeWitt’s initial motivation (“Get the girl to pay off The Debt.”) is contrived to accommodate the game’s eventual “big reveal” (which was so heavily foreshadowed that I figured it out during the opening sequence) but its very thinness prevents us from engaging emotionally with the game’s protagonist. When coupled with the game’s thematic incoherence, our engagement with the game is severely limited.
In the original Bioshock, the themes of liberty, morality, choice, and rights permeate every aspect of the game. By contrast, Bioshock Infinite features a grab-bag of themes that are almost haphazard in their application. Themes of religious extremism, race/class conflict, and personal responsibility/culpability are all there. But at no point in the game’s story are they brought together, shown to be different facets of the same issue, or even explored individually to some satisfactory conclusion. Any one of these themes would have been enough to support an interesting, thought-provoking, and compelling game experience (in particular, I would love to see a game explore race/class conflict). In the hands of better writers and game designers maybe these disparate themes could have been unified. As is, these “important themes” are offered as hints of depth which on closer examination prove to be shallow and simplistic.
What Works in Bioshock Infinite
The above makes it sound as if I actively disliked Bioshock Infinite. That is not the case. I played through it twice because I enjoyed the game and had fun playing it. However, as I outlined above the narrative and game design had very significant flaws. On an intellectual and an emotional level, the game was a tremendous disappointment. Whatever enjoyment it provided me, I derived from its gameplay itself.
Bioshock Infinite is a perfectly passable first-person shooter. If it weren’t part of the Bioshock franchise I would consider it yet another briefly entertaining but ultimately forgettable FPS. But it is part of the Bioshock franchise, which sadly raised my expectations. I expected a game that understood its medium and ambitiously used that medium’s unique features to provide a deeply compelling narrative. Bioshock Infinite didn’t do that.
Video games are beginning to mature as a medium, and some designers are beginning to realize that narrative is just as important to the medium as gameplay. I hope that trend continues, because someday I want to play a game that is as visually beautiful as Bioshock Infinite while still being thought-provoking and emotionally moving.