‘Bioshock’ and the Genius of Video Game Narration
[Spoilers for Bioshock follow]
Would you kindly think back to that moment in Bioshock? That wall – covered with data and details, when all your murdering and killing and bashing mutants with pipes makes you finally question your character’s motivations: Why have I been doing all this? Who exactly is this guy I’m playing? Why have I been obeying the commands of some guy I’ve never met?
Then all is revealed.
“Would you kindly…?” As if speaking to the player, Irrational Games tapped into the unquestioning pursuit embedded in all gaming: the need to complete, the authority given to the game itself to tell you what to do, in the form of some character, leader or task-list. And, like a mindless drone, we complete it – no questions asked. Of course these guys we’re killing are bad – why else would I be smashing their faces in? And the beautiful irony and the perfect twist is that, in Bioshock , we were playing a mindless drone.
Most of us probably would have some reservation about attacking someone we’ve never met, even if they appear hostile: but, no, the game overcomes this. Asking politely. Asking in a way that seems appropriate, polite. A phrasing made invisible by its triviality. “Would you kindly…?” Of course. Why not? He’s holding a weapon isn’t he?
We forget of course that so are we.
It was one of those times which jolted you out of your listless, Bonobo-state; removed you from the vegetation aimed in the general direction of flashing images, warmed by the drool coming from your ape-mouth. A Keyzer Soze faceslap, a Tyler Durden knuckle supper delivered straight to the brain. Yes: hello. Welcome to reality, where nothing is as it seems.
Escapism is the perhaps the worst insult to give anything that’s not Twilight or My Little Pony: just because you’re shooting foreigners with big arms and bigger guns, doesn’t mean it doesn’t serve as a reflection on the nature of war and killing and a culture that creates and tolerates such creations, unquestioningly; just because it’s about zombies doesn’t mean we can’t learn about the difficulty of friendships amidst power battles, which threaten the lives of everyone – not just your friend.
Like any medium, the Bioshock jolt could only have happened in a video-game. This is what happens when we acknowledge video games as a legitimate medium of expression for proper story-telling and narration.
Story-telling is dependent not only on content but delivery. Anyone can orally tell stories about colourful characters working together to fight back some menace, but it’s the direction, the voice-acting, the mechanics, the time-limited choices during gameplay that makes Telltale’s The Walking Dead incredible; anyone can tell a fairly competent cowboy story about revenge, but only Red Dead Redemption conveys how epic such a tale can be; Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons utilised comics panels and superhero tropes to tell one of the greatest stories of the 20th century with Watchmen.
As I mentioned before, the betrayal trope in narration is now boring, fat and sluggish. As though recognising this, Irrational Games caught an idea in a net of genius: Who’s closer to the player than allies? And therefore whose betrayal would be truly undermining?
Irrational’s answer to that question still affects gamers to this day.
The answer of course was the player character himself.
Bioshock’s genius arises from the very properties that made betrayals such an effective plot device, initially at least: they transformed established characters into a dark mirror. We were then thrust into this same reflective surface and given a new, but familiar world. Not only did we reflect on ourselves and see how shallow it had all been; but also we’d been mistaking our alliance’s shadows for depth.
The closer someone is, the deeper they’ve can plunge a blade. Lovers and close friends’ betrayals live on as recurring nightmares, bleeding into everyday: colours are dulled, everything tastes of plastic. It hurts because how close we let someone get. Furthermore, we never see it coming but, after, we wonder how we ever saw it otherwise. It’s surprise, shock, but also the transformation of reality: we start to doubt people’s motivations, reality is never as it appears. It is this pseudo-madness provoked in a betrayed person that makes betrayal so potent (when done right).
Bioshock achieved that by revealing your own character’s body, your own actions, were betraying you with every swipe. After finishing the game, it is impossible to look at the game in the same way. The colours are the same, the characters still there. But we know; we know who we really are. We know what kind of world we’re stepping into.
Thus, through simple narration, you are able to replay a different game the next time. This is what is possible when treating games a proper medium of story-telling. Let no one say video games can’t create some of the greatest, best-delivered narratives. It is however up to developers and creators to recognise this and treat it as such. Developers, would you kindly do that?