What’s the Problem with Game Stories? Part Two: Restriction in Bioshock

This article makes includes heavy spoilers for the 2007 video game ‘Bioshock’. If you haven’t played it and don’t want it spoiled, you should stop reading now.

Having accepted there are limitations on what a game can offer (thanks to their inevitable finite amount of mechanics) and that there is a lot the video-game industry can do to help game stories grow progressively, it feels as though we haven’t really broken a great deal of ground when it comes to narrative.  Despite these problems, certain developers have really shone through the smog of generally terrible game writing to produce something that felt raw and impacting.  However, unlike most narrative mediums, it is incredibly difficult to achieve this feeling in video-games because games are one of the few truly interactive mediums for telling a story. What those great developers have realized is to make something matter you have to take control away from the player.

Developed by Irrational Games and released in 2007, Bioshock provided one of the most self-aware and compelling video game stories to date. Using a radical philosophy built throughout the Ayn Rand novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as a starting point, Bioshock took the notion of a perfect Objectivist society forming under the ocean in the guise of the city of Rapture. With advanced technology and discoveries being kept out of the hands of religious or governmental interference, scientists came to provide an addictive plasmid that gave humans advanced abilities, and eventually a class war broke out between the founder of Rapture, Andrew Ryan (a sly play on Ayn Rand’s own name) and businessman cum gangster, Frank Fontaine, effectively destroying any semblance of society. These ideas are weighty for a video game, which mostly involves shooting people in the face, but serve only as the backstory.

As the game opens, a faceless, voiceless protagonist finds his way into Rapture following a plane crash in the mid-Atlantic Ocean and is contacted by a figure known only as Atlas. The game follows this protagonist fighting his way through Rapture to try and save Atlas’ abandoned family from crazed civilians of Rapture, whose minds were torn apart by the plasmids until, it appears, Rapture founder Andrew Ryan has them murdered and Atlas beseeches the player to murder Ryan. Upon reaching Ryan, the entrepreneur explains to the player that he has been manipulated by Fontaine who has been posing as Atlas. The player is, in fact, Ryan’s illegitimate love-child stolen by Fontaine and aged rapidly through genetic modification, as well as proven susceptible to the phrase “Would you kindly…?” through hypnosis, a phrase that Atlas/Fontaine has used in every request that the player has carried out. Ryan, accepting his death, commands the player to kill him proving the effectiveness of the phrase by saying “Would you kindly kill me.”

“Would You Kindly”, Bioshock screenshot
Rights; 2K Games, Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc.
Source; Bioshock Wiki

There are a lot of ideas in this story that are really well executed in Bioshock and were it a story playing out in another medium it would have to be portrayed as a hardcore science-fiction piece to stand a chance of standing up to scrutiny. First there’s the entire dis-assembly of the Objectivist philosophy, but perhaps more interestingly the general satire of the interactivity of video-games. The entire game is streamlined by a series of objectives given to the player by Atlas and done so matter-of-factly that almost every player picking up the game for the first time does what they’re told without even considering whether or not they should. There’s some good foreshadowing done early on in the game as Ryan ponders the difference between a man and a slave being choice that pays off once you realize that the game never really gave you a choice. On that note, there’s also the nice visual touch of the player having a chain tattooed across their wrist, a narrative giveaway implying a lack of freedom that is not made explicit until late in the game. But the way the game really earns it’s points is in the presentation of this story, gradually revealing items that all come together later. For heavy or fictitious concepts, none of them seem explicitly impossible because the game has been dropping pieces of the puzzle that make sense when sewn together.

When Ryan gives his final command, for the first and only time in the game, the player loses total control of the gameplay and character as Ryan is beaten to death, forcing them to take in the lie that they’ve been faced with throughout the whole game. The game uses restriction (in this instance, restriction of gameplay) to enhance the shock and horror that one might feel upon realizing that they have been truly and utterly manipulated. Sometimes the most effective thing an interactive experience can do is take that interaction away.

This article is part of a series on stories in video games. Part One can be found here. Part Three is coming soon.