A Delirious Post on Narrative in Bioshock

Posted: February 20, 2013 by thepetergraham in Uncategorized

After finally getting it working again on my PC, I dug back in to my original save file of Bioshock (late at night as I had been in bed all day). I’m not sure if it was the illness related delirium or if it was just fantastic game design, but both the embedded and emergent narratives were ever present in my play session.


The embedded narrative at this point in my game was that my character was being instructed to go to the medical wing of Rapture in order to get a master key of some sort that would get him into other locked areas of the city. The holder of this key was a plastic surgeon who had apparently gone mad, and in order to get to him I was going to need new powers. This was a pretty basic linkage of gameplay and narrative, where I needed a fire power to get through frozen doors, and psychic powers to throw bombs at a blockage.  Once I defeated him, I was formally introduced to the primary moral dilemma of the game, which was the decision to either save or kill “little sisters” who hold the currency with which my character powers up.


The embedded narrative was quite horrifying. Upon reaching the deranged doctor, I witnessed him slashing at a dead patient on a gurney, and then the revealing of his failed surgery subjects who were crucified on the ceiling with burlap sacks over their heads. The dialogue and imagery here is directly embedded into the game since every player who reaches this point will see the exact same sequence.


The following scene that featured a Little Sister involved short speeches from two characters, one who told me I should kill the sister, and one who asked me to save them at a reduced benefit. This is a small breaking point in the embedded narrative where I was presented with a pre-set story, but then allowed to pick my own diverging path within it.


My journey to reach the doctor was where the emergent narrative came out. The most blatant examples of emergent narrative in the game are the recorded tapes of Rapture citizens providing background story for the area of the city I was in. In this case, there were a variety of recordings from both patients and the evil doctor himself that detailed his descent into madness. These recordings are scattered around the medical ward, and are entirely optional to encounter and listen to. Different players my find them or not, and then choose to listen to them or not. This aspect of the narrative is emergent due to that optional nature, but it serves to build a far more complete picture around the antagonist I was about to face.


The other part of the emergent narrative was represented in the visual design of the medical ward. Upon walking into new rooms, the player is presented with frightening images of human faces that are cut up and collaged with other body parts as well as bloody writings and marks. These writings often involved messages about appearance and beauty, all related to the deranged antagonist. These visual details aid in building an even deeper narrative related to the world that the player is in, and when combined with the embedded narrative, they work to create one of the better video game stories of the last decade. 


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