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Narrative in “Bioshock”

Posted: February 18, 2013 by annieewbank in Uncategorized

Densely plotted video games are the only kind I can play. Angry Birds bores me, and the only reason I bought Marvel vs. Capcom III was because Phoenix freaking Wright was a playable character. Fighting games and iOS games are meant to be played with your friends or while waiting at the DMV, as part of a larger system of social interaction or as a way of avoiding it. These games do not benefit from a narrative, as they are meant to be played with half-focus.

In Rules of Play, the authors brought up Monkey Island as a narrative-driven game series. I played the first three Monkey Island games obsessively as a child. Solving puzzles, answering riddles and collecting objects would lead you to different climactic scenes, making every single action part of the narrative. I would say Monkey Island honed my taste for visual novels instead of RPGs. Grinding for money, levels or items had (and still has) no appeal for me. I rush through games like books, as fast as I can, for the story.

Bioshock has a story. Though I still don’t know anything about our Protag (other than that he’s a rugged white male wearing what appears to be a cable-knit sweater) the game pits you against Andrew Ryan, the enigmatic founder of Rapture, who one blogger I read describes as ” Ayn Rand in Howard Hughes’ body.” You have an (apparent) ally in the for of Atlas, a resistance fighter, and a mysterious scientist Tenenbaum leaves you clues and encourages you along (in my path, at least.)

The game has a fandom, which is a fairly good indicator of a plot that is compelling and characters that are identifiable. Fanworks arise when people who enjoy a narrative want to flesh out the media of it, with fanfiction, fanart, or even more ambitious projects (x). The game’s undeniable style and fabulous setting are inspiring to many fans, to the extent that Bioshock is now a successful franchise.

This is the final blog post I will be making for Bioshock. Will I keep playing the game now that I’m not required to? Yes, I need to know what happens! The plot has drawn me in. Is Protag the son of Andrew Ryan? I hope not, that would be cliche as heck. Does he have some prior connection to Rapture? That’s also debatable. But I’m going to finish the game and find out.

(I couldn’t figure out recording Bioshock on Steam, sorry! A video will come soon.)


The Rules of the Game: Bioshock

Posted: February 11, 2013 by annieewbank in Uncategorized

In my last play journal, I mentioned that the classification of what is and what is not a game depends more on the player than on what is being played. This is especially true when it comes to rules. Games are not just good wholesome fun. We all know someone who stakes too much on the outcome of games. People play for fame. People play for money. People play to enter a certain culture. People play to escape. People play to beat others. People stake their money, their bodies and their emotions on the outcomes of games, whether physical, analog or digital. With so much on the line, is it any wonder that rules are bent and broken?


The game will not allow me to save this woman.

A digital game is different than a physical or a board game though. It is an entirely artificial stage. There are no sudden gusts of wind to blow the ball off course, and nearly every action you can make, no matter how contrary to the stated purpose to the game, has been accounted for by the game creators.


I can, however, save this Little Sister.Image

Don’t mind me, I’m going to loot this corpse.

Sure, you can set an NPC on fire, and it feels really subversive, but it was part of the game’s code all along. Occasionally though, games create emergence, meaning that new patterns in gameplay develop due to unexpected combinations of rules (Rules of Play gives “The Game of Life” as an example, citing the glider gun as a weapon that game designers did not create).

I’ve known “dedicated gamers” who couldn’t stop playing a game until they had every item, finished every sidequest, cleared every level. (I’m talking about video games here, obviously.) These are gamers who had no compunction about using cheat codes and walkthroughs. And really, there was no reason why they should have. Sure, they weren’t going at the game entirely on the level, and there are people who argue that the struggle is important, even if you have to die over and over again or try a puzzle a number of times. Really, most dedicated gamers can be classified also as cheaters. But if it’s an individual endeavor, if there are no implicit, social rules being broken, it really does not matter.

I have yet to cheat in Bioshock. I don’t even know if there are cheat codes in Bioshock. I am not a dedicated gamer, I’m fine with leaving levels undone or leaving items behind. I usually want to get to the next plot point as soon as possible. Casual gamers are less likely to break rules. They just are not as invested. This is true in both individual gaming and social games.

Causing mayhem is a given for a first person shooter, so you can break glass, shatter bottles, and light corpses on fire. Once, during a rampage, I lit a machine I needed on fire. I stood by in horror until it stopped flaming. It was charred black and crusty, but it still worked. I couldn’t have broken it if I wanted to. In Bioshock the game allows you to damage your environment, to destroy things, but when the flame dies down or the ice melts, the game goes on. The designers understand the desire to destroy, to ruin, to do the things that are completely unacceptable in real life. It cannot be called breaking the rules if it’s coded into the game itself. As for cheats that give you more ammo, more money or special items, well, games do not exist in a vacuum outside of real life People still want to succeed within games, even if that means going outside the stated rules.

Bioshock and the 9 Elements of a Game

Posted: February 4, 2013 by annieewbank in Uncategorized

What makes a game? That is the topic of this blog post. In the book “Rules of Play”, Salen and Zimmerman analyzed nine different “elements of a game”. Bioshock fulfills most of these criteria, even though many of the scholars who developed each element of gaming did so long before video games even existed.

The criteria are as follows:

Rules: There are rules, though the game tries to give you as much freedom as possible: there are some features of the landscape that cannot be altered, you can carry only so many of one item (though you can hold unlimited items if you only have one of each.)


You can carry only so many machine gun rounds, for example.

Goal-oriented: The game uses map markers and a golden arrow at the top of the screen to guide the player character through different quests, though occasionally the arrow disappears to encourage the player to wander aimlessly or find the way themselves.

Activity, process, or event: The player in Bioshock must actively choose their path. In the game, the player has a choice between harvesting or saving creatures called “Little Sisters”. The player gets an immediate benefit from harvesting a substance called “Adam” from the Little Sisters but if the player saves them, they (apparently) turn back into the little girls that they once were. The game requires the player character to make a moral decision that could have an effect on the gameplay.

Involves decision-making: The player character can decide where to go and what quests to pursue, and how they go about it. However, there can necessarily only be a certain number of options for a player to pursue, considering that the world of Bioshock is a self-contained system and every action must be taken into account by the game designers.


The golden arrow you see at the top of the screen lead you to your next goal.

Not serious and absorbing: Hardcore gamers and casual gamers approach games very differently. I wouldn’t want to tell a hardcore gamer that the plots of their favorite games were “not serious”. As for absorbing, I believe modern gaming to be extremely absorbing, more like gambling, where people want to play “just a little more” to get to the next goal. As for me, I know I had a hard time not playing “Bioshock” instead of writing this blog post, haha.

Never associated with material gain: There are many competitive gaming competitions that people train for and win large prizes for. However, just like in the competitive gaming world, for every professional player there are thousands who play just for fun. Bioshock is a single-player game, so it cannot be played for profit.

Creates special social groups: For better or for worse, “special social group” definitely describes gamers, who like any other social group have their own in-jokes and knowledge. Bioshock has many fans (I’ve been hearing spoilers for the game for at least five years now.) However, Bioshock is not a two-person game, so people do not interact with each other through Bioshock.

Voluntary: Is me playing Bioshock voluntary? Well, no, it’s homework and I wouldn’t have picked up Bioshock myself if I had a choice. But most gamers would have played it for fun.


The pistol is my weapon of choice.

Uncertain: Are the outcomes uncertain in Bioshock? Less so than a lot of games. You can choose the difficulty, from easy to hard, and if you die, you respawn nearby. Dying is not a huge inconvenience in Bioshock, so there isn’t a huge amount of uncertainty. But there is still limited autonomy for the player and things jump out at you a lot, so.

Make-believe: Bioshock takes place in 1960, and the player character is a rugged action man fighting for his life in a city run by Ayn Rand at the bottom of the ocean. I sure hope it’s make-believe.

Inefficient: Playing Bioshock is useful to me, since it is my homework. But aside from the usual argument that playing games increases your hand-eye coordination, I am not sure what benefit playing Bioshock would have on someone’s life. Except extreme fun (I like it a lot! I have played much more than the 1 hour required.)

A system of parts: There are resources to be picked up, monsters to be shot, and levers to be pulled. Bioshock is a complex system where using one thing can effect an entire level and the gameplay. It’s all related.

A form of art: The settings in Bioshock are beautiful and intricate, and the music and animation is fabulous. It’s a labor of love, albeit one where you can set corpses on fire. The video game is undoubtedly a work of art. A game can take years to develop, and major endeavors can employ the work of hundreds of writers, artists, animators, programmers, and musicians. Despite the massive creative effort that goes into many games, shooters especially are dismissed as mindless violent entertainment, usually by people who haven’t played them.


It’s also extremely scary!!

Bioshock is obviously a game, and it fits pretty much all of the criteria that people have outlined for an activity constituting a “game”. However, it is apparent to me now that whether something is a game depends on the player as much as the game.