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Changing the Gameplay and Narratives in Bioshock

Posted: February 18, 2013 by phinnthehuman in Uncategorized
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Times below in parenthesis refer to times in the video above. Video starts at 0:00:54

This portion of my playthrough of Bioshock focused on the Fisherman’s Wharf and Arcadia levels. I had finished with the hospital and introduction levels, and was now getting into the meat of the game. Big Daddy fights came more frequently, and I received my first gift from the little sister I saved last time I played (23:43). I was rewarded for my previous choice, and incentivized to continue saving the Little Sisters.

Gameplay Mechanics

This session utilized a new gameplay mechanic: taking pictures of enemies to give me bonuses against them (22:49). This significantly changed the way I had been playing the game so far (kill enemies as soon as I saw them) and forced me to adapt my strategies. I was only forced to take a couple of pictures of a type of enemy, and then I was free to neglect the camera tool if I wanted to. The benefits of taking pictures of enemies (combat bonuses and new powerups) greatly outweighed the costs (possibly taking damage while trying to use the camera), so I continued to use it. The notion of taking pictures of enemies on the battlefield while they are trying to kill you is somewhat ridiculous, yet I was compelled to do it (1:27:15). In this way, Bioshock kept the core mechanic of the game (killing enemies and gaining powerups) interesting by twisting both of them and forcing me to try different combat strategies, such as sneaking up on enemies to snap pictures or stunning them and then taking out my camera while they were immobilized.

The hacking mechanic, which easily gets boring after a few times, was also changed a little. Not only did the hacking challenges start getting harder, but I received a powerup that healed me and gave me energy (Eve) every time I successfully hacked something. By tweaking the incentives and difficulty level of the hacking minigames, Bioshock stopped me from getting lazy and bored of the mechanic.

Embedded and Emergent Narratives

Bioshock does a very good job of blurring the line between Embedded Narratives (pre-existing elements of play, such as cutscenes) and Emergent Narratives (interactive elements of play). In the climactic scene of the Wharf level (58:45-1:01:00), I was stuck on the second floor of a building while my ally was outside. I had activated a button that would allow him to reunite with his family, when suddenly the building was put into lockdown mode and an evil voice told me that I couldn’t do anything to help him. My ally was attacked by multiple enemies, one of which tried to hit me through the glass. I exited the room as soon as I could to go outside and continue the story, killing these enemies as I went. The transition from the emergent narrative of me entering the room and pressing the button to the embedded narrative of me watching my ally get attacked BACK to the emergent narrative of me killing his attackers and progressing the plot was seamless. I was able to move and try and shoot the glass while he was being attacked, as a sort of interactive cutscene, and it felt like I was still playing. Bioshock uses this kind of mechanic repeatedly throughout the game, and it allows amazing things to happen that would otherwise be impossible, yet doesn’t make me feel like I’m not involved in the narrative. I never sat back took my hands off the keyboard, waiting for the scene to play out. Rather, I acted like  a normal in-game character would – I tried to get a better view through the glass to see what was going on so I could help my friend. By being unable to control events for a few seconds, I was somehow drawn deeper into Rapture, instead of remembering that I was just sitting in a chair.


The Implicit Nature of Bioshock

Posted: February 11, 2013 by phinnthehuman in Uncategorized
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My second hour of Bioshock passed quite differently from the first one. After exploring the basic nature of the game, I was now being presented with my first set of choices. Specifically, I fought a Big Daddy, and had to decide what to do with the Little Sister he was guarding. I was told by the game that killing her would grant me immediate bonuses, whereas saving her would grant less immediate bonuses but would include a later, unspecified reward as well. I chose to save the Little Sister (pictured below).


This is an example of all three types of rules. The operational rule of this situation is that I had to fight the Big Daddy to exit the room – I didn’t really have a choice. The constitutive portion of this situation was the girl’s outcome. I don’t think I actually had to choose an outcome for her, and could have left her untouched and exited the room. However, it was in my best interest to choose something, so I chose to save her. I could not, for example, have shot her and denied myself access to the bonuses, which is an example of how the game limited my play. Lastly, the implicit nature of this situation. By choosing to save her, I essentially imposed my own set of rules on myself for the future. To maximize benefits (and achievements post-game) I will now need to save every single Little Sister I encounter. This is part of the “human” factor of games that Snyder talks about – the game isn’t forcing me to choose either outcome, but my sense of morality bound me to saving the Little Sisters.

The other aspect of rules that I explored during this play through was the journal system. Throughout the levels in Bioshock, there are journal entries I could pick up to discover more about the backstory in Rapture. For example, one journal entry had a spoken account of a surgery where the insane doctor had chosen to continue operating on a patient because he thought her face sagged. These journals did not alter the gameplay in any way, but heightened the experience for me as I went along. I made it my goal to collect every single one I could find, and to always listen to them. This is an example of following my own set of implicit rules, since I wanted to discover and listen to the journals simply because it made the game feel more rich and rewarding to experience.


(Journal pictured in bottom right of screenshot)

Lastly, Bioshock demonstrated what it means to enable players to learn the game in an elegant and interesting way. By giving me powerups in the form on genetic enhancements but limiting the number and types I could use, I be gently prevented from drowning myself in upgrades I wouldn’t be able to use. By the time I have unlocked more slots for them and more weapons to use, I will be adept at the game, capable of using them all effectively, and that much more appreciative of unlocking them as they come along.


Horror and Tension in Bioshock

Posted: February 3, 2013 by phinnthehuman in Uncategorized
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This is the first time I’ve played through Bioshock. Like many of my peers, I am familiar with the premise of the game, and I’ve seen people play it before. That said, the game exceeded my expectations completely and in light of our readings and discussions in class, sucking me in and messing with my mind after barely an hour of play.

At the beginning of the game, I was given very limited information about what was going on. The first moment I felt “trapped” in an elevator, with a mutant human cutting its way in and screaming at me, I felt a very human emotion of despair. As I would continue to play, this would happen multiple times. In terms of Johan Huzinga’s “magic circle,” I believed in the “magic” of this game after just 10 minutes. I felt powerless, but in the best kind of way and only for a brief moment. That brief moment set the tone for the next hour, and started off my experience on a strong, ominous note.

The horror elements of this game are pervasive and relentless. As soon as I had the freedom to move around as I wished, I was practically forced to notice the seedy and demented nature of the areas I moved through. The climax of this experience was during the Medical Pavilion level. I entered a room (pictured below) with three portraits of women on the wall, a bloody table with roses on it, and a cursive note on the ground reading “ABOVE ALL, DO NO HARM – J-Steinman.” From then on, I found notes, journal entries, and ex-patients of the doctor who would attack me. His writings compared the mingling of ugly people amongst the beautiful with the mingling of the criminal amongst the lawful. This kind of perverse and fascinating logic served to improve my experience playing the game, adding another dimension of insanity and terror to the already-horrific level.


The musings of a demented Doctor Steinman



The beauty of Bioshock is in the nature of the gameplay. Roger Caillois writes that “An outcome known in advance, with no possibility of error or surprise, clearly leading to an inescapable result, is incompatible with the nature of play. Constant and unpredictable definitions of the situation are necessary…” which Bioshock captures perfectly. In the scene where I was trapped in the elevator, I felt afraid and believed the mutant would break in and attack me, but it ran away at the last second. Later, a Big Daddy walked past my semiconscious body, and I knew that I could not stop it. By teasing the player with the knowledge that they could die during these scenes but NOT killing them, the game establishes a level of tension that increases as gameplay develops. The game stay fresh and unpredictable, and I was unable to keep my wits about me as I continued to survive the psychological horrors of Rapture. The Ilinx elements of the game kept me unstabilized and panicked during the conflict scenes, and I died multiple times to not being able to think clearly. I can’t wait to keep playing.