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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. 


Bioshock: Interacting Rule Sets

Posted: February 11, 2013 by thepetergraham in Uncategorized
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I was having issues getting my PC version of Bioshock to run today, so I ended up having to boot up and old save on the Xbox version. Despite the mix up, the slightly later save file gave me a bit more to work with in terms of active rules interacting with one another.

While playing today, I noted that the operational and constitutive rules of Bioshock are constantly playing against one another. The basic operational rules in the game are that you have finite health and mana bars that can only be refilled with items, you can hack and destroymechanical devices in the game, your different elemental attacks have varying side effects outside of damage, and that an arrow will point you towards your objectives.

ImageHere you can see the guiding yellow arrow, as well as the electricity mixing with the water.

I consider all of those rules to be operational based on the qualities of rules discussed in the reading and in class. Much of this information is explicitly displayed on screen or in description text, they are fixed systems that never change throughout the game, they are binding in that you can not play the game ignoring them, the repeat over and over until the end of the game, and they limit player action by providing fixed health and mana. Not every rule has every one of these qualities, but most of them do.

ImageAn example of the hacking menu before initiating a hack. Upgrades make subtle modifications to the rules and difficulty of hacking.

Underlying constitutive rules that come up frequently include elemental mixing rules like water-electricity or oil-fire, the rule that Big Daddies will guard Little Sisters from both the player and enemy characters when provoked, that hacked turrets and cameras will target enemies, and that those enemies will attack you on sight.

Your characters fixed amount of health and mana interact with the constitutive rules since they end up guiding your actions and forcing you to make multiple decisions from encounter to encounter. If I had unlimited mana for instance, I would just constantly be spraying fire out of my hands and never bother with any of the other systems. However, due to this hard fixed rule, I go into areas and look for ways to minimize my mana and bullet usage, while also trying to maintain my health.

The enemies erratic AI adds a level of uncertainty to all of these rules and systems as well. You might hack a turret and hold a corridor against a wave of enemies, but often times they will sprint away and flank you from a different angle or lead you on a chase into unsafe territory. This is where knowledge and understanding of the constitutive rules come into play. At one point I chased an enemy into a dark tunnel, only to realize that there was another enemy right up ahead. I happened to be near a stream of water however, which I knew mixed with electricity and used against both the enemies. So while I managed my operational rules (health and mana monitoring), I used my understanding of the constitutive systems in place (elemental effects and hacking) to progress through the game.

While this single player experience doesn’t seem to have too many implicit rules, on that it does have is with regards to the harvesting or saving of Little Sisters in the game. After defeating a Big Daddy, you are left with a small girl that you can either kill and harvest for more skill points, or save for a reduced amount. The game never tells you what to do one way or the other, only giving you perspectives on both sides from Atlas (pro-harvesting) and Tennenabaum (pro-saving). Much of the critical conversation around the game involved this decision making process, which created a set of social expectations as well. Eventually people discovered that you end up getting rewards over time for saving Little Sisters, and so the implicit rule to save them became a bit of an unwritten rule.


I think that the well balanced rule sets in Bioshock interact with each other exceptionally throughout the game, which I would say plays a role in its overall success.

Bioshock: Audio-Visual Immersion and Learning

Posted: February 4, 2013 by thepetergraham in Uncategorized
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The game I chose to play for my weekly game journal analysis is Bioshock. I played the game once through back when it first came out on Xbox 360, but I am now replaying on my PC almost five years later. Throughout the game, I focused on the five elements of play experience that we read about and discussed in class. Those five elements include visual, aural, motor, mental, and learning. The two dominating elements in my first hour and a half of gameplay are definitely visual and aural.


You begin the game during a plane crash into the middle of the ocean at night, and are forced to swim to a small island with a lighthouse atop it, as it is the only visible land out at sea. Upon entering the pitch dark lighthouse, the door behind you shuts and one light turns on, revealing an intimidating statue staring down at you with a tabard that reads “No Gods or Kings. Only Man.” You then proceed down some dimly lit stairs to a small pod, which descends into the ocean upon entering it. Throughout this entire sequence, there is no music whatsoever. This assists in unsettling the player as they realize they are entirely alone out in the middle of the ocean, and also creates a dramatic sense of tension. The tabard with the quote on it also provides the player with thematic material from the moment the game begins.

Once you enter the underwater city of Rapture, the aural and visual combine to make you feel afraid and immersed in the magic circle that the game is building around you. Water pressure causes enormous metal structures to creak, and eerie violin music (Very reminiscent of a horror film) screeches in the background. The hallways and rooms you go through are filled with corpses and looted establishments, with blood and insane graffiti peppering the walls and floor. You also hear the wild babblings of “Splicers,” the primary enemies in the game, who mumble crazy things and scream once they spot you. All of this is combined to build a convincing world that frightens you throughout. Even with another person in the room while I played the game, I found myself nervous before turning corners and jumped multiple times as enemies snuck up on me or I saw a horrifying painting of a mutilated face.


Since I was playing through the start of the game, I spent much of the time learning new mechanics as they are introduced at just the right pace. Through a combination of text and radio chatter from your partner “Atlas,” you are given new abilities, weapons, and knowledge about the world. Since the game is not entirely linear, the designers did a great job designing open ended areas within each level that throw all of your recently acquired items and powers into the fold, and force you to use them in any manner you see fit. Your magic meter (referred to as eve in this game universe) is required to use any of your powers, including hacking. This means that you must weigh out your options to make it through a combat scenario so that you can conserve ammo and eve. The perfect pace at which you are given new abilities and knowledge has me hooked on Bioshock just as much as I was the first time I played it, if not more with my new examination of the game.

ImageHere you see Atlas talking to you while you receive a tutorial message on screen.