Posts Tagged ‘Bioshock’

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.)


During my playthrough this week, I chose to focus on how immersed I felt in the narrative of the game. Although I realize that this video only represents a small portion of the game, and I know that without a doubt more elements of narrative would be presented to me had I played further, I felt that during this segment of play, I was often distracted by combat and hacking, and at times lost track of the story of the game. Bioshock makes very, very good use of embedded narrative, that is, narrative that is presented to players in the form of cutscenes, or essentially narrative information that the player has no control over. However, I find that Bioshock presents more narrative material in the form of emergent narrative, mainly through use of audio logs. During this section of play, I found myself taking a completionist approach by hacking anything hackable and fighting each big daddy. Although the big daddy and splicer fights did not take away from the immersion, the hacking did. I found it ridiculous that I am able to hack a sentry turret in the middle of a fire fight. During my playthrough of the first parts of Neptune’s Bounty, I was only encountered by embedded narrative when I spoke to Peach and was encountered by the spider slicer. Other than this, the only narrative I received was in the form of audio logs. Although I recognize that the narrative framework of Bioshock is deep and immersive, I attempted to focus on elements of narrative during my hour of play, and was not given much.

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.

As I continue my journey through Rapture, I choose instead this time to focus on the rules of the game, and how I can interact with them as a player. The two types of rules that I found myself consistently dealing with are Constituative and Implicit rules. I find that Bioshock has a very straightforward play path, created largely by the constituative rules of the game. Another way in which the constituative rules have binded me is my desperate lack of Eve. In the beginning of the video, I am startled by a splicer as I make my way through of the scariest areas thus far. I quickly fire off 3 blasts of electricity, wasting quite a bit of eve. Without eve, I have no plasmids, and without plasmids I cannot progress through the game. As I continue through the medical ward, in an attempt to find the misguided Dr. Steinman, I find my pathway blocked by a large chunk of debris. Here, the rules put in place by the game designers have barred me from reaching Steinman and ultimately murdering him in cold blood. Damn. Since the game has decided that I cannot proceed further into the surgery ward, I attempt to find a way around, or find a way to move the debris. The first idea that pops into my head is the Telekinesis plasmid I have been hearing about. So with a quick blast of my newly acquired Incinerate, I clear a path that was previously blocked from me by the constituative rules by melting some ice. Bioshock’s constituative rules are, at this point, very clearly articulated. I takes me no time to figure out where the environment allows or does not allow me to go, and I am able to easily make the connection that once I have acquired the ability to shoot fire, I can melt the ice that was blocking my path. Anyhow, I continue through the medical pavilion, fighting hordes of deranged doctors and nurses turned splicers, until I am finally greeted by my objective, Telekinesis! Now to deal with Steinman… Back to the surgery ward I go, but my telekinesis does not seem to be working on the debris, might as well kill the splicer throwing grenades at me in the mean time. Splicer dead … debris lifted? I was a bit confused by this, but I suppose I just needed to HAVE the plasmid before I continue on. The programmers, in this instance, are FORCING me to choose my abilities by using the environment as a guiding rule. Interesting. Let’s fast forward, I find Steiman, kill him with a little help from my mechanical friend, and move forward in the game. As I traverse back towards the main medical pavilion, the environment changes. A tunnel collapse forces me to take a side route. The constituative rules have again foiled my plans! A dead big daddy, a splicer attacking a little girl, a woman standing on the balcony yelling at me, Atlas telling me what to do via intercom. I am bombarded by a slurry of new information. I back the small child into a corner, and am given a choice. Harvest the girl, killing her, or cure her of little sister status, saving her, but with no apparent reward for myself. For the first time, Bioshock has confronted me with a moral decision. I choose to save the girl. This decision reveals both an implicit rule, and a foreshadowing to the type of player I will be in Bioshock. In the real world, it is absolutely wrong to kill a little girl. Only the sickest of the sick would do such a thing. But in Bioshock, I can choose to kill a girl with no repercussions for myself. In fact, I am rewarded for doing such a dastardly deed. And if I do so choose to harm the little one, what kind of player am I? I would argue that any player who kills the little girls is considered a standard player, while those who save the girls are dedicated players. By saving the girl, I am guaranteed a reward at a later time. As I am choosing to dedicate myself to playing through all of Bioshock, I choose to save the little girls. This alone is my basis for my choice. Anyhow, onward through Rapture! As you can see at the end of my video (once vimeo finally processes it) I get completely destroyed by the Big Daddy. Ouch…

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.

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.

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.