Bioshock and the Ludonarrative Dissonance

By | January 4, 2009
Bioshock Big Daddy

Image by Akiraman via Flickr

Bioshock has been a considerable disappointment from a story telling perspective.  As a FPS with an innovative mix of weapons, enemies and problem solving strategies, Bioshock delivers a satisfactory experience up there with Half Life 2, but well below the personal benchmark of Half Life 1.  Storylines are woven into the game with the character picking up fragments of the world around them from the audio tapes left scattered throughout the levels.  Of course, this also leads to really stupid moments of finding some innermost secret ravings of a lead NPC in the middle of what would have been a crowded shopping mall food court.  Plus, most of the tapes can be ignored for the straight first person killing spree that Bioshock provides with decadent glee.

The problem for Bioshock is the Ludonarrative Dissonance. (Hattip to @lordriffington for the link). Iroquois Pliskin on Versus CluClu Land outlines the idea as a more sophisticated version of “story-game conflict”. Failed forced congnitive dissonance would be my take on the matter.  Basically, the story line tries to tell you that an event, incident or other McGuffin Device Is Important(TM) yet the gameplay does not remotely support the story’s assertion.  In Bioshock, the big reveal in the cutscene sequence is that you’ve been mind controlled into following instructions from your mysterious benefactor voice-over.  Oh no! I’ve been forced to adhere to a structured narrative from an unseen… wait a second, that’s the premise of FPS storyline gaming.  Follow prompts, cues and storyline or fail to progress to the next level.  Okay. Message bounced right off the surface.

Then we get the whole sequence of Andrew Ryan’s “Are you a man or a slave?” rant at your character.  Slave. This is the FPS genre with no sandbox capacity to take alternate paths. If the game says “Go to the butchers and buy meat” you’re going to get meat from a butcher even if there are cows, abbatoires and a supermarket chain between you and the destination. (Source: IF this was some commentary on the storyline mode, then it missed the mark.

Finally, there’s the ‘shock’ part where you’re instructed by Ryan to kill him (Would you be so kind as to rub in the slave motif really really hard this time? I missed the reference in the first 20 attempts).  Except… well, by the time you’ve reached Andrew Ryan’s fortress of cutscene solitdue, you’re a polished, professional and frankly stylish mass murdering machine. Everything that has moved in the game is your target, and 95% of the moving NPCs are kill/be killed coded to hunt you down.  Excepting a few stray Big Daddies that have be liberated from their slavish defence of the Little Sisters, everything else that sees you tries to kill you, or you kill to harvest for parts, ammo or objectives.

What’s one NPC in a cut scene versus the relentless slaughter to get here?

This is where Bioshock fails to deliver an emotional connection.  You kill everything you see, so naturally, when you see Andrew “McGuffin” Ryan, you kill him.  Shrug, accept the XP, solve the quest, and move to the next part of the game.  It’s not like you have a choice.

Which, if that was the message of the game, was a poorly chosen message.

In fairness to the Bioshock game, there were two moments of genuine connection with the NPCs.  First was when one of the NPC Big Daddies was badly wounded as collateral damage in a battle with another bunch of NPCs. This thing was moaning in pain, covered in burn marks, and whilst I knew at the cognitive gamer level I could walk away, I didn’t want to leave the wounded beast suffering, and elected (at great ammo/health cost) to put it down rather than leave it whimpering in pain in the corner. It’s the first time I’ve apologised to an NPC character for what I’ve done in game.  Same sense of frustration and “I don’t want to do this” came about when I realised that I had a grand total of no other option but killing a living Big Daddy Elite for a single part I needed to complete a quest.  Most frustrating was the knowledge that there had been five corpses and one living Big Daddyin the level, and the game was forcing me into a showdown that should not have been necessary.  But, it was, and it was scripted as such, and whilst I resented having to kill this particular Big Daddy for a component part, I’d been so well conditioned to wiping them out as part of the story, it was a fairly painless and quick approach (for the NPC).

For the record, I elected to rescue rather than harvest the Little Sisters. No real reason, except that I figured the alliance with the Little Ones wouldn’t go astray and HEY STORYLINE it turned out to be useful.

I think that Bioshock needed to bring a level of free choice to the game with the NPCs. There had to be a choice to make, and a consequence for the choices – if you had the option to work with an NPC to build a bomb as problem solving exercise where you could elect to trust the NPC (and be betrayed now and then) or betray the NPC for good reward, then the choice you didn’t face with Andrew Ryan would take on some meaning.  Otherwise, since the zero minute of the game, you were killing your way through NPC after NPC as you did everything on your own to follow the prescripted path set down by some higher power of coders and scripters.  What free will lesson could exist in that environment?

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