Getting Ahead of Ourselves

Bioshock spoilers follow. If you haven’t played through it yet, then what the hell are you waiting for?

I like Clint Hocking. I got to meet him when he came to CMU some time back to assist in Jesse Schell’s Game Design class. He’s got a good head on his shoulders and I admire his work. I just cringe when people use words like “ludonarrative” like he does in his critique of Bioshock. It’s not that the terminology is wrong – in fact, it is quite precise. But I feel like designers and (puke) ludologists want to get high-falutin’ with their discourse before the subject matter warrants it. I don’t feel like we, as an industry, have earned the right to talk like that and take ourselves so seriously. I won’t get into the ‘are games art?’ discussion because it is idiotic, but we really need a greater quality and quantity of titles that deserve analysis before we can start talking like an Ivy League humanities senior thesis.

Regarding his critique, I think he gets Objectivism wrong. While I am no Rand expert, I do have a passing knowledge of the tenets. His main critique of the game is that that for you to be consistent as a character, you should side with Andrew Ryan and not Atlas, because it wouldn’t be an Objectivist approach to help Ryan and the mechanics demand an Objectivist approach. Here I disagree. The mechanics demand that you adapt and survive – this isn’t Objectivist or Collectivist – it is a natural principle. You don’t have the option to walk away.

The choice in harvesting or rescuing the Little Sisters isn’t a moral choice if you step outside the fourth wall. You know that there is some reason that the game designers gave you this choice and you assume that you will be rewarded later for doing the merciful thing. You would be correct in that assumption. This is the same meta-reasoning that you use when you go to the movies. You know that it is likely that the good guy will kill the bad guy, get the girl, etc and wrap it up in around two hours. Additionally, since the Little Sisters are not real, it isn’t much of a moral choice. There are no external consequences for choosing to harvest. It is a math problem.

Since the rescue/harvest option isn’t a moral choice, it becomes an exercise in statistics. This is not inconsistent with the character or the game mechanics unless you have imprinted a moral character onto Jack Ryan that isn’t explicitly spelled out by the authors.

I personally found the ‘would you kindly’ twist to be clever. Clint found it insulting. Now, I don’t want every game to try to ape it. There can only be one Sixth Sense. If every movie tried the same twist, it would get to the point where it was insulting. But here, the authors take what is a given assumption that exists outside the game and turn it into a narrative element.

There were a lot of things that bothered me about Bioshock, some of which I nitpicked unfairly earlier, but as I had time to reflect, there were glaring issues with the narrative that can’t be ignored. For instance, becoming a Big Daddy was supposed to be an irreversible process. Yet, in the “happy” ending you can return to the surface and live a normal life? That was supposed to be a sacrifice – you have broken Fontaine’s mind control and you finally have a chance to make a real self-sacrifice. The “bad” ending makes no sense at all. I’ll just leave that one at that. And why does a Big Daddy attack you in the end (from a narrative standpoint?). It makes no sense at all besides offering a tough firefight to cap off a level.

There are serious issues with Bioshock that we forgive because it is intelligent, different and fun. If the story was perfect, I’d feel folks were justified in nitpicking thematic bugaboos. But it isn’ and we will be trying to hit moving targets if we forget the order of importance: elements, narrative, theme. If the game elements don’t work, the narrative or theme do not matter. If the narrative doesn’t work, the theme doesn’t matter. In this case, the narrative “kinda” works. Let’s get to a place where it works and then we can pontificate on theme.

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