Bioshock & The Role of the Player

To see this feature in its fully published, fully edited, fully full form, head here: http://film.falmouth.ac.uk/2013/04/culture-shocked-bioshock-the-role-of-the-player/

Recently, whilst discussing the largely fruitless environment of game-to-film adaptations, a friend walked me through his premise for a cinematic reinterpretation of 2007’s iconic Ayn Rand-em-up, Bioshock. He posited that as Jack, the traditionally speechless lead, brutalises his first splicer (Bioshock’s genetically modified cannon-fodder), he should show remorse or sorrow, perhaps even crying as he laments over taking a life.

On the surface, this makes sense. Jack’s introduced to the player as an understated city-slicker, who inadvertently arrives in the Atlantean dystopia of Rapture via plane-crash. Cracking skulls with a pipe wrench is hardly his domain. However, as his role develops Jack gradually morphs into less of a character, and instead serves as a lens to the player. Jack’s lack of personality is reflective of his new environment, with themes of servitude and unquestioning obedience littering the narrative.

Showcasing Rapture and chronicling its turbulent history are all key in developing Bioshock’s iconic sense of tension and depth, and the majority of this information is provided via logs, journals and audio diaries. This potent sense of discovery is what initially elevates Bioshock from standard FPS fare. The rich history is open to interpretation, and Jack’s lack of dialogue or input allows the player to draw their own conclusions. Were Jack to voice concern, elation, fear or relief, Rapture would cease to be the player’s experience and would morph into Jack’s, with the player serving as a secondary audience.

Whilst there’s nothing wrong having an interesting story presented to you directly, the medium of gaming has the unique opportunity to actively engage the audience, allowing the story to bleed through the mechanics. Bioshock understands this and in turn understands that this isn’t the story of Jack; It’s the story of Rapture.

Written as less of a character, and instead as a blank slate for audience projection, Jack is a product of his medium.  Adapting what is an ostensibly silent role into anything else would feel token and forced. This showcases a concrete separation between the mediums of film and game, the mistranslation of which leads to characters with irrational motivations, fractured traits and one-dimensional arcs. Were a film to neglect something as vital as a distinct protagonist, it would sacrifice any hope of audience reflection, leading to utter narrative breakdown. Star Wars: Attack of the Clones anyone?

Bioshock rarely forces the player to make plot-altering choices, the only exception being whether the player chooses to absorb the game’s Adam-hoarding ‘Little Sisters’, or set them free. Moral choice mechanics are ubiquitous within the modern gaming scene, but with the exclusion of a fairly inconsequential alternate ending, Bioshock doesn’t place the onus on the player. Jack is very rarely an operant influence on the narrative, but instead a witness to the atrocities committed by the desperate citizens of a crumbling Eden. Jack is not the catalyst of change, a theme that is expressed though both the mechanics and aesthetics of play. NPC characters in the story meet with overwhelming challenges, and the player sees them, more than often, meet a grisly demise.

This introduces an interesting dilemma though; If Jack is simply a visual surrogate for the player, then who is the player? Certainly not Jack. He’s an enigma, with a shrouded past and an uncertain future, with only a brief vignette of his life revealed to the player. If we’re speaking literally, then the player is Jack’s limbs. Running, gunning and Splicer-stunning. That almost seems too distant though, doesn’t it? Whilst the game doesn’t intend to make the player feel like an inhabitant, they should still feel emotionally invested in Rapture. It resonates with the head, not just with the hands.

Perhaps then, the player’s role is that of Jack’s subconscious, only truly coming into their own as he decides whether to kill, where to go and what to do with little girls.

That sounded better in my head.

With this in mind, the question extends to other genres, games and even mediums. From Pac-Man to Niko Bellic, who is the player? Does the player eat the pellets? Does the player shoot the hookers? Does the player adapt to the game, or does the game serve the player? Even when the player creates a character, do they infuse that character with their own traits, or do they role-play?

Games are the only artistic medium that demands an active audience. A film on a reel is permanent. A novel on a dusty shelf is complete. A painting in the Louvre is timeless. But a game without a player? Incomplete. The player is a crucial part of the puzzle, and although people may differ when analysing the subtext behind a painting, or the themes behind a film, their fundamental experience will never change. Games are different.

Say for example you and a group of friends took a trip to your local cinema. You walk into the building, you make your way to the till, you purchase your tickets, you pay an inordinate amount of money for popcorn, then a passive-aggressive teenager shows you to your seat. You wade through a tsunami of trailers and ready yourself for the journey ahead. Approximately 120-minutes later you emerge bleary-eyed and soda-stained to the muffled tune of the end-credits sequence. There’s a brief silence, punctuated by one of you saying “I liked that bit when…”.

Do you agree, though? Did the scene resonate with you on the same emotional level? Perhaps you felt that Luke’s “Nooo!” was an expression of anger, whilst your friend perceived a reluctant sadness as he defiantly screamed at Vader. You all saw Luke lose his right hand, but perhaps the lefties among you struggled to sympathise. Providing that you all had bladders of steel, each of you experienced the exact same sequence of events, with the only variable being your reactions.

Someone’s experience of a game is just that. Their experience. Games are not only enhanced by audience participation, but demand it. The role of the player is a vital component of the game. The player is not only a witness, but produces what they’re witnessing. The player does more than play, and the audience is more than audient.

A Clockwork Clementine

Oh yeah, this site exists.

My posts as of late have been anything but copious, no johns from me though. Been universitising the last few months, honing my understanding my understanding of film. Part of this is watching films, part of it is making films, part of it is analysing films. So what’s today’s topic? That’s right!

Video Games.

The tears are just about dry, so I think it’s time I talked about The Walking Dead.

Holy shit, The Walking Dead is awesome. It’s awesomely awesome. In a world where “awesome” is over-saturated, this game really inspires some awe. Everything from the voice-acting, narrative and themes, to the characters, dialogue and choices utterly shine, and this game takes a prestigious seat at the head of my GOTY list.

A veritable Splash-Mountain of emotion, The Walking Dead absolutely nails emotional set-pieces, primarily through a masterful script and a keen eye for pacing. Of course these set-pieces only carry emotional weight when paired with relatable characters, which the game has in abundance. Lee, our dulcet-toned protagonist is joined by a troupe of compelling companions, one of which is the topic of today’s class.

9 year-old Clementine not only neatly demonstrates every intelligent design decision the series takes (eg. solid voice-acting, logical character progression), but functions as the gold-standard for child characters in the medium.

Clementine effectively fills the role of surrogate daughter figure for Lee, a man with no remaining family or friends, who in turn functions as guardian/patriarch for Clementine. The affection that develops between the characters never feels synthetic, but instead mirrors the growing attachment of the player to Clementine. I’m not the biggest fan of kids (they’re just tiny, sticky people), but by the end of the first episode I was entirely willing to put everything I had into protecting Clementine. This relationship blossoms throughout the series, but would never evolve if she was just another Ashley Graham.

The character of Clementine is an ingenious blend of form and function, and serves as a masterclass in matching gameplay mechanics to narrative context. She never feels like a burden inflicted upon the player, but instead serves as the sole inspiration in an otherwise bleak environment. In a fluctuating post-apocalypse, filled with death, deceit and despair, an unconditionally caring character can make all the difference. The series never feels like an extended escort mission, nor does Clementine ever feel like an obligation. She’s an organic member of the cast, not a curly-haired padlock.

I’m a real sucker for great dialogue, but The Walking Dead has an admirable habit of also conveying it’s story through action. Not to suggest that the game isn’t dialogue heavy, but more that the writers understand poignancy. The game is largely about choice and consequence, and nothing demonstrates this better than seeing your decisions resonate with the characters, altering their actions. Never does this feel more relevant than with Clementine, as her personality develops and changes depending on the example you set.

Kids are really annoying. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one, but they’re like drunk dwarfs, and can get really obnoxious. They burst into weepy hysterics, have irrational mood-swings and are little to no use in a fist-fight. Their innate weakness is especially noticeable in the context of a video game, as empowerment and progression are the pillars that most mechanics lean on. A kid’s full of traits that betray that design scheme. They’re slow, weak and inexperienced, three handicaps that really stand-out in a zombie apocalypse.

With this is mind, why doesn’t Clementine make the player feel cumbersome? She should feel prohibitive and annoying, not likable and inspiring. Hats off to Telltale here, as they’re playing upon the innately human desire to protect kids. However irrational it may be, Clementine represents the very last shred of innocence in the post-apocalypse, and gives the characters a streamlined focus. The zombies will always win in The Walking Dead’s universe, but the intrinsic need to protect Clementine gives the player, and Lee, a reason to keep on trucking.

Clementine will crawl under doors to unlock them, slip through areas undetected and console you in moments of stress. She’s useful, but not to the point where she becomes token. Much like the rest of the game, she’s excellently written. Remaining relatable and sympathetic without ever breaking her sheen of childlike optimism. She’s as unpredictable and emotionally complex as anyone else in the cast, but often the only voice of reason when surrounded by mixed motivations. With a strong moral compass, Clementine treads the fine line between objectively lovable and obnoxiously saccharine.

At this point you may be thinking:

“But Jordan, you chiseled stallion, children are inherently likable. You can’t help but feel attached to a young character, it’s human nature!”

You want to talk children in games?

Amy.

Fucking Amy.

To the uninitiated, stay that way; ignorance is bliss. Especially when it comes to atrocious downloadable Survival Horror games.

Amy garnered universal critical panning, and rightly so. It was a cavalcade of mediocrity, seasoned with wank. The game neatly encapsulates everything deplorable about the direction of modern Survival Horror, and packages in the most irritating child escort in the history of video gaming.

The titular Amy is bound to you from early in the game, and acts as a poorly modeled ball & chain throughout the experience. The player character can only remain alive by keeping Amy in close proximity at all times, which is as mind-numbingly grating as it sounds. Escort dependance isn’t an inherently bad mechanic, as 2010’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West shows. Enslaved balanced the mechanic of a powerful lead character whose abilities were more than enough to protect himself, with the hindrance of a three-dimensional, interesting escort character, who functioned as a second, more fragile health bar.

Amy provides no such perks. She’s dull and her character is wafer thin. In essence, she’s a formulaic child character, scared and defenseless, with the burden of her protection falling upon the player, who has no motivation to do so. Bland. Predictable. Clockwork.

The character of Amy is silent, and imbued with no likable traits or affectations. She functions exclusively as a hinderance, and provides nothing but occasional, context-sensitive, gameplay progression.

And she’s got weird beetle eyes.
Compare this to Clementine, the Walter White of child characters, and see how she provides gameplay assistance, as well as emotional stability. More than just a four-foot plot-motivation, and more than just a cheap token. The inclusion of such a rounded, inspiring character changes what would be another solid entry in the pantheon of Telltale adventure games, into a truly groundbreaking experience, and what I’m sure will become a landmark in video game history.

P.s. I like the game.