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October 07, 2007


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I'm posting a couple years late, but it should be noted that the game wants you to feel frustrated with "ludonarative dissonance". The lack of will in the player's character serves as a meta-narrative about player choice in games. By playing the game you acknowledge that you have no free will within in the confines of its systems and that you are subject to what its author intends for you.

Sure, you don't have to play the game, but then the game is still right. You shouldn't find the Objective approach naratively palatable.

I think that this critique fails because it ignores a few points.

The first is that Humans are not objective creatures. We are certainly not motivated to act solely by simple profit. Once our basic needs are covered, more complex needs emerge. This can be related to the little sisters, and ADAM. You do not need even as much ADAM as you get from saving the little sisters in Bioshock. Is it nice to have? Sure. Is it needed? No. Will you really even miss it, if you're willing to be even the slightest bit choosy about what plasmids you purchase? No. The gratification of feeling as if you've done the right thing more than repays the minor loss in ADAM. Similar to how people give to charity, rather than having that money for themselves.

More importantly... you are not helping Atlas to help Atlas. You are helping Atlas because you know nothing, and Atlas can show you a way. On top of that, Atlas is an ally with you against a party that is directly trying to cause you harm. On top of this, you have reason to sympathize with Atlas, having "witnessed" the loss of his family at the hands of Ryan, someone you have every reason to believe would do something of that sort. You have every reason to trust Atlas, and Atlas is showing you a way. Helping Atlas is not even out of charity based on that. It's a trade. You help Atlas achieve his goals, and Atlas helps you discover who you are, and why you're here. He also helps guide you to the man whose been trying to kill you the entire time. There is no rational alternative. You may or may not agree with Andrew's ideology, and you may or may not be playing the game to maximize (nigh-pointlessly, might I add) a stats surplus, but you really have no reason not to align yourself against Andrew. There is no significant ideological twist to siding with Atlas. You're just going against the guy whose trying to kill you. Something consistent with both gameplay (I'm not using the word "ludic". It's just rude to use words most people won't understand when not necessary), and narrative elements of the game. Even if you wanted to side with Ryan, Ryan considers you a lackey of Fontaine, and knows you're controllable against him. Why would he side with you?

The whole of the above is what, for most players, made the betrayal so powerful. Not only did you have every reason to trust Atlas' motivations, but you had every reason to do what he said. Something that, thematically, makes a lot of sense given you were being mind-controlled without your knowledge. It is only when the manipulation is pointed out to you that the narrative shifts gears and makes it obvious, and in-your-face.

Rather than the disturbing becoming insulting, the rational grows in depth (and yes, becomes slightly insulting... I'll get to this in a moment). It questions what you knew, or took for granted. It shifts the foundations you had been playing on up to that point.

And as to mocking the player... perhaps that is a good thing. Too many games expect you to follow orders without question, or any real analysis of what's going on. Too many games demand mindlessness, or thinking in a narrow way. Bioshock does the same. It plays you for a fool, while telling you to think. That slogan "A man chooses, a slave obeys" occurs throughout the whole of the game. Yet, most players will not really question what they're told to do. Those that will? Well, the game wasn't wielded at you. Players will follow along, happily doing what they're told. All the while having that slogan shoved in their faces. All the time being asked "would you kindly...". All the time submitting without deeper thought of the issue than "he's trying to kill me". All the without really questioning beyond surface appearances. The game mocks you for all of this. It looks the player straight in the eye and says "how easily you obeyed".

So while I see what you mean, I don't think most people will experience your "ludonarrative" dissonance, simply because they will both never question the narrative meaningfully, and because the gameplay and the narrative really aren't that dissonance arousing to begin with as you found it.

My biggest criticism of the bioshock series isn't any dissonance I experienced (though there certainly is dissonance to be experienced with the whole mind-control reveal) but rather how heavy-handed they are with their criticism of extreme political ideologies.

I rather enjoyed your article. TBH, I think Bioshock's take on Rand's Objectivism is a bit superficial, but this is another discussion. I would just like to point out what to me was a fundamental flaw in the Little Sisters mechanic: the game can be very easily finished without harvesting a single one of them. I believe that, in order for this mechanic to be more in line with the rest of the game, harvesting the Little Sis should make your progress through the game infinitely easier. What I found, however, was that, after I didn't harvest the first one, I coud just go along, up until I found the next one, and never, in-between, I actually felt compelled, or thought the game was getting too hard and that I could use a break.

Hi Clint

Remind me some nice exchanges about meaning in game design at Ubisoft. One of the biggest issue in our industry is the misunderstanding of gameplay as a strong vector for idea.



Clint, I don't see how the game mocking you is a bad thing. It's telling gamers to question narratives and why you are just doing what the narrative tells you to do, so that we expect better. It is a revolutionary piece of art for this reason.

Spec Ops mocks you too and is similarly great.

If you thought some of these complex things were bad in Bioshock 1, I'd love to see your take on Bioshock Infinite, which really suffers from some major issues in asking the player to go along with its narrative.

PS Love Splinter Cell, thanks for your hand in one of my top 5 games.

This is still an interesting read. But for me it was far simpler than this:

The game's narrative tries to go all out philosophical -- whereas the actual gameplay is pretty much as lowbrow as you can get: Here's a couple corridors, move through, trigger the AI of the bad guys (who will scream and come at you as soon as they sniff you) -- kill 'em. Over and over and over and over again.

Not only did this become tiresome already during my first time through -- it also completely clashed with what the game was trying to tell, as well as being a rather unsophisticated offspring of a legacy of quite refined games (Shock2, Underworld, Thief, et all.) The reason for doing this can be read both directly and indirectly of course in the "Post Mortem" article now on The game initially started out as something a bit more refined than that. But was then tuned into something else as, finally, Irrational wanted to do a game that was both a cricital as well as a commercial smash hit.

Two years ago I played Desperados 3. Desperados 3 was the next game to come from the guys of the surprise hit Shadow Tactics. It's an isometric/top down stealth strategy game, harkening back to the days of Commandos. It's actually pretty open in terms of level design here often: You're given tools (character abilities, environments), goals (blow this bridge up), and off you go. It actually often reminded me a of a top-down Dishonored (the devs want to go even more sandboxy with their next game, can't wait!) Anyway, here it's the complete opposite.

The main narrative is a simple Western revenge story. The main guy is a loner who eventually has to team up with a couple other guys to take revenge. And the writing may not be as refined as Levine's. But the game pulls this off both in narrative as well as gameplay straight to the very last stand-off, which the main guy cannot pull off without a little help from his new-found friends. There's even one mission where two guys engage in a little competition of who can kill / take out (your choice) the most guys in the mission. And it's hilarious how they comment each take-down.

I was totally cheering for the last moments of this game. Whereas in Bioshock, facing the most cliche video boss in recent history after so much running and gunning, I was like: REALLY?

I haven't played through Bioshock completely once since (unlike Shock2, Thief, et all). For Desperados 3 I immediately bought all DLC and tried to complete the optional challenges (which flip the same maps and levels upside down, by prohibiting you from using certain characters and their abilities -- or just by disallowing you to hide in the bushes, etc.) It wasn't until Arkane's "Prey" by the way that I had made my peace with Bioshock. At least some. To me it's the true "spiritial successor" of Shock 2. Bioshock was just.. something else.

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