Also titled, massive spoiler alert. Sorry, that’s MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT.
The Darkness is a game about a demon-possessed mobster fighting his way through Hell and the Lower East Side (maybe that should be Hell, or the Lower East Side?), and Bioshock is a game about a crash landed survivor stuck in a Objectivist dystopia 50 years ago and underwater. Make that a brainwashed genetic experiment stuck in an Objectivist dystopia. I did mention the spoiler part, right?
The games are both fairly linear, but they each give the player a small amount of agency in a number of ways. Commonly, the player can typically navigate their way throughout the world without restriction, and they can choose to do various side goals not required for completing the game. However, the order the main story goals are assigned to you is set and largely unaffected by your play, with a few exceptions.
Interestingly, both storylines share a narrative rationalization for why the player is given this limited control. The Darkness (the demon that possesses you), and the trigger phrase of “Would you kindly” for Bioshock‘s brainwashed main character, are almost the developers’ way of acknowledging to the player that they are in control – even going so far as to give both a voice to communicate directly to you (the Darkness speaks to you, and Atlas/Fontaine talks to you via the radio). Each story ties this element in to the slowly building narrative weight behind the ultimate fate of the player character.
In the first hour or two of The Darkness, you’re introduced to the main character’s girlfriend, Jenny. After finding her apartment in the city (as your mission goal), you have the opportunity to relax for a moment with her (wandering around her apartment as she talks). You’re in her “new” apartment, which is, not to put too fine a point on it, a complete shithole. Nonetheless, she declares it an improvement over the last one. She talks about her crappy day at work, but she’s still gone to the effort of making you a cake for your birthday. To me, that scene was particularly effective, that she would go to that effort after all she had been through that day (although maybe this is more of a statement on my dating experiences than anything else).
Sure, you know you’re going to have to save her eventually, but now you like her enough to care about it when you do it. You don’t actually have to stick around for any of this, however. (Unless you’re trying to hunt for the coyly worded “Romantic” achievement, which Starbreeze added as sly way of getting players to explore this character building moment.) Part of this scene’s strength comes from your willing participation. You’re the one discovering those details about her character – take that away, deliver it via mandatory cutscene, and it would be much too cliche to have any emotional impact.
Your uncle (who’s been trying to kill you most of this time) eventually has Jenny kidnapped. Once you find her, the demon restrains you as you watch her be killed. Forcing you to watch her murder, after taking the time to build up her character, works really well (although I’m suprised they didn’t allow button input to cause you to struggle, your character just does it periodically).
Immediately after the murder, however, the cutscene continues as you watch yourself commit suicide. Admittedly at this point, after going through those things, suicide is a pretty viable narrative option in terms of character arc… But why force us to watch that moment? It’s a pretty trivial design exercise to come up with a follow-up scenario that ends with you choosing to kill yourself. Granted, in both cases you have the same amount of agency, which is to say none. The false agency, however, by making the player commit to the action out of their own accord to continue the game, forces them to buy in more (at least some small amount more) to the character rationale and storyline.
It’s still slightly more agency than a linear WWII shooter, where you have to kill the guys in the order they spawn, or they kill you and the game’s over. Here, you have to choose to perform the action that will continue the game, or make the meta decision to stop playing the game – it’s not the game deciding you have stopped playing, in other words. That minor difference is used to good effect in both games, but not in this spot. It just seems like any player action here would help increase the sense of struggle with the Darkness (which in turn just helps set up the ending better).
There are a number of side quests in The Darkness – they allow you to break up the basic story missions for variety, but that’s about all their nonlinearity accomplishes. Almost all of these sideliners are un-noteworthy, often completely mundane tasks. While they encourage more exploration of the world via the subway, they have very little relation to or any impact on the main storyline. One set of side quests has you killing henchmen on your uncle’s side to weaken him, but as far as I could tell, this has no impact on or mention in the main story missions.
Being able to navigate the world freely does help you feel a part of the world’s narrative. There’s still a missed opportunity to fill out more information about the various characters relationships and history with each other via these ancillary missions that criss-cross the city. The player has already decided they want to slow the pace of the game when they pursue these; by providing more relevant information about the characters, when they time comes to save, fight or otherwise interact with them in the regular story missions the player could have built up more of an emotional involvement with those characters.
In the final level, you slowly allow the Darkness to take over. As you kill more and more of your uncle’s henchmen running through his mansion, giving in to vengeance, it is gaining control. You are periodically stopped to watch moments of the Darkness lashing out with its powers in more fantastic ways than you could do in-game.
After defeating your uncle in a final confrontation, you’re left in control as he begs for his life. Now you have a choice of whether or not you should kill him. While playing, I considered my options in this moment of freedom – run back over the island, or go back to the city to try more side quests (damn achievement points). But only one choice made sense. For a guy who’s been possessed by a demon, killed twice, had his girlfriend murdered, you just really want to kill the guy who’s responsible for it all. Despite the fact that the game has made it clear that killing him will give the Darkness total control over you.
But there is no other compelling narrative option for you as the player – you *want* to kill him, for everything he’s done to you, and give in to the Darkness. In some ways, this is one of the more tragic endings in a video game I’ve played. Even if it would have been more compelling using more player involvement earlier, and then constraining the narrative here as they do, the weight of all the plot up to this point still makes you want to continue the story as they’ve set it up.
At the start of Bioshock, you’re presented with a movie of your character on board a plane, the plane crashing in the water, and you resurfacing. I’ll admit, I let the controller sit for maybe 15 seconds before I realized the movie was over, and now I was in control, swimming in the water. This lack of realization of my own control, due to the subtle unexpected transition, was an interesting bit of foreshadowing.
A number of moments in Bioshock suffer from a common problem when presenting the player with some choice, if the player doesn’t realize there’s a choice. In that case, the playthrough is still completely linear from the player’s perspective, so there’s no emotional impact from having the choice itself. If you’re going to go through the effort of making all those different content paths, at least make them mean something.
The best example of this is Sander Cohen. You have to kill all the people he wants. Afterwards, he appears and (at least in my case) starts shooting/throwing grenades immediately. My instincts took over and he was soon dead (although the fight was well set up, especially with respect to the music). Later on, Ryan talks about Cohen losing his grip on reality, leading to you defeating him. It wasn’t until talking with someone else that I learned that you could avoid the fight simply by not firing back, in which case Cohen stops fighting you, unlocks some loot, you can confront him again later on, and Ryan says something else about him).
Ok, there’s a choice for the player… But is it even framed as a choice? In order to survive any other combat in the game, typically you have to kill the splicers (or convince something else to do it for you). In contrast, your choice of killing the Little Sisters is obvious and forcefully presented. Introducing this choice of not killing Cohen with no presentation to declare it as such weakens its impact. It may have slightly more effect on you if you wound up consciously choosing that path, but it’s incongruous presentation compared to more common choices hampers it greatly.
So for the first 3/4’s of the game you’re happily following the instructions of Atlas (who is really Ryan’s rival, Fontaine). You have freedom of movement generally speaking, but your goals are Atlas/Fontaine’s goals. Until you get to Ryan – he explains you’re a product of Rapture, and brainwashed to perform Fontaine’s commands. You then kill Ryan in a cutscene – a deviation from all the other battles in the game, precisely because you character has no control over it.
Bioshock‘s most important choice, killing or saving the Little Sisters, has been criticized as been too simple and binary. In terms of its effect on the game, to be sure, but as you continually make the choice during the game, your experience of it is less binary. I had set out to save them all at the beginning… After saving the first one, seeing it up close (the presentation is very well done, the look on her/its face, the way she/it slaps your hand away) – well, it was pretty clear to me that they were pure children-of-the-corn style evil. If you can pull a slug that size from anything human, it’s news to me. Well, maybe a tapeworm – but these were evil tapeworms.
So I killed the next Little Sister, which generally seemed to corroborate my impression of their total fucking evil-ness. Finally, upon seeing the difference in Adam harvested, I became convinced of my moral superiority (killing the girls harvests twice as much Adam, although for every 3 you save, Dr. Tenenbaum will give you some Adam to make up for that). So I happily (I mean righteously) traipsed through the game, until the point where you get to the home of the little sisters. Turns out they’re definitely human (whoops). Now, many games (and movies) have capitalized on the inherent creepiness of little girls (like F.E.A.R.), but at least Bioshock sucessfully manages to make the dial jump back and forth between creepy and cute.
So from that point I decided to save the girls, seeing the error of my ways. Then you need to collect the Big Daddy armor – while this sequence in the game is fairly understated, there are a number of elements driven through your experience & choice that make it a really powerful moment/series of moments. Picking up the Big Daddy helmet and slapping it on is a stark realization of your true nature.
Yeah, you’ve been told you’re a brainwashed tool whose whole purpose is to kill Ryan, but hey, the game’s been brainwashing you as the player to want to kill him this whole time. You were going to do it anyway without question, let’s face it. But when you put the helmet on, you see you’re place in the world – all those Big Daddies you’ve killed, becoming one of them drives the point of your fate home much harder than anything else up to that point. You’ll be moving around and hear the lumbering Big Daddy noises – trained to react, you’ll spin around looking for the Daddy to defend yourself. And you’ll spin around a couple times, until you realize what you’re hearing is yourself.
When you finally have to guard the Little Sister to show you the way to Fontaine, you’ve fallen completely into your role. All the combat of the game up to now is flipped – instead of killing the Big Daddies for the Little Sisters, you must be the protector. But its also a fitting ending as a moral result of your previous actions in the game.
If you’ve killed the Little Sisters, you’re realization may be slightly different than if you’d saved them. The notion of dealing with your fate, however, is shared. On the one hand you may think taking up the role Big Daddy is a effect or punishment of your killing the Little Sisters. Or it can be the natural, ultimate fulfillment of your role as their protector. Even though the game directs you to find the various parts of Daddy armor, and protect the Little Sisters, your taking part in the execution of those tasks is a realization of your purpose & fate.
You have no agency at this point, you can simply continue on the narrative path you have chosen – granted, most of the narrative path was always chosen for you, but your moral choices with the Little Sisters determine your final end. The two choices (grow into a family with the sisters or attempt to take over the world with Adam) are obviously very simplistic – there was no room for a tale of my own redemption, having decided I was mistaken about the girls’ humanity.
Irrational 2K Boston is making a point there as well, inadvertently or by design. Morality in the world of Bioshock is an absolute, objective morality – but what is right and wrong differs from the Objectivist ethical perspective of rational self interest (I think – I don’t really care enough about Objectivism to follow that statement with something more thought out. Meh). Regardless, there is no room for redemption in Rapture (alliteration meter++).
Reviewers like Ebert say a game can’t convey a theme that comes from one person (an “ahrteeest”) because in part, the player may change the outcome of the ending. But both of the endings in Bioshock carry the same theme, they paint what is good and evil as moral absolute. The differences in the actual outcomes doesn’t change the meaning behind the events that took place in the game. You have chosen the ending, but in you no way have chosen the theme, nor did you choose the aspects of your fate involving fullfulment of your role as a Big Daddy and a product of Rapture.
Both games successfully manage to build up your realization and acceptance of your character’s final fate. They also make missteps constraining or poorly framing your agency as you progress. Linear sequences that offer no player agency are made more compelling by intermixing player choice and/or expression in between.
Without framing player choices as such, most of the emotional impact is robbed from those choices. Their effect becomes limited to players playing the game multiple times, adamant on exploring what agency is allowed, or communication between players. By clearly communicating what is in fact a choice, that there are multiple actions available at that one moment and each has an action has some differentiated effect (if not indeed what the effect is, ideally), a small amount of (local) agency can increase the player’s involvement in the game – even if the end result is always the same (ie. no global agency).
By increasing the gap between possible story paths paths while still making the paths converge (if plausable), you would end up with a stronger resonance of the acceptance of your fate. Still, the false agency of having to choose the one action available to continue the storyline is used effectively in a number of places to increase the player’s emotional buy-in to those acts. Both storylines apply a sense of inevitability this way, but alternating aspects of player agency and expression could help increase the ownership you feel in your character becoming what external events had destined for you to become.