Best. Ending. Ever.
Okay, I’m biased. Maybe it wasn’t quite the best ending, but it was easily one of my favorites. BioShock advanced the state of the art of game design, prompting deep reflection on the notions of agency and control.
Not everyone sees it that way. Opinions vary widely amongst players, some of whom were disappointed with BioShock’s narrative twist and what it said about their choices. In fact, to call them “choices” at all is to step into the discussion on an openly contested point: Many players and critics alike hold that any perceived sense of control in the game is an illusion.
BioShock has its flaws, but a lack of agency isn’t one of them. The control it offers is very real and reasonable, though individual presumptions about games—and narrative games in particular—might make it seem otherwise.
To see how this might be true, we need to put agency and control in proper perspective. It would help if we could move away from comparisons between games and films or novels and instead consider a more apt basis for comparison: orchestral music.
In reflecting on my experience playing BioShock, I found this last example particularly suitable as a model for the game’s unique narrative structure.
This analogy is limited and flawed (as is any analogy), but it offers one distinct advantage: It sets reasonable, realistic expectations for narrative games by showing agency and control operating successfully within boundaries.
Consider the basic elements of an orchestral performance: A composition is defined by a musical score. The members of the orchestra realize the music by playing the piece on their respective instruments, and they do so under the direction of a conductor.
It’s important to recognize the role of the conductor. I’m sure I’m not the only person who at one time thought conductors were little more than glorified metronomes, helping the orchestra keep time by waving their pointy little stick. In reality, the conductor’s interpretation and guidance within the bounds of the musical score are as vital to the performance as are the notes on the page and the highly skilled instrumentalists.
Now let’s return to Rapture: In BioShock, the narrative elements set the score. All the enemies, puzzles, and items we encounter are the orchestral instruments. We never see the instrumentalists, but they exist all the same in the game’s rules and AI.
Rapture sets the main theme of the composition. Ryan and Fontaine are soloists engaged in a sharply contrasted counterpoint that produces the game’s interwoven melodies.
At the center of all this, directing and interpreting the piece within the confines of the score, is the player-conductor. The resulting gameplay is a dark and brutal symphony of competing ideals, violent conflict, and moral choices.
Then ,at the end of the second movement, the soloists hold up their sheet music for us to see. There on the page are marks telling the instrumentalists to play against our direction. The marks reveal to us that while we’ve been conducting the orchestra, the orchestra has been conducting us as well.
For most players, this is a shocking moment. Some take offense, feeling the game is mocking them for having been so readily manipulated.
But BioShock doesn’t abuse the player-conductor so much as it holds up a mirror. In a time when so many games are built to serve mass market appetites, BioShock challenges players to reflect on their role in the gaming experience, to engage on a level beyond weapons, loot drops, and skill trees.
Even casual consideration will reveal that the questions raised by this game go well beyond gaming and entertainment:
- Why did the “Would you kindly?” reveal surprise us? Did we realize we were conducting an orchestra, or did we think we were engaged in some kind of improv jam session?
- How much control do we have? How much control can we reasonably expect to have?
This one moment has done more to prompt deep reflection on game design and narrative than most whole games.
Still, as much as I feel BioShock’s twist was insightful and timely, I’d like to think that at some point it won’t seem nearly so novel or surprising. In fact, for a mature, well-seasoned gamer, it would probably come across as cheap and pedantic.
Imagine a beautiful orchestral performance. Everyone is playing their part in perfect, harmonious unison with their peers, all under the masterful lead of the conductor. Then, right at the crescendo of the piece, a soloist stands up to remind the conductor that she is not composing the music, but is only leading the orchestra through a pre-written score.
“Yes,” she might reply, “I know. Now be quiet, sit down, and play.”