Burial at Sea Episode 2, Part 2

This game is taking much longer than I expected. There are too many writing topics piling up as I play. If I save them all until I’m done, I’m either going to write a 20,000-word blog post or walk away leaving many ideas unvoiced. I don’t much care for either option.

So let’s dig in, and let’s start with something that’s bothered me from the start:

Am I supposed to understand why Elizabeth is so fixated on Sally? And if I have to ask that question, isn’t that a sign of a flaw in the game?

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It isn’t the knowledge gap itself that bothers me. I don’t know all the plot twists yet; that’s as it should be. My discomfort is a little more “meta”: I can’t tell which parts of the story I am expected to know vs. which parts are gaps to be filled later on. I have this inexplicable, nagging feeling I’ve forgotten or missed something important.

Why is that? Where’s that coming from?

It’s possible this annoyance is my own fault. It’s been a long time since I played Episode 1. Maybe I forgot something.

Apparently not. At the risk of learning too much, I researched Episode 1 and found a high-level synopsis. It confirmed what I remembered: Elizabeth hired Bookerstock, P.I., to find Sally. We learned next to nothing about who Sally is or how she relates to Elizabeth. In effect, we joined the chase mid-pursuit.

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So then, what does Episode 2 reveal about Sally and Elizabeth? The opening scenes convey only a few plain facts.

  • Elizabeth knows Sally.
  • Something about Sally troubles Elizabeth. Images of the girl invade Elizabeth’s idyllic dream, transforming it into a grim nightmare.
  • Elizabeth left or abandoned Sally and is now consumed by guilt.
  • Elizabeth’s grief was so overwhelming she gave up everything and returned to Rapture to find the girl.

What we don’t know is why. I briefly considered and then rejected the idea that Elizabeth might simply feel guilty for leaving Sally in Fontaine’s hands. If that’s true, then this is a simple case of shoddy writing. If not, we’re left with an uncomfortable mystery.

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This is a real problem. Were this a conventional medium, something besides a game, this setup might work. Many stories conceal the protagonist’s motives. The revelation of those motives often forms the heart of the story.

That can’t be the case here. Games don’t work like that. To see why, consider two similar aspects of Elizabeth’s character in Episode 2:

  1. Elizabeth has suffered memory loss. Her lost memories return from time to time in abrupt flashes.
  2. Elizabeth’s regret over “leaving” Sally is so great, she relinquished near-omnipotence to find her again. We aren’t sure why.

As the player, how do we experience these facts? How do they connect us to the game and its narrative? Do they prompt us to actions that move the story forward?

In the first case, we can accept the scenario because we experience some part of it ourselves. Elizabeth doesn’t remember what happened. Naturally, neither do we. As her memories return, we share in her revelations. We experience something like the same shock and confusion. Were the game to prompt us to act on those revelations, our inclinations would likely align with Elizabeth’s. Even if people were to balk at the linear nature of the story, they could at least find reasons to grumble their way through it.

Now consider her obsessive pursuit of Sally. We’re told that Elizabeth sacrificed everything in the hope of saving her. Maybe this was meant to convey the great depth of her conviction, maybe it’s a set up for a shocking reveal at the game’s conclusion. Either way, it’s too much. It strains credulity. Anyone who accepts this in order to blithely enjoy the game would be hard pressed to form a rational defense of Elizabeth’s motives.

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This doesn’t work. Elizabeth isn’t a distant, opaque character in a novel or film. She’s our avatar in Rapture. She’s the vehicle through which we express our agency. In concealing her core motivations, the game prevents natural sympathy with whatever compels her to relentless, self-sacrificial pursuit. We’re no longer driving the plot forward. The plot is dragging us along behind it.

That’s a significant flaw. For conscientious players, it breaks the game.

I can still play the game mechanistically. It’s even enjoyable, but in far more shallow and far less immersive way. Between Elizabeth’s self-serving fantasy and her opaque motivations, it appears the game’s designers may have sacrificed depth and substance for cheap melodrama and end-game surprises.

Now, I’m not finished yet. Maybe this will correct itself. If I’m wrong, I’ll gladly come back and feast on every misplaced or inaccurate word.

But you’ll pardon me if I don’t cancel my dinner plans.

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