This post contains SPOILERS.
BioShock, Irrational Games’ 2007 FPS/ RPG/survival horror title, features one of the better plot twists to appear in a video game for some time; it makes me think back to Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which featured what may perhaps be the greatest twist in video game history. That’s a topic that may very well be for a later date, but today’s post is all about BioShock’s plot twist. If you haven’t played the game and don’t want to ruin the surprise for yourself, then this is your cue to stop reading.
The game is all about fighting your way through Rapture, an underwater city built by businessman and zealous capitalist Andrew Ryan, who vehemently opposes left-wing politics and government control of any kind. Ryan intended for Rapture to be a sort of new, prototypical city that operated according to his personal ideals; it was designed to be “a city where the artist would not fear the censor. Where the great would not be constrained by the small. Where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality.”
When the silent protagonist and player character, Jack, unexpectedly arrives in Rapture, Ryan suspects that he is an agent of the CIA or KGB who has come to infiltrate and sabotage his city—you know, since things are going so well, what with the raging civil war and all. Due to his suspicions, Ryan tries to kill you a few times, sending at you both Splicers (genetically-altered, homicidal drug addicts of sorts) and the city’s automated security systems. He also supposedly detonates a submarine holding the family of a character named Atlas, who takes you under his wing and attempts to guide you through the insane city. So, by the time we finally confront Ryan, we have a few reasons to want the guy dead. After all, he is kind of an asshole.
Here’s a clip of the confrontation with Ryan. Even if you’ve played through the game, I advise you to watch it again because it’s so damn brilliant.
Turns out things are not at all as they seem. Not only is Jack the three-year-old illegitimate son of Andrew Ryan, genetically engineered to reach maturity very rapidly, but he is also subject to the commands of Frank Fontaine, a mobster and opportunist who is vying against Ryan for control of Rapture (although it’s anyone’s guess why he’d want to run the place; but then again, few people in Rapture seem to be playing with a full deck). While this is a mind-blowing plot twist in and of itself, it also makes the player’s role in the game a lot more interesting.
I’m thinking mostly of the “would you kindly” trigger phrase that Fontaine and Ryan use to control Jack. In the confrontation scene, when Ryan reveals that Fontaine has been controlling us, we realize that we’ve been asked to perform task after task throughout the game. Atlas has sometimes asked us and sometimes told us to go to certain places, do certain things, and kill certain individuals, and we have followed his suggestions without much second thought. It becomes clear that we’ve done certain things not because we necessarily wanted to, but because we had to.
You see, one thing I’m interested in when it comes to video games is what I might call player desire, or strongly wanting to behave in a certain way. I’m very fascinated by the idea of a game that makes the player really want to do everything that is required of them. Instead of going after a bad guy simply because we’re told to, we should feel compelled to go after him because we really want to get the guy. Of course, this is what good writing should do in the first place: it should motivate the player to perform their designated task. But what if a game made us want to get the bad guy so much that we felt as if it were our own decision in the first place? What if a game put us in an open world, where we could do whatever we wanted, and we said, “What I want to do is get that son of a bitch?” The idea of a game that lets us feel like we’re following our own desires, rather than adhering to a set of desires that has been laid out for us—that’s one thing that really gets me excited.
So, what does all this have to do with BioShock? When we learn about the “would you kindly” trigger phrase, we realize that we have been guided by the hand through events of the game. This works on two levels: Jack has been guided through Rapture by Atlas, but we have also been guided through Rapture by the game itself. Think about it: when we as the player begin the game, what is our objective? What would we want to do in this environment? Of course we want to survive and successfully complete the tasks presented to us. But aside from these things, we are likely to have no strong desire to do much of anything in the city, except perhaps to explore and fight enemies. The game’s plot tells us what we should desire and guides us along the proper course to fulfill these desires. We may understand why we should do these things, and we may even be eager to advance the plot toward its conclusion. However, the necessities of the plot force us to perform in certain ways if we wish to complete the game. We must admit that we have no choice in the matter: we either do as we are told, or we simply don’t play the game. In this way, the “would you kindly” revelation creates an interesting parallel between Jack and the player—who both have little control over their actions and are being guided along by an outside force—and it also serves as an omission of sorts that the game is not really letting us do whatever we might please. Though we are in control of our actions in one sense, in another sense we are not.
And how do things change after the confrontation with Ryan? Dr. Tenenbaum, a relatively benevolent NPC, helps Jack break the mental conditioning that Fontaine has been using to control him. For the first time, Jack is not subject to the suggestion of others. So, what does he do? More importantly, what does the player want to do at this point in the game? Chances are good that the player will want revenge on Fontaine, since he has used, manipulated, lied to, and ultimately betrayed them. This is exactly what the game now directs the player to do: killing Fontaine becomes the overarching objective for the remainder of the game. BioShock undergoes a bit of a paradigm shift at this point: where it once persuaded us to do things we may not have had any strong motivation to do, it now encourages us to do exactly what it knows we’ll want to do. We can imagine the game asking us, “Alright, considering everything that’s happened up till now, what do you want to do?” And I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that every player would respond, “What I want to do is get that son of a bitch.”