Tag: storytelling (page 2 of 2)

DLC Review: Burial At Sea

Ken Levine’s games have taken us into the cold darkness of deep spaces, the unplumbed depths of the ocean, and into a variety of parallel dimensions. But unless you count the sequel we don’t talk about, fans of BioShock have be waiting for the game or experience that takes them to a very specific place: back to Rapture. Thankfully, Irrational Games isn’t done with the engine they used for BioShock: Infinite, and its first story DLC, Burial at Sea, invites players back beneath the waves to the city of Andrew Ryan’s dreams.

Courtesy Irrational Games

In that city, we find Booker DeWitt working as a private investigator. If you didn’t know the story was happening in Rapture, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a potboiler noir opening: the smokey interior, hazy light coming through venetian blinds, the leggy dame walking in with a mysterious job. The dame in question, however, turns out to be Elizabeth, and she hires DeWitt to find a young girl named Sally, lost somewhere in Rapture. Booker accepts for personal reasons, and the pair step into Rapture proper, with little to go on and plenty of danger ahead.

Since it’s DLC, the systems of Burial at Sea have not changed in leaps and bounds since Booker went to Columbia. Still, it’s always nice to play a shooter that lets you carry more than two weapons. Even Elizabeth serves a similar purpose in combat, opening rifts that give Booker access to supplies when she isn’t finding things laying around. However, for me at least, BioShock in general and Infinite in particular has never really been about the combat. The Plasmids/Tonics are neat, to be sure, and Infinite‘s Skyhook changes things up from normal shooters, but for the most part, I’m in Rapture for the story.

For this particular story, Booker and Elizabeth are walking around Rapture before the fall. People are wandering around having polite conversation, the surroundings are clean and well-lit, and only occasionally do you see someone making excessive use of Plasmids. Granted, after a couple hours of wandering around and encountering some old and new faces around Rapture, the scene shifts to dark spaces full of maniacs more familiar to BioShock fans, but the depiction of Rapture as a living, breathing city rather than a hollowed-out corpse of its former self is both fascinating and engrossing. While it’s unfortunate that there really isn’t anything new character-wise in this DLC, if you liked Booker and Elizabeth’s exchanges in Columbia, you’ll be just fine with how they get along in Rapture. Finally, the story’s mystery does keep you guessing, and the ending of Episode 1 delivers a pretty effective emotional gut-punch you may not see coming.

Burial at Sea does an excellent job of coupling the systems and characters of BioShock Infinite with the rich, occasionally terrifying underwater world of its predecessor. Episode 1 is out now on the Steam store, or your console venue of choice, with Episode 2 not far off. I do recommend it, even if its price is a bit steep for the overall amount of content it delivers.

Levine’s Infinite Fancy

Courtesy Irrational Games

For years, Ken Levine has been keeping gamers on their toes. System Shock 2 built on player expectations of both shooting games and the original System Shock. BioShock reminded modern audiences that action and terror could be balanced well and coupled with good storytelling and multi-dimensional, memorable characters. And now, BioShock Infinite has delivered one of the best gaming sucker-punches since Spec Ops: The Line, though he did so at the very end of his game with what has been called a bit of an exposition dump. Given the nature of the dialog, and the method of it’s presentation, one might even go so far as to say Levine a pretentious dick for doing what he did… and you know what? That’s okay.

Spec Ops was also a bit pretentious. Braid, Journey, Bastion… all of these games use their gameplay to move the story forward and play on themes that are above and beyond the scope of many of their contemporaries. They work on higher levels, and sometimes multiple levels. The pretense upon which such games work (hence the word ‘pretentious’) is that their story is just as important as the accuracy with which the player can shoot dudes, or the level of challenge in their puzzles. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I’d argue that in terms of game development and presentation, Ken Levine is an example of someone doing everything right.

BioShock Infinite may not be a perfect game, and it may be flawed, but what it does is done so well it’s likely to be towards the top of many Game of the Year lists. Like its true predecessors, it builds on player expectations before yanking the rug out from under them. BioShock parsed past the linear progression of many other shooters (even some that came after it) and showed just how artificial that sort of pacing could be by making the player’s character a literal pawn in somebody else’s game. Very few of the choices the player makes in that game are their own; outside of weapon and plasmid selection, the phrase ‘would you kindly’ rips any agency out of the player’s hands and pushes them towards the game’s conclusion. While there’s nothing wrong with linearity in games, especially ones so heavily concerned with story, I always got the impression that Levine was demonstrating how important choice and consequence truly are by exposing this sort of railroading. In a way, this has always been his crux: make the wrong choices in System Shock 2 and it becomes impossible to complete, “A Man Chooses, A Slave Obeys” in BioShock, and in BioShock Infinite we see the choices made by both Booker DeWitt, and especially Elizabeth, changing the world around them.

A choice made by Booker alters things forever, and he may be the player’s surrogate in the world of Columbia, but I don’t think the game is his story. The first thirty minutes or so of BioShock Infinite involves you exploring Columbia once you arrive and its exposure for what it is beneath the bright, idealized facade. The story proper, for me, didn’t really kick in until our first conversation with Elizabeth. Not only is she a fascinating and well-rounded character, her presence draws out more development for Booker, she has a direct effect on the world both during the shooting and as part of the narrative moving forward, and the story literally would not be possible without her. As much as ‘focus testing’ showed that target audiences wanted Booker on the cover of the game, it was clear to me that Elizabeth is the true protagonist of BioShock Infinite, the one who makes the more difficult choices and truly grows as a person, coming into the full realization of her powers and potential. While Booker does face truths about himself and comes to terms with his past, his arc is simply not as interesting as Elizabeth’s, and the fact that Levine was able to get this story into the hands of those who did not expect it just tickles me.

I think there are a lot of game designers out there who really want to make a difference. They see the state of gaming and interactive storytelling, and they want to change things for the better. It’s a little fanciful to think it can be done, but Ken Levine has shown one of the ways you do that. I called Bioshock Infinite a sucker punch because the nature of its story, the degree to which we care about Elizabeth, and the final revelatory walk through the many worlds and lighthouses are all things most gamers did not expect. Like his other games, this is one that bears re-playing, and enjoying all over again, and not just for the challenges of the gameplay or the unlocking of achievements. Ken Levine’s ideas on how to tell stories in games and how that can change things may be fanciful – but it also works.

Can Gamers Change The World?

Courtesy Sega & Obsidian Entertainment

I find myself asking a question that should be at the core of game design: what do gamers want?

I don’t want the answer given by market demographics and sales figures. Sure, games make money, and the companies that publish them have profit as their end goal, but why should that also be the end goal for the audience? People don’t buy movie tickets because they like MGM or New Line Cinema; they buy them because they enjoy the adventures of James Bond or Bilbo Baggins. Likewise, most gamers are not going to putting down cash to save Bungie or Ubisoft or EA; they’ll pay their money to slip into the role of Master Chief or Ezio Auditore or Commander Shepard. But outside of established franchises, what is it that gamers want out of their games? Simply to feel empowered? To live out some fantasy? To save the world?

All you have to do is look at charities like Child’s Play and Extra Life to see that gamers do, in fact, want to save the world. Or at least part of it. They back Kickstarters for new titles that break away from the iterative sequels of the industry. Looking at some of the top games of the past year – Dishonored, FarCry 3, Spec Ops: The Line, The Walking Dead, Journey – I see a trend that has nothing to do with marketing or sales emerging. Gamers don’t want to just save the world, they want to change it.

Specifically, they want their choices within a game to matter. As much as I’ve enjoyed playing Skyrim in the past (and still need to check out its DLC), it was difficult at times to feel my character was having much of an impact on the world. Sure, you can take down dragons and rescue people, but there’s little sense of those actions having significance. No matter how many battles you win or spells you learn, there will be some guard you encounter who will tell you about a certain leg injury. Likewise, Ezio can rebuild Rome or Constantinople in the later Assassin’s Creed games of his time, but the townsfolk or guards never treat him more favorably for his hard work and service. Maybe that’s part of being an anonymous assassin?

By contrast, look at Alpha Protocol. While not the best shooter/RPG ever made, it is way up on my list of favorites, mostly because the choices you make have consequences. Your conversations and attitudes are remembered. You make an impact in the cities you visit. You, in short, change the world. I am of the opinion that more games should aim to allow for this.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re playing a game based in a city. During the course of the game, an action is undertaken that results in a building catching fire. In my mind, the game would be doing its job right if, after the mission or whatever is concluded, that building stays burnt. Every time the character walks by it, he or she sees the blackened walls, the shattered windows, the marred signage. The building is a husk of its former self, and passers by on the street may even comment on it. And if the player caused the blaze, their character should at least get some dirty looks.

I don’t think we see enough of that in gaming. We don’t see real consequences for the choices a player makes. We don’t give players enough opportunities to break away from some of gaming’s more blatant linearity. Gaming is a medium in which the audience of the story being told is also a participant in that story. Few games truly embrace this, and instead lean towards exposition dumps and flavor text to fill in any story gaps a curious player may feel are missing. I hope we see more games in the future that make the effort to involve the player in their story, rather than treat said player as a source for cash to fuel microtransactions. Because as much as persistent environmental alterations within the game world may not suit every game, bringing the experience to a halt to remind us that our hero’s special hat is available for a mere 520 Microsoft Points doesn’t either.

The New Mythology

Joseph Campbell

Some of our stories are hundreds or even thousands of years old. Every once in a while, a book or TV series will claim it has an ‘all-new’ story, but in reality most of the plot points and character turns have probably been told before. This is likely not a conscious decision of the writer, and it in no way dilutes the deeper truth the story strives towards, but it cannot be denied that the roots of most stories run very deep into our past.

Mankind has been telling stories since before language was something you wrote. Around fires and in caves, they relayed tales of great hunts, related how rivals were overthrown, and wondered about dreams and the world beyond what they knew. People wanted to learn about the triumphs and tragedies of others, and sharing these experiences enhanced them, gave them weight, and made them timeless. While more than a few of these simple, primal stories may have had some details forgotten, threads of them can be seen here and now, in the 21st century.

Themes and patterns such as the hero’s journey and good men struggling against their own natures as much as they do a rival or the elements persist because they still have something to teach us. Just as the ancient civilizations of the world found inspiration in their gods and champions, so too do we find it in big screen heroes and, occasionally, the actors who portray them. Myths have always been stories larger than life, speaking in broad terms to draw in as many minds as possible, and at the core of many you will find one of those timeless threads. The hero may be looking for his own identity in the face of a world that wants to redefine or obscure it. A good man is betrayed by a friend because of jealousy or greed. Tragedy causes someone to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of justice. None of these ideas are new, but the fact that they continue to captivate us means they are not without merit.

Our new myths connects us to the old, entertaining and educating and provoking us to think just as they have for thousands of years. Your message is still important, even if someone else has conveyed it before. What’s new about that message is how you convey it. Stories may share common elements but your voice is unique. Let it be heard. The new mythology needs new myth-makers, new storytellers to keep our stories going further into the future. Are you going to be one of them?

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