Build me a world
January 15, 2010
A stage setting is not a background; it is an environment. Players act in a setting, not against it. We say, in the audience, when we look at what the designer has made, before anyone on the stage has time to move or speak, "Aha, I see! It's going to be like that!"
--Robert Edmond Jones, "The Dramatic Imagination"
Building a world isn't easy. The novelist, the playwright, the filmmaker - all face the same daunting task. Establish a place; communicate a style; commence your story; hook your audience.
And the clock is ticking. You have roughly 10 minutes. If you haven't conveyed a world that intrigues us by then, you've probably lost your chance.
Narrative video games present no less a challenge. In some ways, the stakes there are even higher. Not only must the world intrigue me, but I must also feel compelled to occupy and explore it...and I've plunked down $60 for the privilege.
Bioshock succeeds in this regard better than any game I can think of. Revisiting Rapture with the Vintage Game Club has brought into focus how effectively this game establishes a world chock-full of detail, expressiveness, and storytelling punch. As virtual world-building, Bioshock offers some valuable lessons on how to do it right.
Spoilers ahead.The first hour of Bioshock is essentially a layered set of introductions to the world of Rapture and the game itself. Every narrative game must manage this balancing act of storytelling and teaching, but Bioshock excels by thrusting the player into a series of events and locales loaded with ambience and backstory, trusting the player to learn by exploring.
The banners, the plaques, the discarded artifacts, the architecture that surrounds me - all converge as individual pieces of a great story puzzle you will piece together. As my friend Roger Travis has suggested, the player behaves similarly to Oedipus in this regard: a well-meaning detective who ultimately tracks down himself.
When I emerge from the water gasping for air, the game offers no HUD and no instructions. I'm on my own. When I reach land and look over my shoulder, I watch the plane slowly disappear into the sea. The prediction delivered to me before the crash, "Son, you're special. You were born to do great things" will be tested now.
I notice an open door, and I enter. As Justin Keverne noted on the VGC forum, "You are alone, and ominously, you are expected." The first thing to grab my attention is a giant red banner that reads: "No gods or kings, only man." Bioshock's stark declaration of principles, accompanied by the jaunty strains of "Beyond the Sea." A tonal collision that will be repeated many times in a variety of contexts.
Proceeding on, visual artifacts fill my head with impressions of this place. Plaques with quotes from Ryan; gold seals commemorating Art, Industry, and Science. I enter into darkness, but doing so triggers lights that flash on as if to welcome me. The place is begging me to explore it, and so I do. It feels worth doing.
A slide show narrated by Ryan continues the ideological indoctrination, but the scratchy audiovisuals and the deserted environment make everything feel disjointed. Something is terribly wrong here. I can see it and feel it, even though the game has yet to offer much beyond clues.
My capsule rises, and Ryan proclaims "I chose Rapture!" followed by the big reveal: a spectacular view of an underwater city surrounded by glowing neon. This is surely one of the greatest opening sequences in all of video games. As my capsule docks (accompanied by more visual propaganda ""All good things of this earth flow to the city"), I'm reminded of my arrival on the train at the beginning of Half-Life 2.
Helplessly watching a man being killed through a glass and hoping this creature won't notice me, the dark suspicions planted in my mind are confirmed. Now Bioshock's world-building turns to aftermath, and everything around me tells a story.
Discarded protest signs: "Ryan doesn't own us!" and "Rapture is Dead" suggest I'm entering the ruins of a place gone horribly wrong. Abandoned drinks, cigarettes, purses. People left here in a hurry, or were killed in a hurry. More tonal collisions: a huge colorful painting hangs on the wall - a Diego Rivera-esque mural depicting happy smiling mother, worker, and child. It's a failed utopia. Not exactly virgin territory for sci-fi horror, but fertile storytelling territory nonetheless.
The eerie sounds of the place convey even more dreadful impressions. Sloshing water, odd singing in the distance, groaning metal - all terribly ominous and persistent. This place is about to blow, and I need to get out of here.
My first view of a Big Daddy and Little Sister comes in a half-conscious state lying on the floor, my blurred POV view cockeyed. It's like I'm not sure I'm seeing what I'm seeing. Atlas is talking to me, but I'm only half-hearing him. Sensory overload. Keep moving.
I get up and move forward, and I'm met with a splicer screaming "I'm not a bad person! I'm not a bad person!" The next one screams "I can control myself! I can!" I realize the game is sending me a variety of messages that all suggest one thing: control is the issue here. It's underneath everything. Gaining control, maintaining control, losing control. I've felt it from the moment I walked in.
The shadow of a woman comforting her baby. A married couple's quarrel. The audio diary of a lonely woman named Diane McClintock. All of it lures me in and compels me to act, piecing together what happened here and sometimes killing to survive.
The audio diaries are exceptionally well-delivered. These would be lazy narrative shortcuts if they were the primary means of delivering story, but they're only one channel. They add texture and detail. Most of what I've learned so far was conveyed through my own exploration and by paying attention to my surroundings.One hour into the game, I spot a little girl stabbing a corpse with a syringe like it's a toy. The game makes me feel like I'm spying on her. I'm tempted to intervene, but I know the game isn't ready for me to do that yet. This creates an interesting tension between what I want to do and what the game wants me to do. And it's at this moment that I realize I've awakened from the game's narrative spell. I've bumped into a limit, as it were, and I'm briefly derailed.
Soon enough, I'll be back on board, eager for what's to come. But I know that nothing I'll see or do is likely to surpass that first mesmerizing, world-building hour. It's the game's most notable accomplishment, in my view, and it's why Rapture itself remains Bioshock's greatest achievement.