At E3 2010, somewhere near the mechanical bull at Bethesda Software’s annual Sunset Strip bacchanal, BioShock Infinite visionary Ken Levine leaned across a liquor-sticky table and gave me the best storytelling advice I’ve heard: “F[orget] macro choices, do what works.”
Three disclaimers: he didn’t really say “forget.” He also didn’t mention that having the narrative chops to make your crazy vision work is a lot harder than a single aphorism makes it seems. Lastly, we were discussing self-limiting approaches to world-building in particular, not the wholesale disavowal of consistency within a work. (That remains a bad idea unless you’re, like, James Joyce).
As with its coverage of BioShock, most of the gaming press focuses on the literary and cinematic merits of BioShock Infinite—which makes sense: in its struggle toward maturity, the games industry often aims for such lofty values, while only occasionally succeeding. (To be sure, many great stories have been told in games over the past half century, but gaming storytellers like Levine remain the exception to the rule rather than the norm).
A skybound Atlantis founded upon American exceptionalism and the exploitation of minorities and women for profit; an ultra conservative utopia faltering under the weight of its own hypocrisy; a cultural conflict in which there are no innocents. These are the building blocks of the fabulous stories that unfold in BioShock Infinite, and the fables therein hold up a disturbingly apt mirror to the face of our own society—it’s not difficult to imagine an alternate universe in which airship technology and an old-fashioned American personality cult take credos like manifest destiny on a much, much wilder ride.
But for all of its narrative richness, BioShock Infinite also surprises in less sensational ways. In its willingness to “f[orget] macro choices,” some of Infinite’s biggest successes are its Weirdest, with a genre-splicing capital “W.”
Yes, BioShock Infinite is a game that embraces a kind of Americanized mal-du-siecle, and video games set in the early 1900s are rare indeed. It borrows from Upton Sinclair and Mark Twain as freely as BioShock drew from Ayn Rand and Orson Welles, and while this is less impressive when seen from the literary side of things, it’s still a mighty feat in an industry that, more often than not, measures itself in bullet-holes and breast physics.
It also skips from genre to genre as a way to move the plot forward, a device I’ve never seen before in any game, novel, or film. No omnibus, I, but surely this is a feat worthy of attention: a scene told in the style of historical fiction slips into an alternate history fantasy before shifting into steampunk (no, something too American to be simple steampunk, which is an essay in itself).
Because BioShock Infinite is a video game, and demands a different level of interaction from the audience than other media, a turn toward action necessitates a still Weirder shift of genres: the core shooter mechanic brings Quentin Tarantino slaughterhouse action into the mix, while the magic system depends on a mechanic similar to but less substantiated (by macro choices) than the original BioShock’s plasmids.
Vigors, Infinite’s answer to plasmids, are an excellent example of “what works”—BioShock needed to answer some essential questions about how its plasmids worked and why (“special sea slug goo” and “because we need them to,” respectively). But in its spiritual sucessor, no such struture is necessary: players expect plasmid-like elements, and given the other welcome weirdnesses of the game, shooting ravens out of your left hand isn’t something that demands much exposition.
Some of BioShock Infinite’s genre-hopping derives from savvy technological choices. For instance, the game’s female lead—an NPC who is neither put in a refrigerator nor rendered helpless, largely—is designed to appear more like a latter-day Disney princess than a hyper-realistic mannequin from the Valley of the Uncanny Dolls. This choice forces us to attach to Elizabeth in a very particular way, with pre-arranged emotional values we can do little to escape. Rather than shrinking from this choice, BioShock Infinite embraces it repeatedly: Elizabeth skips like Belle, flips her hair like Ariel, and will occasionally toss you a coin with a choreographed camera zoom and slowdown that is almost distractingly cinematic.
Meanwhile you’re mowing down baddies who’d look more at home in a barbershop quartet than taking a shotgun blast to the head. Elizabeth traipses amidst the corpses, and all of BioShock Infinite’s genres and choices-that-work braid together in a Weird but winning way: again, Levine tells us a tale of ideologies gone too far and ideologues gone mad. Again, we are left to decide for ourselves how much of this extremity and madness is fabulous hyperbole, and how much of the fable is, in fact, true.
Before, Levine has shown that any aspect of a video game’s design elements can be used to tell a story to great effect. (His presentation at the 2008 Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, aptly titled “Warehouses and Sewers: Waste of Opportunity” explored the original game’s use of environment to tell the story.) BioShock’s environments ended up telling a far more powerful tale than we might otherwise have experienced—how else to capture the romance and horror of a drowned city and its damned survivors? Walk through its (mostly) abandoned arboretum and fight your way across its breadbasket—this is gaming’s answer to “show, don’t tell.”
Here he takes that “do what works” approach to game craft and levels it up—using the building blocks of genre itself to pivot in ways that would be unwieldy and unwise in the hands of a lesser craftsman, or even a craftsman with a less facile toolset. BioShock Infinite is far from perfect: some of the cooperative elements from early builds are missing, elements that forced the player and Elizabeth to combine powers (and forced the player to care for Elizabeth more); the violence intrudes upon the story in ways that can be jarring but are necessary for gameplay value; reliance upon tropes of stereotyped historical and minority characters can be problematic regardless of how intelligently they’re used; the fact that the game needs to tell you that Elizabeth “can take care of herself” is itself an indictment of how poorly women are treated within the medium, as both subjects and (as 47% of) gamers.
But the appeal of BioShock Infinite remains singular, and its work to advance the craft of game design—and the role of storytelling within the larger framework of that craft—merits the attention of anyone who’s ever enjoyed a game, been inspired by a game, or felt let-down that the promise of a game’s story was not realized as thoroughly as it might have been. And while enjoying the game demands a willingness to let the storyteller play fast-and-loose with the player’s expectations, it’s worth it because of how well it works.