Saturday, September 8

BioShock, Choice, and Emotion

Kotaku the other day linked me to an article over at Sexy Videogame Land, a blog by Leigh Alexander. The article is entitled "The Mechanics of choice," and reads about the recently released BioShock from Irrational Games (now 2K Boston), emotion in videogames, as well as choice. I would entreat you to read the entire article, it isn't long, but I will quote for discussion purposes regardless. Alexander starts off her article with a fantastic statement:
I've heard a lot of discussion about how much choice there is (or isn't) in BioShock on the matter of the Little Sisters, and in gaming in general. People have been saying for years they want more choice in games, and they want to see the gameplay reflect their choices. We want consequences both foreseen and unforeseen; we want the opportunity to make a moral decision without knowing exactly what we'll get out of it. We don't want, as some gamers have called it, a mere "cost-benefit analysis." In other words, at the core of any gaming experience, no matter how intense, it's still a game; you are still an explorer, a combatant, and you have a protagonist with stats to manage. In the end, choice in games may simply come down, at least historically and at present, to what gains you want for your character and what you're willing to trade. It's not a moral issue at all, then, but the simple exchange of boost for penalty, choice being a factor only insofar as you can decide which bonuses you want and which you can do without, and perhaps which cutscene you'd rather see, which ending you'd rather get.
I think she's right. But before I go on, I implore you, read the entire article. Alexander says so many interesting things, and so very well, I couldn't possily replicate her argument if I tried. Plus it will get your minds working and put you in the right mindset to continue reading this post.
Finished? Fantastic. Let us contiue. We are offered choices in video games, particularly RPGs, but what do these choices amount to, and, what governs our decisions?

I have not played BioShock, everything I know about the game is from what I've read, watched or heard. Everything I'm going to say concerning BioShock is not based on personal experience. What Alexander is arguing, is that though BioShock touts actual choice based upon emotion, when confronted with little sisters and big daddys, the choices actually do little more then affect your character's stats. Therefore, when playing BioShock, what decisions or what frame of mind is governing players' choices? Do players' make decisions with their conscience? Are emotions the motivator by which players respond to the game and make their choices? Or, is the game guiding players' choices? Is the in-game effect or result of a player's choices the true hand that sculpts that player's decisions? At what point does a game's functional reward infringe upon players' emotions? From Alexander's article:
Add in the fact that we're trained to predict what the game "wants" us to do. In the RPG genre, choice often comes down to which answer you pick to a question. . . .Could it be though, that we as players have been conditioned to look at our gaming experience as a cost-benefit analysis? What is it, exactly, that we're hoping to "get" from a game that offers us choices? values and identity really mean nothing because it's only a game?
Let's say a little sister is at your whim. Do you save her? Do you let her live because you think it wrong to harvest her adam? Wrong to kill her for your own benefit? Or, do you kill her, take her precious adam? And if so, why? Do you kill the little sister because you don't think she deserves to live? Do you kill her because you want her adam, you want your character become more powerful? Or do you kill her because you need her adam? You feel that without it, you will not be able to survive much longer in the destroyed paradise that is BioShock?

The beauty is: Every answer is correct. You, the player, are always right? You can save the little sisters, you can kill them, and you can do so for whatever reasons please you. And you know what, thats awesome. The choices that players make aren't what we're trying to get at, but rather why players make these choices.
The choice is yours.

I think it entirely possible, even probable, that players make decisions of their own accord. Some players will kill the little sisters, other will let them live. The only thing infringing on the players' free-will is when necessity governs their choices. In other words, if players feel like they need to kill the little sisters to complete the game, then I can guarentee you that's what they'll do. Here is the problem: If indeed the game necessitates players to kill the little sisters and harverst their adam to complete the game, then all potential emotional input is lost, null. If we as designers truly want emotion to govern play, then we cannot allow, under any circumstances, in-game results such as character ability or otherwise control players' decisions with finality.

But there is a margin. When does the game choosing for you, based on necessity, diverge from the players' actual emotional decisions? Lets say it is not necessary to harvest every little sister, or even a single one, to play through the game. It may be, I don't know. However, as we know, when players do harvest the adam, they are rewarded, in-game, with a boost in character statistics, skill, and ability. Which in turn offers new ways to play the game and approach its various situations. In other words, more ways to have fun. Therefore, we are now presenting players with true options, true choice. And these choices are governed by two things, primarily: more ways to have fun/character ability, and personal emotional impact. Alexander finishes her article as such:
After a while, I started letting the Little Sisters squirm a sec after I'd felled their Daddy. . . .Now, I chase the Little Sisters down. I want 'em. It's like I can't wait; I deserve that Adam after what I went through to get it. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?. . . .I made some choices. And now, much to my surprise, I'm becoming something I hate. And I love it. Cost-benefit regardless, the choices in this game are beyond the mechanics. The merit of choice in games may not be what we get from it, but when done this richly, how it feels.
This is what games are all about. As Alexander says, regardless of in-game effects, she has made moral decisions and is reaping they're emotional effects. Games can impact people. We just need to make sure we allow players to choose and not force them to through in-game necessity. What BioShock can do is amazing. More importantly, BioShock represents how video games have the potential to effect people in real, tangible ways--and not just on the screen.BioShock teaches people that they can be manipulated. Some may argue, "but the little sisters aren't real, they're a collection of polygons animated to create the illusion of life." True, but in essence wrong. Its not the little sisters that matter, its is how they effect you emotionally that does.

If people can feel remorse for how they've interacted with a set of polygons, and learn something about themselves as a result, then video games really do have a power to effect people. When players decide, when they choose for themselves (hopefully without the game forcing them to do so), to kill a little sister, to steal her adam, then they are emotionally responsible for that decision.

We've been taught as human beings that killing is wrong. In choosing to kill a cluster of polygons for personal benefit, people are teaching themselves a real life lesson, and will therefore pay the consequences for their actions, in-game, and out. And thats a beautiful thing. It really is. This is part of what makes game design so amazing. Our ability to affect people. Designing a game around emotional choice, and pulling it off, is nothing short of extrordinary.

Remember that "What is Next-Gen" series of posts I made? The answer is emotion. Graphics, sound, multiplayer, all important in their own right, to be sure. But emotion coupled with interaction is the true hallmark of a next-generation game, andis whats going to take video games to the next level.

Artwork by Rahll
Screenshots from Official BioShock Website


  1. That was a good post. Very thoughtful and revealing to those who not of these topics concerning game design. I will state however one flaw in Bioshock, which I have encountered myself. That is, that when you save the "Little Sisters" for every three you save, you receive 200 Adam. Which, in the long run is ACTUALLY MORE than what you receive for killing them outright. But there is also the question of patience. What I have decided to do throughout my journey through Rapture, is indeed save the little sisters. But it is not really for the emotional effect, despite how sad I feel for them, I truly am more greedy than my emotions. I have thus been saving them much more for the fact of a grander total of Adam than for my sympathy at my own emotional state.

  2. A very interesting article. Many artists would agree that one of the primary reasons for art (and video-game is an art) is to evoke emotional response. Emotional response in video-games is nothing new. Playing "Frogger" gives me an emotional response. I think what you're getting at is WHAT KIND of emotional response. "Frogger" gives me the response of "fun," "adventure," "risk," and probably a dozen other emotions. None of these responses are very profound though. The emotions that accompany MORALITY however - those are profound. So I think what you're getting at is not that emotions are important - they always have been - but that DEEPER emotions will become increasingly prevalent. I hope so.

  3. I remember discussing this with my cousin. He'd played through saving the little sisters. I killed them for the power up.

    Man, I took a lot of schtick that day! He couldn't believe I was such a monster and that I hadn't seen through the whole "would you kindly" paddy-me-up-me-blarney facade (especially since we're both Irish!). My reply was that if an atrocity happens under the sea, is there going to be anyone left alive to report it? No one lives so easily with tyranny than a tyrant.