ď[Letting] the player decide how they feel,Ē is not respecting your audienceís intelligence in these situations; it is a cop-out of the highest order.Ē In that quote Golding was referring specifically about the subjects of racism and Wounded Knee present in BioShock Infinite.
Iíve had time to think about it over the past few days. It was so heavily on my mind that when I would briefly wake up during sleep it was the first thing that I thought of. Where is the point where the game developer should step in and directly influence the emotional narrative by telling you how you should feel? Or should they?
Itís an incredibly important question that I am sure many developers face when crafting a rich narrative. I think that much will ultimately depend on the game and the end goal of the story. The reason that this statement resonated so much for me with this game is the fact that when I finished it and had time to reflect on it ultimately it was the fact that I was left to decide how I should feel that was what I appreciated the most.
A few weeks ago I had mentioned how one of the most striking things about the opening hour of BioShock Infinite is how I felt like a sinner nearly immediately. The fact that I consider myself more of an agnostic as opposed to tied to a religion is one such reason that had struck me. The other more prominent reason is that this world is so developed and rich that I had little problem letting myself become immersed in the world of Columbia. From first setting foot inside the lighthouse at the outset and even more so with my first footsteps inside of the church in Columbia you are bombarded by religious messaging and even partake in a baptism. When I was reborn inside the city and free to start pursuing Elizabeth I felt like the denizens of Columbia had appropriately relayed their expectations of me. There was a point early on where I found an honor shop and accidentally took money. I felt bad for it, but not because the game told me I was wrong. I wasnít arrested and there wasnít a Linkís Awakening type of scolding where I would be called THEIF for the remainder of my play time. The game toyed with my morality and pitted it against me.
It was soon after that where my morality is questioned again and itís also the first major introduction to racism in the game. Early in the introduction to Columbia you stumble upon a lottery. The prize for winning ends up being a shocking moment and ultimately unmasks Columbiaís darker side. You are asked to throw a ball at an interracial couple. The choice itself may seem a bit simplistic as it is presented: throw the ball at the couple, the announcer or as a few people have come to realize you can let the timer run out and do nothing. It is here where the first major instance of letting a player feel what they want kicks in. When the choice presented itself to me I was stunned. I donít know if it was because this beautiful and idyllic city was crushed by the weight of the impending choice or if it was because I hadnít really been presented a choice in a game that ultimately questioned MY morality. The world of Columbia wanted me to throw the ball at the couple but my gut was sickened at the thought. One point to consider is that regardless of your choice the outcome ultimately will always be the same. You will always be stopped and discovered as the false prophet. Realistically this all could have been rendered as a cutscene showing Booker ready to throw the ball and left unsure to the player what his was intentions were. However it is through the power of choice and forcing the player to be a participant in the act that intensifies the emotional impact of how the events play out. Racism is woven into the fabric of this world as much as patriotism, religion and quantum physics. The developers donít and shouldnít feel the need to tell me how I should feel. I was given enough background to make my own choices and feel the emotional impact of them.
Another point of ire in the conversations being built about BioShock Infinite is the subject of Wounded Knee. If you were like me, which I wouldnít be surprised if there was a good portion of the gaming community that was, I had very little idea of what it was when I started playing the game. I had heard of it before, but knew very little beyond that. What it refers to is a massacre that took place where US Calvary opened fire and killed at least 150 Native Americans (some estimates as high as 300) some of them women and children and many of them are unarmed. It is an absolute tragedy.
Yes, the Hall of Heroes is a jingoist mess of an interpretation of what happened at Wounded Knee, but you are in Columbia. As they say the winners write history and you are seeing Comstockís rewritten history page. I donít know if there was a better way that they could have relayed the real world ramifications of what happened without shattering the looking glass into the world of Columbia. However, as is the case in many places in Columbia, finding anything depicted in an extreme fashion is a nod to the player that commentary is being made. When I was presented with this area I paused the game and read up on the subject and reflected on it.
The ramifications of what happened at Wounded Knee ripple through the entire game. From the start on the boat Booker is handed a box with his name on it that calls out that he was part of the Calvary during the battle. The fact that he was part of what took place at Wounded Knee shapes this entire game and world. He is a man trying to cope with what he had done. He is looking for forgiveness. He tore his world and family apart with the gambling and alcohol because of it. Itís this aftermath and guilt of this battle that ultimately leads to the idea of baptism and being forgiven and reborn. The story is there, but it isnít spelled out for players. It isnít Irrational Gamesí place or intention to tell you how you should feel about the Wounded Knee Massacre. It is in the hands of the gamer to piece together the real world moral consequences that Booker had suffered and ultimately how you, the player, feel about them.
At the end of the day and game I am glad that Ken Levine didnít hold my hand through this process. It is one thing for a narrative to be written that tells you how you should feel, but it is a skillful narrative that allows you to feel through the world provided to you. I honestly feel a mutual level of respect with the developers that they feel I am intelligent enough to see their intentions without stopping to constantly remind me how I should feel at any given moment like is commonplace in some games.
I think itís that level of trust that made a moment like this more impactful