Exploring BioShock‘s storytelling flaws


What you say? BioShock‘s narrative, one of the deepest and most immersive storylines experienced in a videogame since the conception of the medium, has flaws? Well, yes — a few. Not big, game-ruining flaws, but easily-identifiable ones that, if properly learned from, can tell us a heck of a lot about the difficulties of virtual storytelling.

Don’t get me wrong: I love BioShock more than any other game I’ve played this year (were I to award it a numerical score, you can be assured it would register at around 9.0), and BioShock‘s story is almost immeasurably better than those found in roughly 99% of other games, but a few aspects of BioShock’s narrative have significant problems of their own.

Massive spoilers, questionable plot interpretations, and endless nitpicking will greet you after the jump. Though, that’s not to say you shouldn’t click it.


Cut scenes

Firstly and most superficially, let’s talk about the cut scenes. BioShock only uses three noninteractive cut scenes: one out of necessity, one for brilliant plot and thematic purposes, and one to wrap things up. The first noninteractive cut scene takes place when the player comes across his first Little Sister. A splicer slowly approaches the girl, weapon in hand, until he is suddenly shot from above by Dr. Tenenbaum, who then points the gun at the player. Interactivity is taken away here for simple, purely mechanical reasons: as the player has not yet met a single living person who hasn’t wanted to kill him, his natural reaction would be to immediately attack both the splicer and Tenenbaum, thus screwing up the rhythm of the scene and preventing the player from paying attention to the story details therein. Removing  control for a few minutes alleviates this problem by simply not allowing the player to fire upon Tenenbaum.

Everyone remembers the second cut scene, so I’ll save both of us the effort of going into too much detail — essentially, the player finds out that he has been conditioned to obey any order preceded or followed by the phrase “Would You Kindly,” and therefore has to helplessly watch as Andrew Ryan orders the player to kill him.

Noninteractivity is used brilliantly within the context of the scene: for perhaps the first time in the entire game, the player doesn’t want to kill Andrew Ryan, but Jack’s violent nature and refusal to question his orders are too much and the player is forced to watch, horrified, as he mercilessly and uncontrollably batters Ryan to death. The scene has a few problems (more on those later), but it stands on its own as the single greatest noninteractive cut scene in gaming history. Ever. No single cut scene has ever forced the player to consider the totality of his actions with such ruthless efficiency — Shadow of the Colossus dealt with this on a larger scale, but did so mostly through gameplay. As a storytelling device, noninteractivity is used as a weapon against the player: you don’t want to question why you’re doing what you’re doing? Fine — you’re nothing better than a mindless, robotic slave, and you have essentially given up the human gift of choice. Having control taken away is, within the context of the story, a tangible punishment for accepting things on face value and blindly following orders.  It might be a bit too early to call the scene a work of genius, but never before has the one thing that makes videogaming so unique — interactivity — been exploited and robbed from the player for such a direct and poignant reason.

The only thing I find troublesome about these cut scenes (apart from the ending, which will be discussed later) is the presence of the large, “Hey Everybody, This Is A Cut Scene” black bars on the top and bottom of the screen every time one of them starts up. While in no way obtrusive as far as the delivery of information is concerned, the black bars create a slight rift between player and character: the moments where the player has control and when he doesn’t are very clearly defined, and so watching these cut scenes almost feels as if you are watching someone else go through the on screen motions. Unlike Half-Life, which always keeps the HUD up, thereby giving the player the illusion of control and thereby making player and character one and the same, BioShock’s unnecessary cut scene bars distance player from action.

How much more horrifying would it have been to experience the “a man chooses, a slave obeys” conversation with the HUD still up? Aesthetically, the game tells the player that nothing has changed — you’re still in control, and you’re still you. Suddenly having control robbed from you by due to the implications of the story could have been even more shocking, had there not been an immediate and obvious schism between control and non-control in the form of the black cut scene bars. With the HUD still up and the illusion of control intact, players would have literally fought with their controllers, pushing buttons and pulling triggers, in an attempt to prevent their avatar from murdering Andrew Ryan. The controller’s refusal to obey its master, contradicting the onscreen information which tells the player that he still has some power over his actions, might have potentially made the scene even more horrifying and relevant. The cut scene, while fantastic and poignant and depressing, still feels like a cut scene.


The Audio Logs

Scattered  throughout Rapture by its many and varied citizens, they’re the main method by which story is delivered to the player. The narrative conceit behind the audio logs is deceptively simple: they make the storyline optional. As only a few of the audio logs must be collected in order to advance the plot, the player is allowed to choose how much, if any, background story to listen to. As an experimental storytelling method, the audio logs are totally unique to videogaming as a medium, in the amount of choice they give the player: action-driven gamers who don’t give a rat’s ass about the narrative can plow through Rapture without so much as touching a tape recorder, while those players who wish to delve further into Rapture’s backstory can collect and play every audio log they run into.

As videogaming is a medium of choice and interaction, it only makes sense that the player be allowed to choose how much narrative he or she is exposed to. Hypothetically, the optional audio logs, which can be freely listened to without ever once breaking up the flow of gameplay or taking control away from the player, should be the ultimate way to deliver plot in a videogame.

Hypothetically, anyway.

For as much as I enjoy the audio logs, they’re not perfect. Hell, to be honest, they’re not even close to perfect. Starting with the purely superficial and working our way up, it doesn’t really make a great deal of sense that most of Rapture’s citizens would divulge their hopes, feelings, and locker combinations to audio diaries. I mean, I can buy the idea that the claustrophobic, paranoid ambience of the city might eventually lead its population to put more trust in the hands of a mechanical recording device than their fellow man, but something about the audio diaries still feels rather forced. Perhaps it’s the way that Dr. Suchong’s most important scientific recordings always seem to be lying right out in the open, or maybe it’s how the police chief’s lamentations are randomly strewn about the city with no rhyme or reason — or, most likely, it’s the way that the Paparazzi spends a couple of seconds talking gossip about Fontaine before randomly, needlessly, and inexplicably stating aloud the code to Fontaine’s elevator. People tell their personal secrets to their diaries, yeah, but they usually don’t get that in-depth, you know what I mean? Depressed kids don’t post their bank account numbers on their LiveJournals.

But as I said, that’s all superficial crap, easily swept away by a sufficient ability to suspend one’s disbelief. The much more serious and inescapable problem of the audio logs is also one of the things that makes them so unique: the fact that you don’t have to find all of them.

If all of the information in the audio logs was totally peripheral to the main story, then not finding all of them wouldn’t be a problem. Missing a diary here or a recording there wouldn’t matter in the large scheme of the story because, in the end, the “main” plot (i.e., the story developed visually and through gameplay) will still be independently affecting and functional. Missing a few diaries might leave a few questions unanswered (why Sander Cohen chooses not to attack you, how Dr. Steinman went insane), but the central plot will be just as effective regardless of how many audio recordings you accidentally overlooked.


The problem is that BioShock’s plot simply doesn’t work like that. In order for the main plot to make sense (and, subsequently, evoke an emotional response), there are a few easily missed or misinterpreted audio journals the player almost has to find. I am specifically referring to the journal found in Jasmine Jolene’s bedroom, wherein the player finds out — albeit cryptically and indirectly — that Fontaine paid Jasmine to get pregnant with Andrew Ryan’s baby and then give him the fertilized egg. At the time the player finds this, the implications of Jasmine’s out-of-context monologue shouldn’t be immediately evident so as to not spoil the twist, but the diary should nonetheless be clear enough so that when the player finds his visual family tree later on in the game, he should be able to remember the diary and understand what it means. There is, of course, a short, scripted “ghost” sequence that activates before the player enters Jasmine’s room, but the dialogue spoken within it is even more vague than the easy-to-miss journal found under Jasmine’s bed.

The revelation that you are Andrew Ryan’s son is pleasantly subtle, but perhaps a bit too subtle, considering what the twist actually means for Ryan’s motivations as a character. Instead of trying to kill Jack in some massively overblown boss fight, he outright forces the player to kill him in order to teach a lesson about free will; the “a man chooses, a slave obeys” scene has the potential to be one of the most disturbing, horrifying, and thoughtful moments in all of videogaming, but only if you know why Andrew Ryan is forcing you to kill him. Without the knowledge that you are his son, Ryan’s sudden change in character makes very little sense.

Of course, he makes vague reference to the fact that “now that I know who you are, I cannot raise my hand against you,” but this comes from the same guy who spent the last few hours threatening to kill the player and mount him as a decoration who would one day serve as nothing more than a curiosity for the future citizens of a refurbished Rapture. Ryan seems like an insane, murderous bastard who relishes the idea of crushing his enemies, and his suicide only makes sense if the player knows Ryan is his father.  If you missed the audio diary in Jasmine’s bedroom and were subsequently unable to connect the dots, this scene (while still shocking, if only for the “Would You Kindly” revelation) just doesn’t work on the level it needs to. Hell, many gamers I know of did find Jasmine’s audio diary, but still had a hard time putting the pieces together until after completing the game: I can only imagine that deciphering the clues without the diary would be damn near impossible.


Mise en Scene

As countless reviewers and gamers have said over the past few weeks, the world of Rapture is a truly living one: simply walking through the corridors and looking at the architecture of the underground city can tell you almost as much, if not more, about Rapture’s civil war than even the audio diaries can. Inside Fontaine’s Home for Little Sisters, for instance, the player finds all manner of instructional material aimed at turning the little girls into ADAM-harvesting automatons. The orphanage is filled with instructional posters (the most disturbing of which illustrates a dead body, with the helpful-yet-innocuous label of “ANGEL”), but perhaps the most brilliant storytelling prop in the orphanage — hell, in the entire game — is the food dispenser. 

Upon entering one of the training rooms in the orphanage, the player comes across a large machine with two monitors with large, red buttons, each attached a wide-mouthed tube. The first screen depicts a minimalist illustration of a large man in a diving suit, while the second shows a drawing of an average-looking housewife. Pressing the button connected to the diving suit monitor results in a bag of potato chips falling out of the tube, but press the button attached to the mother figure and BZZZT — the player experiences an electrical shock.  Then, suddenly, it hits you — this feeding machine was used to condition the Little Sisters into distrusting their mothers and attaching themselves to the Big Daddies, at the risk of physical violence. Without any character in the game saying a single word, without one noninteractive cut scene, an important and devastating plot point has just been conveyed to the player. Two of my all-time favorite films (Blade Runner and Children Of Men) also use this storytelling style — I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it’s brilliant, and we need to see more of it within the realm of videogaming.

All of that said, however, improvements can most certainly be made. The intrinsic challenge of telling a story with a major plot twist (or, in the case of BioShock, multiple plot twists) is, unsurprisingly, to make sure the audience doesn’t guess what the twist is before it actually happens.  But as BioShock is a game that suggests the player investigate his surroundings and draw his own conclusions from them, objects and clues that might be subtle to the point of nigh-invisibility in a lesser work — say, an unusual advertisement or a misplaced theatre flyer — is called to direct attention by the discerning player who makes an effort to analyze his surroundings. In the same way that the audio logs mucked up the “You are Ryan’s son” twist, the mise en scene spoils the “Atlas is Fontaine” twist once the player makes it to Fort Frolic.


Throughout the first half of the game, Atlas urges you to save his wife, Moira, and his son, Patrick, both of whom have been ostensibly waiting in an inactive bathysphere since your arrival. At the game’s halfway point, however, Patrick and Moira both go boom, conveniently removing them from the story and giving you, the player, more reason to wish for Ryan’s death. Once you get to Fleet Hall in Fort Frolic, however, a seemingly-harmless poster totally unravels Atlas’s story. Earlier in the game, the player sees advertisements for Sander Cohen’s abysmal plays (“Bedtime Surprise,” “The Happy Chappy”), but inside Fleet Hall, the player finds a new poster: “Patrick and Moira,” a love story by Sander Cohen.

There are two or three of the posters sprinkled throughout Fort Frolic, and the title is printed quite large and legibly; if you’re the sort of player who has taken great pleasure in exploring Rapture and deciphering the visual clues (and I truly hope you are), then the Patrick and Moira poster should stick out like a sore thumb, as should the spoilers that accompany it: Sander Cohen wrote a play about two characters and Atlas’s family just happen to share the same names of the titular characters, thus meaning that Atlas’s entire story has been a lie and he is therefore your enemy. There isn’t a direct link between Atlas and Fontaine this early in the story, but it doesn’t take an astrophysicist to assume that a heavily hyped character like Fontaine would really be dead.

Knowing the outcome of the twist certainly adds more weight to the “Would You Kindly” twist (if you knew Atlas was crooked, why did you keep playing?), but it also takes all the oomph out of the moment when Atlas finally drops the act and reveals himself as Fontaine. The beautifully descriptive mise en scene works against the story in this instance: BioShock suggests that players closely examine their visual surroundings to gain a deeper understanding of Rapture’s history, but doing so spoils one of the biggest surprises in the game.

Of course, I could be wrong on all these counts: the player’s connection to Ryan could have been immediately evident after finding the conditioning room (though if it was, I’d ask why ShackNews wasted a question by asking Ken Levine for clarification) and the vast majority of players could have missed the “Patrick and Moira” poster and been totally blown away by the Fontaine revelation.


The Branching Plot

Firstly, I love branching plots. I absolutely adore the idea that both gameplay and narrative can be affected by the choices of the player — even in crappy titles like True Crime: Streets of LA, I still had a hell of a lot of fun just playing around with the multiple plotlines and endings.

However, branching plots, in order to be effective and enjoyable, have to make sense.

BioShock has two different plot paths which, while they share nearly identical gameplay (save for the amount of ADAM and different plasmids you get), result in two different endings. In the first, the player is a saint who saves most of the Little Sisters he comes across and eventually lets them out into the world; in the second, the player kills most of the Little Sisters and, in the end, enslaves them and turns Rapture into a nuclear superpower.

Now, ignoring the weird moral extremes of those two paths (a point which has already been brilliantly discussed by Zero Punctuation), one of these paths — specifically, the evil one — makes absolutely no sense in regards to how it works within the main narrative.

In both paths, Dr. Tenenbaum rescues Jack after he kills Ryan and inadvertently puts Fontaine in charge of Rapture. She nurses him back to health, removes his psychic conditioning, and uses her orphans to help Jack reach his ultimate goal of destroying Fontaine. Now, if up to this point the player has saved most of the Little Sisters and therefore shown himself to be a decent guy, Tenenbaum’s decision to save him makes sense: the player will de-throne Fontaine and set the girls free, so Tenenbaum has no reason not to help Jack on his quest for revenge.

If, however, the player has taken a great deal of enjoyment out of greedily killing Little Sisters in an effort to become as powerful as humanly possible, then why the hell would Tenenbaum let this guy live? Having lived in Rapture for years, she’s obviously not naïve enough to think that the player will simply have a change of heart and turn into a good guy (in the “bad” ending, she goes so far as to say that she expected the player to act immorally). One might argue that Tenenbaum’s hatred for Fontaine has blinded her to any goal other than seeing Fontaine dead, even if at the hands of another power-hungry megalomaniac in the form of the player, but this interpretation cheapens the remorse Tenenbaum feels over what she’s done to the Little Sisters, and her attempt to redeem herself by protecting and sheltering them. If Tenenbaum really cared about her children and felt sorry for the way she treated them (as she obviously does), why would she be willing to send so many of her girls to help a guy who would sooner kill them than show a hint of kindness toward them?

At one point as the player escorts a Little Sister through a gauntlet of enemies, Tenenbaum tells the player, “Better for the girls to be with you. Better to be with you than alone, in the crawling darkness.” Really? Does the “crawling darkness” rip open their stomachs, devour their life force, and kill them? ‘Cause, you know, I tend to do that.


The Ending

Chances are, you know exactly what I’m going to say already. Literally everyone I have talked to about BioShock’s conclusion has shared many of my own irritations. The disappointingly easy final boss and the far-too-brief denouement are problems that any gamer can figure out for themselves, so I won’t bother going into them too deeply; the oddly noninteractive aspect of the epilogue, however, warrants a second glance.

Both endings are purely noninteractive, prerendered cut scenes. Why? Why, in a game that has forced us to reconsider the implications of noninteractivity and submission and passivity, should the ending be delivered in such a painfully generic, noninteractive fashion? Throughout the rest of the game, cut scenes are either intentionally avoided or inserted for a clear, important purpose. To convey the ending through a cinematic for no legitimate reason seems unnecessary and self-defeating.

I understand that both epilogues involve massive jumps in time (in the “good” ending, we go from 1960 to 2000 within a few minutes, and the “bad” ending starts with a literal army of splicers heading to the surface after an undetermined amount of time), but that doesn’t automatically mean that they can’t include the slightest bit of interactivity. After spending so much time in the underwater darkness, wouldn’t have been incredibly satisfying to reach the surface of the water, in the first person, and see the sun shine for the first time in the entire game? To see, with the eyes of your character, the Little Sisters or the Splicers emerge from the bathyspheres into a world completely new and alien to them? To experience the very things Jack experiences in the cut scenes, but from his literal perspective? The final shot of the “good” ending involves the hands of all the Little Sisters, grown up, grasping Jack’s hand in his last moments of life. How heart-breakingly poignant would it have been to have seen the world through Jack’s eyes right then?

To deliver all this information through a cut scene is not only totally incongruous with every storytelling device used in the game up to this point, but also dramatically inefficient.

Don’t Send Me Hate Mail

In no way would I suggest that these story flaws are absolute and universal, and I still consider BioShock one of my favorite games of all time; my simple hope is that, in addition to analyzing what makes BioShock such an intensely satisfying narrative experience, we can also learn from some of its potential missteps.

So, what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Find a flaw I missed, or misstated, or was just plain wrong about? Hit the comments.

Anthony Burch