I recently joined the year 2007 and finally played through BioShock. I had been looking forward to playing the game because it was one of those special titles that garnered critical acclaim while also sparking critical analysis. While the argument over BioShock's ludonarrative dissonance is well worn, it did not move me in any particular way. Instead, I think the game's most important achievement is its use of tackling common video game tropes with its narrative.
Although it employs some of the biggest video game cliches, BioShock dispatches them uniquely and effectively. By using its narrative to co-opt gameplay tropes, BioShock lessens their dissonant effects.
While the necessity of this warning is currently being debated, I still think I should warn folks that there will be major plot spoilers in this post.
Video games succeed as entertainment and art because players are willing to suspend their disbelief. If a player questioned any given game character's counter-intuitive actions, the number of logical holes to fall through would render most games unplayable. Why would the knight in Ironsword eat strange meat that he found in a treasure box? How can Faith fall fifty stories to her doom, and then be revived instantly for another go? How does what's-her-face from Heavenly Sword survive in battle wearing a piece from the slave-Leia collection?
BioShock has a multitude of similarly ridiculous absurdities. Instead of spurning them or finding new gameplay mechanics in which to avoid them, the game's narrative creates a universe in which the aforementioned absurdities make sense. Here are a few big examples that jumped out at me:
The Vita Chamber
The Trope: The vita chambers serve as BioShock's continue and spawning system. Games traditionally implement some kind of system to dole out punishment while also showing the player mercy if they fail. After all, most games would not work narrotologically nor mechanically if the player had to start all the way over every time they "died."
The Narrative Solution: The vita chambers are not continue screens, they are cloning cylinders. In actuality, every time the player dies, a new protagonist is being created. This sidesteps the dissonance of a "game over" screen and also explains why enemies retain their damage and ammo remains spent after the player dies. The conventional "continue" system fits with Rapture's logic.
The Trope: Psychos enemies wearing strange costumes are nothing new.
The Narrative Solution: The story is set in a world where most of the people are essentially drug junkies. Because of their addiction, they spiral into madness while also being manipulated byFontaine. The masks make them especially creepy while staying logical within the game's story: Fontaine released an army of Splicers during a new Year's Eve masquerade ball. If one can suspend disbelief enough to believe a city could be built underwater, drug addiction and class warfare are hardly logical leaps.
The Trope: Players often force a game's main character to take preposterous actions. However, neither the player nor NPCs blink when the protagonist ingests medicine found on the floor, becomes proficient with military grade weapons, and unquestioningly follows the advice of random townspeople.
The Narrative Solution: Jack's genetic modification and behavioral conditioning not only explain his malleability, but also awaken the player to their own complaisant attitude. Although I saw Atlus ' betrayal coming a mile away, I found the back-story behind his ability to control Jack highly believable in the context of the story. More importantly, it demonstrated to me how much faith I put in the information NPCs provide me, as well as the ludicrous behavior I act out while controlling a virtual character.
My first thought when I saw Jack inject his initial vial of Eve was "Hmmm...that can't be sanitary....Well, whatever; it's a video game." I had been conditioned accept the absurdity in a game and was prepared to simply accept that Jack's motivations and my actions were dissonant with reality. BioShock's story demonstrates that dissonance can be overcome even when employing gameplay and story elements that have been historically beholden to the suspension of disbelief.
While it is laudable to engineer new ways of playing games to prevent the reliance on stale tropes, BioShock stands as an example of how a story can revitalize and utilize common game conventions. By taking care to construct a narrative with consistent logic, BioShock creatively wields ancient cliches as tools in the creation of an immersive experience.