Saturday, 4 June 2011

Story and Writing in Games #1 - Bioshock

This is part one of a new series of blogs I feel like making about the story and writing of games. Now that I'm working towards a game project of my own with a small team at university, I'd like to analyse a few games with particularly good writing, ideas or storytelling - so that I have a better idea of the best practices of storytelling in games, and how to help construct a well told narrative myself.

I should probably clarify on that point - I'm not so great at writing stories myself, at least without borrowing too many ideas from stuff I've read or experienced. I might be getting someone to help with the story itself for my own projects. However, the important part I wish to focus on with games is not the story itself, but how that story is told. Since games are an interactive media form, one has to take into account the player being a part of the story rather than just a simple onlooker. It may be acceptable to read in books, and it may be acceptable to view in films, but in games the goal should not be to read or view - but to play.
Space Invaders. One version of it, anyway.

In single player games, story is of great importance, even if it is paper thin. It puts motive behind the player's actions, and a reason to keep playing. The best story is one which creates a hook, appealing to a player's natural human curiosity and their desire to find out what happens next. Even in games like Space Invaders, you may not notice it, but there is a story used to give the player a motive. In the name alone, Space Invaders gives a setting, an antagonist and a player motive. Would the game be as successful if it had been called Spaceship Shooter or some such variant? Perhaps not.

Bioshock is a game which was released in 2007 by 2K Boston (Irrational) and 2K Australia. The game was a spiritual successor to the PC game known as System Shock 2, and shared several story elements with that game. I'm going to be talking about Bioshock today though since a) more people have played it and b) it's the one that I played. Note that there may be significant plot details revealed below - don't read further unless you have finished the game.

Alright, now that we have that spoiler warning out of the way, I'll outline some of the storytelling tropes or devices of Bioshock below, probably not in any sort of structured format. Just to explore some of the good parts of its storytelling, and what could have been improved upon.

1. Player Character Amnesia
In Bioshock, you play the character of Jack. Of course, you don't know this when you start the game - all you know is that a plane crashes over the ocean with you on it, and you end up being the only survivor. You swim towards the closest landmark - a bathysphere which takes you down to the underwater metropolis of Rapture. Thus the game begins.

A plane crash. Remember how or why it happened? Neither does the player character.

Amnesia is a commonly used plot device in games with silent protagonists, or at least with protagonists who don't talk much. The less the designers make the main character talk, the more the player will be able to connect with the character. Since the player doesn't remember the character's past, an easy fix is to give the character amnesia so that not even they can remember their own past. This can lead to some interesting twists in games like Bioshock (and several others which I won't mention since I'm spoiling enough here already) where the character will experience something which causes them (and consequently the player) to remember their past and any other plot points which may be associated with it.

2. Lack of Cutscenes
This has become more common with several first person games today, especially games from Valve like Half Life 2 and Portal. These games avoid taking control away from the player wherever possible since it allows you to connect with the character's actions better - even if the game is guiding you down a set path of what you need to do anyway. You can totally look away from the action of a particular important scene if you want to, but the game makes these scenes compelling enough for you to want to look at what's going on.

Occasionally the game will disable your ability to use weapons during these special scenes so that you can't aim at a special character and kill them before they've made their speech. That breaks the immersion a bit, but not as much as using a cutscene would. In these kinds of first person games the character is portrayed as an extension of the player themselves, so it's important that this feeling be retained as often as possible.

There's nothing else going on in this room, so may as well listen to ol' Andrew here.

3. Storytelling through Audiologs
Scattered across the environment in Bioshock are audio tapes left by the prior inhabitants of Rapture. These audio tapes can reveal anything from details of the Rapture way of life, to important backstory which fills in the gaps of the main plot and can give key clues of exactly what is going on before your confrontation with Andrew Ryan. They were a pretty cool idea, and inspired a few games to take up the same method of storytelling after Bioshock's release. It was a nice alternative to reading text like with the scan-able Pirate/Chozo logs in Metroid Prime, in any case.

However, this isn't to say audio logs were perfect, oh no. Remember, reading of text is a storytelling method suitable for books. Viewing and listening is suitable for film. For games - it's important that the player be a part of the storytelling.

The audio recordings in Bioshock would play as soon as you picked them up, but you could stop them from playing and check back through all of them later in your pause menu if you liked. Listening to them as you played was problematic, though - you would either get distracted by enemies and everything else going on in the world around you, or you would have to find a quiet corner of a level to listen to a log and wait for it to finish playing before continuing on your way. Let's not even think about the question of why every person in Rapture would be recording these logs in the first place.

Audio is a great method of conveying a story in games, don't get me wrong. But it has to be done right - when the player is most likely to have their ears free and when they're in the mood for listening.

I may as well just throw in here that I really liked Bioshock's story in general. Not just the whole Ayn Rand inspired society, but how it commented on games in general. Andrew Ryan's speech on men versus slaves speaks to players of games - it doesn't matter how open the world may seem or how many choices you may get, in the end you're being led down a very specific path to a pre-defined end. Games need more thought-provoking writing like this.

There are a few other small details in Bioshock's story that I could nitpick at if I wanted to, but then I feel like I'd just be talking specifics about spoilers just because I used a spoiler tag. I've already covered the most important parts in any case - in summary:

  • amnesia is a good plot device in games, when used correctly
  • silent protagonists are good for creating a character that the player can paint their own face onto
  • a lack of cutscenes is nice for retaining immersion and keeping the player feeling as if they are in control, at least in first person games
  • audio is a great way to tell story, as long as it's done in the right way

That'll be all for now. Maybe let me know how you felt about this blog post and I'll see whether I want to continue this mini-series later. Thanks for reading!



  1. I enjoyed the potential new mini-series and think it is an important aspect to consider in game design. I agree with several of your points as well, though I think that they are a bit too general. One could argue that anything is good if it is done correctly, but what is difficult I suspect is identifying whether something is "done correctly" while developing it. In bioshock a lot of things worked for the game and most players would agree that the writing is quite enjoyable. But I would suspect that during development a lot of the team feel that what they are doing is going to be great but often it just does not come across that way to the public. Amnesia is often a double-edged sword in my opinion. While I agree that it was decent in Bioshock, I do not think it necessarily think that it added a level of connect between myself and the character nor that the same connection could not have been made through creative or suggestive writing. Though in general, I prefer characters who are vocal rather than silent.

    Another thing I had thought of while reading your article was regarding your statement that video games are meant to be played and that this aspect is important in writing. While I do agree with you to an extent, I do not think that a game requires to be simply "played". I personally grew up with text based games which were very aiken to a "chose your own adventure". Yet this was still playing. Mind you, games have changed a great deal since then, but the point is that I think you can still play a game simply through reading. Earthbound is one of my favorite games and the best aspect of it is reading what the NPCs have to say. As well, playing through the Elder Scrolls series, especially in Oblivion, one enjoyable aspect is sitting down and reading a 50-60 page book found within the game. I remember a podcast on Giantbomb where Vinny had mentioned that in Oblivion, one of his favorite aspects of playing the game was reading the lore and history of that world, as found through these in-game books.

    Regarding the audio-books, I agree in Bioshock that they could have been set up in a better manner. It was always frustrating collecting a data log but being too worried to listen to it because an enemy could sneak up or approach you during it. It would have been nice if all game activity held still during this but then it would break the immersion. So it definitely is a difficult call.

    One aspect that I like about reading your blogs is that they are having me think about aspects of games that I do not actively think about while playing. It definately has given me a greater appreciation for game designers. Considering the numerous difficult variables that a game designer needs to keep in mind during development, it is quite admirable that we have so many great and enjoyable games.

    Have a great E3.


  2. I do get caught up in the lore of games sometimes, I'll admit. I read through all of the scans in Metroid Prime and all of the planet entries in Mass Effect.

    I guess, thinking it over, it's a case of knowing which parts can be text based as bonuses for the players who like to immerse themselves in reading. The core of the story and the important bits still need to be done in a way that can be experienced I think. I can probably blog about this in a bit more depth another time.

    Don't get me wrong, I love a well developed character. Persona 4 is one of my favourite games because of the dynamic between its characters, and each of their personalities. In first person shooters though (and some other genres) I think it's important to make the main character somebody that you want to play. And the easy way out for most developers in this case is just making the protagonist silent, so that the player can easily put themselves in the character's shoes.


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