Alexandra is a first year PhD student in the English department at the University of Waterloo and a copy-editor at First Person Scholar. Her research interests include narrative theory and game studies. More specifically, she hopes to treat video games as literary text to examine the change from literary to digital narrative.
This article is the first in an on-going series on ludonarrative cohesion in videogames. The purpose of the series is to create a lexicon for discussing interactions between narrative and gameplay mechanics. If you’re interested in contributing to this series, check out our About/Submissions page. In this inaugural installment the author will be examining Bioshock: Infinite as a case study for ludonarrative dissonance.
Clint Hocking coins the term, “ludonarrative dissonance”, where the player’s input in a game conflicts with an established element of the game itself. These problems are often encountered in AAA blockbuster videogame titles which attempt to create serious and compelling narratives yet, follow strict generic and mechanical formulae known to players.
Hocking’s theory proves to be a useful starting point for examining cohesion between play and narrative but it can be extended and provocatively complicated. For instance, the narrative theory of Uri Margolin, who discusses complications surrounding hybrid characters, can extend our reading of multi-layered, dissonant characters like BioShock: Infinite’s Booker DeWitt. Furthermore, cultural theorists such as Homi Bhabha and Stam and Shohat can help clarify Infinite’s issues regarding representations of nationhood, race, identity, and politics–and how those representations are at odds with the actions of the player-character.
Between Character & Player
Moral decisions in videogames such as Mass Effect, Fallout 3, Deus Ex (and so on) often require the player to consider the practicality of their choice in the game world (“will releasing this murderer give me a good reward?”), and their own ethical standard (“will the murderer kill an innocent?”), which may also contrast with the player character’s moral compass. Narrative theorist Uri Margolin explains the conflict that exists with “hybrid characters,” which include multiple or conflicting traits caused by the relationship of that character between the writer and/or the reader. “The problem becomes insurmountable when such a hybrid individual occurs in a realistic setting – which in principle does not admit the possibility of crossing species boundaries” (Margolin 74-75). Margolin reveals that characters can break down in a narrative that does not support their dualities. The same, can be applied to videogame characters who because they are controlled by a player, are never completely autonomous. According to Margolin, narrative theory is not adequate for defining virtual characters completely, since the rules of a digital world cannot apply to those which function in a purely novelistic world.
The hybrid character relies on the user to make the character come to life; a book must be read, a game must be played for its audience to psychologically construct their impression of the character in their minds. Dissonance disrupts construction when suspension of disbelief is unable to be maintained. BioShock: Infinite’s decision making and combat system, both which rely on the player’s input, along with the passive narrative elements of the game conflate thematically and straight up contradict one another and thus, prevent Brooker from being a developed character.
Booker, like the player, is introduced to the world of Columbia as an outsider. When the player explores Columbia, Booker will comment on things they look at, or read signs. In the early parts of the game, the player and Booker are aligned as one because his job is to search for Elizabeth and the player’s job is to search and explore the game world. Without any of Booker’s backstory revealed at this point in the game, there is little to no distinction between the player and the player-character. As the game progresses and the player begins to travel through multiple worlds through Elizabeth’s “tears” into other dimensions, it is discovered that Booker is an alternate world materialization of Father Comstock, leader of the white supremacist, religious group, The Founders who is the primary antagonistic force in the game. After he is deemed a war hero during Wounded Knee, the Booker that is controlled by the player turns to drinking to forget about his mass murdering, while Father Comstock turns to religion. I do not have space in this paper to go into the complexities of the time travel and multiple worlds, but the takeaway is that Booker has committed heinous racially motivated violence and is severely remorseful of it. In Comstock’s reality, he attempts to justify his actions under the guise of religious doctrine.
Throughout the game, Booker and the player become detached as the game may dictate actions for the player to make that, based on his backstory, Booker might not. Hocking describes the distancing experience when playing the first BioShock game, “The leveraging of the game’s narrative structure against its ludic structure all but destroys the player’s ability to feel connected to either”. The same holds true for Infinite as Booker uses a weapon called the sky-hook, which the player can use to travel throughout the game world but also to grind off an enemy’s face. This kind of severe, over-the-top violence is typical of mature-rated videogames, but does not make sense as an action Booker would make as a man haunted by past transgressions. Violence is an intrinsic part of the FPS genre, but combined with BioShock: Infinite’s story and characters, the formula does not fit.
Homi Bhabha’s discussion of nation and identity can help explicate this relationship between the narrator/player and the player character. He states that, “This narrative inversion or circulation which is in the spirit of my splitting of the people makes untenable any supremacist, or nationalist claims to cultural mastery, for the position of narrative control is neither monocular or [sic] monologic” (301). Bhabha’s theory applies to Infinite’s Columbia, a floating microcosm, isolated but not ideologically removed from the joys and plights of humanity. As a nation, it is a multi-faceted subject that cannot be observed at a surface level as defined by its culture, language, people and so on is complex. So too is the videogame which is designed to be played by people of varying age, gender identification and cultural background who all experience the same narrative. Players live in a digital world, similar to that of the nation with established rules and roles they must take up. It is necessary to split the narrator in any videogame because the player and the game world work together to shape the experience of the game.
The game world also has to appeal to and accommodate the choices of a mass audience, so for Booker to question his violent acts would take away from the experience that many players expect from the player character in an FPS game. Ultimately, because BioShock: Infinite is a blockbuster videogame title of the FPS genre, players go into the game with pre-set expectations of their experience in the game (especially since this game is the third in a trilogy of games) and diverting from that model would be a financial risk. By splitting the player from the identity of Booker, the game gains complete control of narrative and character development. With this assumed control, players have the potential of feeling powerless, in a world in which they assumed they might have control in. Violent acts drive the narrative, there is no other options that are accommodated in the game world. The game works towards it’s theme of lack of agency by presenting players with choices that ultimately have the same consequences despite the fact that players may assume that “choice” is synonymous with “agency”.
Dissonance of Identity Politics
Not only does the game suffer from character/player dissonance, but in turn also creates dissonance between the competing ideologies in Columbia. BioShock: Infinite creates ideological binaries between the Founders and the Vox Populi, a resistance group comprised of racial and economic minorities, with Booker falling directly in between, not as a mediator, but as a passive observer. About half-way through the game, the player is given a “choice” to jump through Elizabeth’s “tear” to another dimension with unknown consequences. The player’s airship is hijacked by Daisy Fitzroy, leader of the Vox Populi, and is forced to help with her revolution to get it back. The player must traverse the underbelly of Columbia, where the minorities are forced to labour and live in the slums. The game presents the workers in a sympathetic light, a prominent example is when Elizabeth gives food to a small child hiding in the dark.
The quests the player must complete during this time in the game suggests an alliance will be formed between Booker and Daisy to take down the oppressive Founders from the bottom up. When an important character in relation to the quest is found out to be dead, Elizabeth proposes to enter another dimension. Harnessing the power of time travel without being able to use it at will is another frustrating dissonant moment in the game. The player ultimately makes the decision as to when the travel is initiated because they must jump through the “tear”, but choice is once again an illusion as there are no other possible decisions that can be made. In the new dimension, the physical world stays the same, but the revolution has now turned into civil war and Booker is used as a cult of personality to fuel the workers. The Vox have begun using children as messengers and are killing civilians. In the dimension Booker and Elizabeth travel to, he is a hero of the revolution but to avoid the war, the couple dispel any allegiances to either the Vox or the Founders, fighting both groups to escape. Players are literally forced to turn their gun on the very group they were fighting for in the previous section.
During this point in the game, there is no longer a clear single enemy to defeat or goal for the player to accomplish. The notion that “everyone is evil in their own way” eliminates any potential for political discourse within the narrative of the game. Daisy also becomes increasingly vicious and threatens to kill a child, forcing Elizabeth to kill her. Thus the game eliminates the dynamic between oppressors and the oppressed within Columbia by turning Daisy into a ruthless villain. Stam and Shohat address the results of a racist society amongst the victims:
In a systemically racist society, no one is exempt from a hegemonic racist discourse, including the victims of racism. Racism thus “trickles down” and circulates laterally; oppressed people can perpetuate the hegemonic system by scapegoating one another “sideways,” in a manner ultimately benefiting those at the top of the hierarchy (19).
BioShock: Infinite’s projection of a systemically racist society does not completely coincide with Stam and Shohat’s description. The Vox do not break down and scapegoat within their group but instead, break down the group completely. The organized revolutionaries end up becoming violent anarchists with Daisy getting killed due to the blind rage of the uprising. Daisy claims that “[Booker] just complicates the narrative” referring to Booker’s alternative timeline involvement in the uprising, but interestingly enough, is also pertinent to the fact that the central political struggle in the game does not align with the path of the main character. Although the Vox react violently to their oppressors, the game portrays the backlash similarly to the exhibits in the Hall of Heroes, a museum that depicts Columbia’s triumphs in the Boxer Rebellion and Wounded Knee. The minority becomes a threat to the innocents, such as women and children, an image which is used in the Hall of Heroes to spurn hate, fear and resentment. Booker, a character who states in a Voxophone that he, “burnt the teepees with the squaws inside” to gain acceptance from the Founders is eventually aligned in the middle of the extremist groups.
A character so politically charged as Booker does not belong in the middle of conflict that he is directly involved in. BioShock: Infinite contains a sophisticated videogame narrative through its conflicting political groups, yet prevents the player from engaging with Founder or Vox ideology. The game changes what was originally a dynamic between the oppressors and the oppressed, and made them two sides of the same coin. Although the Vox are portrayed as marginalized and sympathetic, they turn evil to accommodate the player, who kills everyone in sight; a murderer with the inability to comprehend the true conflict at hand. The consequences of this narrative decision is a simplified, problematic representation of class conflict and a disconnection between the identity of the player and the player-character.
Although the themes of free-will and lack of player agency are common elements of the BioShock series, I would argue that it is an inherent problem with the FPS genre as opposed to BioShock: Infinite alone. “All the killing is really only required for a game to be fun if what you’re making is a shooter or other action game,” writes Daniel Sims in BioShock Infinite, Ludonarrative Dissonance, and ‘Next-gen Game Design’ “and those genres weren’t really made for deep storylines”. How can FPS games with engaging stories and characters be made when mass killings is always at the forefront? AAA videogame titles work towards achieving the highest possible sales by sticking to tried and true formulas of the genre and even brainwashing. Consumers being accustomed to the formula, accuse games that attempt to experiment with the first-person genre such as Gone Home and Dear Esther of not being games at all.
It will require an open mind from consumers and encouragement for new developers to reinvent genres. The line between player and player character will conflict, but with game technology advancing and narratives become more sophisticated, the two will be more indistinguishable. BioShock: Infinite shows that games have the potential to include sophisticated narratives in a diverse, reality-based world. The game attempts to present players with important questions of race, nationalism and agency but falls short of a nuanced critique. I hope that in the future, games will include engaging, socially responsible narratives that complement exciting gameplay.
Bhabha, Homi K. “DisseminNation: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modern Nation.” Nation and Narration. London: Routledge, 1990. 291-322. Web.
Hocking, Clint. “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock.” Click Nothing. N.p., 07 Oct. 2007. Web.
Irrational Games. Bioshock: Infinite. 2K Games, 2013. PC.
Margolin, Uri. “Character.” The Cambridge Companion to Narrative. Ed. David Herman. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. 66-79. Print.
Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. “From Eurocentrism to Polycentrism.” Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. London ; New York: Routledge, 1994. 13-54. Web.
Sims, Daniel. “BioShock Infinite, Ludonarrative Dissonance, and ‘Next-gen Game Design’”. VentureBeat. N.p., 1 May 2013. Web.
Stark, Chelsea. “Morality and the Illusion of Choice in ‘Bioshock Infinite'” Mashable. 27 Feb. 2013. Web.