“A man chooses… a slave obeys. A man CHOOSES… a slave OBEYS.”
-The last words of Andrew Ryan.
Playing through Bioshock this week, my focus was on space and its relationship to narrative. Furthermore, I examined the connection between the journey of the character through space and the amount of choice the player has.
With continued gameplay, the player can discover what sort of space the gameplay simulates. Manovitch’s text gives rise to the idea that the space is reminiscent of the archetype of the hero’s journey. In the circular journey, the hero embarks on a journey, encounters trials and tribulations, and emerges a changed man. Manovitch states, “…as these heroes move through space, defeating enemies, acquiring resources, and, more importantly, skill, they are ‘building character'” (Manovitch). We can look at the journey of Jack through Rapture(or rather, the player moving Jack through the fictional world) as one that reveals the narrative in the game.
Jenkins illustrates the four types of environmental narratives. The two that are most relevant to the gameplay of Bioshock are enacted narrative and embedded narrative. While differing, they both share a close relationship with the movement of the player through space. Enacted narratives are those that are placed intentionally by the game designers. “”The story itself is structured around the character’s movement though space & the features of the environment may accelerate that plot trajectory” (Jenkins). As the player moves from one place to another, the narrative progresses. Jack walks through Rapture, receiving directions from Atlas. Entering rooms, encountering characters, completing quests,–Jack’s continued exploration leads to the player’s enlightenment regarding the story arc of the game. Without the player moving Jack through the game, the player would not know who Jack is, where he is going, and what his goals are. Jack comes across certain obstacles that have been laid out by the game designer for a certain purpose. These obstacles help to ensure Jack keeps moving along his ‘hero’s journey’.
The embedded narratives hold a different purpose. The game designers provide the player with clues; returning to Abbot’s text, the embedded narratives are supplementary events, or events that are not required to further the story along. Instead of space as a facilitator of the narrative, space behaves as data storage. In this sense, space is used to hold information that allows the player to have a better understanding of the fictional world. Through gameplay, the player gets to learn about the characters that he or she is unable to control in Bioshock. For example, the player finds radio recordings that illustrates the perspective of several other characters in Rapture besides Jack. The information these recordings provide is entirely optional to the player. The player could, if they chose to do so, ignore all of the recordings. It would not change the plot trajectory, as the story would continue moving along its plane.
Regarding the rise and fall of the Rapture: the player gradually learns about the creation of the city by Andrew Ryan, and the conflict between Ryan and Fontaine. Is this knowledge an enacted narrative or an embedded narrative? I say it is an embedded narrative. This information is not necessary to guide Jack on his journey from point A to point B. Sans the back-story that is gradually revealed, the player could still engage in a game, “Move Jack through the city and kill Splicers as you go.” It is the supplementary information that assists in the creation of the fictional space in which the game takes place.
Returning back to the hero’s journey, can it be applicable to Jack? Jack is on a journey in the game of Bioshock; it is this journey, as mentioned, that reveals the enacted narrative. Jack’s call to adventure begins with his plane crash, his transformation instated by his injection of the EVE hypo at the insistence of his ‘mentor’ Atlas. Facing the splicers, Jack overcomes various obstacles. It is with the encounter with the Big Daddy that Jack has arrived at the abyss. The player is seemingly given a choice. Jack can continue on his hero’s journey and save the Little Sisters as he refuses to succumb to corruption. Jack receives the gift of the ‘goddess’ Dr. Tenenbaum, and returns to the surface world.
Conversely, Jack can harvest the Little Sisters for ADAM, thus embarking on the journey of the anti-hero. In an article for “The Writer’s Store,” James Bonnet describes this journey: “The goal of the anti-hero is to take possession of an entity and redirect it toward goals that fulfill its own desires and needs, which is to accumulate, control and enjoy everything it needs to satisfy its insatiable cravings for sense objects, security, wealth and territory” (Bonnet).
It would seem that the player is given the control of Jack’s fate as a hero or anti-hero. As I mentioned in a previous post: “With a video game, the story line, the sequence of events, has already been created by the video game designers. The road to this goal is determined by the player, but guided by the event triggers, actionable objects, and the constituent events that move the game forward.” The player has no choice over the enacted narrative. When they make the decision to engage in game play, they are drawn in to the world and can either follow the trajectory laid before them, or quit the game. The split trajectory of Bioshock (saving or harvesting the Little Sisters) is one that has already been created by the game designers. It is not as if it is imagined by the player; the player is given a choice… but one in which the end result has already been determined. The entire point of this is to create the illusion of choice.
So, on a final note: Is the player a man… or a slave to the video game?