I’ve been playing Bioshock Infinite lately, and while I’m not a big fan of FPS games and haven’t played any of the previous Bioshock games, I have found it immensely enjoyable so far. My wife has even requested I only play it while she’s watching, so she can enjoy the unfolding story, and that’s got to be a mark of something special, right?
The last game I enjoyed this much in terms of story was probably the Mass Effect series. Still haven’t played the third game and have no plans to. But the previous two remain among my favorite game experiences ever. Not for the gameplay, which is fairly standard cover-based shooting, but for the feeling of entering a larger universe and taking part in an epic story. Mass Effect is notable for its choice-based gameplay, where you design your character from scratch, choose a few particulars of their background, and get to actually shape the outcome of the story by how your character reacts throughout.
Bioshock Infinite, on the other hand, doesn’t have many choices to make. Your character is preset. Your path is mostly predetermined, and there’s little you can do to change the course of the story. Yet this doesn’t bother me at all, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why it would bother anyone. Ninety-nine percent of all fiction is without choice. It is an experience. No matter how many time you read or reread Moby Dick, Ahab and the whale do not ever reconcile.
I get that video games are an “interactive” medium, but that just means that progressing through a video game requires more personal effort than other mediums. I can’t progress through Bioshock Infinite without occasionally getting into a gunfight. But at the end, it’s like a movie with a mostly preset course and I’m along for the ride.
And this is often how it should be. I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books (and their lesser known competitors Twist-A-Plot). The only epic fantasy series I’ve actually read was the Lone Wolf series of Choose Your Own Adventure style stories. I wouldn’t want that with every story I was told. Or even most.
The fact is that choice doesn’t really work for fiction. The big reason I didn’t play the final Mass Effect game was that I had no interest in any of the endings they wanted to give me. The dilemma is that, in the end, Mass Effect becomes like any other fiction. The ending was never really decided by me. I was only there to nudge it in a few directions.
In a game like Bioshock Infinite, there’s no such illusion. You can’t make any major decisions. Every so often, a minor choice will come along, and it will probably affect the end of the game, but it seems like a small concession to those players who want to feel as if they are in control. I couldn’t care less about such moments in this game because I’m cool with the story the game wants to give me.
The question I ask myself is just how important is choice in an interactive medium like video games and how much does choice conflict with telling a good story? Not being a game designer, but a professional novelologist, I can tell you that most people are pretty bad storytellers. I tell stories well because I DON’T ASK what the audience wants. But if I asked, I’d be obliged to give it to them, wouldn’t I?
This is why I’ve avoided Mass Effect 3 for fear of being reminded that I am not creating a story with the game. I’m just along for the ride, and while there might have been a few detours along the way, it was all destined to go one way and my choices were largely meaningless. It’s why, if Mass Effect is the magnum opus of Choose Your Own Adventure genre, then it ultimately displays the strengths and weaknesses of the genre.
Bioshock Infinite is more traditional interactive storytelling. I push buttons to progress through the story, but it’s agreed from the start that the path is preset. The ending might be awesome. It might stink. But my opinion won’t be shaped by the illusion that I shaped it beyond walking the hero through it. In a way, that seems more satisfying. I don’t want false choices. I want a good story. If it should have choices along the way, I guess I won’t complain, but if I agonize over a course of action and it ultimately means nothing, then why did I bother?
I still love the Mass Effect games, but Bioshock Infinite demonstrates a truth to me that fiction usually works best when the audience observes without participating. Often even with interactive media.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,