I finally dove into “BioShock Infinite” last weekend, months after seemingly everyone else had played their way throughout the blockbuster game that was released in March. As I raced through it over a few bleary-eyed, hours-long sessions, I got sucked into not only the gameplay, but also the vivid, terrifying world that Quincy-based Irrational Games had created. “BioShock Infinite” takes place in the early 20th century in Columbia, a giant floating city run by a white-supremacist cult that worships the Founding Fathers like gods.
“BioShock Infinite” is going to take home its fair share of Game of the Year awards in December, and I can see why: It offers up some remarkable moments (it’s hard to forget bruising battles against motorized robotic George Washingtons). The glowing reviews have also honed in on the narrative, which begins as the relatively straightforward story of a private investigator as he searches for a captive woman in Columbia, then takes a series of surprising zigs and zags dealing with everything from labor uprisings to quantum mechanics to fundamental questions about identity and redemption.
But the story, I realized with disappointment as I reached the game’s conclusion, isn’t quite what it should be. Sure, the game reaches the level of a Hollywood blockbuster in that it is visually stunning and memorable, with some strong performances (voice acting, in this case). But for all its ambitions, it doesn’t reach the superlative level expected from the prerelease hype. The story is flawed in the same way that stories of many big-budget movies are: The characters are rather flat and the action is driven more by plot gimmicks (in this case, to be fair, some of them interesting and thought-provoking) than by genuine emotional resonance. When a character changes, it seems more a convenient contrivance to drive the plot forward than an organic occurrence.
“BioShock Infinite” had just about everything going for it: a big budget, the momentum of one previous entry in the series (“BioShock”) that some regard as one of the best games ever made and another (“BioShock 2”) that was well-received in its own right, as well as a creative team that is obviously intelligent, well-read, and politically and morally engaged. So why did its story fall short? Does this have more to do with the medium than with the game itself? Are we wrong to expect games to tell great stories?
A pair of recent articles written by John Walker, a writer for the gaming site Rock, Paper, Shotgun, serve as an excellent entree to this question, and to the broader debate over storytelling in video games. In the first, he argued that gaming as a medium is “doing a pretty poor job” of storytelling, and that “perhaps it’s time for us all to just accept that games aren’t ever going to be home to classic works of literature — it’s not what they’re for, and it’s not what they’re ever going to achieve.”
The next day, he published a self-rebuttal. Gaming, he insisted, “is home to a completely new form of storytelling, and one that is perhaps more potent and powerful than any other.” In other words, there’s no medium that can so effectively and viscerally pull people in and make them part of the story itself. Playing is more active and engaging than watching or reading.
Ultimately, storytelling in gaming works differently than in any other medium. Some — maybe most — games still stick to a linear story with a beginning, middle, end, and all the other standard literary-chronological niceties. But many other games either have a thin linear narrative or none at all. Typically, they’re open-world or “sandbox” games that let the player more or less go wherever and do whatever they want within certain constraints (“Grand Theft Auto IV,” “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” and “Minecraft” are all examples of these genres, though the first two also have story lines that the player can weave in and out of).
Developers of open-world and sandbox games (sandbox games allow for more player creation and modification of the terrain, characters, and challenges, while in open-world games the gameplay landscape is a bit more fixed) are more concerned with empowering players to create memorable moments on their own. The “Minecraft” players who created a giant replica of the continent of Westeros from “Game of Thrones,” or the “GTA IV” player who somehow survives an epic police chase that has him racing from one end of Liberty City to the other — these are the sorts of rewards designers of sandbox games have in mind.
It doesn’t make much sense to say that one approach to storytelling in gaming is “better” than the other. This was in evidence during a panel about storytelling in gaming held at the Rezzed indie gaming convention in Birmingham, England, last weekend.
During the panel, Dean Hall, who created the popular “DayZ” zombie mod for the open-world game “ARMA2,” said that sometimes, “I’m not looking for a committed relationship with a game, I’m looking for a fling.” Yes, if you want to jump into “GTA IV” and drive around blowing things up for an hour, story will just bog you down. Humans will always love complex tales that take a while to unspool, but we also love shorter-term spurts of adrenaline, humor, or teamwork — the kinds of thrills certain games are perfectly designed to provide.
What it comes down to is that we still have a tendency to view “games” as a monolithic entity, and to try to apply criteria from other media to them — criteria that don’t always fit. In the case of a game like “BioShock Infinite,” which clearly aims to tell a Hollywood-esque story, critics have every right to demand fleshed-out characters and thoughtful plot points. But part of what makes gaming wonderful is that it satisfies so many interests. Sometimes we want stories, sometimes we just want a few moments of fun. Video games, more than any other medium, can give us both.Jesse Singal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.