Thursday, February 10, 2011

Portal and BioShock

I love to talk about Portal and BioShock together because I think they are great for the same reason. It's not the dry humor of GladOS, the moral quandary of harvesting ADAM from little sisters, the novelty of creating portals, wielding a swarm of bees, or having tape recorders sharing history. Each of these elements was amazing and should not be underestimated, but what made each games so much more was the power of the emotional mirror between the experience of the player and their avatar.

[Spoilers follow]
Both games embrace -- or at least stumbled upon -- what I believe is a particularly potent narrative arc when told through the gaming medium: that of escaping enslavement and seeking revenge against the enslaver. In Portal, that moment coalesces when you are descending into the fire pit and GladOS is saying farewell and you use your portal gun to make it out of the situation. In BioShock, it the moment when you discovered and escaped your enslavement, with the phrase, "Would you kindly..."

The reason this narrative arc is so well-suited to games is because it so mirrors the emotional setting of every gamer, wherein a player (avatar) attempts to survive the machinations of the game designer (GladOS, Andrew Ryan). The reason why escaping the fire pit in Portal and the beating of Andrew Ryan in BioShock carry so much emotional release is because the player gets to turn the tables on the game designer, becoming free to do as he or she pleases.

This freedom might be an illusion -- you may remember BioShock becoming a bit of a slog after Ryan's death (the extra work following erodes the idea of having defeated the designer, no?) -- but I believe the power of both games is due to this particularly formidable gaming narrative archetype. It might be fun to attempt one day.


  1. That's an interesting observation. I wonder what other types of stories lend themselves especially well to the game medium?

  2. I don't know! Perhaps oddly, I haven't given it much thought.

    "Mastering an untouched, unfamiliar environment" might be another classic story that games are good at, like in the original Tomb Raider. I say this because games never operate by the same rules as the real world, and you have a real explorer sensation when playing a game -- that there is no prior experience to draw from in investigating it.

    Just by suggesting in narrative that you are the first human to set foot in an environment, adds a lot of fuel to the fantasy of the explorer fire, which games have enormous potential to play out.

    Dunno, but it's fun to think about.

  3. I agree. I'm thinking I may need to put up a blog post musing on the subject.

  4. Of course. : )

    It's up here.

  5. I think this kind of plot would work even better if, after the moment of "escape" the game changed from linear to something more free and non-linear. What if the player, after getting rid of the "would you kindly", could choose between trying to rule Rapture in ryan's stead, try to fix Rapture in some way, escape from the place as quickly as possible, with or without helping Tenebaum? It would underscore the new-found freedom of the player as well as allowing the players to choose their own goal AFTER they are invested in the game and the setting.
    It's a pity that games have a hard time being non-linear these days.

  6. It may indeed feel freeing, but the shift in structure could actually feel jarring and uncomfortable, possibly even disengaging the audience.

    I think Portal handles this narrative structure better than BioShock does because continuing play breaks down the illusion pretty quickly. Oddly, I'm a player type that actually feels the "limits" of the virtual world /sooner/ in non-linear environments than linear ones. Weird, eh?