Here is critical endgame information for series you (my girlfriend) may not have yet completed! Avert your eyes!
BioShock is played. I mean, it has been played, I just finished it for the second time, and that nearly everything in it has been repeated ad nauseam, Portal style. I wanted to start off this little monologue with the phrase “Would You Kindly,” but that phrase is so clutch to the BioShock experience that it has surely been the title of a thousand other musings written just in 2007. What should I start with, then? That line where they mention Piggly Wiggly and I get really excited because I’ve totally been to a Piggly Wiggly that used to exist in Smithfield, North Carolina? No. Let’s just continue.
“Would You Kindly,” is revealed, about two-thirds through the game, to be a form of mind-control used on Jack, the protagonist of the BioShock story. When Atlas, your guide through Rapture who enjoys chiming in via radio, uses that phrase you are compelled to follow it. Through those two-thirds the phrase really serves as nothing more than an arrow. A quest marker. A little exclamation point over the head of a blacksmith in World of Warcraft. “Would You Kindly,” is the heads-up-display of your video game screen spoken aloud. Of course, this comes as a terrible shock to the player. An alarming amount of twists are given within a fifteen-minute span, and nearly everything you knew about Rapture turned out to be a lie. That includes the player’s own autonomy.
Why are games so fascinated with directing your attention to the fact that they are, at the end of the day, controlled environments? We all know that games are controlled by their developers, and, at the end of the creative process, by ourselves. No one believes that Uncharted is a genuine experience wrought by the mashing of the X button. And for as much as you can build in Minecraft, the pieces still run by a curator. When they sit down with a game, players willingly suspend their disbelief.
Last year, Spec Ops: The Line made its own attempt to break the fourth wall. The writing was tremendous and far, far denser than what the rest of the product would appear to offer. When Captain Martin Walker blurts out “Oh, no, not this again,” during a helicopter turret sequence, the exact same one you had played at the beginning of the game that led a game-long flashback, you know Spec Ops has more than a few tricks up its sleeve. You knew that when you “accidentally” dropped white phosphorus on innocent civilians while Walker’s face was reflected in the monitor of both his computer and yours. Spec Ops desperately wanted to say…something, about mind control and training players to be killers and the lack of real choice even when choice seemed to be an option.
Perhaps the most famous case of player choice in modern gaming is evident in the Mass Effect series. Developer BioWare, no stranger to choice in their previous games, set up the Mass Effect trilogy as a grand experiment for including choice that carries over from one game to the next. So by the end of Mass Effect 2, one players’ experience may differ quite vastly from another players’. But by the end of Mass Effect 3, their experiences came together in a frighteningly similar way. Mass Effect’s choice system was perhaps too grand on paper to truly pull off in execution, because by the last game everyone’s choices had funneled into a single point. The final option was an impersonal Red/Blue/Green option that left fans cold. And it should have left fans cold! BioWare had promised more than they could feasibly deliver. So the whole time, throughout the hundred-or-more hours put into the three large RPGs, players were handed an illusion of choice. It’s never the real choice, it’s always the illusion. But that illusion was a brick wall when you were with that annoying, unnecessary StarChild.
The Metal Gear Solid series, specifically 2: Sons of Liberty, also went careening headfirst into insanity designed to affect Raiden as much as to affect the player. So many games seem to desire pulling the rug from beneath the player. Developers must get a sick satisfaction from letting you know “You were never really in control all alooooooooong!” They aren’t wrong, and no game I’ve mentioned does it particularly poorly. Much like the newly-christened All-Story (ancient aliens + chosen one), the trope of reminding players that they are, after all, merely players, is one that could quickly become overused. If enough games decide they want to blow your effing miiiiiiiiiind by addressing the audience, even metaphorically, maybe that development itself will manifest in Newgrounds flash parodies.
BioShock is a fantastic game with a story that works and on so many more levels than the “Would You Kindly” example. I am simply curious about the autonomous lie’s place in games, especially so many of such high profile. As it is, I have never seen it be ineffectual. But if developers of the future keep playing such mindbenders and let it influence their own writing, we could find ourselves with a field finely-tilled for growing illusion-of-choice brain twisters. And if they were to be so prevalent, it would suddenly be the games which played it straight the most deserving of respect.