Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Storytelling in Games - Bioshock and the Silent Protagonist

Recently while browsing the fine forums over at The Escapist, I came across a thread which caught my eye. It's a pretty typical "what's your favorite" topic, except this time it was about which game had the best "storyline".

This may be strange, but the thing that first got me really exciting about game development was the potential for storytelling. In my developing years I completely ate up games like Final Fantasy 6, Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger (okay pretty much the entire Squaresoft library). Games have a unique place in the world of modern storytelling. They're interactive, visually engaging, exist in almost every genre, and can invest dozens of hours in order to tell a complete story. The problem is that it's almost impossible to balance gameplay and storytelling and not sacrifice one in favor of the other. We're still making games here, after all - not just interactive movies.

Anyway, back to the games with the best storyline according to the users of The Escapist. A lot of common names showed up, and while it's hardly a large sample group it does make for an interesting cross-section of gamers and their opinions on storytelling in games. So for the next few days I'd like to explore my own thoughts on the games that were mentioned the most as having 'the best storyline in gaming'.

First up we have...

This was probably the most frequently mentioned game, or maybe it just seemed that way to me because I was surprised every time I saw it. (It also likely has a lot to do with Bioshock 2 coming out today).

It's not that I don't think Bioshock presents a good setting with an interesting story, it just doesn't strike me as anything particularly compelling or deep. It was basically a very simplified (and honestly much more interesting) retelling of Atlas Shrugged. Most of the game's storytelling was almost entirely atmospheric, or in the very least completely passive. It seemed to me that Bioshock was less about telling a story and more about putting the player in an interesting situation to see how they react.

But the main reason I never really thought that Bioshock had a great story was due to one thing I think can ruin the story and writing of any game: the silent protagonist. I have never seen a game where this made any sense. You're asking us to accept that the main character in the story you're trying to tell has absolutely nothing to say about his situation, and that no one around him notices that he's never said a word. Imagine writing a movie script with no lines of dialogue for the hero, or a book where the main character is a mute. This is almost universally unique to video games. Developers of silent protagonist games seem to believe that giving the player character a voice, personality, and dialogue would ruin the immersion.

Poppycock, I say!

Immersion is a funny thing, and game designers who write in silent protagonists seem to have an idea that it means that the player must feel that he IS the player character. This is simply not possible to accomplish. There is no way that a game designer can understand or predict who I am, how I will react to certain situations, or all the things I would do or say if I were in the situation of the protagonist. Until direct, force-feedback, fully immersed, holodeck-type gameplay is invented we will always just be piloting a paper doll by remote control. Immersion is best achieved when I feel like the fate of the paper doll is meaningful.

When I read a good book with a good main character, I empathize with his problems. I want him to succeed. I follow each page closely in the hopes that the protagonist will make the correct choices that will help him solve his problems. I am totally and fully immersed in the story. Most of the time, this feeling of immersion is achieved with good characterization. In silent protagonist games, there is no characterization, and therefore no reason to identify with the main character.

Playing as a silent protagonist makes me a passive component in the game's story. Nothing the character does carries any weight or meaning when there is no reaction or context for it. This is particularly distressful in Bioshock due to the situation that this character is thrust into. There is no reaction to the murderous Splicers, no hesitation for jamming as many needles and weird foreign objects into his body as he can, and he has nothing to say about a plot where what's at stake is nothing less than his free will and survival as a human being. If I suddenly injected myself with a syringe that inexplicably gave me the power to fire bees from my fingertips, I'd probably have something to say about it.

So every moment in Bioshock that was supposed to surprise, shock, or interest me fell flat because the main character was non-existent. None of the revelations or climactic battles carried any weight or felt like they mattered. I had no sympathy for the paper doll I was playing as, and I found it difficult to care about his fate or the fate of Rapture.

Bioshock was a great game, but I would not put it among the greatest stories in gaming history. I might put it as one of the greatest silent-protagonist first-person-shooter game stories, but that genre doesn't exactly have a lot of competition. I guess it at least tries to characterize the silent paper doll more than Half Life 2.

Silent protagonist games aren't necessarily bad, they just don't tell good stories. Bioshock and Half Life 2 are games that sacrifice story in favor of gameplay.

Next up I'll discuss Planescape: Torment!

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Who The Hell Do I Think I Am?

Austin, Texas, United States
I've played games since my brother got an NES in the late 80s, and I'll play them until I'm a crusty old man. My opinions are based on those 20 years of experiences, and my own ambitions as a game artist and writer.