How to do In-Game Storytelling: BioShock Infinite
Updated: May 7, 2020
Our latest video is here! Click the video window below to watch as Duncan examines the inventive narrative design of BioShock Infinite. Alternatively, read the video's script as a fully-fledged written article below!
In recent years, I’ve been taking video game stories less and less seriously. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still pay attention to a game’s story, but unless I go in knowing that a game is trying to tell me one and tell it in an interesting way, I often feel like I’m witnessing the same worn-out patterns over and over again...
Cutscene, level, a villain with generic dialogue who wants to kill his own expendable goons, level, cutscene, level, cutscene.
Doesn’t this method of telling you a story feel totally fatigued to you? This pattern really doesn’t cater to a modern video game player, and there are a few reasons for that.
Firstly, times have changed since the PS2 and PS3 days when everyone was really pushing the power of CG or motion-capture animation. In those days striving for the best graphics and most realistic animation was essentially an arms race. But today, advanced technology means that animation has come a really long way, and we’re totally spoiled by that. Seeing cutscenes of “eye-bleeding” animation doesn’t seem as impressive to the majority of people as it used to.
Another reason is that in today’s world, we just have far too many distractions, and our attention spans are god awful. Because of that, a modern cutscene isn’t an opportunity for a gut-wrenching story moment - It’s your opportunity to pull out your phone, take a break, and watch the latest dumb TikTok. Cutscenes have become an opportunity to tune out, so telling your story entirely through cutscenes nowadays is a perfect way to make an unmemorable game.
On another note, of course just using cutscenes doesn’t work. People don’t play games to sit there and watch a story unfold. Why do you think video game movies literally never perform well at box offices? Take interaction away, and these stories aren’t very believable.
So what’s the solution? Well for me, the best video game stories are the ones that are incorporated into gameplay. Ones that, ok, might use a few cutscenes here and there, but the main storytelling, world-building, character development, and plot, all happen within interactive moments.
BioShock Infinite, the 2013 sequel to BioShock and BioShock 2 is the perfect example of this. Infinite’s design is every bit as good as the original BioShock, but where the original game focuses on level and gameplay design, Infinite focuses on telling a completely mind-bending story. Here’s how it does it...
Firstly, Infinite isn’t scared to put the player on rails. This doesn’t have to be done by taking control away, but by giving them an extremely clear, one option pathway so that the developers and designers can control what they see.
Most games try to steer away from being ultra-linear, because in this day and age that marketing trope of “nO TwO pLAyTHrOuGHS ArE ThE sAmE” is far too tempting to just slap all over the box. Infinite, however, limits the player’s options completely for the first ¾ of the first level. You don’t get a gun, you don’t have branching paths through levels, you’ve just got a guided tour through parade day in Columbia.
...Yes, yes that does mean that BioShock Infinite kickstarted the walking simulator genre years before it entered the mainstream.
READ ALL ABOUT IT
When he first arrives in the city, Booker doesn't learn about Columbia by asking a bunch of people and going through dialogue trees. Instead, you learn about the world through props, set dressing, and the environment.
Just through artwork on the walls of levels the player learns so much. Some of them set up serious dichotomies between very important characters, some give you hints about what to expect throughout the game and the level you’re playing. Some of them are just quite honestly poetic.
You could dissect sections of this game like you would a piece of high literature. There’s symbolism, backstory, foreshadowing, Chekhov's gun - name a commonly used narrative technique from literature and this game probably uses it.
Moreover, these are all beautiful pieces of art, and they all offer useful information to the player. Consider other games of this genre - a game like Dishonored. The posters in that game are terrific pieces of world-building, but they do repeat themselves after a few levels and the player isn't seeing anything new. Seeing "The Hound Pits Dog Fight" poster for the seventh time doesn’t exactly grab your attention. In comparison, seeing "The False Shepherd" poster in Infinite sends chills down your spine.
These posters are also placed so intelligently. You can guarantee that if there’s an important piece of artwork you need to see throughout your time in BioShock Infinite, you’re not going to miss it because it’ll be placed either on your way to an objective or somewhere that your attention will be directed to anyway.
Environmental storytelling is brilliant, and it makes a game feel so much more alive. So much so that Irrational puts the player through a museum in this game to teach you about the villain’s past, and you probably didn’t even notice.
HEAR IT, FEEL IT
The original BioShock told its story using the environment, and by using collectible voice recordings. Arguably, BioShock leans a little too heavily on audio clips, but that’s true of any game that puts too much emphasis on a collectible of this kind. After reading a certain number of memos in a game that has mountains of written collectibles you start to tune out from them, and the same is true of audio recordings.
In Infinite, however, "voxophones" are incorporated less frequently, and you'll only find them in places where you’ve got space and time to listen to them without being attacked or getting distracted.
A big part of making a video game setting feel real is by using its people. In BioShock Infinite you might hear a citizen of Columbia say something while you pass by and think nothing of it, but I guarantee you what you hear in this first level especially is highly salient.
If these citizens aren’t saying something to set up characters you haven’t met yet, they’re letting you know as soon as you’ve arrived what type of place Columbia really is. Just from listening to passers-by, the player knows what type of people live in the city, what they all think of Comstock, their religious methods, their attitude to outsiders, their politics, who the Vox-Populi are, and that they all care deeply about their reputations. The dynamic of Columbia is set up within your first 10 or 15 minutes of being there.
And of course, this game using its people to tell its story doesn’t just mean NPCs that you pass by once or twice...
A big part of BioShock Infinite’s storytelling happens through the use of character development. If you don’t know the difference between static and dynamic characters, essentially it boils down to this:
A static character is someone who doesn’t change throughout the story. The interest in their progression is the effect they have on the people and the world around them.
A dynamic character is someone who does change when they go through a story. The interest here is their arc, where they start, what they experience, and where they end up as a result.
Infinite uses such a deep mix of these, but the way that they all interact and influence one another makes playing through the game all the more engaging.
CUT IT OUT
Alright, fine, BioShock Infinite does use some cutscenes. Occasionally, control will get taken away from the player, but what’s great about this game’s cutscenes is that they’re short and sweet. Not only that, but they pack a punch. Ken Levine knows that taking away control from the player is a cardinal sin, so when he does do it, he delivers a moment that actually matters.
Furthermore, these cutscenes are integrated into the experience so there is no stop-gap between gameplay and cutscene. They all run perfectly into one another so there’s almost an illusion that the gameplay never stops. This works for other games too – Think about how God of War’s zero screen cuts makes the story so integrated into the experience of playing the game.
TAKE YOUR TIME
Last, but certainly not least, BioShock Infinite doesn’t rush anything. It isn’t afraid to take its time to set things up, execute them, and leave the player stunned. This can be done in many ways, but Infinite specialises in creating mystery.
From the second you pick up the controller in this game you aren’t given all the answers. In fact, it’s the opposite. Irrational hides things from you, and they wrote the game so that you would be a little confused by it all.
Creating intrigue, mystery, using the world, crafting levels that give you information in interesting ways, generating attachment to characters – all of this takes time. Infinite isn’t afraid to take that time, and because of that, it is, in my opinion, one of the very best story games I have ever played.
Image Credits: Game Coping, 2K Games, EA.