I have been playing Returnal for the last several days, a game that, at least currently, does not allow you to save. And as I’ve been playing I’ve been thinking about the roguelike genre, which sort of incorporates constant player death into its story model, and thinking about some spoilers that I’ve heard about Returnal’s late-game story, which I won’t repeat here but which touch directly on the idea of “you” dying over and over again in a game.
And that got me thinking about Bioshock, one of the best games I’ve ever played, and a minor tweak that could have made it even more amazing.
Spoilers for Bioshock, a game from 2007, follow. Have a divider:
Bioshock has one of the greatest mid-game twists I think I’ve ever encountered. It’s basically a first-person shooter, and your character is exploring this underwater city, and you’re taking instructions and direction from this guy somewhere in the city who is talking to you over a radio. At about the midpoint of the game, you encounter the guy who has basically been your adversary throughout this journey so far, and after a whole lot of exposition that I’m not going to go into, this guy, wanting to control his own destiny, tells you to pick up a golf club and kill him with it. Well, asks, actually, specifically using the phrase “Would you kindly” in setting up the question.
And at that point it’s revealed that would you kindly is a trigger phrase that has been implanted in you, and that you’re conditioned to obey any order that follows that phrase. And the game flashes back for you to your ally using that phrase several times in directing you to go to certain places and do certain things throughout the parts of the game that you’ve played– all of which you’ve done, because that’s how video games work. Characters tell you to do things, and you go and do them. There have certainly been times where I, the player, didn’t necessarily want to do a thing that someone in a game was telling me to do, and there are games where player choice is a big part of the game itself, but you’re gonna play along, because the nature of gaming itself demands that you do so.
And so, here you are, with a golf club in front of you, your other weapons disabled, no way out of the room, and you literally cannot progress in the game unless you obey orders. And in the game, it’s presented as a question of free will, and whether free will even exists, and meantime here you are, the player, and you’re literally 100% in control of this fictional person’s actions and 100% constrained by the rules of the world the game has set up, and it absolutely blew my mind when I first played it all those years ago and frankly it still has a lot of impact.
And it just hit me this morning how it could have been better.
What if, instead of forcing you to kill the guy to proceed in the game, the game gave you the option to just … cut to credits? And then the game was over? The whole game is this extended meditation on free will and choice, right? So why not give the player to make the choice to disobey their conditioning, and by “their” I mean both the character and the player, and refuse to kill this person, but at the cost of not being able to play the game any longer? I mean, obviously you can always do multiple runs, but you’d still have to play through the whole first half again. Just being offered the chance would have taken what was already an amazing gaming moment and elevated it into the stratosphere.
It would have been unbelievably awesome, and I wish they had thought of it fourteen years ago, instead of me thinking of it now.