As a media that is both interactive and technically complex, video games have the ability to approach storytelling from a different angle than other forms of entertainment (Jenkins, 2005). To understand and leverage this difference, particular attention should therefore be paid to storytelling techniques or tools that are specific to games, and to features that “serve some specific functions within a new transmedia storytelling environment” (2005). For Jenkins, one of these elements is spatiality: the use of in-game space to create story-telling opportunities and carry the narration; he further argues that, under this premise, one should even think of game designers “less as storytellers and more as narrative architects” (2005). The concept of spatiality as a unique games-centric storytelling tool has been further developed by Totten (2014), for whom spatiality can be best applied through the use of narrative spaces (Totten, 2014, p.265). According to Totten, these can be broken down into several types of spaces: evocative spaces, staging spaces, embedded spaces, or resource-providing spaces (2014, pp. 276-283). This essay will explore how the game BioShock (2K Boston / 2K Australia, 2007) utilises Totten’s narrative spaces to develop and support its in-game narrative.
Evocative Spaces and Vernacular Contrasts
Evocativeness is a technique that relies on pre-existing narrative associations to trigger feelings or reactions from players (Jenkins, 2005). For Totten, successful implementation of evocativeness uses “familiar elements to set a mood, establish the fiction of a game story” (2014, p.276).
One of the first actions done by then player in BioShock is entering and activating a bathysphere, a narrow cabin used to go under water; at this stage, very little is known about the game world. Once in the bathysphere the player is immediately immersed in darkness, with a screen as the only light and interactive element; through this singular scene element, the player is shown a short reel about the place they are entering. The reel is strongly rooted in 1930s to mid-century American visual design (figure 1): sepia tones, mid-Atlantic accent from the narrator, art deco fonts, and denouncement of political ideologies of the time. As noted by Jenkins, evocative spaces “can paint their worlds in fairly broad outlines and count on the visitor/player to do the rest” (2005). Here, BioShock presents the player with a historically-themed set piece and immediately lets them join the dots between the time period for the game and the ideological context of the game.
This screen panel is however soon lifted to finally reveal Rapture, the gigantic city under the sea where the game takes place (figure 2). This reveal is significant to the game’s narrative and evocativeness as “much of what you will communicate with the player is through arrival in space” (Totten, p.109), and as these can be triggered through the “architectural language of certain locales” (Totten, 2014, p.276). Indeed, the vista of Rapture presented here is striking, featuring height and depth into almost infinity, coupled with strong vertical lines, elements typically used “for the objects that have to impress the players” (Level-Design.Org, 2015). As noted by Schell, “the primary purpose of architecture is to control a person’s experience” (2015, p.368); indeed, by using the player’s implicit familiarity with shapes and lines, Rapture is able to evoke feelings of stability, sophistication, and grandeur with the player (Solarski, 2013).
Totten refers to this phenomenon as vernacular, in other words “understanding the architectural language of certain locales, established through symbol building” (Totten, 2014, p.276), and also highlights that it is “useful for contrasting evocative art assets with one another in a scene”, calling out decay as a potential use. BioShock makes heavy use of vernacular contrasting through decay to further enhance its evocativeness, illustrated as soon as the game starts by a decaying logo (figure 3), an indication that the world is undergoing, or has undergone, significant change.
This feeling is soon reinforced: after Rapture’s evocative and positive reveal, the player finally enters the city to find that the space is empt and dirty, and that signs litter the floor, one of them reading “Rapture Is Dead” (figure 4). This striking contrast is an example of Jenkins’ theory that, in evoked narratives, “spatial design can […] communicate a fresh perspective on that story through the altering of established details” (Jenkins, 2005).
BioShock therefore uses its evocative spaces to inform the player of its world’s context, grandeur, and decadence, all within the first scenes of the game.
Staging Spaces and Narrative Rewards
Narrative spaces can also be traditional physical stages, triggering narrative content when the player approaches them and strategically placed at locations where “a player feels that important game events will happen” (Totten, 2014, p.278). Unlike optional scenes offering narrative rewards, these scenes are often unique, compulsory, and represent goals for the player to reach (Totten, 2014, p.279), and are places where “everything the player sees or does must further the story” (Ryan, 1999). BioShock uses several approaches for these narrative spaces.
As the player progresses through the first level of the game, they are forced to walk across a ceiling beam over a disquieting vista: a spotlight shines over small girl bending over the body of a corpse, in a large, empty space (figure 5). While players can look away and continue onwards on their journey, the scene set-up makes it difficult to do so: the action is perfectly framed through lighting and composition, the spotlight attracts the eye, and the tension on the scene is reinforced by the use of red, echoing the blood splattered on the floor; in accordance with staging spaces conventions, the scene is “set-up like the set of the film or play” (Totten, 2014, p.278). Interestingly, as Totten notes, “staging spaces do not have to encompass in-game action” (2014, p.278); here the player is only a spectator, albeit of the important introduction to one of the key character types in the game, Little Sisters.
BioShock also uses another ubiquitous staged-narrative tool: cut-scenes. The first level-end compulsory cut-scene, interestingly, is the reverse situation from the previous scene: a little girl is now the prey, attacked by an odd-looking man (figure 6), and the player eventually is able to act upon what they see, this time encompassing in-game action. This scene also yields an important narrative reward as the player finally understands crucial information about the Little Sisters and is rewarded with their in-game interactions with them. Furthermore, this staged scene also introduces a key character in the Rapture universe (figure 7), in another illustration that “staging spaces can be used as rewards” (2014, p.279).
BioShock therefore rewards the player with key narrative elements through the use of unskippable, strongly staged spaces, with or without in-game action. How else can BioShock embed narrative rewards in its in-game spaces?
Active Narrative Through Embedded Spaces
Narrative spaces can also take the more subtle form of embedded spaces, which “leave evidence of use by characters or events that previously transpired” (Totten, 2014, p.280). This allows for more flexible narrative rewards which are “less a temporal structure than a body of information” (Jenkins, 2005).
To create embedded spaces, games must use the environment as a narrative device, “with a focus on involving the player in interpreting information” (Harvey and Worch, 2010). In BioShock’s first level, the player is tasked with finding a mysterious and controversial surgeon, Dr Steinman. Upon arriving at the target area the player is confronted with a bloody shrine-like stand with photos of mutilated women (or mutilated photos of women), bloody scissors and scalpels littering the scene, and a slogan written in blood (figure 8). While the player doesn’t have confirmation yet, the scene allows them actively interpret the information presented: the surgeon has harmed and possibly mutilated women, on a scale large enough to warrant elaborate warnings, and violence was likely involved; more generally, it shows that large and disturbing trends occurred in Rapture. While this very information will be revealed during the actual encounter with Dr Steinman, this occurs much later in the level, allowing the information to mature in the player’s mind ahead of the meeting and create a lasting impression. This pacing of information is a key component of embedded spaces, where “a game designer can somewhat control the narrational process by distributing the information across the game space” (Jenkins, 2005).
Embedded spaces can also be less conspicuous. For Totten (2014, p.279), who traces this back to religious mosaics and stained glass windows, embedded spaces can also be represented within the game’s art or architecture themselves. BioShock uses numerous adverts and in-game tutorial videos to this effect, which, while initially looking harmless in tone with the use of bold lettering and colours (figure 9), reveal more sinister facts when examined. Indeed, most advertising in Rapture is for tools harming others or used to protect oneself from harm, illustrated with childish and provocative captions such as “Try This!” (figure 10), further showing the banalising of violence in the world of Rapture.
These embedded spaces allow much of the plot and central struggles of Rapture to be shown to the player, obviously or not, before they are fully confirmed via cut-scenes or interactions with NPCs. In other words, “the game space becomes a memory palace whose contents must be deciphered as the player tries to reconstruct the plot” (Jenkins, 2005), and important consequence of embedded spaces.
However, can spaces use greater interactivity to enhance narrative?
According to Totten the answer is yes, and takes the shape of resource-providing spaces, which offer clear interactive features and allow users to give meaning to their interactions with the world themselves (2014, pp.281-282).
Resource-providing spaces are typically achieved through emergent narrative, narrative set pieces that are “taking shape through the game play” (Jenkins, 2005). For Totten this can be achieved through in-game use of physics and mechanics in a space that allows players “various ways of dispatching one another beyond core mechanics” (2014, p.282). BioShock allows players this type of narrative through carefully curated spaces where the players’ powers can be used on the game world to modify or create new situations and encounters. BioShock for instance places enemies in water surfaces, while heavily hinting to the player that wet enemies that get electrocuted will die (figure 11). Indeed, while the player could simply go and bludgeon the enemies in the water, they are instead allowed to create their own narrative through gameplay by making use of the space itself; this principle is heavily used throughout the game via enemy placement and water or oil surfaces.
BioShock furthers this by allowing the player to directly affect enemy AI, creating unpredictable and often memorable scenes by setting enemies on each other (figure 12), or turning the environment on its inhabitants, therefore “enabling the story-constructing activity of players” (Jenkins, 2005). These are a direct application of “how narrative possibilities might get mapped onto game space” (Jenkins, 2005).
In accordance with Totten’s definition of for resource providing spaces, these spaces have strong identifiable qualities (a material surface, an object embedded in the environment that can be hacked) and inherently interactive features (using a power on the surface will create a chemical reaction, hacking the object will make the object hostile to something else). These features therefore allow players “utilize levels for more than just travel” (2014, p.282), namely to add further narrative options for the player.
BioShock uses several types of narrative spaces to enhance in-game narration. It first makes use of evocative spaces to introduce the player to Rapture’s vision through the use of familiar visual tropes and architectural language, before using vernacular contradictions to subvert the player’s initial expectations. BioShock also enhances and narrative by using compulsory staging spaces, featuring strong composition and immediate story-telling elements to introduce the players to important narrative threads and new characters. BioShock’s narrative spaces help further expose the game’s narrative in a more active way, requiring the player to interpret scenes or to read the subtext present in the world of Rapture. Finally, BioShock allows the player to utilise the gameplay and level setting to instigate resource-providing spaces, allowing the player to build their own narrative by triggering emergent gameplay. As stated by Totten, who defined these narrative spaces, “through these types of spaces, level designers can create exceptionally expressive game worlds” (2014, p.275). By making the most of them, BioShock greatly deepens its narrative scope and player involvement, resulting in a richer experience for the player.
2K Boston / 2K Australia (2007) BioShock. 2K Games.
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