Halfway through Bioshock Infinite, Nick’s experience is shaped by a completely random occurrence, causing him to question player agency in video games.
“Someone gave it to me, I promise! I ain’t never smoked one before,” an African-American servant pleas as I spot him lighting up. “Hey, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, pal,” I respond. “Thank you, sir.” This guy may have a pretty bad life in the floating city of Columbia, but at least I allowed him this one comfort. I feel like a good per- BLAM!
As this man’s brains redecorate the shop window at a county fair, I barely notice my index finger has slipped on the mouse before I’m swarmed with policemen in a firefight. Genuinely horrified at what I’ve just done, and twenty minutes from my last autosave, I’m forced to live with the experience. This may not have been one of Irrational Games’ intended moral choices, but it’s certainly the moment that resonated with me most so far. That this could trump all other stabs at emotion in Bioshock Infinite makes me wonder about the nature of player choice in video games.
Up until this point, I laughed at the concept of Booker DeWitt walking around public places with his rifle drawn. You can literally aim point-blank at a policeman while a radio broadcast details your body count, without anyone batting an eye. There’s definitely a strange bit of disconnect between these quiet, almost surreal moments and the absolute bloodbaths that later ensue. The only thing to remember: that gun you’re carrying is still a gun. You can aim at policemen and innocent bystanders as much as you want without consequence, but you can bet they’ll react if you fire. It’s quite a sobering statement, that one errant twitch of the finger can lead to a Pulp Fiction-esque slip-up.
The original Bioshock was filled with moral choices- in fact, they were its M.O. Players navigated a ruined underwater city, essentially choosing whether to murder or rescue small children. Despite the change of setting and tone, Infinite’s idea of arming players as they walk through populated streets is more downright objectivist than anything to be found in the Ayn Rand-soaked walls of Rapture. In allowing something like this, Irrational is asking players to ultimately be responsible for themselves. There’s really no difference whether you initiate the firefight now or some baddie alerts everyone to your presence when you reach your objective; it’s all in how you want to play the game. If you can live with yourself after blowing away some innocent bystander, then go right ahead.
Many games attempt to make players feel emotion for their decisions, with varying restrictions then enacted by the developers. The Walking Dead and Mass Effect 3 are two recent examples of narrative-driven experiences that pride themselves on their moral choices. Both however, keep their designated ‘action’ and ‘player choice’ sequences neatly sectioned off. You can never make the mistake of killing someone in The Citadel unless the game allows such an action to be taken. Bethesda games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim don’t have much against players opening fire on towns of people, the difference being players have the option of holstering their weapons- it’s even encouraged, as you’ll be rewarded with more dialogue options and friendlier dispositions. There are also titles like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., in which main quest-givers can be murdered: either by you or the unforgiving world you inhabit. All of these games are highly respected in their fields, while handling the concept of player choice in completely different ways.
It’s important to note that there is still room for all these styles of player agency in video games, it just comes down to two points: which resonates most with you, and which best fits the tone of the game. This little vignette from the city of Columbia happened to connect most with me because it was so unexpected. It caused me to be forever conscious of my index finger, and the grief it can so easily cause for these virtual, yet completely innocent people. In a way, that event shaped my character’s story more than any scripted event had up to that point, because I was the one who caused it. I now find myself more aware of my character’s place within the social context of the game, and I’m making the choice not to shoot people, instead of simply knowing that the functionality doesn’t exist. It’s quite fitting for the series, because after all: a man chooses; a slave obeys.
Nick Hawryluk is the senior producer, director and editor of Press Play the Webseries. He also runs and contributes articles to the Press Play website.