Monday, November 30, 2009

I Told Him to Do That: Option Restriction, Choice, and Agency in Bioshock

Have you ever trapped a spider under a glass? Maybe you saw one on your kitchen floor and decided to humanely release it outdoors. So you took a drinking glass and put it down over the spider. Then perhaps you took a sheet of paper and laid it on the floor. As the spider scurried about in its prison, you gradually slid the glass onto the paper, which you could now pick up and take outside.

By doing this, you managed to move the spider where you wanted it to go - all without touching it or influencing it directly. As the spider aimlessly explored its limited circle of freedom, you advanced the walls, closing off space behind it and opening up space in front of it, in the direction you had selected. By choosing to move at all, the spider chose to move onto the paper - to the goal that you had chosen, and of which the spider was not even aware.

This is exactly how many videogames work.

Man trapped under a giant glass.

Suppose you are playing a videogame that has placed your character in a locked room. To get out, you need the key - but the key has been dropped into a priceless vase on a display pedestal. You can't reach in to get the key, and the vase is too heavy to manipulate without dropping. The only way to retrieve the key and open the door is to push the vase off the pedestal, causing it to fall to the floor and shatter.

After poking around the room for several minutes, you satisfy yourself that there is really no alternative and nothing else to do. To progress in the game, you must break the vase.

So, you do. You smash it on the ground and retrieve the key, unlocking the door and exiting the room. Whereupon an angry curator immediately berates you for destroying a priceless relic.

To what extent can you be said to have chosen to break the vase?

Your character is in a situation with only one way out. Two options present themselves: remain in the situation indefinitely, or resolve it in the only manner available. You the player have an additional option: simply reject the situation by quitting the game.

These options are all technically valid. Nothing forces you to cause your character to break the vase, and you can wait as long as you like before doing so. You retain agency, as the vase only breaks when you actively decide to break it.

But it's a little like Henry Ford's famous quip about the Model T: "Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black." The relevant decision isn't really whether to smash the vase. It's whether to progress in the game. Any player can advance any way desired so long as that way is smashing the vase. Essentially, there is a "Press To Continue" button, which just happens to be in the shape of a smashed vase.

Smash vase to continue.

This sort of design is common enough that games which avoid it are a genre to themselves. Sandbox games are notable in that they don't, as a rule, restrict your options to oblige you to proceed in a certain direction. In other games, it's par for the course. No one really expects to be able to have Master Chief put down his gun and go vacuum his apartment, any more than we expect cop shows to feature the officers quietly doing their paperwork. It's perfectly legitimate to constrain the player's universe to what is fun or narratively interesting.

When you guided the spider onto the paper, you did it for the spider's own good. In videogames, option restriction serves as a direct opposite of option paralysis, which is defined as "The tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none." By limiting player choice to a single path, the game shepherds the player forward - hopefully, to somewhere the player will have fun.

So. Option restriction directs narrative progression by reducing player choice while maintaining player agency. Done well, it leads the player in a specific direction without removing their sense of control.

With all this in mind... wait. I should warn you. If you don't want any spoilers for Bioshock, then I'm afraid you should read no further. Think about how option restriction is applied in other games you've played and come back next week. Because now, with all this in mind, I'm going to take a close look at how option restriction is used and misused in Bioshock.

Big Daddy and Little Sister


Bioshock's story progression follows a common structure: a series of areas of relative freedom, punctuated by narrative choke points into which the player is funneled. The game does not, generally, force the player to take specific actions. But it does use option restriction quite often.

The game opens with a brief cutscene on board an airplane, which immediately crashes into the Atlantic ocean. Before ninety seconds have passed, control is handed to the player, in the water amongst the wreckage. Jack, the player character, can swim freely, but the only interesting place to go is the nearby lighthouse, as other paths dead-end in flame and debris. Once in the lighthouse, the door closes, locking Jack inside. Once more he can explore freely, but the only thing to do is enter the bathysphere at the bottom and pull the lever. Everything else is a dead end.

The next few minutes, featuring the bathysphere's descent into Rapture, are noninteractive. The cutscene serves as an atmospheric introduction to the game's setting.

Yet this second cutscene doesn't feel like the first, thanks to the brief period of interactivity before it. Through option restriction, the player had no real choice, but did have agency - the player actively hit a button to pull the bathysphere lever and trigger its descent. The player brought the scene on themselves - and thus is far more engaged than they would be had the swimming and lighthouse portions been done as a cutscene as well.

Once emerging into Rapture, things get a bit more interesting. The regions in which Jack may roam grow in size and complexity, and contain increasing numbers of interactive entities - enemies, electronics, containers, etc. Jack is contacted via radio by a man called Atlas, who provides advice and goals. And the narrative choke points keep coming. Sometimes Jack needs to acquire a new ability or tool. Sometimes he needs a key or code to unlock a door. Sometimes, he needs to kill.


When Jack reaches an area called Fort Frolic, his contact with Atlas is cut off. Fort Frolic is presided over by a man named Sander Cohen, who somehow has the ability to block Atlas's radio transmissions. He also cuts off Jack's access to the bathysphere connecting to the next area. The player clearly cannot proceed unless allowed to do so by Cohen. Throughout the player's time in Fort Frolic, goals are provided by Cohen rather than Atlas.

Cohen, it rapidly becomes clear, is one sick puppy. In cold blood, he murders a man named Fitzpatrick right in front of Jack and tells him to photograph the corpse.

However uncomfortable the player may be with this, there is again no choice, thanks to option restriction. The area in which Jack may now roam is larger than the lighthouse, but photographing Fitzpatrick's body is just as vital to proceeding as pulling the bathysphere lever at the start. The other paths may be longer this time, but they are still dead ends.

Then, it gets worse. Cohen wants Jack to kill three more men and photograph their bodies. He opens up Jack's access to the three areas where these men can be found, and there are no other interesting places for the player to go.

When approached, each of the men attack. This might make the player feel better about killing them - as it has become self-defense - but of course the targeted men realize Cohen has sent Jack to kill them, and are merely defending themselves as well. As is usual with option restriction, the player retains agency, playing through the combat just like the game's other fights. But these three kills are the strangest, most horrible acts the player must commit. Unlike harvesting the Little Sisters (which is a choice, as the player may also save them) killing Cohen's ex-disciples is the only way to proceed.

Once Cohen is satisfied with Jack's work, he opens the way forward, allowing Jack to access the bathysphere and continue on, whereupon he is reconnected with Atlas who resumes providing goals.


Bioshock's most famous twist comes during the climactic confrontation with Andrew Ryan, toward whom Atlas has been steering Jack the whole time. Jack, it turns out, has been brainwashed, and obeys anyone who simply says "would you kindly." Atlas, of course, has been using this control phrase throughout the game.

Ryan, it seems, accepts at this point that he is going to die. Rather than give Atlas the satisfaction, however, he hands Jack his golf club and issues the kill command himself. "A man chooses," Ryan says. "A slave obeys." Thus Ryan chooses his own death (suicide by player-character) while simultaneously proving that Jack is a slave, and has been all along.

It's a shocking, horrifying moment. But here's the problem: the player's experience completely contradicts the narrative revelation.

From the moment Jack crosses the threshold into Ryan's office until after Ryan is dead (the portion of the above video displayed in letterbox), the player has no control over Jack's actions. It's one of very, very few moments in the game where player agency is removed. So when Ryan reveals to Jack that he has been a slave all along, the experience used to demonstrate this to the player is thoroughly different from the experience both before and after. Previously, the player was not compelled to obey "would you kindly" commands immediately. They were free to delay and roam as desired. This time, and only this time, commands are acted on right away - and without the player's agency. It's a bit like if I said, "Look, you've been blind all along!" and 'proved' it by covering your eyes with a blindfold.

Ryan can safely shock the player with the news that they have done exactly what was ordered of them, because in order to even reach this scene the player must have done all of those things. But the mechanism by which the player was obliged to commit these acts is inconsistent with the mechanism by which Jack is compelled to kill Ryan. Jack is actively forced by his brainwashing, but the player has been, and continues to be, passively restricted by the way the game's universe is built. The "would you kindly" requests are just layered on top of what the player had to do anyway.

To prove this, we need look no further than Sander Cohen. He compels the player to actively do horrible things - all without a single "would you kindly." Never once does he utter the magic phrase. Jack, apparently, is not forced by his brainwashing to obey Cohen. The player, however, is exactly as constrained as always. (Cohen, in fact, can be seen as a proxy for the game designers. Neither friend nor foe, he passively limits the player's path forward until the player commits the mandated deeds.)

The story progression continues in exactly the same way after the reveal - free-roaming areas punctuated by narrative choke points. Through the exact same methods of option restriction, the player character is obliged to perform the acts laid out for him by Tenenbaum, the character who takes over for Atlas as goal-provider. She never says "would you kindly" and it wouldn't matter if she did, as Jack isn't brainwashed anymore. But to the player, the effect is completely identical. Tenenbaum's goals are the only way to proceed, just as Atlas's had been. The player has exactly the same level of choice and agency as before.

Brainwashed or not, control-phrase-triggered or not, the player's experience is identical - except for the one moment meant to demonstrate the nature of the player character's situation. And thus Bioshock's commentary on player choice is, ultimately, self-defeating. It contradicts itself and the player's own experience.

Bioshock is far from the first game to point out the player's actual lack of freedom, nor is it the first to tie it into the plot with an in-story explanation. It's just unfortunate that in order to maintain an interesting plot and unified gameplay, the explanation diverges from the phenomenon it is attempting to explain, greatly weakening the emotional punch of what should be the game's most powerful moment. It is one thing to tell the player that they are a puppet. It is quite another to jerk the strings, pretend to cut them, and then continue to make the puppet dance.



    One of the most exciting moments I've ever had with a game was the furnace section in Portal. At first, I thought the game was over at that point! "Oh, so I just die in the end. That's pretty clever I guess." I had been following GlaDOS's directions/restrictions this whole time, so why should things be any different now?

    But then I saw that little opening near the ceiling and I immediately thought, "Wait...can I escape? Let's try it...HOLY SHIT YES! I CAN ESCAPE!" It was a pretty unique moment - it felt like I had broken the game somehow by escaping. And in the narrative, I was indeed breaking GlaDOS's game. The player is subtly invited to break the option restrictions, GlaDOS's orders, that were imposed for most of the game up to that point.

    That made the last section of the game much more exhilarating. Now, you were on your own - going rogue. No more clearly marked goals or GlaDOS telling you what to do. Just you, the portal gun, and an immediate need to get the hell out of there any way you can.

    Perhaps there's something to be said for different methods of option restriction. The first part of Portal and most of BioShock deliver goals and restrictions pretty explicitly: another character tells you. But other games, and the "escape" part of Portal, restrict you more by physical means (e.g. locked doors). Games can make things more interesting by mixing up restriction methods. Perhaps BioShock would be more interesting if, after the Ryan scene, you no longer had anyone telling you what to do by radio. You just knew you had to find Atlas and kill him any way you can.

    Though, I never finished BioShock. I found it pretty boring compared to Deus Ex and System Shock :)

  2. Another thought: What if BioShock actually tried to simulate brainwashing? That's tough, because I don't know what it's like to be brainwashed. But the (otherwise horrible) game "Haze" did this. Basically, at some point in the game, it's revealed that all these enemies you've been killing are actually innocent, but the drugs you've been taking make them look aggressive - or something to that effect.

    So what if the Ryan scene played out like this: At first, he looks completely insane like a splicer and he attacks you. Maybe right before this, he says, "Will you kindly put up a fight?" Naturally, the player will fight back. But once you kill him, he does his speech about slave/man/etc. etc., and reveals that actually, he didn't really attack you at all. It was just the brainwashing this whole time that made you think he was attacking you.

    And from that point on, you see that all the splicers you were killing were actually just harmless loonies. So you go off, swearing to find and kill Atlas.

  3. @Steven A.:
    That scene in Portal was so well-crafted. Valve knows what they are doing. :)

    And you raise a totally fascinating point. I think you're really onto something here. That moment is where Portal transitions from explicit goals (laid out for you by GlaDOS) to implicit ones (which need to be teased out from the environment by the player). So even though the game still makes liberal use of option restriction to lead you along, the feeling is totally different - by requiring the player to figure out their own goals, the game engages them so much more - along with the rebellious aspect leading them to feel like they are "going rogue" as you said.

    The great failure of Bioshock's reveal is that it doesn't result in a substantial mood change. So I think you're right - if Tenenbaum hadn't taken over for Atlas, and goals had become implicit instead, I have to think that would have solved most of the problem. Very interesting idea.

    I'm also intrigued by your other solution of simulating brainwashing, which eliminates part of the contradiction between plot and player experience and justifies the rest by establishing the equivalent of an unreliable narrator. Having played the game partially spoiled, this is actually what I thought they were going to do.

  4. Thanks for this post, Doctor Professor. I'm in agreement with the vast majority of it, but I do disagree with your central claim. In case you're interested, I argue the opposite side here and also in a forthcoming chapter in a Games and Ethics volume (and I'd be happy to send along the more scholarly version if you'd like).

  5. @Roger Travis:
    I'd definitely be interested in taking a look at the more scholarly version. Your argument intrigues me, but you lose me a little in the last few paragraphs. I'd like to see the fuller version and see if the extra detail helps make a few things more clear. I want to be sure I completely understand your position before I tell you why I disagree with something you never said. :)

    Also, "ludonarrative dissonance" is my new favorite phrase. "Ludic" is apparently the word I've been searching for for some time now - I thought maybe I could use "gamic" but it turns out to mean "sexual".

  6. Thanks for the blogs, found them a few days ago, and they make for great reading!

    What seems to be lacking in the games market these days is real decisions, and the consequences leading from those decisions. I enjoyed Dragon Age as the choices I made affected the world, and the path I followed (which is also a great way to extend the play length of a game!) So while all the tasks were explicit, there were true choices, which adds interest to the game, and deepen the players involvement, improving the immersion. While many sandbox games offer freedom to do other things, are they really that different to Bioshock? Prototype was a great game, but the plot progression relied on the same explicit goals as nearly all games, and my limited knowledge of GTA leads me to the same conclusion. Just because you can detour, does it really give you any freedom?