Blog: 5,000 SPOILER-ED Words on B:I, Choice, and Why Storytelling in Games Still Sucks

*FULL DISCLOSURE: I wrote this on another website, and got almost no response. This is a repost of my own written work, I just want to share it with a community that's clearly interested in the game. If this in any way violates the terms of the site, I will dispose of the post immediately and apologize.*

I'M SORRY IF THIS BREAKS THE WORD COUNT

“There are too many ideas and things and people. Too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something, is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.”

“I’ll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit. Find an ending, but don’t cheat, and don’t you dare bring in a deus ex machina. Your characters must change, and the change must come from them. Do that, and you’ll be fine.”

Written by Charlie Kaufman, 2002’s Adaptation, from which the above quotes are pulled, is among the most trenchant and brutally accurate films ever made about the psychological horrors of the creative process. In the movie, Charlie Kaufman, a self-loathing screenwriter, is hired by Columbia Pictures to translate the poetic, but diffuse novel The Orchid Thief into a Hollywood script. Kaufman (the real one) drew from his own experience struggling to adapt the real Orchid Thief into a very real Hollywood picture for the also very real Columbia Pictures. You don’t even have to know that Nicholas Cage plays the lead to get the sense thatAdaptation revels in layers of meta-parody and self-reflexivity that even the cast of Communitywould think is a bit much.

A medium learning to perceptively look inward can be a prime sign of its growing maturity. Once the playbook has been firmly established (and probably grown a little stale), it can be a breath of fresh air to see new works that appraise, skewer, or just ask, why it is a genre, or concept has developed in the popular culture the way it has. But introspection is also the first step towards navel-gazing. Creative self-absorption can easily be mistaken for depth, so it doesn’t take much for a work’s “eat your heart out” awareness of convention to get winked and nudged over the line of insightful, and into a position where the whole work just becomes a masturbatory exercise in tail swallowing.

It’s a creatively dangerous diet, especially for those who stick with it for long periods. To bring back an example from TV’s most prominent genre, the sitcom, you could compareCommunity’s early years -which exuded boundless creativity when recognizing, and subverting the staples of its species-, with what the show has become lately: one of many post-modern, post-Friends comedies to mine laughs from biting the hand of sit/romcom tropes and cliches that feed it. For my money, Adaptation is, on aggregate, squarely between these two extremes (call it too clever by a quarter), as its all-encompassing quirk pushes into territory so far passed the baseline, that you’re not sure whether it’s being clever, self-indulgent, or both.

The same could be said of Bioshock: Infinite, the latest from Irrational Games that, depending on how you approach it, can look like a magnum opus, or an overreaching Ouroboros; the same coin, a different perspective, to borrow the game’s own words. Few video games have stoked quite the conflagration of textual dissection this one has, which is a rare, welcome sight for a medium where “how does it play” is usually the primary point of interest. Infinite scratches an itch that’s only grown more irritating with the medium’s continued evolution, the continued dearth of gaming experiences that hook into a user’s emotional, intellectual centers, and not just the adrenaline gland. It asks the player to engage beyond the surface, default experience of gaming as entertainment, and offers itself up for analysis. Where most other triple-A titles want to be a rollercoaster, Bioshock says, “You must commit this much thought to enjoy the ride.”

It’s not what you might expect from a first-person shooter that lets you zip around on aerial train tracks, and makes a major visual motif out of ol’ timey, big top carnival fairgrounds (brilliantly, the game’s initial tutorials are designed as midway games). Infinite’s classically inspired story is a tale as old as BurgerTime: play the hero, and rescue the princess. As always, it’s the details that separate it from the mold. The protagonist is an alcoholic ex-Pinkerton, Booker DeWitt, and the princess’s tower is located in the mobile heart of the floating sky city, Columbia, an astounding achievement for the game’s time period, 1912. But, despite the rip-roaring, fantastical setting, the refrain heard from Booker’s mysterious benefactors underscores a simple drive at the center of the narrative: bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.

Or, so it would seem. Tread no further, ye of little stomach for spoilers, because we’re going to have to dive deep into Bioshock: Infinite’s secrets to really have this conversation. For the vast majority of other games, books, movies –you name it-, story analysis is not intrinsically tied to an ending, but Bioshock: Infinite makes for a rare exception. The jaw slackening, head scratch-inducing final minutes are inseparable from the rest of the plot, because the events leading up to the finale aren’t what you thought they were once the game lays its last card on the table. Hard to believe as it is, critic claims that “you’ll want to replay it immediately” aren’t just flashy back-of-the-box quotes: the second sampling is, arguably, when the real Infiniteexperience begins.

Frankly, any explanation I give of the endgame revelations will likely be more convoluted and lengthy than the game’s Wikipedia article, so lets move forward assuming we’re all on the same page: Booker=Comstock, Elizabeth=Anna, Songbird=Big Daddy, Bioshock=Bioshock: Infinite=Bioshock N+1. There’s so much to unpack in the game’s final twenty minutes, that the ultimate moment of immersion might be Booker and the player simultaneously getting nosebleeds from confusion, but the big takeaway is that the Bioshock: Infinite we experience as Booker is but one of countless worlds in the “Shock” universe.

Though it’s introduced early, the few rules we learn about Bioshock’s multiverse in the moments before the credit roll make you feel a million little lightbulbs go off in your head like the endless cascade of lighthouses. Booker always picks heads and doesn’t row because they’re constants across universes! The dead guy in the lighthouse was an assassin placed by Comstock! The Luteces aren’t a Twin Peaks-ian take on Rosencrantz & Gildenstern: they’re the same person from parallel universes, and are using their omniscient powers to help you close a paradox spanning the entirety of creation. Of course! Playing the game a second time gives off a powerful, “blind, but now I see,” sensation, as the foreshadowing of things to come is dense throughout, with much of the game’s ambiguity and quirk simply being code you lacked the cipher for.

You could probably measure a bump in the stock prices of corkboard, pushpins, and coloured twine following the game’s March 26th release. Head over to any major gaming site with aBioshock: Infinite thread, and you’ll find people pouring over the details of Booker DeWitt’s death like it were the Warren Commission. Every detail, and piece of dialogue is up for scrutiny by fans, who have come up with insightful, insane, and thoroughly entertaining readings on what everything in the game means. Infinite has gotten its hooks into gamers in some truly inspiring ways; people have gone down the rabbit hole for this game, and many seem keen to keep digging that hole deeper. Ken Levine and Irrational Games have crafted a game that has people talking about not moments, or sequences, but narrative, structure, and theme. On this count, Bioshock: Infiinte stands as an achievement for the shooter genre, and the medium as a whole…

…. But I still find myself of two minds about it. I’m torn, so to speak, between one world, where Bioshock: Infiinite is a triumphant celebration of what an interactive medium can accomplish, and another, where the game’s virtuoso finale just shines a light on how far behind most gaming is as a means of storytelling, Infinite included. The “twist” pulls the rug, the floorboards –pretty much any solid footing- out from under the player, not just in terms of the game’s story, but all story in games. Infinite boldly challenges the player to pick it to pieces, confident that all the I-s and T-s of its plot are dotted and crossed. On this, it’s hard to disagree: Levine and company have built themselves a plot airtight enough to soar on. But by inviting us to engage with that plot on a deeper level, to take it seriously, and throw out the old excuse of “it’s just a videogame,” Infinite starts punching above its weight class.

Don’t mistake me: plenty of Infinite’s clever bits discovered during the second pass are just that. The dialogue is absolutely overflowing with nods, irony, and cheeky in-jokes -once you know what to look for-, and even gameplay mechanics, like Booker reviving after death, suddenly have an in-universe explanation. My personal favorite trick pulled off by the finale, is that it retroactively not just excuses, but makes it important that Bioshock: Infinite plays largely the same way the original Bioshock did. It takes cojones of sterling silver to tell a player that, yeah, they’re basically playing the same game they did six years ago, and that’s the whole point. Talking in TV terms, it’s pretty much the anti-Lost: it’s got an answer for everything.

The bases of the plot are all well covered on a mechanical level, but therein lies the question: if video games are, at their core, a series of assembled mechanics, can their stories be anything more than that? It sounds nebulous, but there’s a world of difference between a good plot and a good story. Plot tells you why something happens; story tells you why you should care. There are plenty of game stories that pull off the low-impact enjoyment of an airport detective novel, drawing you into a Rube Goldberg machine of moving parts and happenstance that moves efficiently down a pre-determined path. But are there games out there that engage with the user on a more than purely mechanical level, where you’re not being given a story, but sharing it, allowing you to bring your own thoughts, opinions, and feelings to the table, and giving them an outlet through gameplay?

The answer: HELL YES. The Walking Dead, Portal, and Journey are just a few of the more recent examples of games that are a story, instead of just games with a story. And when you look beyond the medium-to-big developers, and into the ever-expanding world of independent development, you’ll find games like Bastion and To The Moon showing how interaction with a work of fiction can lead to unique, never-before-seen kinds of storytelling. But these games aren’t successful simply because they contain a greater percentage of the experience that’s story-related; Metal Gear Solid has enough plot and exposition to fill half the Library of Congress, but it’s only partially successful as storytelling. The difference between games that have great storytelling, and the overwhelmingly greater number of those that don’t, isn’t so much a problem of content, as it is medium.

Every work of art is, in one way or another, a story, one that’s told through the language of the medium it belongs to. A portrait is a just someone’s face until the artist’s choice of color, and detail makes you see a person. A script is just a sequence of words until someone figures out how to capture those words in motion with a camera. What makes games different from almost all other entertainment and art forms is that the experience is about direct interaction, not observation. You, as the player, are experiencing a story more intensely by having agency within it. In theory, gaming extrapolates our feelings of identification with the characters we see on the theatre screen, or read about on the written page, by putting us in their shoes, and letting us control their actions.

That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, the uphill battle video games have faced in gaining recognition as art has been made all the more difficult by the restrictions interactivity poses storytelling. When placing even a modicum of control in the hands of the observer, the artist enhances the audience’s sense of physical engagement, but has made achieving intellectual and emotional engagement exponentially more difficult. Participant control, the thing that makes video games, well, video games, causes traditionally hardlocked elements of storytelling to become fluid. Like a couple of kids at their first high school dance, story and gameplay have been awkwardly circling each other for the better part of a half century, never embracing each other in a way that leaves both parties satisfied.

Bioshock: Infinite offers up a simpler, less under-age-sex-implying analogy for the disconnect: constants, and variables. In most video games, the story is a constant. We all watch the same cinematics, we all hear the same dialogue, and we all check off the same plot points. Gameplay is the variable: where you go left, I might go right. Where you wield a broadsword, I might fancy a bow. You choose Charmander, I choose Squirtle. Through those choices, the user begins constructing a narrative for their experience unlike anyone else’s. Endless permutations become possible within even very simple systems, so from a gameplay perspective, the journey from left to right in Super Mario Bros. is every bit as unique to each individual player as 100 hours of Skyrim.

It’s that freedom that makes accountability for things like pacing, and characterization nearly impossible. “Linearity” has become a dirty word in the industry, and developers often try to give the player as many options as possible for their gameplay experience. But with each new system and layer of customization added, the variables stack up higher and higher, while the constants remain roughly the same. Cutscenes, the most widely used form of video game plot delivery, act like train stations that funnel all players to the same point, eventually. The rail the player has ridden on will loop and swerve according to their whims, but everyone eventually arrives at the same station.

Many developers have assumed that giving the player more options enhances immersion, but with every bell and whistle added, the narrative focus becomes more diluted. Bethesda’sFallout and Elder Scrolls games allow the player near limitless control over the development of their character, and the pace at which they progress through the main story. As a result, the main quest line is always a generic, flavorless gruel, because it has to accommodate “Galadriaz,” the honorable, magic-wielding high elf, as well as “PwnSaw,” the 4-foot tall heavy weapons expert who kills every NPC they come across. The tired RPG plot of “the chosen one,” in which destiny proclaims that only the player character can save the world, exists because it’s about the only way to create dramatic stakes out of an unknowable protagonist. I can play Mass Effect‘s Commander Shepard as the biggest asshole in the galaxy, but because he’s Space Jesus, other characters won’t mind. What else are they going to do, side with the ancient returning evil that threatens all of mankind?

Good storytelling depends on strong, consistent characterization, and the Star Wars cantina scene provides a great example why. In the original cut, Han shoots Greedo without provocation, establishing him as ruthless and self-interested. In the Special Editions, it’s Greedo who opens fire, and Han puts him down in self-defense. The actions relevant to the overall plot are unchanged, because Han is alive and Greedo is dead, but our interpretation of the character is wildly different because of the path taken to the plot point. Now, imagine that scene with your typical first-person shooter gamer in control: what’s our impression of Han for the rest of the trilogy if in one version of the scene, he shoots the ceiling because he didn’t invert the controls, and in another, he loots, then T-bags Greedo’s corpse? How can any story adapt to the multitude of different versions of the same character that exists because of what a player chooses to do?

That’s only half the issue though. What’s more problematic, is that what the user controls (gameplay) and what the developer controls (plot), are still so radically different, a uniform synthesis of the two is nearly impossible. When analyzing the original Bioshock, Clint Hocking coined the phrase “ludonarrative dissonance” to describe the gulf between the story we create through gameplay actions, and what we’re being told the story is through cutscenes. Unsurprisingly, the two are often incompatible, and if anything, the dissonance has only gotten worse this generation, because while cutscenes and writing have gotten better and better, gameplay has been mostly static.

Take, for instance, Uncharted 2, a third-person shooter with some of the best cinematics, and dialogue in the business. The animation is lifelike without becoming uncanny, and the exceptional voice acting turns mounds of pixels and effects into living, breathing characters. Importantly, there’s strong visual consistency between the cutscenes and the gameplay; Sony marketed the game by selling the transition between each as so seamless, you’d mistake the package for a movie. And they’re right: when you’re watching Uncharted 2, it’s almost indistinguishable from an animated action-adventure movie…

…but when you’re playing it, which is ostensibly the point of any game, the dissonance is like a splash of ice water to the face. During player-controlled combat, Drake can eat bullets like they were his morning Wheaties, but when he’s in a cutscene, gunshots have the intended effect. Death, meanwhile, becomes more of a threat to immersion than progress, because no matter how intensely dire the scrape you’re in, a checkpoint is always there to cushion your fall down the game’s 100-foot chasms. Most damning, is that while the developer presents Drake as a brash buckler of swash that’s ultimately good at heart, you have to wonder if you’re really playing the hero when the game makes it impossible to experience Drake’s story without killing hundreds and hundreds of faceless thugs and goons. Watching Uncharted 2makes you think it’s a rip-roaring adventure starring the secret love child of John McClane and Indiana Jones. Playing it makes you question how Drake can sleep at night.

Control becomes a membrane separating two different states of existence, and like Booker, your brain might scramble itself ginning up a logic to justify what you’re witnessing. In my mind, most games use gameplay as “interpretive presentation,” providing a rough, interactive take on the connective tissue between plot points. No, my party in Final Fantasy isn’t just standing idly while they take turns whacking a monster over the head, I’m just filling in bits of the adventure that aren’t dramatically relevant with gameplay. This becomes harder to rationalize the more engaging the storytelling is, though. A silly, or poorly told story can make the cutscenes appear as of a piece with the actions of the player, but the more realistic and human the dramatics try to be, the louder the dissonance becomes if the gameplay is too “gamey.”

Somewhat fittingly, Bioshock: Infinite maintains its predecessor’s ludonarrative dissonance. The game’s primary form of interaction, shooting, undermines our impression of Booker, who’s presented as having been deeply traumatized by his involvement in the Wounded Knee Massacre. This Booker doesn’t jibe with the one we spend most of the game inhabiting, as the game is designed such that completing it requires a kill count in the hundreds. There’s a moment when the inconsistency is recognized: Elizabeth is rightfully horrified by Booker after he shoots up a ticket station to protect her, but she comes over to his way of doing things within minutes. The game doesn’t so much address the elephant in the room, as point it out, then decide to ignore it. The excuse of “self-defense” gets harder to buy as the game progresses. A low-key moment like Elizabeth singing to calm a frightened street rat is comically undercut when you remember that 30 seconds ago, Booker had to kill a half-dozen shanty town-dwellers, because he looted the wrong cash register, and triggered the hostile state of the previously benign NPCs.

The cutscenes tell you that the violent actions committed by the characters have weight, and damage them deeply (Elizabeth killing Fitzroy, for instance, has appropriate gravitas), but when the core gameplay comes down to shooting, electrocuting, and eviscerating everything that stands in your way, the message gets muddled. In the case of something like, say, Metal Gear: Solid,gameplay is designed to allow the player pacifist options that are consistent with the characterization of Solid Snake, who’s presented as a master of stealth first, and firearms second. Infinite offers no such alternatives, As it turns out, the player’s true purpose is to take responsibility for the more widespread, forgotten violence that “game” Booker commits, so that “story” Booker can still act in the cutscenes like he’s got a shred of decency.

The writing makes Bioshock: Infinite appear forward thinking and progressive, but many of the mechanics it’s built around are either ancient, or inherently flawed as means of telling a story. From a design perspective, Irrational deserves massive praise for structuring a game around near-constant partnership with an A.I., and the whole thing not turning out to be a gigantic fustercluck. Elizabeth is an extremely valuable partner in combat, often knowing the exact moment when tossing the player a health pack, or salt vial, is the difference between life, and the minor inconveniences of death. Her insights into Columbia help flesh out the world, and there’s an interesting dynamic that develops by having two leads that are both fish out of water, but from different ponds.

Yet, her sustained presence will often break the immersion within moments of her having patched it back up. Irrational hasn’t so much fixed the escort mission as ignored its biggest problem, by making Elizabeth invulnerable, and invisible to enemies during combat. When Comstock’s finest soldiers don’t bat an eye about firing rockets within inches of Columbia’s heir apparent, you could be misled into thinking the game’s big twist will involve Elizabeth being the Bruce Willis to Booker’s Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. As exposition-delivery, Elizabeth’s reactions to set landmarks along the game’s mostly linear path, while frequent and expertly choreographed, don’t number enough to make up for the dead air that passes between “gameplay” Booker and Elizabeth for long stretches. Unless safely within the controlled confines of the cutscenes, Elizabeth isn’t a character: she’s a cash machine, a get of jail free card, or a tour guide, depending on what the gameplay situation calls for.

The more naturalistic, environmental storytelling that Irrational is much better at is similarly hamstrung by outdated means of information delivery. Voxophones, collectible audio recordings that let you eavesdrop on the conversations of relevant or random people, have a massive impact on your understanding of both Columbia, and the greater Bioshock universe. Half of the early discussion about the game’s finale was the result of players having come to it with different pieces of the puzzle assembled, because finding the recordings and listening to them is optional. While there’s a case to be made for how hiding exposition encourages player exploration, the Voxophones present another case of design undermining internal narrative logic. In many cases, both the content, and the placement of the devices stretches believability, with personal diaries, private conversations, even criminal confessions strewn about the environments like litter, appearing at just the right moment to provide some context for something nearby.

Then, once you’ve taken a step back, and looked at the story as a whole, you start to see the shortcuts the game has to take to make its big finish work. The early thematic overtones of racism and jingoism mostly disappear once the dimension-hopping element is added to the mix, to the detriment of many characters. Daisy Fitzroy, the initially intriguing leader of Columbia’s revolutionary faction, becomes a one-note madwoman, as giving Booker someone to fight becomes more important than exploring why everyone is fighting in the first place. Meanwhile, the de facto villain of the game, Comstock, barely registers any sort of personality beyond that of a paternalistic demagogue, out of a need to keep players from cluing into his connection to Booker. The second playthrough casts the plot in a whole new light, but it also makes you aware of how much gets hemorrhaged from the first playthrough to make that so.

The thing is, it’s obvious that Ken Levine and Irrational have the potential to be some of the best storytellers in the business. The game takes a huge risk with its finale, by not just expanding the scope of the story, but contracting it as well. Sure, the lighthouse concept blows the scale of the game out to previously unfathomable proportions, but the story ultimately does come down to the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth. Levine latches onto that relationship like a life preserver in the ocean of metaphysics and metacommentary he’s thrown himself into, and wisely so. Without the two leads, there’s such existential, even nihilistic discomfort created through the multiverse concept, that we as an audience would be lost without something human anchoring all the far-out philosophy and theory-spinning.

But is it enough to make the final moments land with the desired emotional heft? For the most part, I’d say yeah, sure. It may take you a couple viewings to pickup on all its intricacies, butBioshock: Infiinite’s last ten minutes are essentially flawless in how deftly they complete Levine’s magic trick. The feeling of surprise, and enlightenment it elicits is neither cheap, nor easy for anyone in any medium to produce, and for that, Irrational should be proud. But once the shock has worn off, and you start thinking about the things that make Infinite powerful, it being a game isn’t one of them. It’s fun to play, and looks gorgeous, but the thing that elevates it above the status of entertainment, that makes it stick with you, and want to think about it obsessively, is the story. And that story, sadly, isn’t just underserved by the medium that it’s being told in, but irreparably compromised by it.

If it weren’t for the game’s meta leanings, I’d feel way worse about making the completely hack-ish and obvious analogy that, like, Bioshock: Infinite is the real Columbia, man! A la Comstock’s hypnotizing blend of religious fanaticism and American exceptionalism, the game wants to assemble a perfect creation from the cherry-picked strengths of two separate, but incompatible disciplines. Did Irrational set out to make a tight, exciting first-person shooter with RPG elements, or did they want to tell a gripping and affecting story? As is overwhelmingly the case for the rest of the video game industry, it seems that the former had to wind up being the priority.

When a game’s story is the byproduct of gameplay, existing to justify the transition from one level, environment, or setpiece to another, the recurring critical complaint that brainless distractions like the Transformers films are “like a video game,” seems depressingly apt. In most cases, a script is always going to be of secondary importance to game development’s true bible, the design doc, so it’s hard to blame the writers. Imagine if screenwriters were given barely related, audio-free film reels, and then had to cobble together a coherent story out of them by overdubbing all the dialogue? Columbia shares much of Rapture’s awe-inspiring beauty, and astonishing attention to detail, but video game world building is only as memorable as the way in which we experience the world we’re in. Bioshock: Infinite has the plot of a historically-minded, but personal sci-fi epic, but gameplay, the thing that turns that plot into a story, and makes the game a game, is from the school of mindless action movies.

That’s not to say an action movie can’t have a great story, far from it. In fact, Bioshock shows clear inspiration from one of Hollywood’s most successful modern directors, Christopher Nolan, who’s made a name for himself crafting films that balance story and action masterfully. In many ways, Infinite’s plot is one big amalgamation of various twists and themes from the Nolan canon. From Memento, it takes the singular character perspective, and amnesiac protagonist. From The Prestige, a strong emphasis on duality, reinforced by an ending that makes you reexamine the whole work on second viewing. Inception’s reality-challenging philosophy, and ambiguous ending also show a clear overlap. Hell, Bioshock even imitatesThe Dark Knight Rises, by introducing socio-political themes involving wealth disparity and class inequality, only to dump those themes completely by the halfway marker.

If video game blockbusters are going to ape the blockbusters coming out of Hollywood, they could pick far worse sources of inspiration than Nolan. His films, much like Bioshock, are intensely constructed puzzle boxes, layering ideas and plot points so intricately, that the characters themselves sometimes feel ike cogs in the machinery. But Nolan is more successful at having it both ways, at getting to tell micro personal stories, along with the blood-pumping, labyrinthine macro plot, because film is a solitary medium. It is consistent with itself, and has been for over a century. Triple-A gaming, meanwhile, continues to think that the key to becoming a better storytelling medium means becoming more like cinema, which is entirely false. Gaming doesn’t need more realistic cutscenes and better writing: it needs design that more accurately translates those cutscenes and that writing into gameplay.

The aforementioned examples of landmark storytelling in gaming all provide proof of how rethinking core gameplay design, and presentation, is essential for the medium’s advancement. Portal, for instance, is about as close as a game has ever come to putting you in control of a player-character’s actual thought process. Because the player’s only means of interacting with the game world is through puzzle solving, there’s a near 1-to-1 degree of transference between the player’s thoughts, and Chell’s. Using a silent protagonist makes the player better able to transpose their own emotional identity onto the protagonist, so we see the world of Aperture Science from our own eyes, not the character’s, designer’s, or writer’s. The story itself is relatively simple, and its outcome is out of the player’s hands, but the great writing, and near absence of ludonarrative narrative dissonance make it consistent, memorable, and powerful.

A more ambitious, and equally laudable title is something like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, which allows the player to control both the path, and presentation of its story. With Lee Everett, an independently talking, thinking, feeling protagonist, The Walking Dead casts the player not as the star of the story, but as its director. Through conversations with other characters, and frequent decision-making, the player is defining Lee through the choices they make, either as a representation of their own morals and values, or as the player’s interpretation of how they believe this character would react in a given situation. Those choices alter the path of the narrative only slightly in terms of plot, but because those choices are grounded, and the player’s to make, their impact is massive.

The ultimate outcome of a game’s story doesn’t need to be radically altered by my actions: I just need to believe that my actions have meaning within the world I’m inhabiting. Games have been trying harder and harder to be the garden of forking paths, to be Bioshock: Infinite’s sea of lighthouses, creating unique experiences by piling on gameplay variables, but neglecting the importance of their core constants. If games want to become a more respected, and better storytelling platform, choice needs to affect emotions, not gameplay; that might mean reigning in the diversity of interaction a player can have, but when the journey is good enough, it won’t matter that the destination is set in code…

…and now that we’re talking in “inspirational-English-class-poster” platitudes, that’s probably as good a cue as any that it’s time to wrap things up. Look, Bioshock: Infiniteis one hell of a game, and will probably go down as the swan song for an entire generation of consoles. But with shiny new hardware just starting to crest on the horizon, now’s the best possible time for developers to take a long, hard look at the future of gaming, and make a choice about what they want it to be. Will we just keep adding more wax and spit-shine to the same old carnival rides, or are we going to work on making more games worthy of a museum, ones that can be cherished across generations of people, not just hardware? Because that’s the thing: mechanics may age, graphics will date, and consoles will die, but a truly great story, regardless of medium, is always going to be timeless.

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