This post is part of the Overthinkery Reclamation Project, an effort to reclaim some very old posts that I wrote a long time ago. This particular post was first published on November 27th, 2013.
I wrote a bit yesterday about morality in gaming, although pretty broadly. Today I want to have a bit of a closer look at one particular trope in games, which you only ever find in games because it just wouldn’t work in any other media:
The player punch.
I’m using the term pretty differently to how TVTropes (which is where I got the name, but I seem to have misinterpreted somewhere along the line) defines it: according to them, a player punch is what happens when you introduce a likeable character with whom the player identifies before killing them off brutally, unexpectedly and generally permanently. There’s sort of a subcategory identified by TVT, involving forcing the player to kill a likeable or well-intentioned villain, and this is the line along which I tend to take the phrase.
To me, the player punch is what happens when you as a player realise that your actions have been immoral, misguided or somehow other than what you believed them to be. It’s a trope that depends heavily on the interactive nature of gaming, forcing the player to realise that for the sake of progressing in the story they’ve done something they’re distinctly uncomfortable with. Alternatively, the instruction to perform said uncomfortable act can be made explicit, in which case the player is hit by the fact that they cannot progress without following the game’s orders and inbuilt rules, forcing them to make a choice: switch the game off, never to be completed, or do something with which they are in some way not comfortable.
There’s one really, really good example of the player punch (by my definition) that I can think of having personally experienced, and that’s BioShock. There are a couple of others that I’ve played or heard of, but BioShock‘s always the one that sticks with me.
Here there be spoilers, so beware.
Okay. So BioShock was pretty well publicised before its release as being a game featuring a moral choice system. That wasn’t anything too new, but still uncommon enough to make it worth advertising as a feature. Thing is, the system that got the publicity was actually pretty binary: kill little girls for better resources, or let them live at the small cost of some useful goodies. Letting them live still yielded some ADAM (in-game currency used to buy and upgrade plasmids (supernatural powers such as shooting lightning or telekinesis)), just not as much, so the player was losing out on a little extra firepower by allowing the girls to live. Also notable is the fact that there was no real gameplay consequence for killing the girls: a lot of later games would introduce systems whereby moral choices made by the player would determine possible upgrades, story paths and so on, but the only thing affected by the player’s choice was the ending. The ending of BioShock took one of three forms: a good ending, for letting the girls live, or two variations of bad ending for killing some or all of the girls.
Thus the player’s choice was still pretty binary, choosing one of two options and getting one of a mere three endings, which isn’t really that many even by the standards of BioShock‘s 2007 release. Much earlier games like Knights of the Old Republic offered a lot more consequence for moral decisions: different ways of progressing, different story paths, different items, even different NPC companions and so on. The real moral substance of BioShock wasn’t in this simple system, however, but in the plot.
See, I think it was a pretty darn clever move, in hindsight. Emphasise this moral choice system in press releases, and you end up with a player who enters BioShock expecting a level of moral challenge and discussion. It’s then even more of a blindside when that expectation is fulfilled in a completely different way to what you were expecting.
BioShock was one of the biggest games to employ a meta-narrative at the time. Sure, indie games did a lot of it, and there were undoubtedly a whole lot of earlier games that dipped into or made explicit use of meta-narrative, but BioShock was probably the most commercially successful game of its era to make a new generation of gamers aware of it.
Meta-narrative, by the way, is another term I use a bit differently to the standard definition, just to be confusing. In literary theory and postmodernism, metanarrative is a sort of unified ‘Big Story’ encompassing everything. I’ve stuck a hyphen in my usage to differentiate, but in my general definition meta-narrative is to do with narrative which somehow includes or is aware of the player (hence why I call it meta-narrative even though that’s already a term meaning something else). BioShock‘s big punch comes in a second act twist that revolves around its awareness of its medium and the fact that there is a player at some level: it doesn’t ever go so far as to explicitly say that it knows it’s a game, or do something to the effect of OFF by outright referring to the player as a separate entity to the protagonist the player controls, but it is very much aware of its nature as an interactive piece of entertainment.
So here’s the big spoiler.
Throughout the first and second acts of BioShock (it’s very broadly a three-act structure in which the first two involve first discovering the world of Rapture and then taking on the mission to kill its creator; the third goes downhill a bit in most people’s view but it concerns taking out the real villain of the piece) the player takes orders over the radio from a man calling himself Atlas. He’s Irish, and rather nice. The trope of taking radio orders, by the way, is pretty common: TVTropes calls it ‘Mission Control‘. Anyway, the player pretty much has to do what Atlas says, because if they don’t they have no way of progressing with the story. That’s another trope, this one called ‘But Thou Must‘, and it basically concerns any instance in which the player appears to have some sort of agency but in fact has only a single viable option to continue the game.
Atlas is a gentle enough fella as far as ordering you about is concerned. He’s very polite, actually: he always says ‘Would you kindly?’ whenever he asks you to do something for him.
Well, ‘would you kindly’ is the player character’s trigger phrase. See, he’s been deliberately made to be compelled to follow any order given using this phrase: if someone said to him ‘would you kindly urinate on your own face’, he would have to do it. He literally can’t resist.
This fact is made known to the player around the end of the second act, and it’s one of my favourite twists ever in gaming because of how it works on the meta-narrative level. On a purely narrative level it’s still a neat twist, but when you think about how it affects you as a player it’s a lot more striking.Consider this: in order to progress the story of BioShock – in order to ever move towards completing the game – the player has no choice but to follow the objectives given to him or her. Refusal to do what they are told is not an option; to not fulfill the objectives while continuing to play would involve staying in the same level forever, since the player would have no way of moving to the next level without completing the prerequisite objectives. The only option is to switch off, and why would you do that? So the player follows the tasks given to them by Atlas, always with that trigger phrase, just as blindly as the player character. Neither the player nor the protagonist ever realise that they have no agency whatsoever, since both believe that following Atlas’ orders is the best (or only) way to complete their goals.
So BioShock‘s twist is effective sort of supra-narratively, which I think is pretty freaking cool. Its reveal is well done, too, since Andrew Ryan (ostensibly the antagonist, at least until this point) decides that the best way to prove it is to repeatedly give orders preceded by ‘would you kindly’. This is the only point in the game at which the player actually has no control whatsoever over the character’s actions, instead forced to sit back and watch as Ryan orders the protagonist to kill him (for complicated reasons, but it’s Ryan’s victory here, trust me). It really hammers home how little control over everything the player’s had until now, and it does kind of change the way you look at any linear-narrative game.
I didn’t mean to write that much. There’s probably more to get out of this, but that seems like enough for one day, don’t you think? Has anyone actually read this whole post? You crazy bastard, go and have a cuppa. Lie down or something.