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Deciphering the story through History

As far as the video game medium is concerned, most of the pieces of work are not settled in the real world, facilitating the player’s immersion into an imaginary world which is, by definition, rarely based on reality and History. However, creating a world where non-fictional characters are mentioned or represented underscores the virtual veracity of the world in which the player progresses so as to create an after-taste of déjà vu. As an example, the financial system used in Bioshock Infinite directly refers to the American economy for the currency in Columbia is the American Silver Eagle which was first struck in San Francisco in 1986. Having this knowledge, the player could understand the use of this currency in Columbia as a prophecy towards American economy as Columbia was “launched” in 1893, in other words a century before the first Silver Eagle coin was struck, leading the player to reflect upon the dollar currency’s sustainability.
Hence, introducing real elements includes historical characters which is a means to give the player notice of the discussion of ideologies. Unlike the Schlusselroman genre, video games present non-fictional characters in order to underscore the possible reality of the story told, which implies that the player has to make enquiries so as to fully comprehend the whole settled background. For instance, after having been baptised, Booker wakes up in a basin overhung by three statues representing the most famous Founding Fathers. Each one of them is holding an element symbolising their own role in the United States’ history. George Washington carries the sword in his hands, reminding his key role in the Battle of Trenton in 1776 during the Independence War. Thomas Jefferson holds a scroll, implying the impact he had on political reforms and Benjamin Franklin bears the key, which represents his imagination and role as an inventor. Furthermore, they are deified by their faithful, summoning their strength by advocating each Father’s quality, and closing their prayer by a Christian-like trinity which combines the American religious and political devotion “By the sword… And the Scroll… And the Key… Amen. (Bioshock Infinite)”6
However, the science fiction genre needs a scientific approach in order to base the plot and the whole created world on a credibility that can motivate the player to discover more about the mysteries of science. In fact, science has always been a mystery to laymen who do not know an ounce of physics and astrophysics. Elaborating a whole scientific system based on common beliefs or on easy-to-understand theories enables the player to think that he knows more about science than before, which is, in a way, bolstering the player’s fantasies about the unknown and the feasible. Then, science-fiction video games often counter the real theories or adapt them. In Bioshock Infinite, the city of Columbia floats in the air, but does not fly. Indeed, one of the fictional physicists named Rosalind Lutece explains her researches in opposition to Newton’s gravity theories by having created the Lutece Particle by saying that the “atom simply failed to fall. If an atom could be suspended indefinitely, well — why not an apple? If an apple, why not a city (Bioshock Infinite, “A City Suspended”)?”7 Although the particle is the absolute opposition of Newton’s discoveries, making it completely irrational and imaginary, the fact that the fairy-tale discovery is compared to a real scientist’s research breaks the wall between the possible and the impossible, which pulls apart the fantasy genre from science-fiction, and defines the latter’s essence. Moreover, in Mass Effect, human dreams to conquer space are shown in the space-opera genre, relied on more recent researches on potential extra-terrestrial life such as the discovery of water on Mars. This led the scriptwriter, Drew Karpyshyn, to extrapolate on potential technological discoveries that will allow humanity to expand their race throughout the galaxy which can be compared to Christopher Columbus discovering a new world. Then, the introduction board in the first Mass Effect, after an introduction scene showing Earth completed with a dialog on a voice-over reveals humanity’s major role in the galaxy.

The immersion into an open world

Ken Levine differentiates cinema and video games by saying that in films “you are an observer […] and you see the same thing as I do (Game In Ciné n°81)”8 whereas in video games the player is free to make his own interpretations and no longer witnesses the events but participates in the way the game has programmed him to do. Yet, in both of the sagas analysed, differences can be perceived on the immersion offered to the gamer. In the Bioshock series, the player cannot see the character because the game genre is a First Person Shooter, giving the player the ability to see the action through the character’s eyes, favouring the player’s direct immersion. Thus, apart from the introduction and the conclusion scenes, there are not any cut-scenes breaking up the action with a sequence where the player is turned into a passive spectator. Furthermore, it gives the player the ability to move around where an important event is happening, to see details that might not be seen without this freedom and what is more to enable the player to create his own gaming experience. Nevertheless, the Mass Effect series is based on another narrative system. In fact, a cut-scene can break up the action at any time, even in the middle of an epic battle. Yet, in no instance does it damage the player’s immersion. On the contrary, it increases his immersion for the cut-scenes are punctuated with a User Interface giving dialog possibilities allowing the player to get more information on the situation by clicking on the “investigate” button or to decide on pursuing the action by choosing an answer which can have heavy consequences on the narration.
However, the cut-scenes are not the only means to differentiate the open-world game from the interactive movie. In the Bioshock series, the path must be followed but there is a lot of hidden rooms and districts to discover and to loot so as to find weapon or power upgrades. From a less practical point of view, the player can discover clues on the plot. The main difference between cinema and video games is once more underscored through the player’s freedom to progress in a world at the rhythm he wants, revealing detail such as parodies of paintings or propaganda. Therefore, each of the districts that can be searched through are differently designed, in such a way that it reveals the tone of the events to follow. Thus, the Bioshock series is not a complete open-world game for the player has to follow the narrative trail which is purposefully meant to be complicated to force the character to look around and find NPCs that might give an important clue or a comment on the city, adding background information to the player’s knowledge of the fictional universe.
The conception of Mass Effect’s open-world system is completely different. As its genre is a space opera, the spaceship has a main role. The SSV Normandy is used as the hub of the game, instead of browsing an aseptic menu, the player wanders about the ship where he can upgrade Shepard’s equipment in each room that has a special use such as the infirmary, the armoury etc. Hereafter, the player feels the openness and space by a galactic map, which can be consulted at any time aboard the ship. The map guides the player in infinity by showing them the key events, the priority missions and the side quests that the player can achieve in the preferred order. As a comparison to literature, the player chooses the chapters he wants to read first, even though the narrative line could be broken for a couple of hours. Hence, the player journeys in the universe where he can scan planets to see if he can land on or to see if there is a quest to be accomplished. Moreover, there are side quests within the principal missions which can have an impact on the saga’s ending. For, the aim of Mass Effect 3, is to gather as much as war assets, in order to have a maximum chance to defeat the Reapers. Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2’s side quests are valuable because the player encounters a large amount of people, who will give him passive support so as to stop the conflict. Yet, the open-world forces the player to discover the worlds and the galaxy with a punishment system. In Mass Effect 2, Shepard’s ship is too weak to journey through the Omega 4 Relay, this said, he can improve it by asking his crew if they have upgrade ideas, which makes the player talk to the NPCs. After having obtained upgrade blueprints, the player has to scan a large amount of planets in the galaxy, divided in systems, themselves divided in clusters. This gameplay element challenges the player’s patience to see if he prefers to play in a more secure way and upgrade the ship or to rush into the Relay blindly, which has higher probabilities to alternate the narration by killing Shepard’s crew, and by not seeing them again in Mass Effect 3. The ultimate goal of an open-world narration is above all a background-telling technique: while roaming in Mass Effect, the player can hear additional dialogs from non-important NPCs giving their points of view and can talk to them to get information on what is going on. Sometimes he gets additional quests that he can decide whether he completes them or not which will add entries to the Codex. Divided into two parts – primary and secondary – the Codex consists in regrouping the historical facts including wars, discoveries, treaties, and even descriptions on the different races. Although the Mass Effect saga is comprehensive in its artistic way, the universe offered by Karpyshyn cannot tell the whole background, which gives the Codex a major role in completing information on the world. Then, the player can choose to complete it to fulfil his desire of knowledge or not to complete it in order to keep a taste of mystery.
Hence, even if the player cannot interact with any character in Bioshock, he can find audio logs, giving him the possibility to listen to them. Instead of giving theoretical facts such as Mass Effect’s Codex, the audio logs are not used so as to present ideas and a timeline, but they criticise more, for the audio diaries that can be found were mainly recorded immediately after an event to which the player cannot witness. Both average citizens and high-ranking protagonists give their opinion in an absolute subjective way. With this means, the audio diary system enhances the player’s immersion for listening to a non-real person speaking and testifying with a real intonation and implied feelings helps the player to detect irony providing the gamer with a more subjective point of view from the scriptwriters.

Constants and Variables

Breaking the cycle of life

Motifs such as time and paradox provide the narration with reflections upon continuity in various aspects. One of the goals of science-fiction stories is to offer plausible answers to questions that are still unexplained. First of all, the cycle of life transcends humans’ comprehension, feeding them with fascination and fantasies. The presence of cycles in the narration is based on various theories defining the very essence of life. Indeed, the idea of metamorphosis of the organic races in Mass Effect derives from Antoine Lavoisier’s famous quotation on the transformation of substances. Although the whole saga’s plot is constructed on a war between the council races and the Reapers, and the narration has a beginning and an end, the game only tells a fragment of the galactic history. For, the Reaper named Sovereign encountered in Mass Effect 1 breaks the concept of war even before it started. In point of fact, Sovereign maintains the idea of inevitable extermination by insisting that “the cycle cannot be broken (Mass Effect 1)”9. This intelligent race is deified above all the others that did not create their own technology but discovered the Reaper’s one that purposefully spread it around the galaxy to speed up the extermination cycles. Furthermore, the ancient race named these entities as “Reapers”, suggesting the living races’ powerlessness facing their fate, organics being underestimated by the Reapers as “rudimentary creatures of blood, and flesh (idem)”10Yet, the cycle created to preserve life is comparable to harvest: the Reapers only annihilate the advanced races, and use them. Even though the human-like Reaper encountered in Mass Effect 2 is unfinished, it is explained that the Reapers create one of them with the fluid taken from their victims, and the newly formed Reaper will resemble the harvested species. The dead people that are assimilated by the Reapers are turned into a symbiotic machine made of organic and synthetic elements, transferring their old lives into a inimitable life gathering a whole species into a single body, making all of the Reapers different, “each a nation (idem)” 11 without any weaknesses. At this point, we can notice a remarkable adaptation of the Bible, telling the status of man in the cycle of life: “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. (King James Bible, Ecclesiastes 12:7)”12 The very nature of dust is here defined in the victim’s integration, revealing that a single individual is nothing, but once gathered it becomes grand and powerful. Accordingly, in Mass Effect 3, the Catalyst rejects the idea of massacre but defines the cycle as a way to “help [the organics] ascend (Mass Effect 3)”13. Once more, the reference about the soul merging with a superior entity emphasises the way organic life is gathered by the Reapers’ side, turned into one of them in order to pursue the cycle of preserving organic existence.
However, the cycle of life can be broken with the refusal of death. Resurection is often used (and sometimes abused) in science-fiction genre with the goal of making a character come back to life and allowing him to fulfil his task or even to galvanise the narration since the protagonist’s charisma can influence its life expectancy and even his death expectancy. For example a character deprived of charisma such as the SSV Normandy’s Navigator Charles Pressly in Mass Effect, dies at the beginning of the second opus after the ship was destroyed by a Collector’s ship. He was not a key character since his dialog pattern rarely varied and did not give any significant information on the mission. However, Shepard, who also died during the attacks by saving the last members of his crew, is resurrected by the baptism terrorist organisation Cerberus codenamed Project Lazarus, which conveys a direct reference to the biblical Lazarus. Cerberus’ project is to bring Shepard back to life, as he originally was in the first opus in an attempt to restore the narrative line and to allow the player to meet Shepard again as he created him.
Nevertheless, physical resurrection is not the only way to maintain the cycle. Baptism in Bioshock Infinite is a recurring motif throughout the game which influences the narration with the twist saying that Booker is Comstock. Originally, baptism is used to wash the sins and start a new life, whereas we can notice in the game a transgression of the first sacrament for there are two ways Booker is baptised. The final twist enlightens the birth of the Prophet by showing Booker choosing to “clean the slate, leave behind all [he was] before (Bioshock Infinite)”14 and to be born again under the identity of Zachary Hale Comstock. However, while walking through the game, Comstock refers to the Wounded Knee Massacre, which he assisted as a soldier when he still was Booker Dewitt. Here, baptism conveys the idea of accepting one’s sins and one’s past making the individual a new man knowing which mistakes are not to be repeated. So, when Booker chooses not to be spiritually reborn, he embodies the denial of the American mistakes and forgets all of the faults he has done before. Therefore, the confrontation between Booker and his doppelgänger Comstock expresses the man fighting against his past leading Booker to accept unconsciously a second baptism in order to erase the mistake of being reborn and becoming a tyrant in an alternative existence. Before dying, Comstock utters his final words “It … is … finished (Bioshock Infinite)”15 quoting Jesus’ Word of Triumph, one of his Seven Sayings on the Cross, declaring implicitly Comstock’s death and the completion of the cycle before Comstock’s resurrection as the main protagonist in Bioshock Infinite Burial at Sea – Episode 1.

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A disrupted yet absolute narrative

The whole video game industry depends on the sale of the developer products. Yet, splitting the games into opuses is a way to allow the developers to create a comprehensive world and avoid narrative weaknesses. Yet, if the narration is broken with the separation of the games, we can wonder how the games of a same saga merge their respective narrative lines.
Although the Mass Effect saga can be considered as a whole, we can distinct three different games for one story. Like any other saga, the distinction begins with the dividing of the narrative into three parts. Yet, each of the opuses is constructed differently from the others, in terms of rhythm and artistic atmosphere. By being a bit slower in terms of narration, for the player has to be introduced to this new universe as it is dense, we can expect the game to detail all of the events that are needed to immerse oneself in the narration. Then, Mass Effect 1’s ambiance is based on various genres. Apart from the predominant space-opera, the game takes its influence from various genres such as the detective story, Shepard being the investigator, forced to melt into various environments such as mafias, big companies and colonies. Most of the game is a race against a known villain, preventing the player from knowing about the war until the last mission which will significantly alter the second opus’ atmosphere. The latter is based on the theme of loyalty towards Shepard’s crew so as to complete the mission added to the previous inspiration but with a growing tension on the war to come. The final part of the saga reduces the detective part and suppresses loyalty. The latter is proven by the survival of his crew: if the members are not loyal, they are killed in the end of Mass Effect 2. Hence, Mass Effect 3 is a climax of action and depicts the apex of war with the quasi-omnipresence of the Reapers on missions, adding a political and military aspect forcing Shepard to find a solution to each problem to unite the species and fight the enemy. That is why the construction of the Mass Effect series can be seen as a whole, increasing tension and the galactic impact on the events, representing in this way the growing rumbling of war until its climax. This technique of accumulation is also used in literature such as in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or in other epic quests to give an aspect of completion of the story. For, we can perceive the difference in cinema through one of the most well-known alien movie. Michael Bay’s Independence Day skims through the aliens’ motivation to invade Earth. Instead, Bay focuses on the actions taken by the heroes to save the planet. The reason why videogame medium can tell complex stories is that the player can walk through the game for a dozen of hours or more, just like someone would read a book, whereas cinema is often limited in time, leading the director’s choice to focus on a particular point of view.
Nonetheless, the narrative thread is not only considered in its linear aspect. A video game saga can also be founded on basic principles and can give various forms of them through different games. All of the Bioshock games are somewhat similar yet different. In fact, each of the games is written with the same pattern, leading sometimes to confusion and in the same time to completion. “Constant and Variables”16. It is on this principle that we can note the way Irrational Games’ works are written. As an example, Rapture and Columbia look different but are similar, the character gets access to the city in a lighthouse, and the difference is: going down leads to Rapture and going up leads to Columbia. These cities are each managed by a lunatic, who has a connection with the main character. There is a rebellion figure, trying to overthrow the leader. And more, there is an embodiment of covetousness, each personified by a female character: the Little Sisters in Rapture and Elizabeth in Columbia.
Hence, the main interest in playing Bioshock 1 and Bioshock Infinite is that players can walk through these two games as many times as they want to. The cyclic aspect observed has a significant impact on the narration, for the first Bioshock takes place after Bioshock Infinite. Yet, Infinite concludes where the first opus starts: with a plane crash. With this technique the player can return to Rapture or Columbia, having the knowledge that the two cities are linked, which favours an easier analysis and the deciphering of clues.
Clues can be found in Bioshock’s universe under the shape of imagery and songs. When Booker arrives on Columbia, a Christian song is broadcast in the rocket shuttle. Entitled “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, the song is first performed by a choir, defining the deification of the place. Yet the religious hymn is sang by Elizabeth’s voice actor, Courtnee Draper in the end credits, allowing the narration to continue after the end of the supposed story, using it as a symbol of Elizabeth’s doubts on the world in which she grew. Even if we could wonder if the song was written with the aim of dramatizing the game by giving a musical break to the action-based game, the fact that she sings an authentic song leads the player to feel that music has an impact on the narration. For, by paying attention to the lyrics, nearly all of the verses make reference to the narrative thread through metaphors.
There are loved ones in the glory,
Whose dear forms you often miss;
When you close your earthly story,
Will you join them in their bliss? (Courtnee Draper)”17
The player could wonder who “the loved ones” are. Yet it is only by finishing the game that the player can decipher the whole song by linking the elements with events or characters. Here, the “loved ones” are referring to Booker’s daughter Anna, who was taken from him and renamed Elizabeth, who are in “the glory”, nickname Columbia. The notion of transformation of the individual into another such as Elizabeth’s “dear form” of her lost innocence. Thus, we can notice the double meaning of “close your earthly story”, which can be taken as a parallel to Booker’s baptism, refusing his former life and becoming Comstock but also to a character’s death and ascension to “their bliss” which amplifies the heaven-like aspect of Columbia.
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
Is a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky? (ibid)18
The rhythm of the chorus, being slow and peaceful bespeak Elizabeth’s resignation to accept the fact that the circle will be broken eventually. “Better home” epitomizes irony towards Columbia, depriving it from trust.
In the joyous days of childhood,
Oft they told of wondrous love,
Pointed to the dying Saviour;
Now they dwell with Him above. (ibid)19
There is paradox between the “joyous days” and the one that Elizabeth had during her childhood imprisoned in a tower. Yet, it is told that she had a glorious childhood and the adoration of Columbia citizens have towards Elizabeth (“wondrous love”) and Father Comstock, his death being prophesied and health condition explained (“dying”) while the lyrics refer to him as a martyr (“Saviour”).
You remember songs of heaven
Which you sang with childish voice,
Do you love the hymns they taught you,
Or are songs of earth your choice?
[Chorus] (ibid)20
The first two verses mirror on this very song, which is an ode to heaven, sang by a “childish voice” confirming the impression of Elizabeth’s innocence under her father’s influence. The last two verse of the stanza are written as a question, as if Elizabeth had to choose between the father she has in Columbia and the one on Earth.
8- “One by one their seats were emptied, and one by one they went away;”
7-“And you think of tearful partings, when they left you here below.”
You can picture happy gath’rings
‘Round the fireside long ago,
And you think of tearful partings,
When they left you here below.
One by one their seats were emptied,
And one by one they went away;
Now the family is parted,
Will it be complete one day?
[Chorus] (ibid)21
This time the use of the second person is directed to Booker, who is told he will find his daughter, not knowing that she is Elizabeth. Hence, the “tearful partings” underscore Booker’s denial of having abandoned his child to his doppelgänger Comstock to pay his debts. Besides, there is a parallel drawn between the last stanza and the conclusion scene in which Booker is drown by all of the existing Elizabeth. All of the version of Elizabeth then fade out from the scene, and only the Elizabeth remaining foresees that the narration is not yet complete, strengthened by the last verse of the song, concluded with an interrogation mark: “Will it be complete one day?”
In the end, these two techniques to narrate a story in a game affect the gaming experience considering that the player is, indeed, an important actor in the narration but must submit himself under the pressure of the broken narration. As a matter of fact, this leads him to complete the games several times more to perceive the completeness and the coherence of a world full of plot complexities that can only be explained through the use of a Deus Ex Machina figure.

The omniscient entity

In science fiction, the writer pay a particular attention to the coherence of the fictional theories and other surrealistic events not to fall in the fantasy which is a complete different genre. In fact, the major difference between science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction is based on science, making it possible, at least imaginable, There are gods above us. The cycles meant to be broken can only be by superior forces bestowed with limitless power. Yet, not of all the powerful individuals are aware of their presence in a definite cycle. Although the Reapers define themselves as eternal, they are shown as ignoring that there is a superior entity that leads them. The Reapers’ status is, indeed, beyond a mortal’s, and authorises to give themselves a name, “Nazara”. There is neither an article nor a plural form which suppresses their status as a race and underscores that they work as one under one name. In fact, it was the mortal races that named these artificial intelligences as Reapers, symbol of their numbers, for they “are legion (Mass Effect 1)”22.
Still, the Reapers are demystified in the end of the galactic war against them when Shepard activates the Catalyst, which appears to be the Citadel coupled with a supermassive weapon elaborated throughout several cycles, reinforcing the idea of a cyclic war. Yet, it is implied that the cycle will finally break with the ultimate completion of one. the Luteces as they really are: the Crucible. The activation of the Catalyst can be considered as the final twist which will complete the whole saga. In fact, the Catalyst appears as colourless and almost transparent. Making the textures and the colours move like cosmic winds metaphorically represent the entity’s power. A lot of mysteries encircles this artificial intelligence which appears through Shepard’s imagination as the same child he sees being killed in a space shuttle while Earth is attacked in the beginning of the third opus. By using a secondary character from the beginning of the war, it builds up a strong connection between the Catalyst and Shepard, echoing to the main character and to the player that the tragedy is about to come to an end. Concerning the Catalyst’s origins, the lack of information given about its creation and development gives the Catalyst a god-like and unique status. Therefore, it alone has the ability to control the most powerful race in the whole galaxy, settling it above all of the others, knowing and controlling all of the Reapers. However, it is not eternal, for, it has only been created in order to find a solution, being “the Catalyst for peace between organics and synthetics (Mass Effect3).”23 We can make the parallel between the Catalyst as being the embodiment of peace and the Citadel where the player cannot make use of his weapons on open conflicts except on several missions in which peace has to be restored in the Citadel and corruption to be erased. This is why we can notice that the immortal aspect of the Catalyst is undercut by the end of the story, which will accomplish the goal of the Catalyst. “My creators gave [the Reapers] form. I gave them function. They, in turn, give me purpose (Mass Effect 3)”24 By saying so, the Catalyst accepts his dependence on the existence of the Reapers and the solution they provide. Yet, by connecting the Crucible to the Citadel, the Catalyst has the ability to see other possibilities, leading the Reaper solution to become an obsolete one; but by its only weakness, its dematerialization, it cannot realise the new solutions Then, only Shepard can break the cycle, relegating the Catalyst as a simple virtual intelligence capable to foresee the consequences of the preferred solution.

Table of contents :

1.1 Testimonies and Codex
1.1.1 Deciphering the story through History
1.1.2 The immersion into an open world
1.2 Constants and Variables
1.2.1 Breaking the cycle of life
1.2.2 A disrupted yet absolute narrative
1.2.3 The omniscient entity
1.3 The narrative’s non linearity
1.3.1 Structuring liberty
1.3.2 The real impact of choice
1.3.3 The relation between the player and the character through creation
2.1 A unique world, a unique ideology
2.1.1 There will always be a city
2.1.2 There will always be a man
2.1.3 There will always be a lighthouse
2.2 Keeping balance with propaganda
2.2.1 Thou shalt be happy
2.2.2 Hate change
2.2.3 Stay where you belong
2.3 Protecting equilibrium
2.3.1 Bugs and chaos
2.3.2 Protecting candour
2.3.3 The Guardian of Eden
3.1 We the Masters. We the Rulers.
3.1.1 The Supreme White American Man
3.1.2 Human Hegemony
3.1.3 Control and submission
3.2 The Fall
3.2.1 Rebellion and destruction
3.2.2 Transgression and imago
3.2.3 Game-over


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