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Free-Will is a myth. How Bioshock puppeteers player as cinematographer.

Bioshock is a narrative driven, first-person-shooter, video game. It draws its story and stylistic building blocks from Art-Deco and Art-Nouveau periods of art and architecture combined with the capitalist utopian writings of Ayn Rand and the rampant historical ramifications of industrialisation in the first half of the 20th century. Amid this context Bioshock weaves a story invested with politics, greed, avarice and capitalist freedom out of control, all amid a crumbling, civil-war ravaged underwater city. 

What Im proposing to do here is examine how Bioshock uses a precise orchestration of architecture, sound and light to puppeteer the ‘cinematogrpahy’ of the game. Whilst Bioshock might present as a free-form first-person-shooter where the player is in control, a close examination of the spatiality of Bioshock reveals a deliberate and specific authorship at work, very much akin to the mise en scene of cinema.

From the perspective of a player/viewer, Bioshock certainly fits a colloquial notion of being ‘cinematic’ and moreover of clearly embracing and exploiting aural and visual genre conventions of horror and scifi. As such an analysis of the cinematic mise en scene taking in those defined elements of set, design, costume, light and so on, is an elementary thing to do. Similarly there is certainly a ‘camera’ and a clear alignment of our experience of the narrative. The difference is that the ‘camera’ is the player’s avatar viewed first-person, and the ‘cinematography’ is controlled and dictated in real-time by the player. Whilst the creators of Bioshock cannot pre-construct or know where or when the ‘camera’ will be at any given time in a scene, they have none the less overtly determined POV by dictating it as first-person from a singular character. However, this only operates at a macro-level not at the shot-by-shot level that would otherwise by the hallmark of composition and mise en scene. Thus the more acute question to ask is ‘how does a game designer orchestrate moment-by-moment composition within the game space without being able to actually control the camera itself? How can the player have their free-will coerced into certain positions for the advancement of the narrative experience?’

When we look closely at the scene construction of Bioshock we can observe a very careful manipulation of the otherwise free-will movement of the player controlled camera, what Norman Klein would call “gentle repression posing as free will.” 2 It is the architecture of this underwater city that presents the primary compositional parameter for what we might otherwise call mise en scene and for how micro-level point-of-view is constructed within the macro-level first-person game mechanic. 

For example take the early scene where the player/character has emerged from the sea after surviving a plane crash and has found themselves washed up on the steps of a lighthouse. 


In this sequence the player/viewer enters a huge doorway to a pitch dark room. Once inside, the door closes behind them and, after a brief hiatus in the silent dark, the room is bathed in light. A huge statue, a red banner, a descending stairway, artdeco motifs and designs and finally a bathysphere with a control handle waiting to be pulled. This sequence is designed specifically to establish both the dark and foreboding tone of the story and the conceptual and philosophical framework for the narrative and characters. A traditional mise en scene analysis enables observations about the style of light, the distinct colour palette, the scale of the architecture and so on. Yet, as the ‘camera’ is controlled by the player/viewer, not defined or articulated by a director, traditional mise en sceme choices around framing and composition - the choice to retain, focus or omit visual elements from the frame - are not possible. But is this to suggest that Bioshock is without mise en scene or that mise en scene analysis is not useful in understanding the effect of Bioshock as a screen-based cinematic work? If mise en scene is a process, and an analysis of mise en scene allows us to more fully comprehend directorial intent and cinematic experience, then what outside of camera and point-of-view has been used to ‘author’ the experience of this game sequence? Working through this case study sequence moment by moment we can build up a picture of how spatial position and architecture (with context cues from light, sound and design) have been employed to carefully author and orchestrate the scene despite its illusion of player/viewer free-will. 


The first set of frames shows the assent up the stairs from the water to the doors of the Lighthouse. We can identify four major elements that are coercing the player/viewer to see and experience this scene is a specifically authored way - position, architecture, light and sound. The first is that the player/viewer is positioned at the bottom of a set of steeply inclining stairs and, by virtue of this position that the player cannot avoid placing themselves in, they are forced to look upwards,. This effectively creates an upward tracking low angle shot. This cinematographic prompting frames the lighthouse as an imposing, monolithic structure looming over the player/viewer and silhouetted by the full moon. This lighthouse structure in the middle of the Atlantic ocean may well be the saving grace for the player/viewer’s character, who has just survived a plane crash, but the prompted low-angle framing and towering moon-lit structure clearly heralds an ominous journey ahead. 

This combination of coerced position and architectural structure are then extended by light and sound to provoke movement. The array of lamps along the stairs clearly light a path toward the door and provide a very visual and tangible track for the player to follow and which draws them physically forward. At the same time, sound provides the push factor to the pull of the lamps. Behind the player, in a surround sound field, is a splay of two distinct soundscapes; the lapping waves of the open ocean and the crackle of the burning wreckage of the downed aeroplane the player/viewer was only recently abroad. Both of these are aural signals that tell the player firmly that forward is the only option. With these four elements - low-angle spatial position, architectural arrangement, light and sound cues - the first part of the lighthouse sequence demonstrates a carefully authored experience.

In the second part of the scene the player/viewer enters the lighthouse via the huge doors.  Inside is pitch dark save for a shaft of light from the moon outside cast upon the floor from the open door. Again here, light is used as a pull-factor to prompt movement and progression, subtly coercing the player/viewer to move in a particular direction. However, the beam of light serving as a path is curtailed by the near total darkness and this combination of a clear direction for the player to follow but which ends in the unknown dark, works to generate a very specific type of movement. The player/viewer follows the light but is prompted to do so slowly and carefully, fearful of what might be beyond. Once in the room proper, the darkness is maintained for a moment before being torn back by bright overhead illumination. What is made immediately visible in that light is an enormous overhead statue of a man supporting a broad red banner with the words ‘No Gods or Kings. Only Men.’ The position of the player/viewer in the space has been carefully orchestrated to be a slow movemenr by the light beam and darkness so that when the lights come on the player/viewer is, almost unavoidably, standing directly beneath the enormous overhead statue. Scale, breadth and the shape of the statue immediately draws the players gaze upward and, just as previously outside on the stairs, the space has generated a distinct and deliberate piece of cinematography from an otherwise player-controlled ‘camera’. The player/viewer is forced to see the statue and the banner in a very particular low-angle way to generate feelings of grandeur, power and, through the diminutive relative position of the player/viewer to the huge statue, powerlessness on their part. 

A subsequent design element at this point serves subtly as a driver to move the player on deeper into the lighthouse. Directly beneath the statue and banner is an inverted arrow in gold pointing straight down. Not so obvious as to be a literal directional arrow, the design element masquerades as part of the overall graphic design of the space adorned with art-deco motifs. Yet, it none the less, serves as a prompt, both conceptually and literally, to where the player must go next. This is added to by a specific, almost hard-edged, pool of light that flickers on as the character turns (as if from a spotlight above) falling on the threshold of steps leading down. Consciously or subconsciously the player/viewer’s avatar gaze is drawn downward from the statue and cast in the direction of where they must go next indicated by the arrow motif and pool of light.


Stepping around the statue the player/viewer now prompted forward has revealed to them a set of stairs leading downward. The first flights of stairs sit at right-angles and lead to darkness but as the player/viewer descends new lights progressively come on, one by one, to illuminate the next section. These lights are triggered by the avatar’s position; they do not illuminate until the avatar approaches. In this way the player/viewer is lead downward like a trail of breadcrumbs. The stairs then become curved as the space is fully illuminated. The change in shape of the stairs at this point - from straight to curved - also serves as further deliberate architectural prompting. The curved walls are adorned by large badge-like motifs sporting mottos of ‘Science’, ‘Art’ and ‘Industry’. Because the walls are curved the player/viewer is unable to walk straight but must sweep past the walls. In doing so they are unavoidably prompted to see and visually take-in these motifs. Consider if the stairs were straight rather than curved it would be possible for the player/viewer to walk straight down gazing straight ahead and so potentially pass by the motifs without taking them in. In this way the architecture of the lighthouse interior is a ‘scripted space’ that uses its navigable physicality to deliver a kind of authored exposition. The ‘Science’, ‘Art’, ‘Industry’ badges are integral to the backstory of the narrative the player/viewer is about to engage with. 

In the final part of the sequence the player/viewer has reached the bottom of the stairs. The curve of which turning inwards means the avatar is swept into the room in a specific and unavoidable direction which leaves them facing the door of a bathysphere open and inviting. If the player/viewer walks a straight line from where the curved staircase delivered them, they will walk straight into the bathysphere. The player/viewer would have to go awkwardly out of their way to not head straight toward the bathysphere’s open door. The only other way out of the space is a matching curved staircase on the other side mirroring the one the player/viewer has just descended. This leads back to where the player/viewer has come from and the memory of the open ocean and burning plane wreckage means that the player/viewer has no plausible reason to return; the bathysphere remains conceptually and spatially the only option and the they must continue to follow the ‘script’. The last moment of this sequence sees the brass glowing handle of the bathysphere control central to view as the player/viewer enters. The position, size and height of the bathysphere control means it is impossible to not frame it front and centre in the avatar’s point-of-view. By shape, space, colour and light the control handle is framed and all that remains is to pull the leaver and desend under the sea. 

What the close examination of this scene from Bioshock reveals is a conundrum for traditional notions of mise en scene and directorial authorship. The long-established components of mise en scene - light, design, staging, sound and so on - are all present and, moreover, are all deliberately conceived and constructed to deliver a very specific authored and pre-scripted experience of narrative, context and aesthetics. Yet, this is all done without any direct control over the ‘camera’. What this indicates is how deftly ‘cinematography’ can be coerced and puppeteered by space and architecture as indicative of a cinematic mise en scene authorship that is not camera-centric. 

Game Probe ep3 - Narrative Architecture


1Gene Youngblood. “JSTOR: Leonardo. Supplemental Issue, Vol. 2 (1989), pp. 27-30.” Leonardo. Supplemental Issue 2, no. 89 (1989): 27-30. 

2Klein, Norman M. The Vatican to Vegas: a history of special effects. New York: The New Press, 2004, p11

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