Tell me your story and let me play

What Bioshock: Infinite, Bastion, and Journey have in common.

By: Alexandra Geraets

Filed Under: Action Adventure Editorial Indie Story-driven


Perspective might be the most subjective thing about video games. It’s a personal thing, as I’ve never met another gamer who fully shares my tastes in games, but it’s also a game thing, as perspective – literal camera point of view, game play, narrative – is what keeps a gamer involved.

Bioshock: Infinite, Bastion, and Journey (pictured above) have each altered my understanding and ideas about how a game can tell a story and how a game can be played. Bioshock: Infinite relies on tried-and-true first person shooter mechanics to immerse players in the mysterious and dangerous city of Columbia. Bastion uses a narrator, music, and a crumbling memory of a world to tell a story about what happens after that world ends. Journey uses music, no dialogue, and beautifully designed environments to chronicle a long walk from Point A to Point B.

Camera angles, viewpoints, and visual designs are critical in these three games. For me, they are three of the most immersive titles I’ve played, because their unique perspectives are crucial to appreciating their stories.

Bioshock: Infinite never shifts from player character Booker DeWitt’s perspective, locking the player into seeing what he sees, experiencing what he does, and ultimately allowing the player to share Booker’s understanding of the warped world of Columbia. By never changing perspective, the game places the player / Booker squarely in the center of the story and the game. Bioshock: Infinite has the distinction of being the only first person shooter I’ve played through to its conclusion. Its narrative hooked me from the get-go, but its gameplay got me thinking twice about what first person games are capable of.

Previous FPS games I’ve played have relied too heavily upon narrow corridors or shoddy cameras, and their lack of a learning curve turned me off. Bioshock: Infinite eased me into its gameplay, gave me a few pointers, and then set me loose, ready to explore, adjust my play style as I desired, and ultimately made me rethink the potential of first person games in general. I prefer to play games tactically, but a mix of pure offense and clever positioning – especially when dealing with massive enemies like Handymen or Firemen – increased my confidence while I played. Most FPS I’ve played don’t allow mixing of offense and defensive play like this, and the freedom to choose how I played encouraged me to keep playing. While I won’t go so far as to say that I’ve embraced the genre, I’m rethinking its future place in my gaming library.

Bastion’s world builds as the player explores. Maneuvering The Kid along pathways that seem to grow as he runs, only to collapse and crumble at certain moments, reminds the player that this place is what’s left, post-world’s end. It’s an eerie way of telling a story, realizing that the world couldn’t have been saved, and that these remains tell the story of what was. The storyteller reminds the player constantly that this place, Caelondia, was a living, vibrant world; now, it is a memory, and it’s hard to see it as a good one.

When the option is presented to undo the damage to Caelondia, to reset the world, I had to think about it very hard. I thought: history geeks like me love to argue about what could have been done differently; military history geeks especially love to analyze and over-analyze what could have been. We like to argue that if we’d been there, we would have done things differently, made different calls; hindsight is our best weapon against the past, no matter how much we love learning about it. Bastion takes a long hard look at the past, and actually seems to be asking if it deserves a second chance. When given the choice to undo what set the story in motion, with the understanding that it can happen all over again, no matter what you do, it’s hard to choose the reset button. In-game hindsight seems to tell us that it would be a cheat, a mistake, to undo the first mistake. It had to be. There’s something admirable about that kind of narrative conviction.

Journey begins with a lone character, a wanderer, in a desert, seeing a mountain, and setting off to reach the top. It’s a simple goal, a straight forward enough intent, but this is a video game, and things are rarely that easy. Wandering through a desert beneath a bright sun, then emerging into underground, blue-hued caves, wandering ruins and snow-laden heights, the journey itself comes to feel like more. Music guides the player, brief moments of whimsy like playing tag with another player break up the long walk’s potential for monotony, and curious constructs hunt the player’s path. The shifting desert sands and mysterious ruins tell an older story, one the player isn’t part of, but suspects they are becoming a part of.

Journey is among the most intense experiences I’ve had as a gamer. Silence speaks volumes, as the saying goes, and in this game, silence is the player’s voice. It is an experience where a story is told through player intuition; use what skills you have as a player and as a person to understand what is going to happen next. I’m hesitant to call it the most intellectual game I’ve played, but it’s up there. Intuition seems to be one of those things that games don’t like players using too often; Journey is all about intuiting where to go next and how to do it.

I used to have pretty set ideas on what made a game good, and that focus tended to rest squarely on the story. If the gameplay was shoddy, but the narrative was smart, I could still play the game. Games to me were, and still are, story telling devices, but I’m also in a very different place as a gamer now than I was three years ago, or even one year ago. Some of the best games I’ve played through in the last year have had solid gameplay and storytelling, and have buffed up their single player campaigns, diving head on into the importance of solo gaming.

While shooters and adventure games are almost played-one-you’ve-played-most-of-them types of games, they are shifting tone to become the best places for experimentation in gameplay and storytelling. First person shooters, as evidenced by the Bioshock series, no longer seem locked into the military-adventure genre, and emotionally intense, existential storytelling no longer seems niched in with third-person exploration in fantasy genres, as evidenced by Journey and Bastion.

With this shifting attitude, the future of games is looking a lot brighter. While I’m still not fully sold on the next generation of consoles, I’m eager to see what gamers are offered, and where more experimentation in games can lead.

Filed Under: Action Adventure Editorial Indie Story-driven

About the Author:
Alexandra Geraets is an fan of story-driven video games. She's an even more avid fan of exploring how and why they resonate with all of us. Her essays have been found on Village Voice Media.

One Response to “Tell me your story and let me play”

  1. Mitch North

    I’m struggling to see the parallels between Bioshock and the other two. I think Bioshock has more in common with Proteus if we’re getting into the world as a narrative personal experience. The story on the other hand is told too tightly by the developers to feel personal; though I think perhaps you’ve acknowledged that it is their story. That’s fine but Journey and Bastion do a better job at pushing personal experience at the same time as story.

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