Epic Life: The Big Break of BioShock 3: Humanism of the Walkthrough, or, What happens when the prisoner doesn’t notice he’s been freed

So is it still humanities if the player, invited to interrogate the méconnaissance that constitutes the epistemology of what s/he perceives as interactivity, says “Meh”? It seems hard to deny that the vast majority of players of BioShock have never thought about the Death-Disarm sequence as a critique of their ideologically-inflected subject-positions in the culture that their playing BioShock helps to constitute.

In my last post I made a strong and complicated claim: As reading and producing recorded performances of works that illuminate those works’ cultural effects constituted Renaissance humanism, so playing BioShock and producing recorded performances that help others get more out of the game constitutes a modern humanism. Those old recorded performances were the traditional philological activity of producing better texts, the traditional historical activity of producing better descriptions of the events of the past, and the traditional philosophical activity of applying the wisdom of the past to the needs of the present; these new recorded performances are walkththroughs, game-guides, and game-play videos, not to mention a mass of forum-posts that, if printed, might turn the earth into a gravity well.

The glory of Renaissance humanism was and is that those who engage in its practices tend to be transformed by them. (As usual, it’s worth noting parenthetically that that was also the glory of the avant la lettre classical humanism after which the Renaissance humanists patterned their work–indeed, that’s what Plato’s Republic is about.) Humanists, whether calling themselves that or simply reading a lot of old stuff without bothering to apply such a pretentious moniker, tend to think more broadly, and describe their lives and their cultures more thickly. In turn, their descriptions influence others to read, and to describe. Literature, history, and philosophy emerge more distinctly, and play a greater part in civilization. We get things like republics, and intellectual revolutions, and enlightenments, and what have you.

In my last post I noted a particular turn of phrase in the BioShock walkthrough by Jason Nimer: “Andrew Ryan is quite possibly the easiest boss in the entire history of video games.” Although that walkthrough can and should be taken as illustrating that players don’t care about the epistemological problem of the Death-Disarm sequence, Nimer’s will to historical comparison seems to me a humanistic gesture that, in its very triviality, proves my point beyond a shadow of a doubt: in this purely functional genre of the walkthrough, the player’s attention is drawn to the tradition of practomimetic performance of which his or her own performance is a part.

Now that easiness noted by Nimer is the basis of the epistemological critique I have suggested constitutes BioShock‘s invitation to the prisoner of the cave to rise and look around. The easiness of Andrew Ryan as boss arises in his demonstrating to the player the illusion of the interactivity through which the player has constituted his or her performance both in BioShock and in every other game s/he has ever played. Andrew Ryan explains that the player’s character–and thus the player, too–are puppets: it is easy to kill him because he illustrates his point by commanding the player-character–and thus the player, too–to kill him.

Nimer’s walkthrough is a humanistic reading.

But if a player doesn’t even think to him or herself “This guy is the easiest boss in the entire history of video games”? If s/he fails, seemingly, even to engage in the slightest bit of such humanistic analysis?

I contend that that failure is only an apparent one, because the very functionality of the walkthrough genre, as exemplified in Nimer’s specimen of it, expresses nothing other than a record of the on-the-fly analysis engaged in by everyone who plays the game. The player gets his or her character to Ryan’s office with the expectation that there’s going to be a boss-battle. Even if s/he is playing his or her very first video game, BioShock itself has led the player through several conventional boss-battles already, at the ends of the game’s previous sections. The difference between those boss-battles (and, if the player is an experienced player) and every other boss-battle s/he’s played, adds an analytic element to the player’s performance of that moment that enacts, in embryo, the same humanistic reading Nimer makes in his walkthrough.

I’ll close this part of my argument with the observation that the walkthrough is nothing but a commentary, really, and that from the beginning commentaries have been the hallmark of humanistic endeavor, whether Plato’s commentary on Parmenides in the dialogue that bears the latter’s name or Poggio Bracciolini‘s commentaries on classical authors in his letters. A commentary is in every case an annotated record of a playthrough–whether a playthrough of Parmenides, of Cicero, or of BioShock. The intent is to help others get the most out of their own performances, extending and deepening the great chain of practomime and breathing new life into old bones and tired rulesets, just as humanists have done from the start.

Next time: BioShock and Journey might do that, but what about Call of Duty and Super Mario Bros.?


  1. I’m not convinced that a walkthrough is ‘nothing but a commentary’. A commentary is a response to the text that offers more reading material that might be pertinent to that text. A walkthrough, on the other hand, is usually a means of eliminating part of the experience of playing the game in order to experience other parts of it; most of the time a walkthrough is a means of progression for those who otherwise are physically impeded from proceeding further in their experience. A text might be hard to understand, but it cannot withhold the next few pages if, for example, the reader doesn’t understand what Dante means by ‘Minos’ in the Inferno. Perhaps a walkthrough is more like a translation, perhaps most like a literal prose translation of some complexly arranged poem in which much has been lost in translation: it communicates what ‘happens’ (by means of a set of instructions), it might be useful alongside a reading of the text in its original language, but a large part of the experience is lost if the translation is followed to the letter.

    A walkthrough’s aim is to restrict the range of possibilities that a game presents into just one manageable and imitable experience. A commentary opens up the range of readings of a text without replacing or diminishing the material of the text. Or put another way, a walkthrough does the opposite of ‘help others get the most out of their own performances’, because it reduces individual performance into one supposedly ideal performance that eliminates key elements, for example the surprise of discovery: solving a puzzle via walkthrough can often be much less informative, akin to the silent reading of a poem compared to the ‘reading out loud’ (or, in the case of games, playing without outside assistance).

    I’m using a quite narrow definition of ‘walkthrough’, of course, and I’m prepared to concede that the ‘commentary’ model is appropriate to, say, a wiki or online forum, but it might be important to talk about what makes linear, single-player games like Bioshock different to books; the game can deny itself to the player if the player is not performing to its standards, and reading a walkthrough counterfeits those standards, annihilating the learning, working, doing, struggling experience. In summary, a commentary makes reading more difficult by showing a reader the subjectivity of his own reading and the multiplicity of potential responses. A walkthrough makes playing easier by showing a reader the objectivity of the game design and the single most correct response available.

    Your idea that ‘that walkthrough can and should be taken as illustrating that players don’t care about the epistemological problem of the Death-Disarm sequence’ seems to forget this aspect of the walkthrough. Just because the walkthrough doesn’t offer a ‘walkthrough’ of the epistemological problem itself, this shouldn’t be taken as evidence that gamers are not, either consciously or subconsciously (if that distinction can ever be made, which it probably can’t), aware of the epistemological problem being raised. The discussion of that problem simply occurs elsewhere; it is outside of the intended and expected function of the walkthrough.

    1. Author

      Thanks very much for the thoughtful response! I guess I think what you’re describing is the kind of walkthrough that I consider to be a bad walkthrough, though I concede that the genre’s origins might be in “restricting the range of possibilities that a game presents.” Very quickly, though, on my reading, walkthroughs became a way of adding to a player’s repertoire of performances, just as commentaries do. So we’re in violent agreement, I think, about the way a walkthrough doesn’t foreclose avenues of analysis!

  2. To add in another idea about walkthroughs inspired by Clodtiller, perhaps we can re-imagine them as well as forms of annotation. I think the important difference between an annotation and a commentary is similar to the walkthrough’s difference from the commentary that Clodtiller points out. Annotations, ideally, will guide the reader through more difficult portions of the work (i.e. explaining Minos to first-time Dante readers) without necessarily overwhelming the reader, or worse, enforcing a certain perspective. Walkthroughs work similarly as they have very traditional modes of presenting information: maps, keys, cheat codes, encounter strategies, leveling charts, etc. Are these so different than footnotes expressing definitions, moments of irony, allusions, and translations?

    The lack of analysis in response to the Death-Disarm sequence might be in the same vein of keeping annotations as neutral as possible. Any more explication about the Death-Disarm sequence would be to tamper with the player’s experience of it, so instead the note relies solely on the mechanics of the fight. However, that does not bar off analysis. Knowing the “easiness” of the fight can set off questions about the nature of a challenge in a game. So, essentially, we’re in “violent agreement” as you say about the role of the walkthrough’s notes, though I believe there is not so much a restriction or assumption about players not caring, but rather an attempt to keep the walkthrough in a neutral territory.

    1. Author

      I guess I’d resist drawing a bright line–or, really, any line at all except a purely practical, technological one–between annotation and commentary, and instead see annotation as a species of commentary. That said, bad commentaries and annotations are really rather like bad walkthroughs. As a classical scholar, I’ve read many a commentary whose apparent intention was to close down any interpretation but the commentator’s!

      1. I can completely understand, and relate to experiences like that. I may have moved the notion of commentary too far towards criticism and review, causing me to draw that line in your post. Criticism, I suppose, I view more suspiciously (I’m struggling to think of a non-pejorative word) since it sometimes shuts down or precludes other arguments even if it’s not intentional or malicious. Commentary being closer to annotation than I initially read makes me want to think about this more.

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