After Pressing Start: Bioshock's Elevator Pitch
If you go to an entrepreneurship lecture, you are sure to hear about an elevator pitch: the concept of communicating a value proposition to someone in 30 seconds. If you ever meet Bill Gates inside an elevator, you only have about 30 seconds to try to sell your idea for him to invest. It’s the sort of concept that sounds like bullshit at first. You may feel that only 30 seconds is a disservice to all the time spent on your idea, but making your pitch fast is an absolute necessity: CEOs, angel investors and high-level executives are extremely short of time and the little they have is worth thousand, if not millions. The lack of a good, hard-hitting pitch is a waste of their time.
Many games feel that way. The plot unfolds lazily and the game takes its time to acclimate the player in its world. Sometimes it takes the entire game for us to understand what it is about, e.g. Final Fantasy XII. Sometimes the unfolding feels like it will never fully come, e.g. Dark Souls.
Not Bioshock though. Bioshock was the perfect entrepreneur. We entered the same elevator, I pressed my button, Bioshock pressed its own, waited a few seconds, looked at me and said “No Gods or Kings. Only Man.”
I never ended up on my own floor that day.
The beauty of Bioshock’s introduction is how lean and efficient everything is. When the screen fades in, we found ourselves sitting on a plane in the middle of the Atlantic. The game says it’s the 60’s and the fact the first thing we see is the lit cigar in our hands reinforces that. We hold a box and look at a picture of our parents. “Son, they told me, you are special” says the voiceover. That tells us we belong somewhere, somewhere that’s not here – a useful tidbit of information our minds are going to use to start constructing the structure upon which the game’s famous plot twist is built.
Then the screen fades to black and you hear the sound of the plane crashing. The fact you don’t witness the crashing per se, only listen to it, is an important ellipsis. It implies that, whatever happened to that place, it was outside our control (useful tidbit #2, and we are still on the first minute of the game).
And yet, we survive. A lighthouse looms ahead. Much like Myst, we are propelled by the mystery it promises. Inside, there is the famous bust of Andrew Ryan and a banner with the elevator pitch above. The phrase is bold and concise, perfectly capturing Ryan’s philosophy; this is a jab. But the game wastes no time. It knows you are hooked, so it throws another punch. Inside a bathysphere, you get to watch a short video. In the business world, the next step after a successful elevator pitch is contextualization, and that’s what the video does here: it explains who Andrew Ryan is and what he his dream was: to construct a world of his own, where every man is entitled to the sweat of his brow
We are three minutes into the game when the right hook comes. After the video is done, the underground city of Rapture is revealed. It’s massive and eerie; its architecture very linear and very symmetric. Most importantly, the city is dark. We are talking about a city that embodies Ryan’s philosophy, so this is an important piece of foreshadowing.
Confirmation of something dark going on comes almost immediately, as you are instantly attacked as soon as your bathysphere arrives. It’s not the best first impression the game could offer, though. Too loud and sudden, that attack kills the suspense. What should have been your first experience in the city happens right after that: you see luggage on top of luggage of people who were trying to flee Rapture. It’s the difference between reporting Rapture is dangerous (you are attacked) and conveying that information through an imitation (people were trying to leave Rapture in a hurry; the place is dangerous).
It’s a minor blunder of an otherwise perfect pitch. In a world of sequels, where games feel like they are born from some kind of mitosis, Bioshock manages to cover all the three golden rules of a good elevator pitch: it knows what about it is unique, i.e. its strong theme; it made that theme exciting, and kept its presentation simple and to the point. Try that with your boss next time you come up with a killer idea.
After Pressing Start is a new series running on Nightmare Mode every Friday by resident narrative guru Tom Auxier. This guest entry of After Pressing Start was written by Fernando Cordeiro. It focuses on beginning, on the stories that happen directly after pressing start, and how those introductory stories influence the arcs of video games. Check out some of the other articles: After Pressing Start