Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Factions and Possession in Bioshock Infinite

Recently I wrote a blog about factions in Bioshock Infinite, wherein I described the way I felt the mechanics for a good factional combat game had been laid into BSI's combat system. Today, I had a further epiphany for an enemy that could take advantage of the factional system. Now it's time to meet the Mesmer.

Found at the Bioshock Wikia

The Mesmer would be a vigor-using Heavy Hitter, using the Possession vigor the same way the player would: hypnotizing their opponents. It might be used to steal away friendly units or to hijack friendly machinery. However, its most interesting mechanic is its ability to hypnotize the player. While under the effects of a Mesmer's possession, random allies and enemies would appear to change sides, making it difficult for the player to know who to kill without paying attention. To escape his possession, the player would have to kill him or risk breaking the alliance. In later levels or at higher difficulty settings he may also use a modified version of Ghost Soldier to haunt weaponry.

Deciding on his visual design would be necessary to make him immediately recognizable. The Firemen and Zealots both have props that call to mind stage magicians and escape artists of the era; arcane torture devices, coffins, and chains. Of course both the Vigor demonstration videos and the Vigor vending machines feature tuxedo-clad magicians as well. So a third stage magician style is called for. I am sorely tempted to use the Orientalist-type magician: the self-styled "swami" or "Turkish sorcerer" in ill-researched costume. It seems reasonable that such a viciously racist society would take a certain amount of transgressive delight in attending shows put on by a "foreign menace". And connecting the design to Rapture via  Epstein the Swami and Suresh Sheti does have a certain appeal, doesn't it?

To sell the design as a Columbia vigor-user and to give him a distinct profile, he'd require a totem to tie his outfit together. I'd initially thought it natural that a hypnotist carry a watch. However, I was worried that it might confuse the design with Jeremiah Fink, so I elected for a cracked bell. The bell symbolizes Pavlovian conditioning; where scientists were able to condition animals to associate the stimuli of a bell sound with the presence of food, until they would salivate purely as a response to the bell. The swinging motion of the bell also bears a certain similarity to the movement of a watch in a stage hypnotists' act: together they suggest a character capable of coercing her enemies. There's also wonderful resonance with the morbid imagery carried by the other vigor-users: coffin and the chains; the tolling of a bell in mourning is a classic thanatopsist image, as in the John Donne poem. As not for whom the bell tolls! It tolls for thee!

As a final coup d'grace, we have the Liberty Bell, to bring home some patriotic imagery. For the Mesmers associated with the Founders, the Bell retains its status as a pure symbol of American independence, and so they'd wield one. For the Vox Populi-associated Mesmers, the bell carries later, Civil-War themes of liberty for all, and that era's anti-slavery propaganda would feature heavily into their thinking. Both would carry the cracked bell; I had originally thought of it as being a censer, but felt that it would make for janky animation if the Mesmer has to move quickly in combat, so a crozier with the cracked bell hanging from the end seems like a better solution.

Finally, the Mesmer's writing and voice acting should reflect the nature of his disguise. His vocalizations at high health should be deep-voiced and bear a distinctive fake accent. It shouldn't be ridiculous: fake enough to be recognizable but not so fake as to excessively stand out from other enemy vocalizations. However, pain vocalizations and low-health vocalizations should both be handled in an American accent, recalling famous yellowface stage magician Chung Ling Soo; the man who publicly lived as his stage persona and only broke character once: to announce that he had been fatally shot.

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