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How to Make Your Shooter Level Successful

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

Posted by Tony Huynh.
What makes a first-person shooter level successful. While I can easily fill a few books with the answer to that question, I will instead narrow the focus to two aspects that I feel are important in the creation of a good level. The first is building and maintaining an interesting world and the second is to construct good pacing and varied player experiences. I will begin by defining these concepts and then use a walkthrough of Bioshock’s brilliant opening level Welcome to Rapture as an example of how to do both of these aspects well.

Build and maintain interest in your world

The first thing that builds interest in your world is story. Bioshock constructs a mystery story by asking questions and providing answers slowly. Mysteries not only build interest in your game, but also serve as an impetus to pull players forward through the game. A good mystery needs to strike a balance between asking questions and giving answers. Ken Levine stated, “We think of the mystery balloon, you have to tap it up to keep the audience interested, but if you tap it too high you’ll lose your audience… and if it gets too low. I underestimated the impact of resolving the ‘who is Andrew Ryan?’ question too early. We learned a big lesson there.” When the player is unraveling a mystery, interest is generated and maintained through making the player ask questions and slowly answering these questions as the player progresses. While questions are more interesting than answers, answers need to be doled out regularly to prevent the player from becoming frustrated and giving up. Giving too many answers solves the mystery which causes the story to lose its pull.

Mise-en-scene and Set Dress
Story can also be built through the use of mise-en-scene. Mise-en-scene literally means “putting on stage,” but in the case that I am using it now it is the placement and arrangement of set dress objects (signage, props, ragdolls, etc.) to tell a story. These little touches help flesh out the story and draw the audience into the world. Set dress and interesting things for the player to look at also serve to slow down the player and the pacing as the player will have to stop in order to look at them. Set dress objects are best served in areas that have low tension that do not provoke urgency for the player to move. I will be calling these instances out in the walkthrough of the level.

Immersion is when players lose themselves and forget that they are playing a game. To do this successfully the level, AI and mechanics of the game have to look, behave and react as realistically as possible so that the player is not reminded that they are playing a game. Realistic water, particle and physics as well as AI that interact with each other and are doing things outside of waiting for the player to show up go a long way in selling a living world and creates an immersive experience. Bioshock also maintains its immersion by never breaking the first-person perspective. While this is a system and not a level mechanic, it is vitally important to how successfully Bioshock sustains the game’s immersion.

One often overlooked way of supporting immersion are player objectives. When objectives make sense and are rational to what the player would do if placed in the same situation it helps greatly in maintaining immersion for the player. When objectives fail to make sense to the player, immersion is broken. While Bioshock generally does a good job with objectives, one example where it seemingly failed was the objective of stabbing yourself with a syringe and injecting yourself with an unknown substance (plasmid) in the level Welcome to Rapture. Although this action is explained later in the game, at the time I thought to myself why would any rational person do that? It tore away my immersion with the game, but was effective for the later story plot and was memorable because of how out of place it was.

Varied Player Experiences
The level Welcome to Rapture largely owes its success to how many different well-constructed player experiences it provides. Pacing, atmosphere and mood tie into player experiences directly. When players speak about pace, atmosphere and mood they are generally describing how they feel while they are playing. I will start by listing a few ways that a level can dictate the player’s experience and then go on to show how Bioshock’s opening level uses these elements to vary the experience for the player.

Objectives can push the pacing of the level. An objective that is clearly defined and is rational for a person under the circumstances like Welcome to Rapture’s “get to higher ground” helps drive the player forward eagerly and with a purpose.

Objectives not only impact immersion and pacing, but also the tone of a level. Compare the tone of “Escape from Rapture” and “Kill Andrew Ryan” and you can see how the tone has been changed. When the objective is to “escape,” it places the player in the role of the prey, while “killing” has the player in the role of the predator. In this instance the objective of “get to higher ground” and escape from Rapture helps support the type of frantic tone and mood that the developers intended for the beginning of the game.

Changing to different settings will help with both pacing and maintaining interest in your world. A new setting prevents visual fatigue and helps the player feel like they are making progress through the game. The more dramatic the shift in scenery the better. The shift in surroundings should make logical sense otherwise immersion will be broken. Note the frequency in which settings are changed in the first level of Bioshock.

Tension Level
Tension is the player’s perceived level of threat. There are a number of ways to manipulate tension levels as I will illustrate in the following sections. Keeping the tension level high is interesting and exciting for the player. However, keeping the tension high for an extremely long period of time without a periodic release causes the player to become numb and the tension will start to lose its power. Occasional releases in tension will actually ease a level designer’s ability to create tension.

Physical Space and Lighting to Increase and Limit Options
One of the most important tools in directing pace is the use of physical space and lighting. Tight linear corridors focus the player and create a faster pace by reducing the player’s options. On the other hand, larger spaces or spaces with multiple routes slow down the pace and promote decision-making and exploration. A proper mix of different sized spaces helps keep the experience varied.

Lighting plays a large role in how large a space feels. Absence of light dissuades players from going to and exploring areas. A level designer or artist can actually shrink levels and spaces gameplay-wise by taking out lights on the periphery, thus creating a tighter and more directed path. Conversely, brightly lit rooms inherently feel safer and encourage players to linger for longer.

Large elevation changes can inspire awe by enhancing drama and scale. Bioshock’s first level uses this technique to great effect in both the bathysphere ride down into Rapture as well as the elevator ride up to higher ground.

Lighting and Color to Set Atmosphere and Mood
As I have already mentioned brightly lit rooms tend to feel safer, conversely darker rooms promote a feeling of tension because the surroundings are unknown to the player. In general, levels in Bioshock are dark with contrastingly lit areas to enhance a feeling of paranoia and tension. Bioshock varies the level of tension by sprinkling in brightly lit rooms as a release and the occasional scripted event where the lights turn off altogether to dramatically ratchet up the tension.

Mood can also be created with the color of the lighting and environments. People generally connect colors like red with danger, green with sickness and blue with security.

Landmarks, Lighting and Audio to Direct Player Movement
Landmarks, lights and audio can provide navigational reference points for the player and draw attention to specific areas of a space. The player will move towards a light, landmark or sound and then pause to take note of their surroundings before moving to the next navigational point. These guideposts can be used to encourage or discourage player movement and exploration; therefore they can greatly affect a scenario’s pace.

Music and Audio
Music and audio can be used to enhance the experience that the level designer intends for the player to have. Whether the mood you are trying to create is creepiness, action or awe, music and audio are very useful ways to help in achieving it.

Item Collection
Having an item collecting and scavenging mechanic like the one present in Bioshock will slow the player down and promote exploration. Limiting your player’s available ammo and health and constantly keeping them on the brink of running out raises tension.

Wow Moments
Large scale scripted events a.k.a. wow moments can raise a player’s excitement level and inspire a sense of awe. They are generally expensive from a production standpoint, but add a real punch to varying the player’s experience. The Call of Duty series is well known for exploiting the power of wow moments. Wow moments tend to slow players down as they watch the event unfold, but this is not necessarily always the case as I will point out in the level walkthrough.

Combat provides an easy way to raise the pace of a level. The player experience during combat needs to be mixed up to prevent boredom. There are many techniques to mix up combat, but for this article I will only touch on the introduction of new weapons and enemies. For more information on improving combat through variation please see my article “How to Improve Your Shooter Combat.”

New Weapons
New weapons extend the capabilities of players and offer a new experience for a period of time as the player experiments with the weapon to discover its strengths and limitations.

New Enemies
Together with new weapons, new enemies are some of the most important ways of changing the dynamic of combat. When faced with a new AI, players must experiment and discover the strengths and weaknesses of the new enemy. The player must then adjust their tactics to deal with the new threat. The new enemy AI offers scenario designers the opportunity to mix in the new enemy type with the already introduced AI thereby creating new variations on old encounters.

Welcome to Rapture Walkthrough
Airplane Cabin
Narrative questions: Who am I? Where am I?
Narrative answers: I am Jack. It is 1960. I’m on an airplane above the Atlantic.

The first setting that the player is in is aboard an airplane. The scene begins with a shot of a smoke filled cabin of an airplane. The strangeness of this fact creates a moment of unease in the player. The player’s unease is lifted immediately when Jack raises a lit cigarette up and explains away the smoke. The sight of a person smoking inside of an airplane immediately roots the player firmly in the 1960 setting. Jack’s monologue and back story subdues the pace.

Atlantic Ocean
Narrative questions: What is a lighthouse doing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean?
Narrative answers: None

The setting changes from the plane’s cabin to underwater for a few tense moments as the player watches in first-person as propeller blades and various other objects float through the scene and the player struggles to the surface of the water for air. The player associates the green water underneath the surface with a feeling of sickness. The setting transitions again to the surface of the ocean. The playable space here is small being hemmed in by fire and the path out is clearly marked. The opening in the surrounding fire beckons the player to keep moving. Fire races across the screen directing the player to look right to see the lighthouse landmark. The blinking light is another navigational cue to keep the player directed.
Bioshock Underwater Green

Lighthouse Interior
Narrative questions: Who is Andrew Ryan? What is this place?
Narrative answers: None

Another big setting change occurs here as the player transitions from the water into the dark interior of the lighthouse. The door closes behind the player and the player is in near complete darkness. When the lights turn off the player will generally pause and stop. This creates a moment of tension and builds fear through the unknown. After the lights turn back on the pacing slows down. The space offers the player a lot of things to see like the Andrew Ryan bust and art deco wall decorations and consequently slows down the player. The brightly lit bathysphere draws the player to it.
Bioshock Andrew Ryan Banner

Bathysphere Ride
Narrative questions: Why is there a city built underwater?
Narrative answers: The lighthouse is an entrance to the city of Rapture. Rapture is a utopian city based off of objectivism founded by Andrew Ryan.

Lots of exposition by Andrew Ryan answers questions regarding the founding of Rapture. The bathysphere ride is designed to inspire awe and wonderment for the city of Rapture. As I mentioned before, changes in altitude can aid in selling drama and scale. The blue surroundings of the ocean and city promote a mood of security. The ride accomplishes the mood and atmosphere of awe through the use of music, changes in altitude and a synched to music beautiful reveal shot.

The first clue that something might be amiss is when the sign “All good things of this Earth flow into this city” blinks and shorts out.

Bioshock Bathysphere Ride Blue

First Encounter
Narrative questions: What happened here? How did Rapture meet its downfall? Why did that mutated freak kill that Johnny? Who is Atlas? Why is Atlas helping me?
Narrative answers: None

The tension and pace here is ratcheted up incredibly high in a hurry. There are a number of reasons for this that I will call out specifically.

The Spider Splicer is revealed. A blinking light gives the player brief glimpses of a Spider Splicer killing a man with hooked weapons. Following that the Splicer leaps atop the bathysphere and attempts to penetrate the hull of the vessel to attack the player before giving up and leaping into the darkness. The bathysphere’s door opens and the unarmed player is told by Atlas to keep moving and to “get to higher ground”.

Getting to higher ground is a reasonable objective considering that the player just witnessed the Spider Splicer gruesomely murder a man and the player has no weapons. This makes the pacing and tension high, which is a good change from the awe inducing bathysphere ride into Rapture.

Outside the door of the bathysphere the tight linear corridors reinforce the fast pace implied by the objective. It does this by focusing the player and reducing their options. The space is shrunk further by being darkly lit with the exception of the intended path. The absence of light on the edges of the space makes it feel tighter than it actually is and the darkness dissuades players from going to and exploring areas.

The mood is even tenser because of the disappearance of the Spider Splicer. Audio is used to great effect here in creating a sense of tension. The player is able to hear the Spider Splicer singing and taunting the player, but the Splicer is nowhere in sight. A blinking television screen serving as a navigation marker draws the player to it. Here the player pauses to assess the situation, but not for too long because of the implied danger. A light turns on showing the Spider Splicer. He is chased off by a security bot relieving the tension. With the Spider Splicer gone, the pace lowers and the new light draws the player to the next area. The player is given a safe environment to go through the Jump, Pick Up and Melee tutorials, which is a release and slows the pacing down further.

The arranged protest signs placed outside of the bathysphere serving as clues of dissention against Andrew Ryan are lost on the vast majority of users because the perceived danger from the Spider Splicer above, the tight corridors and blinking light from the TV cause tension to be high and the player to be directed. The player is encouraged to move fast out of this space. To really get the point across I would have placed more signs closer to the flashing television screen. Players tend to stop moving to take in their surroundings once they reach a destination.

Bioshock Protest Signs

Desk on Fire
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: None

The flaming desk pushed down the stairs scripted event raises the tension and pace. Combat with the Splicer keeps the pace high. After he is defeated the pace drops back down.

Gatherer’s Garden Room
Narrative questions: What is wrong with everybody here? Who is that little girl and big guy with the drill?
Narrative answers: Plasmids give the player powers.

The physical space of this room is wider than the previous room. The size of the space coupled with the scavenging mechanic promotes exploration and slows down the pace. The sparking electricity on the door draws the player’s attention to it, but the player quickly realizes that the door is not yet an exit. The use of audio calls from behind the player helps them pinpoint the location of the Gatherer’s Garden vending machine. The giant arrowed plasmid sign does not hurt either. As I previously mentioned the objective of stabbing and injecting yourself with an unknown substance breaks the immersion. The first-person cinema creates tension because the player is helpless to defend themselves and his life is threatened twice during the sequence. The Little Sister and Big Daddy are introduced. The Electrobolt Plasmid is introduced.

Tube Flooding Wow Moment
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: None

While most wow moments slow the pacing of the game down as players stop to observe these events, the plane crashing into the tube actually raises the sense of urgency by giving the player the feeling that they are in danger.

The linear corridor presents few options and keeps the player moving. The tension is amped up by the cracks appearing on the glass wall and vault door buckling followed by water pouring through the cracks. All of these events imply danger and encourage constant movement by the player. The realistic water effects preserve the immersion. This wow moment does the job of creating a memorable and exciting scene that varies the player’s experience.

Bioshock Tube Flooding Wow Moment

One-Two Punch Tutorial
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: None

Entering into this room the player will see that the room is bathed in red light, which warns the player of danger. Combat ensues and the pace is raised for its duration. The arrangement of the corpse underneath pouring water with the protest sign, briefcase and liquor beside him tells a story and keeps player interested in the world.

Bioshock Mise-en-scene

Elevator Crash
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: None

Once inside this room the player will see an elevator crashing. This wow moment slows down the pacing. A brief combat encounter with a man on fire ups the tempo for a short time. The space opens up into a well-lit larger room. Larger spaces have more area to explore and slow down the pacing and well-lit rooms promote players lingering in a place for longer.

Elevator Ride Up
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: Atlas is helping the player because his family is trapped and he needs the player’s help to free them.

The elevator ride provides an opportunity to update the objectives as well as remind the player of the scale of Rapture. The altitude change emphasizes scale and drama. Music is incorporated to sell this awe factor. The player’s objective is updated from a plea by Atlas to go to Neptune’s Bounty to rescue his wife and daughter. This objective will set the stage for animosity between the player and Andrew Ryan when Ryan kills Atlas’ family, thereby easing the player into accepting (as not to break immersion) their next objective and the tone change that accompanies “kill Andrew Ryan.” The overall objective of escape from Rapture still stands.

Bioshock Elevator Ride Up

Baby Carriage
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answer: The inhabitants of Rapture were driven insane by the use of plasmids.

Here the player finds a brief scripted moment where a woman is hovering over a baby carriage and singing a lullaby. The shadow of the female Splicer and baby carriage are splashed along the wall and can be seen well before the actual Splicer and carriage. The shadow forewarns the player and allows them to stop and become a voyeur. By listening to the lullaby and woman speaking to the baby carriage the player witnesses the extent in which plasmids have deranged the populace. Eventually the player must engage in combat with the Splicer. This scripted event hints that there is a living breathing city here and maintains the immersion.

The pistol is introduced.

Bioshock Baby Carriage Splicer Shadow

Kashmir Restaurant
Narrative questions: What happened here?
Narrative answers: There was an attack by Fontaine’s men on New Year’s Eve.

When the player enters into the Kashmir restaurant they find a male Splicer banging on a door and in an argument with a female Splicer. This is another very simple scripted event that goes a long way in building the player’s interest in Rapture. It gives the illusion of a living world by giving AI lives outside of waiting for the player to show up.

The Kashmir restaurant is a wide space that has many items for the player to collect and a lot of things to look at, which slows down the pace.

There are not many outward signs that anything bad has happened here until you go downstairs. The music is playing and the place is decorated festively. Bright colors, party hats and balloons that pop and leave behind a shower of confetti are scattered about the room. This room’s festive décor is in stark contrast to the previous environments and is a nice setting change.

After the Splicer and his wife are dealt with the pace slows. The ghost in the bathroom keeps the player vested in the story. The Splicer in the bathroom stall punches the pace up with combat for a short while. The signs of battle are much more prevalent down stairs. Signs here are askew, the lack of lights in the kitchen make it really foreboding. Within the kitchen is a man slumped over with a cash register. The player can start to invent their own stories about him. The Electrobolt plasmid with water tutorial takes place. Violin music adds to the sense of foreboding.

Bioshock Kashmir Restaurant

Footlight Theater
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: Questions about the relationship between the Big Daddy and Little Sister and their purpose are answered.

When the player enters into this area they will see a Little Sister and notice that the room is a bright crimson red because of the carpeting. This helps the player to make the connection that the Little Sister is dangerous. Exposition regarding the relationship of the Little Sister to the Big Daddy and how they fit into Rapture’s ecology is explained. Combat with two Splicers again raises the tempo. There is another pre-fight scripted event of two Splicers looting the Big Daddy’s corpse and more combat. There is a drop down here which prevents the player from backtracking, thereby keeping the player more directed.

Bioshock Little Sister

Rapture Metro
Narrative questions: Why is Andrew Ryan against me?
Narrative answers: None

There is sustained combat here. Access to Neptune’s Bounty is shut off by Andrew Ryan. A frantically voiced Atlas tells you to get to Neptune’s Bounty by way of Medical. The objective to get to medical happens because Andrew Ryan has prevented you from getting to your destination. This builds animosity with Andrew Ryan and sets the player up against the antagonist and prepares the player for the next overarching objective of killing Andrew Ryan. If the objective from the start is to kill Andrew Ryan who has not opposed the player in at least a few turns then you will lose the buy-in of your player and immersion will be broken.

Andrew Ryan’s Trap
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: Andrew Ryan is trying to kill the player because he believes he is from the KGB or FBI.

When the player enters into this room Andrew Ryan closes and locks the door on the player. The lights turn off and the player is in darkness for a short time for an immediate rise in tension. Following this Andrew Ryan speaks to the player accusing them of being from the KGB or CIA. There is implied danger to create additional tension when the Splicers try to break through the windows. The level ends when the door is opened by Atlas and the tension is relieved with the player being given an exit.

Welcome to Rapture is a successful level because it builds an interesting and immersive world and pays attention to constructing a variety of complete player experiences. By going through the walkthrough of the level, one can see just how many techniques are being used to direct the player experience. Although from a production standpoint it is expensive to pack so many setting changes, scripted events, wow moments, new enemies and weapons into a single level, there are many ways to direct the player experience less expensively. The important takeaway is that a big part of a level’s success depends on the player’s experience and to occasionally change the current experience to keep the level fresh and enjoyable.

See my other related articles:
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

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How to Make Your Shooter Combat Better

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

By: Tony Huynh

I was asked the question, “how could Bioshock’s combat be improved?” I thought about it for a while and I am going to propose some possible fixes for the shortcomings of Bioshock in this area. While this is geared towards Bioshock, it can just as easily apply to other games featuring first or third person combat. Some of these solutions may be drastic and change the tone of the game, but I wanted to put them out on the table to promote discussion. The root of the problem with Bioshock’s combat is the lack of necessary tactical decisions for the player. The aim of this article is to see why this is the case in the areas of weapon, AI, level and system design and present some possible solutions to add a greater variety of necessary tactical decision-making for the player as well as offer other improvements to Bioshock’s combat.

1) Balance weapons and plasmids around a Paper / Rock / Scissor system

A weapon in a Paper / Rock / Scissor system is balanced around the idea that weapons have strengths and weakness and that each weapon plays a defined role during combat. For instance a sniper rifle is strong at long range, but weak at medium and short-range, while a shotgun should be strong at short-range and weak at medium and long-range. If a player enters into a long-range engagement armed with a shotgun, they will be at a gross disadvantage against an opponent with a sniper rifle. The player must then choose whether to close the distance to take away the opponent’s advantage or switch to a different weapon. The weapon’s strengths and weaknesses can be affected by any number of circumstances and not just range. An example is in Halo, ballistic weapons do more damage against flesh targets and energy weapons do more damage against shielded opponents on top of their PRS range-based system. Obviously a balanced PRS system precludes any one weapon that is the best in all situations.

The current state of Bioshock:
In Bioshock, the Paper / Rock / Scissor system is not clearly defined. 99% of the engagements in Bioshock occur at short and medium-range and most of the weapons and plasmids are good at both ranges. Despite Bioshock’s shotgun being only usable at short-range, it does little damage at short-range and the rate of fire is extremely poor making it a non-viable weapon later in the game. While Bioshock presents a lot of options to the player, the player is never enticed to use these other tactics because every encounter can be handled with the Electrobolt stun to gun combo. This combo is one of the safest and most effective ways to dispatch every type of enemy in any situation in the game. There are no weaknesses to this combo as none of the AI are resistant to it and it can hit at both medium-range and short-range.

Another key component of the PRS system is that there are tradeoffs to which weapon the player chooses to carry with them. Even if Bioshock’s weapons followed a PRS design, the player in Bioshock always has access to all the weapons introduced up to that point in the game. This removes an additional layer of tactical decision-making because the player is always carrying the perfect weapon for the situation in their inventory.

Proposed solutions:
1. Define the roles of the weapons and plasmids in Bioshock to fit into a clearly communicated three category closed-loop (PRS) system, whether it is ranges or some other system.

2. If the solution is ranges (short, medium and long) it will be necessary to change level databases to intersperse long range engagements.
a. This is extremely risky because it will affect the atmosphere and feel of the game. The benefit would be that it will add some variety to the combat.

3. Limit the player’s weapon choice down to fewer weapons and plasmids. My suggestion is two of each. By giving the player only two weapons and two plasmids the player will always be weak in at least one of these three categories and they will have to make a choice on which weapons and plasmids to carry.
a. This will have the side-effect of alleviating some of the problems with the clumsy weapon and plasmid selection I mentioned in my last article as the player can now comfortably alternate between two instead of eight selections.

4. There are Gene Banks to swap out genes; how about Weapon Banks to swap out weapons? Create Weapon Banks and place both Gene Banks and Weapon Banks liberally through the levels to allow the player to swap out weapons and plasmids frequently.

2) More Enemy AI Variety
Introducing new enemy AI that have different personalities, behaviors, strengths and weaknesses changes the dynamic of combat and greatly benefits a game’s pacing. When faced with a new AI players must experiment and discover the strengths and weaknesses of the new enemy. The player must then adjust their tactics to deal with the new threat. The new enemy AI offers scenario designers the opportunity to mix in the new enemy type with the already introduced AI thereby creating new variations on old encounters.

The current state of Bioshock:
The wholly inadequate number of enemy variations in Bioshock are all frontloaded into the beginning of the game. By the middle of the title the player’s have been introduced to every enemy type and as a result the rest of the game’s combat pacing suffers.

Proposed solutions:
1. One way to add more variety to the enemies is to arm more Splicers with different Plasmids. Imagine an Electrobolt plasmid using Splicer that was also resistant to Electrobolt attacks, but weak against the Insect Swarm plasmid. Giving specific varieties of Splicers resistances to specific plasmids and weapons would have added depth to the tactics employed by players. This would at the very least force the player to change up the aforementioned Electrobolt to gun combo technique on occasion.

2. Design and create new AI with different personalities, behaviors, strengths and weaknesses and space out their introductions throughout the course of the game.

3) Differentiate AI silhouettes to aid player planning
One of the most effective ways to convey what type of enemy the player is facing is through having drastically different silhouettes between enemies. Silhouettes assist players in being able to tell enemies apart quickly, and in turn formulate a plan on how to tackle a situation more accurately.

The current state of Bioshock:
This is an area that Bioshock does not do well. The Houdini, melee and gun wielding Splicers are all difficult to tell apart at a glance because their silhouettes are so similar. Having unique silhouettes for AI is even more important because of how dark the levels are in Bioshock.

Proposed solutions:
Now that we have a greater variety of enemies that require different tactics to defeat, we need to communicate the variety of enemies to the player quickly and effectively. Gears of War 2 does an excellent job of having easily recognizable enemy silhouettes. Scroll through their enemy list to see what I mean.

A key difference with Bioshock and Gears of War 2 is that the enemies are more human in Bioshock. While this makes the solution a bit more difficult, it is not impossible. An example of widely divergent human silhouettes can be seen Valve’s Team Fortress 2.
Team Fortress 2 Character silhouettes

4) Have pre-fight AI scripting throughout
How a player perceives an AI’s intelligence is determined by what an AI is doing before a battle as much as what they do during the fight. While this does not directly affect giving the player additional tactical choice, pre-fight AI scripting helps make the AI look smarter and this will always assist in making combat more enjoyable.

The current state of Bioshock:
This is an area that Bioshock excels at especially at the beginning of the game. AIs in Bioshock have lives outside of waiting for the player to show up. The Splicers whistle, have conversations with themselves, take their imaginary babies on strolls and even dance with each other. This is one of the best examples of a game with the illusion of a living world. This is not easy to do and requires tremendous development resources, which is why it is not often seen in games. The problem in Bioshock is that pre-fight scripting falls off dramatically in the middle through the end of the game.

Proposed solutions:
More pre-fight AI scripting is needed during the middle and late stages of the game. If this is not feasible I would suggest spacing out the densely scripted pre-fight AI in the first half and spreading these through the course of the game so that there is not such a lull in the middle to end of the game.

5) Leaders with underling breaking behavior
This is a technique that was pioneered by Total War and brought over to the first person shooter genre by Halo. Whenever a much more difficult to kill Elite in Halo was defeated, the grunts in Elite’s squad would break and scatter. This added depth and tactical choice to target selection in combat.

The current state of Bioshock:
There are no leaders in Bioshock. In fact, the AIs seem to act completely independently from each other.

Proposed solutions:
1. This could be simulated in Bioshock by having the aforementioned plasmid infused Splicers serve in the role of leaders and if they are killed, the other Splicers will break and flee or simply cower and beg for their life.

2. “Wherever possible, we try to make the vocalizations a dialogue between two or more characters, rather than an announcement by one character.” J. Orkin – States & a Plan: The AI of F.E.A.R.
a. By including communication between AI whenever possible, it will make the AI at least have the illusion of working together.

6) Raise the hit points and damage dealt by your AI
This is taken from the 2002 GDC talk The Illusion of Intelligence by Jaime Griesemer and Chris Butcher. Through playtests and surveys conducted by Bungie Studios, they discovered that tougher AI (higher hit points and higher damage dealt) created the illusion that the AI was smarter.

Halo: Combat Evolved AI Test

Combat almost always benefits from the illusion of smarter AI. If the combat is too challenging however, accessibility will suffer. So making the AI tougher can only be pushed up to a point.

The current state of Bioshock:
Through the course of Bioshock the player becomes stronger by accumulating and upgrading health, eve, weapons and plasmids. The result is the enemy AI is tough at the beginning of the game, but gradually became weaker through the course of the game. Bioshock in turn occasionally scaled up the same exact AI in difficulty to accommodate the growth in power of the player. This made for uneven difficulty in the game and by scaling the difficulty of the same AI, Bioshock nullified some of the player’s sense of advancement. Nonetheless, by the end of the game the combination of player familiarity with game mechanics and avatar upgrades made the AI too weak and in turn caused the player to be left with a lowered opinion of the AI and consequently of Bioshock’s combat.

Proposed solution:
1. Create easily recognizable skins for upgraded enemies to communicate to the player that they have been upgraded.
2. Introduce new AI later in the game that is already scaled to the appropriate difficulty level of where they are introduced.
3. Maintain the frequency of player upgrades, but lower their potency.

7) Call in the reinforcements!
The way AIs are introduced can make them appear smart. AI that call for reinforcements when they see the player or if an AI is seemingly the last enemy in a scenario and calls for back up and they arrive make the AI feel intelligent.

“For example, when an A.I. realizes that he is the last surviving member of a squad, he says some variation of ‘I need reinforcements.’ We did not really implement any mechanism for the A.I. to bring in reinforcements, but as the player progresses through the level, he is sure to see more enemy A.I. soon enough.” – J. Orkin – States & a Plan: The AI of F.E.A.R.

F.E.A.R. relies on the player’s assumptions to create the illusion of intelligence, but this could just as easily be scripted in the game.

The current state of Bioshock:
I do not recall any AIs in Bioshock ever calling for back up.

Proposed solution:
Create occasional scripted moments where the player happens on a lone Splicer and she calls for help and additional Splicers come through a door or run downstairs to assist her.

8 ) Make the AI predictable
AIs need to have predictable behaviors so that players can recognize and use their patterns to outsmart them and thereby feel good about themselves.

The current state of Bioshock:
This experience came from my playthrough of the game. I had entered combat with a pistol armed Splicer, but moved away to where he could not see me, but I could observe him. He would move to the last place that he saw me to investigate, once there he would stay in his alerted state and begin a patrol. During his patrol he would stay at a constant speed (good), but would seemingly at random (bad) turn 180 degrees and start walking the opposite direction.

My goal was to sneak up behind him to use my wrench. Because he would randomly turn around 180 degrees my attempts were not always successful. Even if I manage to get to him the Splicer becomes aware of you at around 3 meters and immediately turns around to react disallowing the player the advantage of the first hit with the wrench. Let me outsmart the AI!

Bioshock AI Investigation Behavior
Proposed solution:
Bioshock AI Proposed Investigation Behavior
When an AI loses sight of the player they should move at a constant speed and never turn around 180 degrees. The AI should also not have the ability to see the player behind him (extrasensory perception) when at close range. Keeping AI actions predictable is the goal. Having predictable AI allows the player to recognize behaviors through observation and outsmart the AI.

9) The use of gameplay space and cover to create tactics
I have saved the discussion regarding cover usage and placement until now because it so fundamentally changes the way Bioshock plays and it carries the most risk. This should not be a direction that is taken lightly and without serious consideration and playtesting.

Make cover matter
Cover in shooters can be used to direct the flow of combat as well as promote tactical space analysis and decision-making by the player.

The current state of Bioshock:
Cover in Bioshock is used very little to direct battles and create fronts against enemies, the most effective way to deal with enemies I found was by standing out in the open and strafing left and right while firing.

There is very little half-cover in Bioshock, so crouching behind cover is not an option most of the time.

Proposed solution:
One of the easiest ways to promote the usage of cover for players is to have consequences for them for not doing so.

I took a look at a few other games that are praised for their combat to see what they did. I performed some tests to figure out how long it took three different games to kill the player. Each test was performed by standing the player perfectly still out in the open at medium range (my best guess at 8 meters).

In Bioshock, at the end of Smuggler’s Hideout, it took an average of 15 seconds to die from 3 pistol armed Splicers and 1 Spider Splicer on normal difficulty from a full health bar.

Halo 3
It took an average of 7 seconds to die from the very first engagement in Halo 3 on Heroic difficulty (the recommended difficulty).

Call of Duty 4
In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare it took an average of 4 seconds for two AI to kill the player when he is standing out in the open on Normal difficulty in the second engagement of Blackout (the first mission in Act 1).

This means that in Halo 3 the player dies more than twice as fast in the very first engagement of the game and in Call of Duty 4 the player dies over three times faster when compared to Bioshock at about the one quarter mark of the game where the player is up against an unusually large number of enemies. Without the immediate threat of death the player is not as willing to seek cover in Bioshock.

Encounter space design
Spaces should be designed to accommodate as many different types of playstyles used by players as possible.

What type of playstyle do you use? Do you like to sit back in cover with your medium and long range weapons and slowly whittle down the enemies? Do you sneak around the side and flank your opponent with close range weapons? Are you Rambo and want to run out in the center with guns blazing? Maybe you just want to use cover to sneak past the enemies and avoid the encounter entirely.

“Building a successful course then becomes a matter of understanding these different demographics and designing with each of them in mind.” – What SimGolf Can Teach You about Designing the Perfect Level by Alex J. Champandard

The current state of Bioshock:
While I am not saying that all the encounters in Bioshock did not allow for different playstyles, in fact some of them did this quite well, but there were far too many coverless corridors populated with enemies where the player’s options were limited to simply strafe and fire.

Proposed solutions:
The key to accommodating a wide range of playstyles is making sure that there is “interconnectivity” in the combat spaces.

“It’s very important to make spaces that highlight the strengths of your AI. A battle in a corridor doesn’t involve much strategy so there are no intelligent things for the AI to do. An interconnected space allows the AI to flank the Player, making them seem more intelligent. It also allows the Player to flank the AI, giving him a chance to watch them react to his tactics. One weakness of an interconnected space, however, is that it tends to be chaotic. So we also needed to establish a Killing Zone, an open area between two positions with good cover. Flanking is still possible in an environment with a killing zone, but the battle is much more directed. The killing zone also allows multiple enemies to fight at once without it degenerating into chaos.” – The Illusion of Intelligence by Jaime Griesemer and Chris Butcher

This is a combat space in Fracture that I worked on.
Fracture Tony Huynh Encounter Design

I attempted to design the space to accommodate different playstyles.
• Note the cover placement to create battle lines and the killing zone to keep the battle orderly.
• The sniping spot is for those that want to sit back with a long ranged weapon like the sniper rifle.
• Battle line 1 is to allow the option of medium ranged weapons.
• Note the flanking routes to allow for the player to flank the enemies and the AI to flank the player.
• I did not accommodate a way to avoid the encounter entirely, but in hindsight maybe I should have or at least have given it some more thought.

Cover placement is very important in providing opportunities for players to tackle encounters the way that they want to. Having a mix of battles take place in open areas as well as tight confined spaces and corridors will add variety to the gameplay to keep the player from becoming bored.

10) Use large-scale cinematic scripted events in combat
Large-scale cinematic scripted events like explosions, buildings toppling and helicopters crashing add excitement and help to break up the monotony of combat. Few games do large scale scripted events in combat as well as Call of Duty 4. The real trick is to make sure that players see these events.

The current state of Bioshock:
While there are certain big moments that happen in Bioshock, the Airliner cabin crashing through the walkway tube comes to mind, there are not any that happen mid-combat.

Proposed solutions:
1. Place enemies defending the hallway where the airline cabin comes crashing through. Have them get killed by the airline cabin collision.
2. Come up with and implement additional cinematic scripted moments that occur in combat.

11) Death for a player should not be meaningless
Combat does not work without the fear of consequences. When death is meaningless, the need for the player to use tactics is diminished. Conversely if death is too harsh, players will never want to experiment with anything but tried and true methods. A balance needs to be struck.

The current state of Bioshock:
The current implementation of Vita-chambers removes any need for tactics as dying is meaningless. Each time you die, you instantly respawn nearby with half health and the enemies do not recover any health. A tactic I abused a few times is to pull a Big Daddy close to a Vita-chamber and rush him with my wrench. When I died I simply respawned and repeated my tactics with the wrench until he was dead. I have heard a lot of people complain about the Vita-chambers, but there is a trade off here. The experience may have felt cheapened for the player, but this makes it so every player can see the end of Bioshock which is very valuable.

Proposed solutions:
I know I suggested a compromise to have injured enemies regain a modest amount of health if a vita-chamber is used in my last article, but if the goal is to promote tactical combat I would go so far as to recommend removing Vita-chambers entirely and rely on a system of checkpoints. There are certainly tradeoffs here and this negatively affects accessibility of the game so this needs careful consideration before implementation.

12) Healing
The question of how the player is healed becomes much more important with the removal of Vita-Chambers from the game. Here are the pros and cons of the very common Recharging health and Bioshock’s Persistent health systems as I see it.

Recharging health
• Promotes the use of cover (as it is the only place to regain health during combat.)
• It is easier for designers to tune difficulty for individual engagements because they will always know the player will have a certain amount of health before each encounter.
• It is easier to create a consistent difficulty curve for the game because each encounter can be tuned to be more difficult in relation to the last without worrying about how much health the player currently has.

• If there are permanent health upgrades they are exponentially more powerful.
• Players do not have to search for health packs.

Persistent health (Bioshock’s health system)
• The player must worry about every hit, because all damage is permanent.
• Players must search for health packs.

• Careful attention needs to be paid to a player that gets stuck in a low health situation right before a tough encounter.
• Cover can sometimes be ignored because players can stand in the open and regain health with a press of a button.

• Designers can ensure a proper amount of health for the player by placing health pickups preceding an encounter.

Proposed solutions:
Having listed out the pros and cons of the two systems as I see it, I do not know which system I prefer. The main issues of contention are the exponential power increase of health upgrades for the recharging health system and the difficulty of balancing each encounter for the player in the persistent health model. If I had to choose between the two, I would go with the persistent health system because it promotes the player searching for powerups.

The system I propose is a hybrid bucketed health system where the player has a number of buckets of health. Each bucket replenishes itself as long as it is not completely depleted. The bucketed health system maintains the need to have the player search for health and simultaneously encourages cover usage during combat to replenish health. Permanent health upgrades could come in the form of additional buckets of health.

This article is meant to offer suggestions to enhance the tactical decision-making of the player in Bioshock’s combat. Many of proposed solutions have large tradeoffs and affect the game negatively outside of combat. Since the goal was to improve combat and spawn discussion points, I largely ignored these problems. To read a less combat-oriented and more balanced list of suggestions at improving Bioshock read my last article, Bioshock: The Most Important Game of the Generation.

See my other related articles:
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

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Bioshock: The Most Important Game of the Generation

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

Posted by Tony Huynh.
Bioshock is the most important game of this console generation. Bioshock not only succeeds as a well-crafted game, but transcends being “just a game” by enticing the player to think about philosophical ideas like Objectivism and Altruism as well as important topics such as government oversight and stem cell research. Bioshock is a game that shows the promise and the flexibility of our industry. For those of you interested, I explore the topic of social commentary in games further in my article: Roger Ebert was Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet.

Andrew Ryan Speaks out Against Altruism

Bioshock is set in 1960 and is a “what if” tale that serves as a sequel to the events following the conclusion of Ayn Rand’s influential book, Atlas Shrugged.

The game is about what might happen in a society created from the very best and brightest that humanity has to offer coupled with the removal of all government oversight and restrictions. The result is the impossible. The result is Rapture, a city filled with wonder under the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

Without the yoke of religion or morality tying down the scientists of Rapture, they soon discover a substance called ADAM (stem cells) that enable the user to rewrite their genetic code to make themselves stronger, faster, smarter, more beautiful and even gain superhero-like powers. The price they paid was their sanity.

This is the utopia dreamed by Ayn Rynd gone horribly wrong.

This article is a collection of my notes and thoughts on a playthrough of Bioshock on medium difficulty. There will be spoilers and the write-up assumes that you have played through the game already, so stop reading if you have not.

Bioshock has one of the greatest openings in gaming history. You are the protagonist Jack and begin the game aboard an airliner over the Atlantic. The passenger plane crashes and you are the lone survivor. Bobbing in the middle of the ocean, you see a very out-of-place lighthouse jutting out of the ocean beckoning to you. Once inside the lighthouse you are greeted with a bust of Andrew Ryan, Bioshock’s stand-in for Atlas Shrugged’s John Galt and a plaque that reads “In what country is there a place for people like me?” – Andrew Ryan.

Proceeding further you find a Bathysphere. With nowhere else to go, you enter and it is here that you are introduced in dramatic fashion to the city of Rapture. Just how the game introduces you to Rapture is absolutely amazing. I still get shivers even after multiple playthroughs.

Bioshock Introduction

At its core, Bioshock is a mystery that the player unravels through the course of the game. The world of Rapture is as scary as it is beautiful. The atmosphere is oppressive and there are genuinely frightening moments. I played the game alone late one night with the lights turned off and I caught myself looking over my shoulder more than once. The contrast in the music from the period really adds to the disturbing mood of the game.

Enemy introductions in Bioshock are some of the best that I have ever seen. One of the difficulties faced by game developers is how to introduce enemies to players fairly. That is to show what an enemy is capable of before letting them loose on the player. The most common practice in games is to introduce new enemy types through a cutscene. There are many advantages to the cutscene approach. The main one being that you can never be sure which direction the player’s camera will be facing during the game, thus they may miss events that happen during gameplay. The disadvantage is that the control is taken away from the player and immersion is broken. The developers at 2K Boston chose the more difficult, but more immersive route of never breaking the first-person camera perspective. As Ken Levine said, “cutscenes are for cowards.” The spider splicer is the first enemy that is revealed to the player when they arrive in Rapture. While still behind glass in the Bathysphere, Jack witnesses a Spider Splicer kill a man before viciously attacking the bathysphere that he is in. This not only shows the attacks of the enemy, but quickly tells the player that there is something very wrong in the city of Rapture.

While many games have great enemy introductions, fewer have memorable weapon introductions. This is surprising because as a design rule when weapons are first introduced they should always be placed in a scenario where the weapon is the most effective to make the player feel success with the weapon. The shotgun introduction in Bioshock sets a new bar for weapon introductions. As the player enters into a room they find that the shotgun is lying in the middle of the room. As the players picks up the new shiny weapon the lights go out, leaving the player in pitch darkness. Completely turning lights off on the player is very effective in raising tension. Audio of enemy Splicers can be heard before a single downward pointing directional spotlight turns on illuminating only the center of the room. The player gravitates towards this column of light because it is the only spot that they are able to see. From there they must fend off waves of Splicers armed with melee weapons with their new found shotgun. This forces the engagement range to be close, where the shotgun is the most effective. This is simply perfect execution of the weapon introduction design rule.

The telekinesis plasmid introduction was also very well-done. Before the plasmid is introduced, the player stumbles on a curious device, a tennis ball launching machine. Once activated the machine constantly spits out tennis balls, which hit the player and bounce off. Not finding any real use for the out-of-place machine, the player continues past the ball launcher through the level and finds the Telekinesis plasmid and is forced to back track and revisit the tennis ball machine. The true purpose of the tennis ball thrower is then revealed. The tennis balls simulate thrown dynamite that Splicers are armed with later in the game. The player is then allowed to practice catching the tennis balls with the Telekinesis plasmid and flinging them back at the machine. While this is not as memorable as Half-Life 2’s introduction of the gravity gun, it is nonetheless a very effective introduction to a new mechanic. The Telekinesis plasmid really frees the designers up to place goodies wherever they want as the players can now use this plasmid to retrieve cleverly placed pickups.

Speaking of plasmids that enable the player to gain additional items, I really liked the pickups locked in ice that can only be acquired through the use of the Incinerate plasmid. This gave many of the plasmids dual uses, like the Winter Blast plasmid that would slow down the flow in the hacking mini-games. The plasmids also served as lock and keys to prevent the player’s entry into new areas without first acquiring a specific plasmid. An example would be a door that was frozen shut that the player could not travel through until they found the Incinerate plasmid. This is similar to the gameplay used in Metroid, where the player would gain access to a new area only after finding the double jump ability. I would have liked the developers to have incorporated lock and keys that required more than one plasmid to bypass. Zelda games do this very often where you would need the combination of both the grapple hook and the iron boots to cross a ravine.

The inhabitants of Rapture are disturbingly insane. The Splicers whistle, have conversations with themselves, take their imaginary babies on strolls and even dance with each other. This is one of the best examples of a game with the illusion of a living world. The AIs in Bioshock are never simply waiting around for the player to show up. They have lives and are going about their own business. This is not easy to do and requires tremendous development resources, which is why it is not often seen in games. It is this unwillingness to settle for the mediocre that makes Bioshock special.

The brilliant Fort Frolic level was easily my favorite of the game. Fort Frolic is controlled by the insane artist Sander Cohen who makes artwork by plaster coating human bodies. If the player strikes these statues, they bleed.

Another moment that stood out was a scene later in the game where there are a number of bodies laying on the ground. Up until this point Bioshock had always rewarded players for searching bodies of dead Splicers and these player expectations were reinforced dozens of times. These bodies in particular were not dead Splicers, but were Splicers that were playing possum and laying in wait for the player. As the player gets near them they hop to the feet and attack the player. Bioshock sets the player’s expectations to search the bodies and then turn’s those same expectations against the player. This is similar to Resident Evil 4’s use of snakes in the crates and barrels which had previously only dispensed beneficial items to the player.

“Would you please.” What a great plot twist. I should have been expecting a plot twist and paid closer attention to the clues considering System Shock II’s twist.

During the take down Fontaine level I really liked the mechanic of randomly giving and switching plasmids on the player. This forced the player to try out all of the plasmids that they may not have collected. It would have been better if this had occurred earlier, so that players could acquire plasmids that they may have forgone, but really liked after having tried it.

The true highlight of Bioshock, besides the superb story is the audio in the game. The ambient audio and the contrast of the period audio recordings lend themselves to the horrific tone of the game. The recordings found littered throughout the spaces are incredibly voice acted and unravel the story to the player. Arman Shimmerman’s voice work for Andrew Ryan stands out from the crowd and is some of the best VO I have ever heard in a game.

Andrew Ryan Monologue Collection

The soundtrack is also fantastic. Here is a link to the free Bioshock Soundtrack Download provided by 2K Games.

Improvements I would have liked to see in the game:
1. Visual Fatigue
Despite the beauty of Rapture, the sameness of the colors and environment started to cause visual fatigue by the mid-way point in the game for me.

2. Overly Frontloaded
Bioshock, like most games, is very frontloaded. There is very good reason for this. There is a finite amount of resources that can be used to make games and developers know that most players never reach the middle of games, let alone the end. By frontloading all the best moments in the first few hours of gameplay, they ensure that the greatest numbers of players see their best work. There is a noticeable shift in the game during the midway point where the game changed from being horror themed to a more action oriented one. This was partly due to players getting increasingly stronger, but mostly this had to do with the allocation of scripted scare moments.

By the middle of game the pacing is just excruciatingly slow. All the newness has worn off at this point and the game is sorely lacking in new enemy types and mechanics.

3. Lack of NPC Variety
While the fights with the Big Daddies were epic, the varieties of enemy types were very lacking. Where are the Splicers that are capable of using plasmids? Splicers that could wield the Electrobolt plasmid or Incinerate plasmid would have added variety.

More variation on the Little Sisters would have been nice. The masks and uniform changes for the adult Splicers added variety, but all of the Little Sisters were nearly identical.

4. Player Combat Tactics
The player’s tactics never need to change throughout the entire game. The Electrobolt stun to wrench combo is just as effective at taking out enemies at the beginning as it is in the end of the game. Giving specific varieties of Splicers resistances to specific plasmids would have added depth to the tactics employed by players. Imagine an Electrobolt plasmid using Splicer that was also resistant to Electrobolt attacks, but weak against the Insect Swarm plasmid. This would at the very least force the player to change their tactics on occasion.

5. More Ghosts
While portions of the story were revealed through the sighting of ghosts, this story-telling device was not used enough over the audio recordings. The latter half of Bioshock could have used additional ghost moments for better pacing.

6. Camera Research
I am sure that the developers were aware of the pacing and lack of variety problems setting in during the middle portion of the game and beyond. I am sure that the camera used to take pictures of enemies for research was an attempt at creating gameplay variety. It failed miserably. The camera was the most annoying mechanic for me in the entire game. What is this, Fatal Frame? The idea is to casually take pictures of Splicers as they unload their machine guns on you.

7. More Gameplay Modes
The inclusion of another gameplay mode would have helped to break up the tedium of one after another fetch quests. An example of a game that did this was Dead Space with their inclusion of the Zero Gravity gameplay sections.

8. Hacking is too prevalent
Hacking takes you out of the world and pauses the game. So if an enemy is attacking you and you run up to a machine to hack, he will wait patiently for you to finish before resuming his attack.

But the benefits of hacking were so great that I felt like I was forced to hack all the time. At least later on the game introduced auto-hacking items. I heavily stocked up on these, because I hated hacking after the 100th time.

9. The player is too powerful
There is a direct correlation from how powerful the player is to how scared they are. At the start of the game, the player had to ration bullets and money and every Splicer was a threat, but by the mid-point these resources are overly-abundant and the enemies were easily dealt with. With the inclusion of the Vita-Chambers bringing the player back immediately at half-health dying is nearly meaningless. This is just another reason to make the player weaker.

10. Keep the player unarmed for longer
The game starts the player without a weapon, but within moments the wrench is introduced. A player without a weapon is a very scary place to be. I wish that the developers would have taken greater advantage of this before introducing plasmids and weapons into the game. An example is the game Clock Tower 2. In that game, the player was defenseless against the lone stalker Scissorman and must hide or find ways to temporarily fend off the attacker. Now imagine how scary and tension filled the opening would have been being weaponless and pursued by the Spider Splicer and having to find hiding places or knock over bookshelves or other obstacles to buy time, before ultimately finding a weapon and turning the tables on the Spider Splicer.

11. Combat
The designers used very little cover to direct their battles and create fronts, most of the time it was just stand out in the open and strafe left and right while firing at enemies. There is very little half-cover in the game, so crouching behind cover is not an option most of the time. The game would have benefited having more vertical cover like columns used to add in an element of tactical cover use into the gameplay.

12. Replayability
The game suffers from lack of replayability. This could be remedied by giving smaller, but more frequent upgrades to weapons and plasmids and allowing these upgrades to be carried into subsequent playthroughs of the game. Resident Evil 5 does this to great effect.

13. Choice
I wish the decisions made were less black and white and landed more in the gray. The little sister choice was essentially meaningless and merely changed the ending cutscene and made me pine for choices with real weight of a game like Baldur’s Gate 2.

14. Clumsy Plasmid and Weapon selection User Interface
While the amount of choice available to players was being heavily hyped, the difficulty and clumsiness of selecting plasmids and weapons because of the radial interface made players less willing to switch weapons and have less choice.

15. Vita-chambers
I have heard a lot of people complain about the Vita-Chambers, but there is a trade off here. The experience felt cheapened for the hardcore player, but this makes it so every player can see the end of Bioshock which is very valuable. A compromise could be to have injured enemies regain a modest amount of health if a vita-chamber is used.

16. Andrew Ryan, why have you lost your way?
I would have liked to have seen Andrew Ryan follow the Objectivist ethical ideals more closely, such as not killing the stripper he impregnated and staking people to pillars [see “The Objectivist Ethics” Ayn Rand (1964)]. He is basically a cold-blooded murderer and in many ways deserved to be killed off. I felt because of this, the power of killing him was greatly diminished. If he was just a man clinging staunchly to his ideals while his world crumbled around him, it would have made the player’s act of killing him that much more impactful and emotional. This was a missed opportunity.

17. Golden Arrow
For as immersive and well-thought out the rest of the game was, the arrow used to guide the player is just shameful and really breaks the immersion of the player. Some other more fictionally relevant method should have been devised.

18. End Boss
Frank Fontaine as the end boss was a weak fight and felt rushed. A suggestion I have is borrowed from the Ganon fight in Legend of Zelda Wind Waker. In that fight Link is completely outclassed by Ganon until Zelda joins the fight by picking up her Bow and firing arrows to distract Ganon, allowing Link the opportunity he needs to slip under Ganon’s guard. Similarly, in Bioshock what if when the player confronts Fontaine, they are completely outclassed, until Little Sisters join the battle distracting Fontaine and giving the player the opening he needs to defeat Fontaine?

After reading through that improvement list, you might get the impression that I did not like the game. That could not be further from the truth. Bioshock is a response to those who call games “a way to pass empty time and nothing more.” Bioshock is that mythical mass-market masterpiece of a game that makes you think. Bioshock is a title that I can point to that shows that games can deal effectively with such topics as Objectivism, Altruism and human nature. Bioshock has proven that socially relevant games can be successful. I hope that more game developers are willing to take the path shown to us by Bioshock.

See my other related articles:
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

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Posted in Video Games | No Comments »