Set Piece: Lessons Learned from BioShock

This post was originally written for the Surreal Game Design blog back in December. I'm publishing it here.

One of the great things about BioShock (other than that it's a lovely first person horror game with more than a couple of very cute homages to other great games in the genre... and yes, I'm going to be quite annoyingly company pimpingly obvious here and say The Suffering, but also Half Life) is the way it grabs you and takes you on a fantastic guided tour through the environment they've created.

They did a great job with this. I'm not just talking about the bathysphere journey at the beginning of the game - although to be honest, it's probably the most overt way in which they do this, and it certainly sets the tone for the adventure you're about to go on.

The cool thing is how they do it in other areas of the game.

Take, for example, that big room near the Kashmir Restaurant right at the beginning of the game. The one that you need to get into an elevator and go up. (There are several broken elevators nearby). The elevator is small, and there's only one direction you can look. And because of that, you end up with an impressive crane shot which beautifully displays all of the effort they put into the art of that room.

They do this in other places too. Anywhere there's a large art set piece, they make damn sure that you get to enjoy it - either by making sure that the only route you can take is one that will expose you to it. Stairwells, elevators, corridors... all of them serve to make sure that you get to see the wonderful art deco architecture of it all.

It's a great trick, and one that works very organically. You hardly know they're doing it - certainly, you might not notice it unless you've spent a lot of time studying film. They employ similar devices in their horror moments, with great use of light and shadow to highlight and amplify the moments.

The environment isn't just a theme that gets tacked onto the game, nor is it a way to funnel random monsters at the player. The environment itself is an integral part of the experience - and it's treated as such.

And because of that, it's lovely, unique, and probably a huge part of why BioShock gets such great reviews.

Full Disclosure: I've not finished Bioshock yet. I'm near the end though. But heck, I know what I like. I finally finished Bioshock (since the Surreal Game Design blog went down). Meh. I was unimpressed by the ending. It could have done with some kind of coda to wrap things up.
Even More Disclosure: The most obvious homage to The Suffering is the "body in the locker" trick. And the most obvious one to Half Life is the fact that you're told to go grab a crowbar or something for a weapon.
Too Much Disclosure: Half of the guys here actually jumped up and down when BioShock came out, and we all gathered around the monitor of the Retail XBOX Dev Kit we were playing it on... and the verdict was unanimous. Not only did we all love it, but for a while there, we were all feeling incredibly nostalgic and suddenly wanted to make another horror game. Touché, 2K Games, touché!

About the author

Simon Cooke is an occasional video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker, musician, and software engineer in Seattle, WA.

The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind by them (and barely even one by him most of the time).

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BioShock | Ludonarratology wrote on Thursday, August 25, 2011:

[…] spaces allow the player to play detective and reconstruct his own history for the game world. Careful construction of spaces and traversals played a significant role in player experiences as wel…, as Simon Cooke explains. Every time the player encounters a massive set piece, the developers use […]

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