In this blog post I hope to provide a critical overview of Bioshock’s level design. I will be paying particular attention to the way in which Bioshock uses level design tools and invisible walls to guide the player through the game and the narrative. By examining the various level design tools, we can ensure that the level is easily navigable by the player and tells the game’s story in the best possible way.

The first thing that we are greeted with in Bioshock is a wall of flames directing the player down the given path. By using simple human instincts, like avoiding fire, explosions or drowning, the developers are able to create a sense of urgency in the player and direct them towards the landmark. Landmarking is an extraordinary tool that the developers make use of for guiding players to their goal. No game better illustrates this than Journey, there is never any question of where players should go. Even with the world relatively open to players, they are stopped by straying too far to go by being blown over in the sand and redirected towards their goal. At no point in either game are players left wondering where to go.

Well where do we go now?

The first big tool that Bioshock uses is Landmarking – should we go to the lighthouse, a safe point out of a burning plane wreck in the middle of the ocean? Maybe we should. However, would it necessarily be the best idea to jump into an unknown machine and pull the lever, probably not, but the game uses landmarks to direct us down there and into this device. Landmarking is an important tool for telling the player that they are going down the right path, as a way of indicating  “yes you should infact be here”.

This direction is further influenced by lighting in a game. Lighting usually indicates the most direct path to the player’s objective and goal. In larger levels it can be used to draw attention to an objective or important piece of narrative. Lighting should not simply be considered an atmospheric tool, but one that guides players and adds an additional layer to the narrative. An excellent example of this is the exposition involved when the player is first told about the little sisters.


The next tool in the box for level designers is quite literally signs. Signposts are simple props which can be placed within an environment. Much like in real life, these are used to quickly communicate information to the player. In Bioshock, however, signs are used to tell a deeper story of Rapture and provide players with a deeper understanding of what exactly has occurred in this world they have been dragged into. Without these signposts, the world would lack context and depth.

One of the things that Bioshock doesn’t make as much use of is the use of breadcrumbs, although with the game’s level design and objective feeling so clear, this type of suggestion felt unnecessary. That is not to say that the game is without its secrets, Bioshock usually uses breadcrumbs and signs simultaneously to direct players. This also goes to show the value in combining one or more of these level design tools, when in conjunction they work stronger together. Fallout 4 illustrates an excellent example of this in the Railroad quests, where players are sent on a breadcrumb hunt from one sign to another. We can also notice use of colour coding in Bioshock, as explained by Jamie Madigan, using colour codes also helps build players understanding of what to look for (2013). You can see that Bioshock wanted to avoid using too many colours which conflicted with important items to pick up. They managed to draw our attention to red or blue to indicate power and health in the negative space, while hiding other things in more neutral colours. By combining the tools at their disposal, designers give players a greater chance of picking up the cues in their ‘attention set’, especially in a game as busy and detailed as Bioshock (Madigan, 2013).

One of the most crucial things that Bioshock’s level design does is conjoin with the game’s visual aesthetic to tell the story. These signs don’t feel detached from the game and the world, they only add depth and, more importantly, they give players direction without needing to think about it. One of the game-play elements that are emphasised in Bioshock is using the environment and hazards to your advantage, however these are untaught mechanics which rely heavily on the player’s understanding of the world and environment. Thus it was crucial for Bioshock‘s developers to nail their level design otherwise this metagame would be lost. This is not apparent when you first pick up the Bioshock, but is something a player can develop as they traverse the game. If levels were harder to navigate or disorienting, players would miss out on what is arguably one of the game’s most unique selling points.




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