Is Bioshock perfect game design?


This being out of the way, let me explain why (just in case you haven't read one of the million reviews that already say so). Some time ago, I wrote a blog post with my good friend Fabien Royer about what we consider to be the seven deadly sins of modern game design. We pointed out that even great games such as Gears of War or Oblivion always had at least one of these flaws. So how does Bioshock measure up against those (arbitrary) criteria?

  1. Checkpoints: Bioshock has checkpoints, but they're not your (big) daddy's old checkpoints. They are non-destructive checkpoints. They don't affect your progression, they just respawn you at some specific point. This is absolutely brilliant as it never punishes the player for trying something new. In this game, you'll never have to redo the same boss fight a thousand times because you died a millisecond before the boss: the damage you inflicted persists even if you die. It all plays beautifully as the game's difficulty is very well-balanced (if a little on the easy side, even on the maximum difficulty level). While it's true that you could take down a Big Daddy with just the wrench if you're patient enough, it will take forever and you won't have as much fun as if you waited for him to step into gasoline and set him on fire after tricking security turrets into attacking him. I love how they put the responsibility of how fun the game is in the hands of the gamer: the game is just as fun as you make it.
    Oh, and on top of that, you can save whenever you want.
    So, yes, perfect and innovative checkpoint system. Bioshock, one point and a half for brilliant innovation.
  2. Boss fights: see above. Thanks to the brilliant checkpoint system, there is no boss that you have to fight more than once. You may die several times in the process of defeating him, but you don't have to redo the same thing over and over again. The great game mechanics also encourage the player to try a different approach if they fail: bosses don't have a single weak point, they are just stronger or weaker for different types of attacks, and there is always a large number of ways to kill them. Bioshock, one more point.
  3. Mini-games: ouch, Bioshock almost lost a point here. There *is* a mini-game (hacking) and like most mini-games, it's disconnected from the main gameplay and not much fun at all. But it redeems itself by being entirely optional. If you don't like it, you have plenty of options to get the same results: you can buy your way around it, you can use an auto-hack tool that you built or found in the game or you can just do something else entirely and not attempt the hack (destroying the security device, paying full-price in vending machines, etc.). So, well, half a point here.
  4. Cut-scenes and dialogue: the narration in Bioshock is absolutely brilliant both in contents and form. You learn about the background plot by finding recordings as in-game objects. These recordings play while you can continue playing so they never disrupt the rhythm of the game. There are also a few cut-scenes during which you can look around a la Half-Life, so it's not full interactivity but they are at least very well-integrated into the game. I never felt the urge to skip them so I don't even know if it's possible, but that's a good point: you don't want to skip them. And you don't have to watch them more than once because again of the brilliant checkpoint system. One point.
  5. Reload times: the loading times in Bioshock are not especially short nor especially long, but again, the checkpoint system makes it so you won't have to endure them except when going to a new level or reloading a saved game (which you'll almost never do). So nothing exceptional here, but the generally great design of the gameplay makes it a minor inconvenience. One point.
  6. Camera: it's an FPS, so you are and manage your own camera. One point. Oh, but wait, your senses in Bioshock actually go well beyond sight. The audio and noise localization is the best I've seen in any game. You'll usually hear the enemies before you see them, which really creates an incredibly immersive experience. You need 5:1 to enjoy the game at its full potential by the way. One point and a half.
  7. Control scheme: it's ok. I've inadvertently injected myself EVE more than once because of some button overloading but it's nothing terrible. Half a point.

So all in all, where are we? Seven point! We have perfection! OK, I cheated a little and gave more than one point here, less than one there. But that's actually how this game is: it is so brilliantly put together that everything fits and the very few minor weaknesses it may have are made completely irrelevant by other design decisions. The checkpoint system is an example of a very simple innovation that is much farther reaching than it may appear at first.

This game is pure joy, it is art, and if you're old enough (it is also very violent, be warned) you'd do yourself and the industry a great favor by buying it. This game must be a hit because we want many others to imitate it...

Archived comments

  • Seven deadly sins of game design - Tales from the Evil Empire said on Friday, August 31, 2007

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  • Collin said on Friday, August 31, 2007

    Talked me into checking it out.
  • Gregor Suttie said on Friday, August 31, 2007

    I concur captain in everything you say - its a joyous thing to play Bioshock. ( if you take back your criticisms of Gears Of War we may be back on an even keel <g>) G
  • Some Guy said on Friday, August 31, 2007

    You forgot #8: SecureROM. This allows me to warez the game. Developers, include that garbage in your game, just gives us "users" a green light to warez it!
  • Bertrand Le Roy said on Friday, August 31, 2007

    Gregor: I loved Gears, but it does have a few flaws, like its checkpoints and unskippable cut-scenes right after the checkpoints (it's so simple to put them *before the checkpoint* (or allow us to save anywhere)). Some guy: while I agree that some protection systems on PC range from annoying (activations for example) to unacceptable (when they are rootki-like), they are just one more reason for me to play on 360 and never on the PC. Furthermore, there is no rootkit in Bioshock PC. The security system may be annoying and may restrict reselling options but it doesn't justify piracy. I think you're just making excuses for being a thief.
  • InfinitiesLoop said on Friday, August 31, 2007

    A worthwhile ENDING should be on the list if you ask me. All that work, I expect a fanfare of a cut scene at the end with some huge cliffhanger for the next game. The ending of Gears was... not that. Final Fantasy games are the goto games for great endings if you ask me. Don't tell me you already finished Bioshock? I haven't even purcahsed it yet... definitely next on my list though.
  • Bertrand Le Roy said on Friday, August 31, 2007

    Dave: no, I'm not quite done yet but I've seen enough of the game to make an opinion, and my friend Fabien finished it last night. The end of Gears was ok. Just ok. Go buy Bioshock now, you've got three days to play it full-time. Seriously, you'll thank me.
  • RichardC said on Saturday, September 1, 2007

    Hi Bertrand, Bioshock is now available in France. But do you run it under XBox 360 or PC? Under PC, rumors says that you must have a really, really fast computer.
  • anothr user said on Tuesday, September 4, 2007

    One new subscriber from Anothr Alerts
  • Collin said on Tuesday, September 4, 2007

    OK, I checked it out. I have plenty of opinions. So far the game play is great. It's lacking the frustration factor for sure. Gears of War was just too darn easy and seemed way to short.. But then maybe I was just too into it to let up till I was done with it. Either way the cut scenes were no where near as bad or frustrating as they are in COD3. Bioshock does have plenty of redeeming factors and is certainly on my top list of single player games. Gears is also up there. COD3 is the better multi-player game with Gears sucking ass and losing big points for 3rd person view which is NOT EVER good for multi-player. Bioshock has no multi-player (that I am aware of) which is a shame but they beat out the competition for playability while stoned and or drunk. Perfect game design is a long way off and while I agree Bioshock is terrific game design I worry that it's because we have been so used to poor game design . It's to the point where so much attention is given to the look that they forget the feel. I will give Bioshock big time props for how much they packed into the game without overloading us too much. Nothing is worse than taking a winning game like Ghost Recon and turning it into a pile of crap with GRAW. I love Bioshock's story line also.. that is just a great idea of a submerged city. I can't wait to see where the story is going to lead me. Is it just me or did they steal a bit of the beel of this game from Fallout 2? That is an old game that has a post-apocalyptic feel and very similar 50's style advertisements and such.. very different games but similar feel.
  • Gregor Suttie said on Tuesday, September 4, 2007

    Bioshock is just such a great game - Arcadia with the Lost style violin music is quite scary and when the kid on dead guys jumped up I literally jumped off my seat - that'll teach me not to play it up at a high volume. The visuals in the games are getter better and better. Setting your foe on fire then shot gunning them, setting a swarm of bees on them and then clubbing them with a spanner is just great fun.
  • Bertrand Le Roy said on Tuesday, September 4, 2007

    Richard: I run it on Xbox. Collin: the ads do look very much like the Fallout ones, yes.
  • Gregor Suttie said on Friday, September 7, 2007

    The one ommission from perfect game design in my opinion is online multiplayer - my xbox live friends have been asking me lately what is bioshock like, I tell them its fabulous and the first and only question that they really wanna know is - "can you play it against others?" - for me this is what makes a game more complete - playing Gears for example online throws up a different type of animal every single time you play it - even playing against the the same friends every night Gears is still fantastic. Imagine playing Bioshock online with the ability to take each other on with plasmids and download new maps and potentially different tasks to take on. Gears as a 1 player game does have a few minor annoyances but online its da bomb and will continue to be number 1 game on xbox live for a while (until halo 3 of course).
  • Bertrand Le Roy said on Friday, September 7, 2007

    Gregor, I disagree. I think it's doing what it does perfectly. That doesn't mean that you couldn't add to it and make it even better but the online component for example is something that would be great for some people (me I couldn't care less, I don't have fun with competitive multiplayer) but not having it doesn't make the solo campaign (what it is) worse. What I'm trying to say is that the point of the article was to determine if and how Bioshock does what it does badly, well or perfectly. Perfect doesn't mean it can't be improved or added to :) It means that nothing gets in the way of the fun. If you asked me, what I would add to Bioshock first would be cooperative multiplayer.
  • Bertrand Le Roy said on Friday, September 7, 2007

    Oh, and Gregor, my friend Fabien who is very much into competitive multiplayer games doesn't quite agree with you on multiplayer Gears, which he rarely plays. He seems to prefer Rainbow Six Vegas. Did you check this one out?
  • BlackIsle Forever said on Wednesday, September 26, 2007

    Bioshock is too far away from perfect game design. Hacking by using water-pipe combinations and also steam powered machine guns which can identify friendly and foe are far too imaginative. They tried to create a world but could not keep it consistent. Many things Bioshock claims to have innovated, especially A.I behavior, is already existent in many games. The mini helicopter guardians (i name them like that) are obviously inspired from the manhacks of half life 2. It has many faults. Also I always think that the most important sin of modern game design is the "story(fiction)" and the enviroment. Look at fallout it has pages of story behind it (before the game) and the game is based on that (even though you encounter the total story or not).
  • Bertrand Le Roy said on Thursday, September 27, 2007

    BF: "far too imaginative"? Since when is being imaginative a flaw? I don't think it's inconsistent. Unlikely maybe, but it's a game, it doesn't have to be likely to be immersive. Underwater skyscraper city? Not very believable from the start but *who cares*? Not innovative? No, it's not (except for the checkpoint system). I don't think they claimed to have invented new AI behavior or the hovering thingies. I'd go so far as saying that if you've played System Shock or Deux Ex, you've pretty much already played Bioshock. But that's not the point. The point is that Bioshock delivers brilliantly and does what it does perfectly. It's no revolution, but it resets the standard to which future shooters will be evaluated. What are those faults that you allude to? I'm not following your point on story and environment. Do you mean the story and environment in Bioshock leave to be desired? That would be funny.
  • alejo699 said on Wednesday, October 10, 2007

    I must agree, Bioshock is as close to perfect a game as I have seen. If one looks hard enough one can nitpick some flaws, but why would one want to? To prove one's world-weariness, perhaps, or to demonstrate one's own inability to enjoy life? I don't know. As for BlackIsle's comment, yes, it's true: Steam-powered guns are not likely to have IFF. However, if you examine any game's "reality" quotient, you'll find it coming up short. The bottom line is, if a game requires a single player to kill hundreds or thousands of foes it is NOT realistic. Yes, Bioshock borrows from other games, including its own predecessor, just as most games do. The difference is that Bioshock took many disparate ideas and created a more immersive world than any of the others have. - And yes, I am including Half Life 2 in that, even though I love it dearly.