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A 'key' tip about keys and doors from BioShock's lead level designer

Former BioShock lead level designer Bill Gardner explains why you should think carefully about how players' path to a puzzle can influence their desire (and ability) to solve it.

“It’s a tough lesson—too often when designers create sequences, they present players with the solution before the problem. In this case...we want you to pull forward, despite the fact that it’s a dead end. Because that way you appreciate the solution more.”

- Former BioShock lead level designer Bill Gardner

How do you create satisfying problems for players to solve, and how do you design levels to make sure they know they solved it? 

The answers to those questions might be obvious to some, but as former BioShock lead level designer Bill Gardner pointed out on our Twitch stream last Friday, it’s not always a question with obvious solutions

While venturing with Gardner through Rapture in the early hours of BioShock, Gardner took a moment to explain some of the basic design philosophy behind compelling players to want to enter the medical pavilion, which contains the game’s first boss fight. As you can see in the clip above, Gardner worked to create a sequence of events both meant to introduce players to certain new gameplay mechanics (hacking and the tommy gun), and clearly communicate the cause-and-effect nature of their actions in the gameplay environment. 

And according to Gardner, it turned out not to be a straightforward thing. “This is just a goofy little locked door, but I’ll see in shipped games all the time, and you enter a room and find a key, or a fire extinguisher, then you go down the hall and find a fire you’re supposed to put out,” Gardner explains. “You’d be surprised how many people have difficulty grasping that you have to make sure you’re pulling people towards the blockage before the solution.”

Gardner says sometimes this kind of level design comes naturally, such as when you’re blocking off a player’s pathway, but sometimes Gardner says you have to go for what seems to be thuddingly obvious in order to get players to understand everything that’s going on.

“Look how contrived this is,” Gardner says, pointing out the details of a security room containing a switch that opens a locked door. “It’s an island looking over the door. I think that’s the way you present these sort of things, you find a way to put things front and center. “

For more level design insights from Bill Gardner, be sure to watch our full conversation with him as we take on the first hour of the original BioShock.

Be sure to subscribe to our channel for regular interviews with game developers every Friday at 3PM PST! 

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