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Starbucks at Machu Picchu: What can we learn from the design of Bioshock Infinite?

Building a Game Design Toolbox: What can we learn from the design of Bioshock Infinite? This blog is the second in a series looking at what we can learn from the experiences presented by various games, to provide us with tools to use in our own designs.

Andrew Stewart, Blogger

June 17, 2013

11 Min Read

This article was first published at the Triplevision Games website. Read the first article in the series here.


There I was, strapped into chair inside where I had expected to find a giant light-bulb at the top of a lighthouse. I'd been given a gun, my gun supposedly, by the people who had rowed me to this place. On my way to the top of the lighthouse, I had passed a dead body tied to a chair. A knife in its chest held a note in place with a cheery motivational message on it, considerately left for me as reading material for my ascent. As I prepared to be fired into the clouds, to the flying city of Columbia, I thought I knew what to expect.


And then I dropped my gun.


At that moment, Bioshock Infinite gave me a reason to pay attention. Not when I found the body. Not when the clouds lit up with bright colours and foghorns. But when I dropped my gun. I felt like, at that moment, I'd been promised something. Something different, something exciting and interesting. Something challenging, and not just because they'd chucked in a bullet sponge to waste all of my ammo on. It had my attention, and I was eager to see what kind of world was waiting for me up in the clouds.


It was not what I had expected. It was like a strange living theme park, like those old towns you go round with school to see what it was like living in Victorian times. Except I wasn't just waiting to go home. I didn't want to go home. This place was exciting! Strange! The little bits of story it drip feeds you through the environment and the conversations around you and the strange little picture boxes only added to this sense of wonder.


And I wondered. How is it all staying afloat? Why are all these well-to-do folks up here? Hold on, am I the bad guy? Is someone expecting me? All these questions were being teased out of my brain and left there floating like a strange city in the sky. Then my stupid character had to go and ruin it by picking that stupid ball I'd been told not to pick.


Then I was faced with a decision, suddenly the pace had changed and I had to do something. I'd just seen a darker side to this world, it was really starting to get interesting. And then, ohmygod gore! And then, ohmygod I'm fighting people and running and what's happened? What's going to happen next?


The sudden spark into violence was exhilarating. Those questions that had been dripping from my head were now pouring out, as I searched for escape and safety. How would this unfold? What interesting things did this game have in store for me as soon as I'd shot all of these coppers and that firey bloke?


Oh wait, nothing. It turned out shooting coppers and the odd firey bloke is pretty much the rest of the game. And that kinda sucked.


I felt as though I'd been taken to this amazing place of wonder and possibility, filled with people I wanted to get to know all about. I wanted to talk to them, ask them about this strange world they lived in. I wanted to explore, and not just to loot every last bin and basket. I wanted to see what there was to see in this amazing place, to see what there was to do.


I wanted so much more to be able to interact with this amazing place other than with a gun.


It's like flying to Cambodia to play laser-tag at Angkor Wat, or going for Starbucks at Machu Picchu. It's the same experience you can find almost anywhere, with the exception of the beautiful backdrop.


Don't get me wrong, I love laser-tag and I've probably spent more money in Starbucks than they've paid in tax (as in, I've been at least twice), but wouldn't it seem like a waste of the wonder of Angkor Wat to run around and shoot at people? Also, I'm pretty sure that kind of behaviour would be frowned upon.


And it's the same in the city of Columbia. It feels like a waste of what the game could have been to spend pretty much the whole time just running around and shooting at people, mainly policemen. Except that it doesn't seem that this kind of behaviour is particularly frowned upon in Columbia, which is odd when you consider how prim and proper everyone seems when you first arrive.


It really isn't the violence itself I find disappointing - that first, sudden, shocking grinding and mashing of flesh and bone actually feels quite powerful, pulling you out of that strange daydream you were just having about a city in the sky,as does the chase that immediately follows - the problem is that that violence never really comes to an end.


It has a bodycount to rival that of Spec Ops: The Line, but Spec Ops: The Line had you killing that number of people as parody. And that's just it. To me, Bioshock Infinite just kind of feels like a parody of the first Bioshock. It's story is almost allegory for the game itself: overreaching ambition brought crashing back to earth by an out of date idea that they just couldn't get away from.


The unending violence worked in the first Bioshock. The looting of corpses and bins and baskets and whatever else you could click on, the plasmids, the world turning against you - all of this made sense in that underwater world as it fell apart in some kind of Randian nightmare. But Infinite is not that game. Infinite is not set in that world, and it is not telling that story.


I'm not saying it isn't an enjoyable game, and I do feel disingenuous being so harsh on a game that's given me several hours of fun. But it could have been so much more than that, so much more than the gaming equivalent of a Saturday night popcorn movie.


And for all the fun I've had so far, it's worn thin well before I've found out what the story is they're trying to tell me. For a game with roughly a 10 hour play through, that I have no inclination to go back to it and finish it says a lot. I have completed some remarkably mediocre games, some of which have taken much longer than the 10 hours required of me to finish Infinite. I finished those because they had something interesting to offer me, something different from the repetitive shooting gallery that just doesn't make sense in that city in the sky.


So this leaves me thinking: what can I learn from Bioshock Infinite? The whole reason for this series of posts is to find some tools I can keep in my 'designer's toolbox' to pull out when needed, to help me become a better designer. Well, just like a workman might use a spirit-level to check that his shelves are straight, Infinite gives us some great tools to make sure our game designs aren't as wonky as my DIY.


The first tool we can pull out of this would be 'identity'. Well, what do I mean by that? This tool is all about seeing your game as its own game. Bioshock Infinite is too caught up in what it thinks a Bioshock game is meant to be. Sure, we might not all be making sequels to such genre-defining games as the first Bioshock, but we can still fall into the trap of sticking too close to the trappings of a specific genre or the mechanics of a game that has inspired what we're working on. Remember, the game you're working on is its own game. It is an individual, with its own identity. Treat it as such. Play to the strengths of the game, what is most interesting about it? What most stands out about it? In Bioshock Infinite, for me, this was its world. But that was soon relegated to an nothing more than an interesting backdrop to a game I felt like I'd played before. Once you know what is the most interesting thing about your game, you know what to build the rest of the design around.


The second tool is 'the meaning is in the mechanics'. This is something that deserves a post all of its own, and you know what? I think it might just get one. Narrative isn't the only way you tell your story in a game. It might be the only place that Bioshock Infinite seems to think it is telling its story, but the mechanics are going to tell the player their own story whether you like it or not, and if the two don't work together and pull in the same direction, it's all just going to feel a bit weird.


This links neatly into our third tool of the day, the 'game world' One of the great ways these things can be tied together is in the world of the game itself. The space in which the story takes place. The world you play in is a massive part of the narrative told as story, as well as the boundaries and constraints of what you expect from the mechanics. Do the mechanics and what is happening make sense in that world? I'll look into this in more detail in the mechanics post as I think consideration is needed as to how this might apply to more abstract games (although the great thing about tools is you can leave them in the toolbox if they're not the right one for the job).


A fourth and final tool I'm going to be taking from the design of Infinite, is 'setting expectations'. The opening of the game is fantastic, it inspired an awe in me that really drew me in and opened me up to the possibilities it seemed to be dangling just in front of me. This was a game I wasn't going to be putting down any time soon. Until it turned out to be a different game. A great start is great, and this is probably the most important part of your game. But if you're setting high expectations, you have to stick to them. Consider what kind of experience you are promising your player as you ease them into this world that you've created. Then deliver on it.


So, we've got 4 more tools there. Two games in and already we've got plenty of ideas to play around with. We've added: 'identity', 'the meaning in the mechanics', 'the world' and 'setting expectations'. There were other tools I had half a mind to discuss here also, but those ideas hadn't quite fully formed so I'll be leaving them to ruminate a little while before we bring those into consideration. This is something we may have to come back to.


I was going to end this post with a joke about not being able to get Peruvian coffee at the Machu Picchu branch of Starbucks, but I still feel kind of bad about effectively slating a game that I've quite enjoyed. It really does do a lot of things well, but only really those things you'd expect it to do well.


And with the set up and opening teasing you with a glimpse of what it could have been, that just isn't good enough.

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