How Environmental Storytelling Shaped Bioshock


The gameplay structures and visual design of Irrational’s classic shooter-adventure Bioshock was heavily influenced by the need for environmental storytelling, according to the project’s Lead Level Designer Bill Gardner.

Speaking to Gameumentary recently, Gardner explained how the creation of Rapture was a highly-iterative experience, beginning as a tropical island before moving underwater for an industrialised cityscape and finally settling on the art-deco aesthetic that permeates the final game. Throughout this process, environmental storytelling became a key factor in many design decisions with Gardner saying that the team leaned on the strengths of the concept, which were “the storytelling, and the narrative and the immersion level that the game had.” These elements helped Bioshock to stand out in a crowded market because “most shooters were… just run down a hall, blast a bunch of demons, or monsters, or aliens, or whatever, and then you move on. You don’t care about it.”

Irrational Games considered the ‘corridor shooter’ design philosophy “a waste” because it failed to make use of the unique ability of games to convey considerable amounts of information through the setting. Early builds of Bioshock contained sections that were “rip[ped] to shreds” by playtesters, with the developers realising that poor guidance and pacing were among the most notable issues. As a result, the development team “took a step back and really focused on how to sell” the fiction.

A part of the revised vision included redesigning the Splicers to appear more human and less like monsters to help convey the “psychodrama of [the fallen] character who’s roaming around the halls echoing the greatness of his heyday.” Further changes included altering the level design to give players a clear use for each new weapon and tool as soon as they were acquired, and to help readability. Gardner goes in depth about how the introductory sequence to the Big Daddies and Little Sisters was originally confusing for playtesters, before the environment was redesigned as a theatre to help guide players to the relevant information.

At forty minutes long, the full documentary (embedded below) contains an array of commentary on how Bioshock moved from a staid shooter to a watershed moment in gaming.

The team at Gameumentary, which is led by former OnlySP staff members, is currently seeking USD$22,000 on Kickstarter to fund further documentaries on a range of games including the Darksiders series, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, and Battle Chasers: Nightwar.

For all the latest news and commentary from the world of single-player gaming, be sure to bookmark OnlySP and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and Tumblr.

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