Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

BioShock has too many mechanics?

Posted by Ben Zeigler on April 18, 2008

A few days ago, John Rose from Nihilistic Software wrote a feature for Gamasutra. The basic thrust of the piece is that if you overfill a game with game mechanics, they complicate the game, confuse the player, suck development time, and dilute the game’s identity. I totally agree with this premise, and I love his concept of a “play aesthetic”. The idea of that is that a game will have a central thrust and point, and any mechanic that fails to reinforce that thrust should be struck from the game. This creates a focused, cohesive experience. So far so great. Then he decides that giving players different options on how to overcome goals always dilutes the play aesthetic and says that Bioshock suffers from too many mechanics.

Okay, that’s just crazy. Here’s the choice quote:

BioShock is an example a great game whose giant mechanic set only weakens its play aesthetic. While the title’s story and environment have set the bar for many games to come, there’s just too much to do. In many a difficult situation players are left to decide between their guns, plasmid powers, hacking, stealth, and the use of one-shot items.

There’s one very clear and specific problem with this statement: The Play Aesthetic of BioShock is player choice within an interactive environment! That’s the whole point of the game! Everything from the plot (which is clearly about choice/lack of choice), the power up system (you get to choose your own evolution), to enemy encounters (Big Daddy fights are specifically left open ended to encourage different ways of dispatching them) reinforce this central aesthetic. With every choice a player makes, they integrate themselves more fully with their character and their environment, and the game really is about building that relationship (only to have it questioned by the plot). You can make an argument that BioShock didn’t go as far as it could with this Play Aesthetic (the hacking minigame in particular sticks out as being counter to player choice, and I have serious problems with the last 3rd of the plot), but I don’t have a clue what the “Real” Play Aesthetic of BioShock is that is somehow betrayed by giving the players options. Also, Irrational/2K spent a lot of time refining their mechanics throughout development. The original design had a much more complicated ecosystem involving dynamic population of various enemies, but that was reduced to the much more focused Big Daddy/Little Sister dynamic.

In my opinion BioShock is the best game of the past 5 years to embrace the Play Aesthetic of player choice, and that’s why it’s such an awesome game. I still Think Deus Ex is the best choice-based game of all time, but that’s for another column.

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3 Responses to “BioShock has too many mechanics?”

  1. Darius K. said

    Agreed on the Deus Ex thing!

  2. Just read your post for the first time, looks great:) Gonna have a look at the rest of your blog!

    As for this post yeh to many game mechanics can ruin a game the one that jumps to mind is MGS 3. It just wasnt needed and felt like it wasnt part of the game.

    On the other hand games like lets say WOW or anyother MMORPG can get away with more and more features/mechanics.

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