Bioshock: How to spoil immersion, in eleven easy steps
Or: Alert the media! Nerd has opinion about videogame!
(Note: this will contain spoilers, if you care about that sort of thing.)
Create a gorgeous, visually compelling, detail-oriented setting for the player to move around in, with a brilliantly art-directed, distinctive visual style, populated with new graphical surprises around every corner. (My personal favorite detail is the way that whenever you get wet, a few droplets of water cling to the surface of your monitor until they dry off.) Add a narrative that’s at least as good as its source material (Ryan’s climactic “A man chooses. A slave obeys!” scene is no more ridiculous than Howard Roark raping whatsername was, and has a more memorable catchphrase to boot). Toss in reasonably good combat AI, and a varied series of player tasks that are narratively justified enough to not feel like the series of “fetch me a cookie!” quests they really are. (That’s the immersion part. The other steps are what ruin it.)
Whenever players get a new weapon or unlocks a new research achievement, introduce it by playing a short training video done in a completely different visual style (1950s bowling alley kitsch) from the rest of the game (1920s steampunk art deco). 2a. For bonus points, make sure the training videos impart no actual information of any kind. “The ‘incinerate’ plasmid! Use it to set things on fire!”
Make it painfully obvious early on that the guy on the radio who’s guiding the player through each step of the narrative is going to turn out to be Not What He Seems. Give the player no way at all to act on this information. (Though, to be fair, Bioshock does justify this when they reveal that the player is literally supposed to be a mind-controlled drone under the power of the guy on the radio.) (I did mention there would be spoilers, didn’t I?)
Make it impossible for the player to know what he’s supposed to do next without listening carefully to what the guy on the radio tells him. Maintain realism by making the radio nearly inaudible compared to the shouts and shrieks and explosions of combat. Set up the map timing in such a way that the player is always in the middle of combat whenever the guy on the radio says anything important.
Scatter the landscape with dozens more barely-audible “radio diaries”, which contain the innermost thoughts and secrets of the game world’s inhabitants — who then left them lying around in hallways, public spaces, and, occasionally, beehives. For some reason. 5a. For the first two-thirds of the game, train the player to ignore the radio diaries by ensuring that they have no effect on the gameplay at all (other than occasionally allowing access to a “secret” area which is clearly marked on the map, and which the player can usually get access to by some other method, and which rarely contains anything particularly useful or interesting in the first place). Then, without warning, make it impossible to proceed further until the player finds and listens to a single radio diary hidden inside a large, four-story, mutant-infested apartment complex.5b. Have your voice actors record half of the diaries in thick Russian accents, for no apparent reason. (Seriously, I don’t get this. Everyone you encounter in Rapture seems to be either an Irish mobster, a posh (if somewhat mutated) upper-class 1920s stereotype, a Randian superman, or all three; where did these downtrodden-peasant types come from? Is there some underwater shtetl adjacent to Rapture whose diaries were accidentally smuggled in in place of a vodka shipment, or something?)
Disguise the run-on-rails aspect of the narrative by giving the player some choices to make along the way. Well, one choice, anyway. Keep it interesting by making it a complex moral decision, with no clear right answer. Something like “Should I, or should I not, eviscerate the cute little girls?” should do the trick.6a. If for some reason the player attempts to move on to the next section of the game without having eviscerated (or not) enough little girls, throw up a big honking warning to tell them they need to turn back and hunt up some little girls to eviscerate (or not). The player should be made to feel that if he doesn’t kill literally everything that moves, he’s doing it wrong.
Frequently pause the action and run the player through a refreshing round of a shareware game from nineteen years ago. Because, get it? Pipes? Underwater city? Awesome. Pun-based gameplay is the wave of the future. (Get it? Wave? Awesome.) Make sure any bad guys will stop what they’re doing — even if that happens to be leaping down at the player from the ceiling brandishing giant bloody hooks, while on fire — and wait while the player moseys through this moment of innovative gameplay circa 1989.
Let the player carry around fourteen different weapons at once, half of which have three different types of ammunition to choose from, and make sure that good combat strategy frequently involves using three different weapons in order on each opponent. Realize late in development how completely unmanageable this is for the player, so add a key that pauses the game while the player chooses which weapon to use next. This makes combat, which should automatically be the most immersive, visceral part of the game, instead feel like a series of tiny stuttering moments between pauses.
Make one of those weapons the “research camera,” which on use pauses the action to let the player take a leisurely look at the soft sepia-tone snapshot he just took of the angry mutant who’s currently leaping at him from the ceiling brandishing giant bloody hooks while on fire. The mutant hangs there frozen and motionless while the player receives his letter grade from the Bioshock Correspondence School Of Mid-Combat Research Photography, ponders the results of his research and its ensuing combat bonuses, files the snapshot lovingly away in his official Bioshock Research Photo Picture Album, carefully puts the lens cap back on and rummages through his bag for a shotgun. Then he blows the mutant’s head off.
Make sure the player has to use the research camera at least thirty times on each type of enemy to get the full benefit of the damage bonuses it awards. That won’t feel repetitive at all.
After all that, make the consequences of player death absolutely nil until the very end of the game (at which point it becomes irrevocable). (The easiest way to defeat the Big Daddies — the most powerful enemy in the game, except for the traditional big Boss Fight at the end — is to walk up behind one while he placidly ignores you, and shoot a grenade at his head… which understandably angers him and causes him to kill you more or less instantly. Then you get resurrected about ten feet away, walk back up to him while he placidly fails to recognize you as the guy who just lobbed a grenade at his head, and lob another grenade at his head. Repeat as necessary.) If the player is developing strategies such as “let yourself get gunned down when you set off an alarm, because dying is easier and faster than walking over to the alarm shutdown panel and pulling the lever” then you know you’ve succeeded.