How Resident Evil 4 Influenced the Design of BioShock

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The story of how one all-time great title changed the design of another.

When we looked back at Resident Evil 4’s legacy as the survival horror game that changed the genre, we talked a lot about the games that it inspired. From Dead Space’s unabashed adoption of the Resident Evil 4 formula to the way Uncharted translated the game’s cinematic set pieces to the action-adventure genre.

Of course, when you’re talking about a game like Resident Evil 4, it’s sometimes hard to really understand the scope of its influence. Even now, some 13 years after Resident Evil 4’s debut, we’re only starting to see the breadth of the game’s reach. It was a title that invaded the hearts and minds of gamers everywhere and planted seeds that continue to sprout to this day.

It even influenced the design of the greatest game of the previous console generation: BioShock, which began as a spiritual successor to another classic title, System Shock, but became so much more.

Before he helped form indie studio The Deep End Games and released the 2017 indie horror hit, Perception, Bill Gardner worked as the lead level designer on 2007’s BioShock. In my recent interview with Bill, he recalled BioShock’s surprisingly humble early development at Irrational Games.

“Relatively speaking the team on BioShock were way outside of our weight class,” said Gardner. “I don’t remember the exact number, but we had about 50 people in-house working on that game plus some outside help from Australia. That’s compared to a game like Assassin’s Creed, which had maybe 300 people working on it.”

While the BioShock team may have suffered from a comparative lack of resources, they did benefit from the looming presence of a clear and common goal.

“For the longest time, one of our core goals was to find that balance between System Shock and finding a way to balance our audience,” said Gardner. “Given that we were bringing it to consoles, there were a lot of challenges there.”

The challenges of bringing a System Shock experience to consoles is immediately apparent to those who played the cult classic PC series. System Shock was a game very much ahead of its time. It utilized a first-person perspective that was once most commonly associated with action-heavy shooters as the basis for a deep RPG experience. In the beginning of BioShock’s development, the team wondered whether players would be willing to accept a more complicated breed of action game. Gardner recalls that the design and impact of Resident Evil 4 inspired the team to not fret about what the “average gamer” could handle.

“There’s all these nods and all these little elements that I think you can see where Resident Evil inspired us to take the general complexity and amp it up,” said Gardner of BioShock‘s unconventional approach to action. “In a nutshell, Resident Evil very much gave me the confidence to say, ‘Players can handle it, in fact they’re hungry for it.’ They really want to get more out of their environments, out of the combat, and out of the tools.” 

Gardner explained that there were concerns from the start regarding BioShock presenting itself as a first-person shooter despite actually being a fairly in-depth RPG-like experience. Irrational carefully considered how to implement the right kind of combat into the game.

“At the time, there was a lot of question regarding what people would tolerate in terms of complexity. We were positioning ourselves as a shooter and there’s a real pitfall there if you’re a shooter and you don’t scratch the right itch in terms of what the expectations are for a shooter,” said Gardner. “Resident Evil was a survival horror game, but they eventually added in all these combat elements…these tactical elements that made you decide, ‘Am I going to jump out this window or go out this door, who am I going to take out, what tools am I going to use?’ It had this interesting design and tactical elements that I would show to the team all the time.”

Gardner specifically recalls the impact that Resident Evil 4’s opening village level had on BioShock’s approach to action sequences. 

“We looked at that [scene]very carefully in terms of how [Capcom] handled the sandbox nature of the combat,” he said. “Not really in terms of weapons, but the environment.”

Resident Evil 4 certainly set a precedent in terms of how environments could be used to enhance combat in non-action heavy games without overly empowering the player. In that opening sequence Gardner mentions, players are able to kick ladders, shut doors, and perform certain QTE actions specific to the area they are in. Even if these methods don’t kill the enemies outright, they afford players the opportunity to preserve resources by using nearby tactical options. The most obvious example of this in BioShock would be the puddles that can shock splicers. 

Of course, a more complex combat system only works if it’s used against enemies that demand more than a pull of the trigger. So far as that goes, the BioShock team was keenly aware of why the Resident Evil games successfully encouraged players to think more than shoot.

“There was a lot of talk about the importance of A.I.,” said Gardner. “I think one of the things the Resident Evil series did really well was that they didn’t really just mix and match the enemies … That changed the way you’d approach those encounters. That gave us a lot of inspiration to mix up the combat in BioShock in terms of having a fire splicer and a splicer with a wrench and how those make you choose your tools differently.”

Even the successful introduction of BioShock’s most compelling foes, the Big Daddies, can be partially traced to the gameplay fuelled storytelling of Resident Evil 4.

“That scene where you first encounter the big daddy was a tough one to get right,” said Gardner. “When you’re trying to maintain player control, it can break the game very easily. That’s one of the reasons you see so many games go to cutscenes. When you talk about authorial intent, you can really control more with cutscenes.”

While BioShock‘s opening sequence and the Big Daddy introduction are now considered to be classic gaming moments, there was a time when these scenes weren’t playing out exactly as the developers intended.

“During playtesting for that opening, we’d have people go in the corner and put there heads down or stare at the vending machine and do all this other stuff. Meanwhile, there’s this awesome cutscene where the big daddy is smashing this splicer’s head through the glass. We wanted to make sure you saw that stuff.”

In an effort to get players to focus on key scenes, Garnder contemplated the possibility of using a more traditional and controlled cutscene style.

“I remember saying to [BioShock director] Ken [Levine], ‘You know, occasionally Resident Evil does take control of the camera here and there. This is an important scene. Don’t you think that maybe for a couple of sequences we can take control?’” asked Gardner. “Ken put his hand on my shoulders and he goes, ‘You know, we’re doing this for a bunch of reasons. The second you do that, the directors, the creators, the designers, are putting their hand on the player’s shoulder and saying, ‘You’re going to be safe, you can’t be hurt here.’”

Levine’s desire to keep the player in control echoes the sentiments of studios like Valve who believe that turning the player into a viewer is a tremendous blow to immersion. It’s a complicated approach to game design that often requires designers to go the extra mile in terms of crafting effective scenes that allow the player to retain freedom of movement.

While that is certainly a broad example of how a game like Resident Evil 4 showed the BioShock team what did – and didn’t – work for their vision, the game’s influence can also be felt in smaller ways.

“We got to a point when we were looking at Resident Evil’s interface for the inventory,” said Gardner. “There was a long debate about whether we wanted to use a similar inventory system. If you look at System Shock 2, it had that Tetris-like interface that has you try to maximize what you’re carrying around. We thought having that kind of Tetris-y mobile interface might be an issue, so we spent a lot of time studying Resident Evil and the way people reacted to it.”

That inventory system Gardner is referring to is one that requires the player to manage a grid-based interface. Larger weapons – like shotguns – take up more of that grid while smaller items like health packs take up less. This forces the player to consider the value of items based on their relative size and functionality. While it may seem like Resident Evil 4 proved that system could work in a console game that relied on tension, not everyone on the BioShock team was convinced it was the best option.

“There were people who were like, ‘Ah, I don’t want any interface at all,” said Gardner. “Then you had other people who were like, ‘No, I think people like to mess around with this sort of thing.’ I think Resident Evil reiterated that design very strongly with the notion of  ‘Oh, I can pick up this grenade, rotate it this way, and stick it over here in this corner,’ and that became a little mini-game in itself. There was a big debate internally about whether that would kill the tension or whether or not it would enhance the tension because it gives you that breather, but then you have to go back in and kind of pace it out for yourself.”

Ultimately, the team decided to settle on a more streamlined inventory system that didn’t require the player to perform so much micromanagement. 

Perhaps if BioShock had incorporated that inventory system or took control away from the player for cinematic purposes, fans would have more easily recognized the influence Resident Evil 4 had on their nightmarish adventure through Rapture. That’s certainly the case with Dead Space and other titles whose roots run all the way back to Capcom’s 2005 classic, whether it be through the combat, level design, or the over-the-shoulder camera. However, the influence of Resident Evil on BioShock goes to show that a game’s true legacy isn’t always found in its imitators. It’s sometimes found in the game designers who looked at revolutionary titles like Resident Evil 4 and saw proof that their is an audience for games that try something different and ask for more out of their players.

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