Bioshock: Interacting Rule Sets

Posted: February 11, 2013 by thepetergraham in Uncategorized
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I was having issues getting my PC version of Bioshock to run today, so I ended up having to boot up and old save on the Xbox version. Despite the mix up, the slightly later save file gave me a bit more to work with in terms of active rules interacting with one another.

While playing today, I noted that the operational and constitutive rules of Bioshock are constantly playing against one another. The basic operational rules in the game are that you have finite health and mana bars that can only be refilled with items, you can hack and destroymechanical devices in the game, your different elemental attacks have varying side effects outside of damage, and that an arrow will point you towards your objectives.

ImageHere you can see the guiding yellow arrow, as well as the electricity mixing with the water.

I consider all of those rules to be operational based on the qualities of rules discussed in the reading and in class. Much of this information is explicitly displayed on screen or in description text, they are fixed systems that never change throughout the game, they are binding in that you can not play the game ignoring them, the repeat over and over until the end of the game, and they limit player action by providing fixed health and mana. Not every rule has every one of these qualities, but most of them do.

ImageAn example of the hacking menu before initiating a hack. Upgrades make subtle modifications to the rules and difficulty of hacking.

Underlying constitutive rules that come up frequently include elemental mixing rules like water-electricity or oil-fire, the rule that Big Daddies will guard Little Sisters from both the player and enemy characters when provoked, that hacked turrets and cameras will target enemies, and that those enemies will attack you on sight.

Your characters fixed amount of health and mana interact with the constitutive rules since they end up guiding your actions and forcing you to make multiple decisions from encounter to encounter. If I had unlimited mana for instance, I would just constantly be spraying fire out of my hands and never bother with any of the other systems. However, due to this hard fixed rule, I go into areas and look for ways to minimize my mana and bullet usage, while also trying to maintain my health.

The enemies erratic AI adds a level of uncertainty to all of these rules and systems as well. You might hack a turret and hold a corridor against a wave of enemies, but often times they will sprint away and flank you from a different angle or lead you on a chase into unsafe territory. This is where knowledge and understanding of the constitutive rules come into play. At one point I chased an enemy into a dark tunnel, only to realize that there was another enemy right up ahead. I happened to be near a stream of water however, which I knew mixed with electricity and used against both the enemies. So while I managed my operational rules (health and mana monitoring), I used my understanding of the constitutive systems in place (elemental effects and hacking) to progress through the game.

While this single player experience doesn’t seem to have too many implicit rules, on that it does have is with regards to the harvesting or saving of Little Sisters in the game. After defeating a Big Daddy, you are left with a small girl that you can either kill and harvest for more skill points, or save for a reduced amount. The game never tells you what to do one way or the other, only giving you perspectives on both sides from Atlas (pro-harvesting) and Tennenabaum (pro-saving). Much of the critical conversation around the game involved this decision making process, which created a set of social expectations as well. Eventually people discovered that you end up getting rewards over time for saving Little Sisters, and so the implicit rule to save them became a bit of an unwritten rule.


I think that the well balanced rule sets in Bioshock interact with each other exceptionally throughout the game, which I would say plays a role in its overall success.


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