To get things started I have made a video where I play through the first 45 minutes of BioShock and try to talk about the level design as I go. The video is very long so I will put the short version in the blog below.
The introduction to BioShock is an extremely effective example of level design, it introduces the world of Rapture and the mechanics of the game in an efficient and powerful way.
The first thing to notice about BioShock is the way it directs the player without getting them lost or enforcing invisible walls. Thus ensuring the player remains engaged with the game without becoming frustrated. A good example of this is the very first scene where the player’s plane has crashed, you emerge out of the water to find yourself surrounded by fire, but you are started out facing the only gap in the flames.
Instances like this while being incredibly obvious to the player are the most effective because the game does not have to expressly tell the player where to go or what to do. In this instance you are surrounded by fire and you have one way out, so you should get out.
The game certainly encourages exploring the world of Rapture, however in the introductory sequence at least there is often only one way the player can go, with a few branches to loot on the way. The setting of an underwater city that is falling apart really helps with contextualising the reasons why you cannot enter particular areas, or why you would explore them later. Things like debris are common, and airlocks are another method of keeping the player out of other areas too. This is important to consider, particularly when you have games that present a lot of doors to the player to suggest that the game world is large and that there are many branches to explore. If a player encounters these doors in another setting such as an office and finds the doors do not open that becomes frustrating, finding the one door you can enter when there are a multitude of doors that the game presents. The setting of BioShock really helps with this aspect of level design.
Theatricality is another very important tool in level design. It is not something people often consider when talking about games which is how very similar video games are to theatre. I would argue they are more similar to theatre than they are to films. Particularly, when you consider games are built up of sets and scenes, and presents to an audience in real time, an audience which can affect the performance just by their reaction.
In any case BioShock frames its scenes in a very theatrical manner, which is part of what makes the game so engaging. Effective staging, lighting and framing are all very important elements to consider when designing levels. The encounter above is set in a literal theatre and the player takes on the role of the audience as the Little Sister is introduced to the player. The events which take place explain to the player exactly what will happen when you encounter a Little Sister on your own, rather than make the player guess what is going to happen when they come across a Little Sister and a Big Daddy at a later stage. This is very effective game design, one of the worst things for a player is having to guess about elements of the game as they appear, trial and error gameplay is not a good time.
The elements that build the introduction to Bioshock, from the initial flyby of the city of Rapture, to the combat encounters all express to the player the opportunities that await them in the game. The game presents a world that has a history and now a future with you in it through the way you interact with the game. The levels direct you through in such a way that enforces the underlying themes of opportunities and objectivism while also introducing mechanics through well constructed sets and encounters.
Thank you for reading and watching.