Interviews// BioShock Infinite - The Interview

Posted 14 Dec 2012 15:13 by
Colourful, expansive and full of steampunk character. Thatís BioShock Infinite, in a very tiny nutshell. The blend of similarities and contrasts between this and the original BioShock (reviewed here) in 2007 (key gameplay mechanics for the former, eschewing the underwater Rapture for the skyward Columbia for the latter) certainly shows a boldness from developer Irrational Games.

A full preview covering the opening moments of the game - and what I thought of it - is coming soon. But for now, I had a chat with Irrationalís level designer, Sean Elliott, about the philosophy behind BioShock Infinite, the differences it has from the original BioShock and more.

SPOnG: You guys have suggested that BioShock Infinite is more a re-imagining of the 2007 original, rather than something completely separate. I certainly get that vibe, after playing it - why did you guys decide to take that approach?

Sean Elliott: Well, the studio absolutely loves to challenge itself - sometimes to our own detriment, because making an entirely new game instead of a proper sequel requires you to learn all kinds of lessons all over again. All the best practices that you fought hard to learn about from the previous game are gone. You start from scratch.

But the studio loves that sort of thing. I guess in a way, weíre quite sensitive to the idea that fans may have the expectation that weíre just going to repeat ourselves. We wanted to defy expectation, which is why we went with a slightly new direction in BioShock Infinite.

Itís not all different, though - to make a spiritual successor we had to identify what the fundamental attribute of a BioShock game was. If weíre still going to call it BioShock and it doesnít have Rapture, Little Sisters of Big Daddies in it, we had to pin down what made the game a part of that franchise.

That attribute wasnít necessarily Rapture, per se, but rather the idea of a location or space - in this case, an attempted utopia or something - that you experience first-hand and get told a story through the experience of play. As soon as we had that down, everything else was open for inclusion. We had a big discussion whether a lot of different things would play a part in Infinite.

Early on, for example, the assumption was that there would be Big Daddies. But after some internal discussion, we decided that the key to a BioShock game was down to that utopia and storytelling experience.

SPOnG: I definitely noticed that many gameplay mechanics and story elements, structurally, followed a similar formula, for sure.

Sean Elliott: Right. But, you can go in the opposite direction with that, and see clear contrasts between Columbia and Rapture too. For a start, Columbia is up in the sky, is spacious, and you donít feel claustrophobic by any means. At least when you start the game, itís not about shadows playing on walls or water dripping from pipes. Itís an entirely different atmosphere.

Itís a similar thing with the story too. Instead of a nameless, faceless guy - who was nameless and faceless for several reasons in BioShockís story, because ultimately there was a play on the notion of player agency - in BioShock Infinite youíre not alone. You have your companion, Elizabeth, and you know who you are - at least, to an extent. Your character speaks, and is able to better interact with other characters. These things are all very direct reversals of expectations from the original game.

SPOnG: You said that youíre not alone in BioShock Infinite. In contrast, the original BioShock is a very solitary experience. Designing a game where the action is now set against a populated world - that must provide its own unique challenges.

Sean Elliott: Absolutely. But, importantly, it also provides opportunities for us that werenít there before in the original BioShock. In fact thereís a bit of a play at the beginning of Infinite, when you meet with Elizabeth. I think the attitude on BioShock was that we had to be really careful about how we exposed and showed any other character in the game. If you saw a key character, it was always behind bulletproof glass.

Which perhaps makes it a coincidence - or not - that this is the same way you first encounter Elizabeth. You meet her behind glass, then you break through and start to actually interact with one another.

In some cases, I see the design differences here as more opportunity and not so much challenge. When I can have AIs that can do multiple things in a certain space, it means that when we set up a fight scene, I can have those NPCs tell a story that contributes to the world. You saw some of that in the original BioShock, but it was on a much smaller scale - the splicer looking into the baby carriage, or the couple dancing.

Now, as you play through the game, youíll have situations where you see AIs in the process of arguing with one another, or maybe discussing or doing things that relate very much to whatís happening in the surroundings at the time. Itís really a case of the story unfolding around you.

For example, the Vox Populi are the renegades of Columbia. At the beginning of the game theyíre talked about a lot, but later when they start to get the upper hand you can experience a unique scene by exploring the world around you. In this one house, is a couple sitting on a rich manís couch, with the rich man standing in front of them with a serving platter. The rich guy is serving the couple his finest alcohol, and the pair are playing up the whole part, enjoying their table-turning moment.

Of course, itís really just a setup for a combat scene. You can shoot whoever you want, or sneak in a set a trap... but importantly, itís telling you something about the characters involved in the drama of Columbia. Thatís an example of the opportunity thatís been created here.

SPOnG: Are there differences in how you create pressure for the player as well? BioShock didnít just have the threat of enemies, but also of being under the sea and drowning from a world that should shatter at any minute. Thereís not so much the same environmental risk in Columbia, is there?

Sean Elliott: Yeah... at the very beginning of the game, you can pretty much take it for granted that nobodyís going to jump out and attack you, but after things kicks off it all starts getting a little more complicated. For example, you might be in a situation where there are loads of people, and you may think they pose no harm so you see no reason to fight them... but youíll be paranoid of various reactions and expressions that certain NPCs may make. Did that guy look at me strange? Is that woman going to rat me out?

Thatís one low-level way of providing tension. We also establish, very early on, the threat of Songbird. Songbird clearly isnít happy that you broke Elizabeth free - his sole job in life, as far as we know, is to make sure that no harm comes to her and that she never leaves captivity. So we start building him up as a looming threat, and youíll interact with him more throughout the course of the game.

SPOnG: Playing through the opening segments of the game, itís quite clear that religion plays a big part in BioShock Infinite. Is it fair to say that thereís some kind of social statement behind the game?

Sean Elliott: Thereís no specific statement, per se. I think BioShock Infinite is a bit more nuanced - the heart of the first BioShock was an exploration of philosophy and (the Randian political philosophy) Objectivism, and it did go beyond that because any time you introduce major philosophy in such a way, itís going to govern everything in the game.

This time around, we do look at issues of class, race, ethnicity and religion... but we donít wrap it around any Ďmessageí. Itís not an allegory, where weíre making a specific statement, but we are trying to put together a number of different viewpoints on certain issues that people may want to debate with others after playing. There are different characters with different views, and theyíre arguing amongst themselves in the way that characters in a movie would argue about something.

Itís not like we want players to walk away saying, ĎOK, I understand what the game was preaching to me, and what it was trying to convince me of.í Instead, itís more like... we want to be like a good piece of literature, or movie, where you continue debating about certain talking points with others, because things arenít as clear as black and white.

SPOnG: Elizabeth is a strong female lead character, being an NPC that adds weight to the gameís story and being very useful in a gameplay scenario. What are your thoughts on the representation of females in games, and do you think youíre doing something unique with Elizabeth?

Sean Elliott: When we make any character in a game, we always think of the standards that we hold ourselves to. Those standards are that... when people walk away from the game, we want them to feel her presence, and feel her growth as a character. We want people to say, Ďthat wasnít just a bunch of polygons on a screen, thereís something more that I can relate to. When I think about my time in Columbia, I consider her a person that I spend a long time with there, and it was significant.í

I think thatís the important thing for us. Generally, I donít talk too much about other peopleís games, other than to say that there have been some phenomenal examples of female representation in general. Iím personally a big fan of Half-Life, and think Valve did a great job with the Alex character in that series.

SPOnG: BioShock Infinite takes the core values of BioShock and places it in a different setting. This concept that there are many utopias out there which are a bit twisted - Rapture, Columbia...

Sean Elliott: It just occurred to me - thereís this famous Tolstoy quote that opens his novel, Anna Karenina, and it says that all families are dysfunctional - but no two families are dysfunctional in the same way**. Perhaps for me, BioShock is similar - all utopias are dysfunctional, but theyíre all so in their own way. Rapture and Columbia... these games are an examination of the ways in which each one is dysfunctional.

SPOnG: Itís certainly a fascinating approach! With that in mind, would you consider continuing the franchise in a similar manner? Would a new BioShock game take place in a whole other utopia, instead of returning to either Rapture or Columbia?

Sean Elliott: Thatís one of those questions that we canít answer, because weíre so busy on this game. We just got the additional four weeks to make BioShock Infinite as awesome as we possibly can - to wipe out every bug that QAís been able to find in the remaining time, and to put the polish that we really want to get in there.

Although weíre thinking about whatís next, itís... definitely not foremost on our minds at the moment. But, what I can say is that Irrational... hopefully, this project is a testament to our willingness to consider and explore a tonne of different things in the pre-production phase, before truly committing to it.

SPOnG: Thank you very much for your time.

Sean Elliott: Thank you!

**Actually, the first line is "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". Ed.


Isn't his name Shawn Elliott? 14 Dec 2012 22:07
Isn't his name Shawn Elliott?
person 16 Dec 2012 02:23
Shawn's got a great mind, I can't wait to play a game with his influences in it
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