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Interview: BioShock Infinite designer on utopias and dystopias

Bill Gardner talks extremism, narrative design and why realism reigns supreme

With BioShock Infinite only a matter of weeks away, CVG's Australian team sat down with the game's User Experience Specialist Bill Gardner to speak utopias and dystopias, the challenges of narrative design, and why realism remains an ubiquitous goal in first person shooter games.

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As we saw in a recent hands-on BioShock Infinite preview, Irrational Games has created a brave new world in Bioshock Infinite's Columbia - one that has few parallels in modern video game design. It stands in stark contrast to the claustrophobic aquatic darkness that marked the first game's Rapture, with its luminescent blues and towering, airborne skyscrapers.

Why don't more FPSs strive to create worlds that we've never seen before? And on that note - why is realism and authenticity such a pervasive goal when the medium has an unprecedented flexibility to tell pretty much any story, no matter how fanciful? We put these questions to Gardner...


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Columbia is a very different setting to Rapture. What were the new challenges in terms of design?

There were challenges across the board. Obviously there were the technical challenges, and there were the challenges of trying to figure out how to put the narrative in the world and to make sure the player will see it. In Rapture it was very easy for us to put something front and centre. We had much greater control since, generally speaking, it was a very tight and claustrophobic world. It was very easy to put something along a player's path and make sure they're not going to miss it.

Approaching a world like Columbia, you're essentially taking a world like Rapture and blowing it out completely. All of the sudden the player's focus is all over the place, so ensuring the player is going to absorb everything that you want them to absorb makes a huge difference. There's also issues with some of the stage management: it's a new challenge to find ways to focus the player's attention [on important elements].

With the super high-contrast lighting of Rapture, it was really dark, so you had the opportunity to use a spotlight, for example, to really focus the attention and draw the player's eye to a particular thing. We still have that, we have interiors, we have exteriors, but when we talk about full sunlight there's suddenly a shift in your thinking in terms of where you're placing objects and how you're placing your geometry to make sure the player is directed. It's a hugely different skillset and challenge, but I think it's something we all embraced because we're always looking for new challenges.

Seeing Columbia for the first time, what strikes me is that I've never seen an environment like this in a game before. It's very strange and beautiful. When you spend so much time bringing a world like that to life, is it weird to then have to make it a background for a shooting game?

[Laughs] Well there's always a balance with everything we do at Irrational, and with BioShock I think that the narrative and the world and the story that we're trying to tell is among the most important parts of the game. But you can absolutely overlook the gameplay sometimes, because people are there to immerse themselves in this world and to explore a story, but they also want to shoot stuff, they want to use these tools and grow their character.

It's a constant back and forth and battle of intention to try to find ways to merge these things, and that's really one of the core goals of Elizabeth - it's to take the narrative and the gameplay and mash them together. She has all these abilities - she has the ability to open up tears that then merge with your Vigors and weapons and things - but they're also a huge part of the narrative.

We also consider how every single gameplay item that we put in the world will merge with a narrative. It's a constant series of checks and balances, with Ken [Levine] being the central arbiter of that. If it's a gameplay piece - if it's a weapon or a Vigor - we have to work together to make that cohesion.

I think there's evidence of clear wins there, especially if you look at the skylines. That is an ideal marrying of gameplay and narrative; it's a city in the sky with all this crazy verticality, so from a gameplay perspective you want to be able to cross those distances, you want to feel that verticality, but you also want to feel like you're flying without all the annoying parts of flying, like trying to control yourself in first person.

So we decided to create the skylines tofffff solve a lot of these issues, and then we found ways to ground that in the world and to give it a fiction. So they [the citizens of Columbia] use them to cross these vast distances and to shift around cargo, and then you find ways to ground it in the world's architecture, and then you start getting all this energy and people start riffing off each other and we're like "oh we can use this narrative element in gameplay" and vice versa. It's hugely exciting but it's very difficult. In the end it's worth it though, because you look at Columbia and you look at Rapture and they're worlds unlike any other.

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Columbia shares a sense of the uncanny with Rapture. In Columbia, alternate versions of popular songs like The Beach Boys' 'God Only Knows' can be heard, but the game's narrative predates them. What kind of emotions is the team trying to elicit here?

With some of the music you listen to there's a clear indication - or a wink - towards what is happening in the world. But a lot of it is a mouthfeel sort of thing. Our music director Jim Bonney will sit down with Ken and try to figure out exactly what the story is that we're trying to tell in a space, and sometimes a level designer will have a better idea of what the story is in that particular space based on what they've been told on the vision.

It's just iteration, where you've got people on all sides trying to capture that feeling. So suggestions come from everywhere, with Ken being the one that's really driving the whole vision, and he's a huge music buff as well. He'll take any chance he can get to tinker with music and find interesting ways [to implement it].

It ties into our philosophy of trying to mish-mash things in interesting ways, and it's a lot of fun to explore the mystery of how that stuff got there. It trains you to keep your ear open while you're exploring.

What were the key lessons learnt between the development of BioShock and now, as you're nearing the completion of Infinite?

It's interesting because there are a lot of lessons that we learnt from the first one that we were able to directly apply to Infinite. Firstly, your impression as a developer of the game as you walk away from it is very different to the impression the audience is going to get. You have your intentions, you have your vision, you have your goals, but then when you see it put out there in the wild and you see the reactions you think, "Well I never thought about that". These levels of interpretation [from the audience] change the way you think about your own work, and that's always fascinating.

I think the biggest lesson we learnt was that gamers are willing to take up challenges and try new things. We were terrified with a lot of BioShock. We were confident in what we wanted to create but we didn't know whether people would embrace that. It's a challenging game - there are a lot of challenging topics and there's a lot of weirdness to it too. The bottom of the sea - that's an interesting setting, but a lot of people are going to immediately ask "why would I want to play a game that's at the bottom of the sea?" So you have to spend time convincing people why that's plausible.

As long as you spend the time being honest and really showing that you care - putting the effort in - people will buy in. You can't take any shortcuts with these sort of things. Just seeing the way that people reacted and the way that people embraced all these different ideas coming together in this cohesive unique world - we're looking at doubling down on that with Columbia. Particularly from a geometry perspective, the way that we've completely blown that up and it's a lot more vast. There's so much more detail and richness [in Infinite]. Then you look at Elizabeth and Booker, and these characters are very new to us.

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