Designing BioShock Infinite: Two Sides to Every Coin

Irrational Games' lead level designer, Forrest Dowling, discusses BioShock Infinite's downloadable content, and the balance of narrative and combat.

BioShock Infinite is special for many reasons, but its success can be distilled down to two factors: its captivating story and the playful mix of firearms and superpowers in combat. In theory, the two worked in unison; the citizens of Columbia drew you in with open arms, only to turn against you in a flash. In that instant, you went from new kid on the block to public enemy number one, fighting for survival at every turn.

In reality, not all players and critics felt the balance of narrative and combat was copacetic. Ars Technica editor Peter Bright deftly summarized the relationship between BioShock Infinite's gameplay and story telling in his op-ed, The Failure of BioShock Infinite: Writing Games Like Movies, "The technology and gameplay are not the raison d'être of BioShock Infinite. They're simply an enabling backdrop, providing the tools to create characters and a narrative."

When lead level designer Forrest Dowling began brainstorming ideas for BioShock Infinite downloadable content, it didn't take long for him to come up with what we now know as Clash in the Clouds, a horde mode with four original maps and unlockable extras. The question is: when a game is primarily heralded for its narrative, is more gunplay what fans want? Time will tell, but Dowling is confident that, despite the narrative-vs.-combat debate, Clash in the Clouds has an audience.

We recently sat down with Dowling to discuss his history at Irrational Games, BioShock Infinite's development, and what it has been like to not only conceive and create Clash in the Clouds, but to have a hand in the reimagining of Rapture for the upcoming Burial at Sea DLC.

How did you get involved with Irrational Games?

Dowling: Right place at the right time. I was working at a place down in New York. They got in touch with me because they were looking for designers, and it kind of just worked out.

Whose idea was it to create combat-focused DLC?

Dowling: That was me. So basically, we finished BioShock Infinite, and I was one of the last content people off the boat. I was like, "All right, now we have to start working on DLC. What are we going to do for it?" I just fired up the editor and tried doing this combat thing to see how it worked. So I built a prototype over the course of a week, then I shopped it around the studio to see what people thought, and I got the green light to do it. Ken played it and had fun with it. People saw the potential, so I was able to put together a little team and build it.

You were responsible for the opening scene in Columbia, right?

Dowling: Yeah, I was the lead from when the rocket touches down in the cathedral through to when you reach Monument Island.

How has it been for you to switch to combat-focused design?

Dowling: Refreshing! I think that one of the reasons why a lot of people like the job of level designer is that you have so many different responsibilities at different times. That is definitely true at a place like Irrational, where sometimes it's the level designer's responsibility to properly tease a narrative over time, and sometimes it's just to make kick-ass combat. So much of the time I spent on BioShock Infinite was making sure voice-over lines trigger at the right time, or when a piece of freight passes over, it's just the best moment. Being able to step back and say "Now my job is to see if it's fun to fight three firemen and a handy man" is different, but also rewarding in a different way.

One of the greatest discussions around BioShock Infinite is the connection between combat and narrative. Was there ever a moment when someone at the studio felt apprehensive about focusing too much on combat? Is it a given, for a game that people want to see more of, that this is a natural way to do that?

Dowling: I wouldn't say it's given as a game, but BioShock is a game that people play for a couple different reasons. Some people are really interested in the story, some are really interested in the gameplay, and some are in between. As a gamer, I tend to be of that ilk. And you know, Clash in the Clouds, we knew it wasn't going to be for 100 percent of the people out there. It was going to be for people who are really into the gameplay experience, and that's what they wanted more of.

I think I went into it with open eyes. I'm certainly aware of all the conversations that are going on around it, but at the same time, I also saw that there were a lot of people who reacted very positively to the combat and the gameplay and the simplest stuff, like 1999 mode. I thought that there would be a sizable group of our fans who would really be into this sort of experience. Ultimately, it's up to them to let me know if I was right or not.

The people driving these discussions rarely said there was anything wrong with the gameplay; it was just in juxtaposition…

Dowling: Yeah, I think obviously Clash in the Clouds is immune to that, because there is no juxtaposition. We're not really trying to justify it in any sort of fictional context within the world. Right from the get-go, I got the green light to say this is a meta-experience. It is not part of the BioShock story; it is just for fun.

It does contribute in part to the lore of the world, right?

Dowling: The [new] voxaphone stuff was mostly because we can't control ourselves. That came about just because we were looking at all these threads on various message boards, with people doing really deep dives analyzing everything. It was very cool to look at that stuff, but then we realized that some stuff wasn't actually supposed to be that mysterious.

An example might be how vigors came to be in Columbia. We always sort of had it in our minds, but it just never ended up being surfaced in the game. Ken in particular consumes everything that is written about BioShock, and was thinking we could put some voxaphones in here and answer some of these questions. That was Ken's time when he dove in and got involved with this.

Do you think that now that people will have to spend more time investigating the mechanics of combat and vigors that, in retrospect, the way it was handled in the main game won't be criticized as much going forward?

Dowling: It hadn't even occurred to me in those terms, but maybe. That would be cool if it did. I would be happy with that outcome.

Are you involved with Burial at Sea?

Dowling: Yes. So, I finished my work on Clash in the Clouds, and I finally took a vacation, which I hadn't done after BioShock Infinite. Then I got back in, and I've just started beginning to help out with the Burial at Sea stuff. I'm mostly helping with support; there are other folks who are leading it. Ken obviously is foremost amongst them.

When moving from the vast expanse of Columbia to the confines of Rapture, there are obvious differences to contend with. Do you find that you enjoy working in one space versus another?

Dowling: In some ways, I like the confines of Rapture. One challenge in a place like Columbia, is getting stuff close enough so the player can really experience it clearly. You've got to move stuff really close to the camera before it has a presence. By default, in Rapture, stuff is a lot closer. So framing up a scene is actually quite a bit easier when there are natural confines to the space. At the same time, I had a huge amount of fun working with the big vistas [in Columbia]. One of my proudest things in BioShock Infinite is when you first leave the garden, and the building is floating down and connects. The animation of all that stuff, its coming together, is something I did. Rapture doesn't have those sorts of opportunities, to make these scenes evolve over a vast space. The small stories are easier to tell, but it's hard to create that sense of grand awe that is almost automatic in a place like Columbia.

It's pretty cool [working in Rapture]. It's like standing on the shoulders of giants. There's a lot of pressure, because BioShock is a classic at this point. So getting to both shape it and work with the people who made it is pretty awesome. If I had known when I was playing BioShock that I would be working on it years later, I wouldn't have believed myself.

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139 comments
Aeronomer
Aeronomer

This was a beautiful game. And the combat was typically fun. But apart from that, in retrospect, this game blows. The story was lame and filled with so many cliches it got to be annoying. The ending was incomprehensible and a total let-down. It wasn't designed very well since acquiring loot became completely pointless before I even hit the 50% mark. I don't think this game could hold a candle to either one of the first two. So, I will not be spending another dime on it.

DonRoosevelt
DonRoosevelt

Infinite surprised me as to how fun it was... the story was still a little too cliche, but it was a much better game than the first two, which completely sucked.

SpyderWeiss
SpyderWeiss

When I first played through the combat, I thought it was inferior to Bioshock 2 and 1's combat (in that order).  However, as I've been playing through the Clash in the Clouds DLC, I'm starting to realize the reason isn't because I don't like the combat, it's because there was no save function, and you couldn't carry medkits and salts.  With these smaller arenas, I'm having a lot more fun with the combat because I know I can quickly refill my health or salts by having Elizabeth open a tear to them.  Here's to hoping saves and carrying health/salt packs comes back in the story driven DLC.

-HCMF-
-HCMF-

Good read.  I loved the game (story and combat)  It is intresting to see and hear what the thought process is how you get what you get.

TimeFrame
TimeFrame

Interesting interview, it's nice to hear from the "actual" developers and not just the front men of the companies.

I do find it mildly amusing that for a developer they are semi taken a-back by the whole, the gameplay didn't fit the narrative thing. They still understand that they are making a video-game and an entertainment product that is going to go out to a large demographic with various expectations. 

For some reasons, some gamers and critiques don't. Or perhaps they do, but they still whine regardless. It's a bit strange for me personally to observe.. It's like when they drag in sexism and gender equality into video games art or depiction of women or whatever..

Don't they realize they are in the wrong area? You can't expect a video game like Bioshock to not have some sort of disconnect when it comes to narrative vs gameplay and you shouldn't demand it in conclusion. 

bbq_R0ADK1LL
bbq_R0ADK1LL

"OK guys, we HAVE to make some DLC because 2K made us sell all those season passes even though we haven't got anything planned yet. What shall we do?"

This is the sort of DLC I hate. Luckily I am in no way obliged to buy it & I wasn't silly enough to buy a season pass before knowing what would be in it. The story based DLC, Burial at Sea might be more interesting, I just hope it's reasonably priced. I still think an FPS is a weird medium to try to tell these stories though. The main narrative is finding out about interesting characters, the most interesting thing is the crazy city in the clouds (or under the sea) that it's set  in. Then the main mechanic for the game is shooting everything that moves. It feels wrong to go through this beatiful city & just kill everyone because they're in your way. Maybe that's part of making Booker an anti-hero, but I still don't think it's the best way to tell the story. I really hope they do something more interesting than shooting at new things in Burial at Sea.

blueboxdoctor
blueboxdoctor

I didn't have a big problem with the combat, as it's never really overly challenging enough to get in the way.  There were only a couple backtracking parts I found aggravating because enemies would respawn (but this hasn't stopped me from playing the game three times).  The current arena based DLC is fun and it's cool to get some extra voxaphone content.


Though, did they mention how vigors come into Columbia (he mentions it in the interview) as I don't recall hearing anything about that and would like to know more on it.

pip3dream
pip3dream

I found the combat in Bioshiock INF to be somewhat... tedious?  I'm not sure if that is the right way for me to describe it -  but I honestly didn't have many moments of OMG THIS IS SO FUN.  I had lots of moments of INTRIGUE where I was extremely immersed and drawn into the story - but I almost found myself ... feeling slightly annoyed when the story parts ended and I would heave a sigh and think... well i guess i have to shoot at more things now.   I don't feel like the gameplay should be a chore I have to do to get to the good stuff.  But maybe I am also bored stiff of straight up vanilla shooter action.  I hate to bring up The Last of US in this thread, but its the closest thing in story immersion that I can really think of... TLOU had REALLY FUN gameplay, there were so many moments where I was like OMG THIS IS SO FUN!!!  and of course many moments of really being immersed in the story.  I felt like the gameplay there was done right.  Anyway, I'm obviously going to skip Clash of the CLouds, but Burial at Sea looks very... intriguing. :)

dmblum1799
dmblum1799

I love Bio Inf, been playing it a lot. The combat and story are great. The one thing I don't like is the flying around stuff, it's rather annoying and takes you out of the narrative.

One thing that struck me after playing Last of Us. These games have you as a gruff, older male - sort of a hardass - and your partner is an emotionally vulnerable, younger female. I'm not sure what that says about game designers and the gaming community.

Jamie-L
Jamie-L

"The question is: when a game is primarily heralded for its narrative, is more gunplay what fans want? Time will tell, but Dowling is confident that, despite the narrative-vs.-combat debate, Clash in the Clouds has an audience."

Personally, the narrative is what drew me in to all the Bioshock games. The combat was just a nice bonus. It's for this reason I didn't purchase Clash in the Clouds. I'm not at all interested in content that features solely combat.

NTM23
NTM23

I wish I had played this on PC, or better yet, it was just better on consoles. Actually, I've said this before, but it really sucks that the PS3 version doesn't support 5.1 Dolby Digital when the 360 version does (which means, for me at least, I got the wrong version for my setup). It'd also be cool if it had the best anti aliasing running at 60 frames per second with no vsync issues. OK, that's unrealistic :P. But come on! Damn.

Nexzy
Nexzy

Rise Rapture Rise!

hedgehod
hedgehod

It seems like they're targeting the current trend of developing around certain devices with their newly released DLC "Cash in the Clouds".

caseysrodeo
caseysrodeo

Ive read several posts and it seems the majority seem to worry about spending money on the game in general. Honeslty no one is forcing you to spend the money. It's very inexpensive entertainment. Remember you have a choice. Go back to playing call of duty the same sh** over and over again. Unbelieveable........

Warful
Warful

@TimeFrame I will agree and yes also disagree in a way lol
I mean, looking at f.x Max Payne 3, I've never seen a more smooth and crystal clear transition from the cutscenes to the gameplay, it was liked a red thread all the way through, while Infinite went through a few bumps on the road. 

I agree that people should know there always will be a disconnection, there is with alot of games.
But then again, perhaps they could have minimized it somehow, improved upon those scenes that created the biggest break of immersion?
With that said though, do keep in mind that they lost several guys on their team, they had to rebuilt the game from scratch and had to work fast with not much time to lose, the game had already been postponed 3 times, so would that even be possible?

Warful
Warful

@blueboxdoctor There is a voxophone where a man, which I believe is Fink, talking about his brother's amazing composing skills where he partly says something like "if your muse for music is anywhere near the biologist I am observing, well.."
And since his brother learned of Beach Boys(that song they sing "God Only Knows") and a series of other bands and songs from the future through tears, it is believed that Fink saw Tennenbaums work for plasmids and stole that idea.

TimeFrame
TimeFrame

@blueboxdoctor It was mentioned in the game itself briefly, I don't quite remember it vividly but I think that Comstock basically travelled to Rapture and stole the stuff or something like that. They said in the article that there would be voxophones in the arena DLC explaining some of that stuff.

TimeFrame
TimeFrame

@pip3dream It's funny because I've heard a lot of complaints about the gameplay in TLOU.. I found the combat in BI to be alright. There were some cool moments and some sweet gameplay moments.. For example I found the whole ghost thing/battle to be super awesome and everyone else seemed to hate it lol. :)

DonRoosevelt
DonRoosevelt

@dmblum1799 Yeah, it's some kind of reoccurring theme of late... look at Beyond: Two Souls ... kinda the same thing going on there, too.

It's the surrogate/father daughter relationship, I guess, which isn't a bad thing.  

End of the world kind of games, though... I'm sick of that crap.

TimeFrame
TimeFrame

@Jamie-L Me neither, but I can agree with him nevertheless. I know people who just play games for gameplays sake, the story just kinda washes over them as they don't pay that much attention to it and probably only get the broad strokes if even that.

DonRoosevelt
DonRoosevelt

@NTM23 The PC version is far superior, that much is true!  I love playing my copy on High-Ultra settings :D

Warful
Warful

@NTM23 But then again, these consoles are 7 years old, for how the game looks and plays already, is quite a mystery how they did that, cause it does look great considering they only had 512MB Ram, a crappy CPU and a GPU that should belong in a museum by now. But I do agree that it's a bit sad about the 51. Dolby, no idea why they went that direction, but I am playing Xbox though :P
I am totally thinking about getting it for my PS3 to play it with Move.. you tried that yet?

TimeFrame
TimeFrame

@Warful @TimeFrame I see your point, I am still struggling to finish Max Payne 3. But it does blend the cut scenes in pretty well. However I must admit that I never thought Bioshock "failed" in that area, so that particular criticism I can't seem to follow. At least I didn't notice anything back when I played and finished BI. 

I would assume I'd be able to pick something apart if I tried though but I've always found it redundant to do so unless something is so glaringly "out of sync" that it becomes completely ridiculous. The movie "In Time" comes to mind.  

Apart from that I am a rather easy to please individual I guess as I am always willing to suspend my disbelief in order to subtract the experience from the entertainment as the people who made it would have hoped it would have been consumed.

My point is here that a good deal of people either have too high expectations or simply demand too much. But I think we're on the same page here more or less. :)

bbq_R0ADK1LL
bbq_R0ADK1LL

@faizanhd @bbq_R0ADK1LL No, I'd rather have no DLC than extra tacked on content that doesn't benefit the game. If we're talking day one DLC like Mass Effect 3, that should have been in the game to start with because Protheans were a huge part of the story. When we're talking horde modes for story-based games, I couldn't care less if it never existed.

Like I said though, I don't have to buy it so it's up to you if you want to support this kind of easy cash-in.

Warful
Warful

@TimeFrame @pip3dream I literally loved the combat, same goes for TLOU. I thought the skyline combat was great, I loved doing the Zeppelin scene, and fighting the Siren and also the Handymen and Motorized Patriots is alot of fun! I never felt it was tedious, sure you could feel at times that you're forced to kill an enemy too many and it can drag out just a little, but seriously, I've felt that way with alot of games, and felt it being alot worse than in Infinite, I think they hit a perfect balance in my opinion.

TimeFrame
TimeFrame

I am really tired of superhero crap... Like le sigh tired. :)

TimeFrame
TimeFrame

@charlesdao Yeah I thought the skylines were pretty cool when you got used to navigating them and speeding up and slowing down and standing still on them. I think some people never found out how to do that tbh. :)

NTM23
NTM23

@Warful No, you're correct. I think it still looks really great, only that I know it could be better. No, I haven't tried the move, I don't have one and I don't care to get one. I don't like motion controls.

stev69
stev69

@TimeFrame @Warful @DonRoosevelt @NTM23 I wouldn't say the story was cliched, but I wasn't at all surprised when the twist came along, I had my suspicions a while before then. All in all a good story, it was the gameplay that was kinda meh for me.

TimeFrame
TimeFrame

@Warful @DonRoosevelt @NTM23 I didn't find the story cliche at all but it certainly has been told before in different variations of the sort. Still, it was quite novel in many aspects and definitely set itself apart.

I couldn't bring myself to play Bioshock 2 but I did enjoy Bioshock 1 rather much. Still, I felt BI was the best in the series so far, even though I somewhat enjoyed the combat in Bioshock 1 more. The story however was not as good.

Warful
Warful

@DonRoosevelt @NTM23 You're telling the whole story was cliché? Then you are quite wrong. I'll give you this, sure the bond of Elizabeth and Booker is cliché, it's been seen before, but it works and it worked well here too. The Comstock thing? isn't too cliché really, it's been pulled sure, but not enough to be called cliché. And the rest of the whole twist? it was quite brilliant really(the pinky finger thing f.x)

Warful
Warful

@TimeFrame @Warful It's my first Season Pass I ever bought lol!
I usually don't go buying stuff blindly, I wait for a review or two, read them, get a feel for the DLC whether it's a thing for me or not, but this time? Right after completing the game I went ahead and got the Season Pass, I had such faith in them that it just can't go wrong imo :P

TimeFrame
TimeFrame

@Warful @TimeFrame Yeah, I must admit that it is still my favorite gaming experience in 2013 so far. :)

And I am totally looking forward to the story DLC. Must plays for me, and that's actually rare, because I don't normally go for DLC.

Warful
Warful

@TimeFrame @Warful Oh I completely agree with you overall! I never truly felt pulled out of the immersion or felt any real disconnection, I was really tearing through the game on every level to come to just that point, which isn't as much my point of view, as it is more the critics' standpoint. However compared to MP3, sure MP3 does a smoother transition, but then again, alot of games does something better than Infinite while Infinite does some things a hell of alot better than other games, this is really picking through any sort of dislikes about Infinite to come up with just something, however small it might be.
Personally I am a huge fanatic when it comes to Infinite, I literally love the game, love the world, love the soundtracks and the characters!
I have a really hard time finding any real issue to this game, but then again I am biased by loving it lol

Warful
Warful

@TimeFrame @Warful Feel the same way about DA 2, Origins was great, but the second one just went haywire lol

IF you want to give MGS another go, try MGS1(its best on PC, as it looks shoddy on the PS3 thanks to the upscaling) and MGS3. MGS3 takes the story of Naked Snake aka. Big Boss(The main character in MGS5 that's coming up).
Those two are probably the most "casual" of them all, cause I agree that all the cutscenes of MGS4 etc. can make it quite a chore or a drag, but in MGS1 and MGS3 there's an equal balance between cutscenes and gameplay and the transition is alot smoother. Do give them a shot!

TimeFrame
TimeFrame

 @Warful Definitely! :) I played Dark Souls on the PC, so that was also one of the reasons I finally got my hands on a ps3 so that I could play some Demons Souls! 

I actually want to give MGS a shot again, I know it's a beloved series and I actually usually love stealth games and lots of dialogue/story/text/cutscenes. Besides I though the new MGS they are making for the nextgen consoles looked pretty badass too so. 

Oh and, I can attest to that. Mass Effect and Fallout are some great series of games.

I never got into Dragon Age 2 for some reason (the consolized gameplay ruined it for me I think) but the first one I actually really enjoyed, so it's up there alongside them as well. :)

Warful
Warful

@TimeFrame @Warful @pip3dream To each their own! Tomb Raider is great fun too, I try to keep Uncharted and Tomb Raider apart but they are so damn close in gameplay that it's hard not too, but both are great fun!
Well MGS is a special series, not for everyone, I loved it but that's because I played it ever since MGS1 and been a blind fan ever since lol, but it's a special type of game imo that wont suit everyone :P

Demon's Souls is just epic, but Dark Souls? even more so!
Those two games are some of the best RPG's I've ever played besides Mass Effect and Fallout, I just keep coming back to those because of that old school feel and because of the game world and the whole mystic feeling about them, they are truly great!

TimeFrame
TimeFrame

@Warful @TimeFrame @pip3dream I played Uncharted 2, as I didn't want to bother starting with the 1st. It was not as mind blowing as I thought it was gonna be, but it was a decent fun experience all in all. 

I haven't really felt like it was necessary to play the 1st and the 3rd though. Also I must admit the new Tomb Raider was better than uncharted 2. (SORRY! :) not that we HAVE to compare them but they are kinda similar. )

I actually tried to play MGS 4? or 5? but I did not like it at all haha. I don't like military fiction and although it's a bit sci fi and out there, it's also a tiny tad weird and a bit too japanesey for me or something I don't know. :)

Still I actually enjoyed the cutscenes etc. but the gameplay wasn't topnotch I thought so I gave up playing it! It was too much of a chore for me. :)

I played Heavy Rain on it though and I loved it. :) And atm, I am torturing myself with Demons Souls!