Irrational on using worlds as characters

PAX East 2011: BioShock Infinite developers go into detail on crafting the city of Columbia to be a major character.

Who was there: Irrational Games creative director Ken Levine; lead artist Shawn Robertson; art director Nate Wells; and senior effects artist Stephen Alexander.

What they talked about: It took the team at Irrational Games a long time to figure out what they wanted to do next after finishing BioShock. After going back and forth on ideas, and prototyping nearly everything they could think of, the only thing the developers learned was that they couldn't agree on anything. Then, an epiphany: what if they threw out all the rules about what makes a BioShock game a BioShock game? That really got them thinking.

They knew they wanted a city in the clouds, and what better time period to drop this modern marvel into than America at the turn of the century? As Levine explained, this era marked the invention of automobiles, airplanes, movies, radio, and so much more. It was a time when the United States swelled with optimism, and people really thought they would be living in the clouds.

Once they had that idea, the team split up and set to work, continued Wells. Levine tackled the political thought and social issues of the time, while the others dove into the historical source material. Right away, they knew this setting was going to be amazing to witness and extremely difficult to pull off.

"Our biggest challenge was finding what drove the city's philosophy," Levine said. Without this central theme the team had a lot of great ideas but "nothing gelled around [them]." After a lot of research, including numerous documentaries, Levine got the idea to use American Exceptionalism as the narrative backbone for Columbia. This philosophy was born in an age when America, a devoutly anti-imperialist nation, was growing to superpower status and taking its place on the world stage. Then it started getting involved in Cuba and the Philippines, Levine noted, and from that involvement a lot of tension developed around what the country was becoming.

Once the team had the idea of American Exceptionalism nailed down, it gave them a common creative springboard to work from. "[It] was a real 'Ah ha' moment," Robertson said. "We felt like we could just turn around and start working," Wells continued. "We had all of these great pieces," Levine finished, "but we didn't have our own narrative unit then."

The panel paused their discussion to call up an early piece of concept art using these elements. The image was of a dark, moody city resting in the clouds. One by one the panelists highlighted the ways in which this piece resembled the previous game's underwater city of Rapture: the muted purple and green colors, the claustrophobic effect of the clouds, and the European architectural design. "Having a coherent vision means having to throw a lot of things away," Levine said. "Doing another Rapture game would have been much less risky, [but we wanted] to keep challenging each other."

The discussion then shifted to the specifics of BioShock Infinite's floating city of Columbia. Levine admitted that setting Rapture underwater was "a bit of a cheat," citing that the water didn't really impact the player, other than by setting the mood. With the city of Columbia the team wanted the midair setting to have a more active role in the gameplay, as well as instill a sense of wonder (and vertigo).

They also had to figure out how to lay out the vertical city of Columbia so that it made sense for players to navigate--without just putting stairs everywhere. "We learn a lot from our own demos," Levine said, adding that building a demo forces the team to address some minor design details they might have overlooked until then. The four paused again and loaded up an early demonstration of the sky lines, Columbia's midair rail system, and how a player could jump from rail to rail in midair.

"For [BioShock Infinite], the sky lines needed to feel like part of the city," Levine said. Their placement in the world couldn't be arbitrary. Instead, the sky lines, like every element in Columbia, needed to be "believable in its own context." To that end, the team explained away the sky lines as a method for large cargo transportation.

Now that they had the reasoning, they needed to make sure this high-flying railway system was fun to use. To demonstrate this, they queued up another demo reel. This short video, an updated version of the one previous, featured a character zipping down a sky line in a first-person perspective. This time there was a much greater attention to detail in the way the screen shook and the sound of wind rushing past the player.

But when it comes to excitement, Levine was the first to admit that they were still "figuring this out." It would be easy to simply bombard the player with stimuli, but soon that would overload the "player RAM," which he defined as "how much a player can keep in his head without it exploding." And once the action is condensed down to a manageable amount, how can the game draw the player's attention to those areas in a way that feels organic?

For inspiration, the team turned to fellow developer Valve, which they praised as being a master of manipulation through subtle movements and use of color. They also studied the techniques of traditional theater, which relies on similar tricks to guide the audience's gaze though the stage.

What they learned was that less is more in these situations. To illustrate this, the developers pointed to Andrew Ryan's office scene from the original BioShock. Ryan's office was originally densely cluttered with tiny objects to give it more character. However, this scene wasn't about Ryan's office; it was about Ryan himself. Having all of these other elements in the scene only distracted from that point.

There has to be a balance. Elements in a room can be used to tell a story, but too many will only distract from it. "All I want to do is spend nine hours decorating an office," Wells admitted. "We adore doing that stuff." Digging down into the small details generally comes late in the development process, since you need a whole game's worth of custom-built objects to do it. But the payoff, Levine said, is worth it. "If you can make people believe in these small little elements, they'll buy into your big fantastical [world]."

The four finished their talk by discussing the horror elements that made BioShock and its predecessor, System Shock, so memorable. They admitted that those games have a more traditional environment for fear--enclosed spaces, isolation, darkness--compared to Infinite's brightly lit outdoor areas and vibrant color palette. Even so, Levine was confident that they can still sow plenty of fear within this world and referenced The Shining as a frightening experience felt primarily in the light. "Stillness and brightness can be just as terrifying."

Quote: "It's like being on a roller coaster, but you're hanging in midair and you have a gun."--Levine on the sky rail transport lines.

Takeaway: When done correctly, a story's setting can say just as much as the characters within it. The placement of elements within its space, the way you guide the view's eye through that space, and maintaining a consistent theme throughout are all key. The team at Irrational Games has spent a lot of time studying these techniques and applying them to BioShock Infinite. The game's high-flying city of Columbia (literally) goes above and beyond the underwater world of Rapture and is shaping up to be a rich and complex locale.

Check out the full panel on video below.

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I still need to finish BIoshock 2, but I am savoring it SO much. Trying to draw out my time with it so I finish right around when this one comes out. I love Bioshock guys, keep it up! I love it so much I wanna try System Shock. Bioshock Infinite, Portal 2 and Mass Effect 3 are the 3 games I'm looking forward to most this year.


This review makes me want to play and beat both Bioshock 1 and 2 again... im already on it


The game will most likely be brilliant. Honestly, Bioshock is one of the most intelligent games I have ever played. Those treating it like a run-of-the-mill shooter are seriously missing out on the complexity of the narrative. In Bioshock they tackle the effects of unregulated capitalism - now they're focusing on the dangers of imperial expansion. They're not just bringing up the past, but reminding us where we're headed if we're not careful.


i expect nothing less than pure genius from this game.


"As Levine explained, this ear marked the invention of automobiles, airplanes, movies, radio, and so much more" You mean era, right? :D