Interview - Shawn Elliott (Irrational Games)


Interview - Shawn Elliott (Irrational Games)
We caught up with BioShock Infinite level designer Shawn Elliott at Microsoft's X Series Spring Expo in Toronto this week to chat about the forthcoming release...
Click: How did the team arrive at the new setting for BioShock Infinite?

SE: First of all, the studio decided that we wanted to really challenge ourselves and didn’t want to repeat ourselves, so that meant not doing Rapture or Andrew Ryan again. Then the question arose of what made a BioShock game. If we were still going to call this BioShock, did it have to have a Big Daddy, and did it have to have a Little Sister? And we found that the answer to almost all those questions was no, it didn’t need those things. The single most important thing was that it had a world that was a character itself, one that tells you a great deal about its construction, the people who made it, why they live there and so on. With that out of the way we had to decide where we wanted to go; where did we want to set it?

At the time, a lot of the people in the studio were reading Devil in the White City by Eric Larsson, which is a non-fiction book that dovetails the story of a murder mystery over the narration of the 1893 World’s Columbian Expo. The interesting thing about that timeframe was that it was a time in American history where everyone seemed to think that the sky was the limit, and all these technologies were starting to appear that felt like magic to some people – things like the telephone, the car, and flight, which followed shortly after that.

We thought that was interesting and wondered what we could do with it. Specifically the architecture of the World’s Columbian Expo interested us most, because in a way the Expo was like a BioShock world. It was a creation of a picture of the America they wanted to have in the future, except at the time their notion of the future was antiquated by our means. Those impressions started to take root with various people in the studio as well as an interest in art nouveau, which isn’t as pervasive in this game but is still there to an extent.

There was no specific moment where we decided on the look, feel and setting of the game as such, it was more something we gradually gravitated towards and then this critical mass gets hit, and that’s what the setting turned out to be.

Click: Did the fact that a floating city in the sky is the exact opposite to the dark, underwater city of Rapture help in the decision making process, or was it just a coincidence?

SE: Some of it was that, yeah, where we asked what would happen if we turned everything on its head and set it in the sky, but you throw something like that out there as a joke, and then we decided to look at it and see if it’s worth taking seriously. When we did that, and started exploring what it would mean for gameplay and the type of spaces that we’d need to build, it really started to show its potential. Other inversions included taking the dark depths of the sea and turning them into this bright sunny environment. The nice thing about not being under water is that we can have night and day, weather and all these different things to create total variety which you couldn’t really get in Rapture.

Click: One of the things that most stands out having played it is the fact that it’s not afraid to use colour – it must be quite liberating to use a colour palette that’s not as limited as you find in other shooters.

SE: I can’t speak for other studios, I mean everyone has their own reasons for choosing the palettes they do, but I know for us it was really exciting to paint with such extreme colours; for the artists to prove to themselves that they can actually do it and not have it looking ridiculous. And personally, for those of us at the studios, as it started to come along we realized that it was not only atmospheric, but totally unique in the way you expect a BioShock game to be. Everyone was really excited to be able to use all the colour they wanted!

Click: There are still similarities there to be seen, for example here we have salts while in the previous games we had Eve, is there any relationship between the two, or direct links between Infinite and the previous BioShock games?

SE: That’s very much a question we’re looking forward to seeing the audience engage with. We know that everyone’s going to have that question and we want to let people discover and discuss for themselves if they think there is a connection and, if so, what does the connection mean.

Click: We previously had Big Daddies and Little/Big Sisters in the previous games, is there an equivalent in Infinite? What role does the Songbird play?

SE: The Songbird is very much unlike a Big Daddy. The Big Daddy/Little Sister relationship was a very special, symbiotic relationship that played into Rapture’s ecosystem, and that relationship doesn’t exist here. Liz is very much not a Little Sister in that she doesn’t need protecting, and The Songbird is actually keeping her captive rather than protecting her. We really haven’t shown a great deal of sequences with Songbird yet, for specific reasons, but I can attest that it’s very different and very unlike the relationship between Big Daddies and Little Sisters.

Click: Columbia looks to be absolutely huge; how do you go about constructing something of that size that’s constructed from a series of floating platforms?

SE: There are a couple of ways to answer that. The first is about how we structure one section of the city relative to the next, and that ties into the big high level narrative arc where you decide at what point in the game you’re trying to communicate certain things about the world. That determines what level goes where, how the missions fit together, what your objectives are at any point and so on.

The second way relates to how the world is physically constructed, and that’s down to the level designers and the other designers. There’s a lot of back and forth involved. I bet everyone in the studio wishes that we had the answer on how to structure things right from the start, but we didn’t – we discovered it through trial and error. It was basically a way to figure out how to take advantage of this liberated verticality, but do so in a way that doesn’t make everything look completely ridiculous, and doesn’t look like floating platforms in a side scrolling platformer. We wanted things to be very grounded in a reality of sorts. There’s a line there between being creative and things looking a little too ridiculous, so I think it’s a case that every level features a number of different solutions we came upon to suit its context.

Click: The game world looks extremely expansive; how big is it in comparison to the previous games?

SE:I don’t have the exact metrics, but I’m sure you can fit several of Rapture’s largest rooms within a single one of the sizeable combat spaces within Infinite. That brought with it a whole host of challenges and ultimately feeds into the way the AI behaves, the weapons that the player has and the abilities that are available at the time. None of these things can be designed in isolation. If you’re creating a large space you need to have AI, weapons and placements that make sense relative to the space you’ve built. It all has to evolve in lockstep – it just wouldn’t work otherwise.

Click: Where do you draw the line in terms of pushing things on the sci-fi front?

SE:A lot of those ultimately come down to Ken Levine, our Creative Director. We’ll try to push things or suggest things and sometimes he warms to things right away, while others he might decide to stop and have a longer think about whether something pushes things too far. Because of the role he plays he’s always able to see everything all at once in all the different departments, so he can look for consistency and make sure everything is staying in line with the bigger picture. He does a phenomenal job of reinforcing this mandate to ensure that the game feels coherent and not a jumble of assorted ideas, competing visual motifs or competing designers all trying to promote their pet projects.

Click: Taking all the delays into account, would you say it has been a difficult development process for Infinite?

SE: Irrational is the only studio I’ve ever worked at, so I can’t compare it to anything else to say whether or not it’s difficult. I think we took on some pretty extreme challenges and it took quite a bit of time to figure out how we were going to address them and rise to those challenges. I’m really happy that we’ve had as much time as we have; the last thing you want to do in development is have to push a game out there when it’s not ready, but if you give us an infinite amount of time we’ll keep wanting to make it better and better and it’ll never get released, so there’s a balancing act there. The amount of time we’ve had has been a Godsend, and it’s allowed us to objectively look at things and ask whether they’ve been included because the clock is ticking or because they’re actually good. In the final product everything is there because we believe in it, which is great.

Click: The planned multiplayer hasn’t made the final cut which is a shame, but how far along was it before it was decided not to include it in the game?

SE: We looked at the multiplayer stuff as a series of experiments, and as I say we’re not going to ship something we don’t believe in or throw something on there just because it’s expected of us. We started experimenting with things under the assumption that if it didn’t work it didn’t work. We got pretty far along, having multiple play tests and there was real content there, but a number of things happened. There were things we couldn’t get to work the way we expected them to, or there were times when we couldn’t get things to fit the mood of what we were doing overall. Sometimes you can have the right ideas in the wrong place, and there was a little of that involved too.

For me, though, the great thing about being able to conduct some of those experiments was that I could take the lessons learnt from them and bring them into the single player mode. There are things in the campaign that I know for a fact wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t had the freedom to go and screw around with the multiplayer.

Click: Given the lineage, are there any big twists or surprises for players to look forward to along the way?

SE: With being an Irrational game there are definitely surprises, but we’re trying not to repeat ourselves so don’t expect a rehash of things, rather expect some unique big moments throughout.

Click: You’ve mentioned that the setting of the game is grounded in reality and history. How much research was needed to really nail that sense of past futurism that runs throughout Infinite?

SE: It’s a combination of looking at past futurism and simply looking at the past and building our own past futurism around that. If you look at a lot of the visions of the future from that era, they’re pretty out there! From Martian canals and civilizations to flying bicycles and things like that, there’s a certain quaintness to them. Everyone who was working on the art direction and generating the assets had one eye on that kind of stuff, so it was rooted in reality in that way, but at the same time it was more a case of knowing what people of our past thought the future might be like, and then projecting that onto the game world and creating a vision of what we thought that vision of the future might be. It’s probably the best kind of challenge for the creative guys, you know. They’re all students of art history and it’s a chance for them to create fictional versions of eras that never existed.

Click: Out of the work you’ve done on the game yourself, is there anything that stands out as a favourite of yours?

SE: There’s a lot that I can’t tell you about, so I’m going to say that I’m looking forward to letting people play the game and I’ll wait with my fingers crossed to see if they say they like the same stuff as me. I do have some personal favourites, but they’re a lot further into the game so I can’t really talk about them.

BioShock Infinite hits stores worldwide on March 26th

Interview - Shawn Elliott (Irrational Games) on
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