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Interview:  BioShock Infinite 's Strong Moments, Best Accidents
Interview: BioShock Infinite's Strong Moments, Best Accidents Exclusive
August 10, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

August 10, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Exclusive, Business/Marketing

When we visited Irrational lately, the creative leads told us they've benefited a lot from learning to throw things away. But as it turns out, some discarded assets from a terminated project helped provide BioShock Infinite's resonant E3 demo with some extra punch.

During the demo, Elizabeth tries to resurrect a horse through her poorly-controlled ability to create "tears," or fissures in reality that can lead to other (ideally better) ones. It's kind of a tough trick for the team to explain.

"Originally, the scene I wrote was, she uses a tear to turn a sick animal healthy," the company's creative director and co-founder Ken Levine tells Gamasutra. "It was a scene to sell Elizabeth's character... she has trouble controlling this."

"We kept adding jobs to what the scene had to do," adds art director Nate Wells. The goal was "explaining this element to the audience, but doing it in a way that doesn't feel like 'exposition.'"

"If we can't show on the screen something the audience is going to understand, then it shouldn't be there," adds lead artist Shawn Robertson. The goal for that visual introduction for Elizabeth was clear, then: it needed an experience strong enough to speak for itself.

Irrational's leads have told us about how strongly the development teams at the studio prize experimentation, believing, in Wells' words, that "there's nothing noble about preserving content just because it's done," if that content no longer suits the evolving game world.

But one of the strongest publicity moments for BioShock Infinite came from that demo scene and the tear that Elizabeth created -- which opened up to unsettling 1980s urban glam, neon signs, and... is that Tears for Fears playing? And that moment was born of something Irrational had been, according to Robertson, "literally about to throw away."


"It was supposed to be to this primeval forest kind of thing, and it just wasn't striking or different enough... but we had assets from a game we abandoned," Levine says.

The high-impact neon anachronism of the world inside Elizabeth's tear is born of assets from a game Irrational killed, says the team. Reviving it "was such a better idea than the idea we were building all these assets for. We made a bunch of changes to really sell it, but we had all those assets just sitting around from a game we never shipped," says Levine.

"These are situations where some of your best ideas and things that play very well happen to be some of the easiest to implement," Robertson adds.

Says Levine: "We were really struggling to sell the story of the tears and how they work. We could do a demo where I stand up there and explain it to people, but we don't do that; if we're doing that, the game isn't doing its job."

But the ease to arrive at those big-win creative moments as if by accident requires flexibility, a willingness to change gears and adapt quickly rather than marrying oneself to a set course of action.

For example, Levine's early concept for BioShock Infinite involved pitting tech geeks against luddites, those who resist the proliferation of technology. But the fact that such opposing forces exist only in shades of reality, and not in compelling polarities, caused development of the story to stall.

"We were really forcing it," Levine reflects. But in context, working with themes of American Exceptionalism felt much more current. "A lot of people see the game who aren't huge history nerds, and are like, 'oh, you're just making a game about the Tea Party,'" he says.

"But the Tea Party are just... chapter nine hundred seventy-three of that kind of movement in the world. The reason it worked was that it's something more resonant, where 'technologists and anti-techs' just wasn't resonant."

Ultimately, political and historical information and context is just a starting point, the team says. "It provides a world that people can identify with, and then we immediately go and take it where we need it to be," says Wells. "[Irrational is] known for historically-driven games, and yet we're less historically-accurate than a lot of other games like that. It's about using... a starting point and then creating in that space."

In another example, BioShock derived much of its style from Art Deco in New York City's mid-century architecture. "BioShock feels like New York in a lot of ways, but if you actually look at New York, there're very few Art Deco buildings," Levine points out.

"But we're not really interested in the prosaic. We're interested in stuff that's going to heighten the themes."

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Dale Craig
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With Bioshock so well received, it will be interesting to see how Irrational develops this game. If you have a strong brand and a likely very large built-in audience for your new game, you can take some chances in your storytelling and game play, because the financial risks are mitigated. They need to take these chances because they have a very high bar to clear (the bar set by the original Bioshock game). If they succeed then Bioshock Infinite will likely become a classic.

Really looking forward to this game.

Eric Blomquist
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"We kept adding jobs to what the scene had to do," adds art director Nate Wells. The goal was "explaining this element to the audience, but doing it in a way that doesn't feel like 'exposition.'"


Kevin Patterson
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I would love to know more about the cancelled game, since it had assets that were based on the 80's.

Bart Stewart
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I played BioShocks 1 & 2 and enjoyed them for what they were. And I'll probably be able to enjoy BioShock Infinite.

But why the repeated assault on exceptionalism in these games? Why make that the problem? Did it just happen to be one thing among several that the designers felt could safely be caricatured as villainous, like eeeeeeevil corporations? Or does someone have a special reason for wanting to try to smear the highly successful American experiment in freedom in particular as some kind of dangerous aberration?

Was there really no other historical social philosophy that could have served as a satisfying and effective narrative backdrop for shooting lots of simulated people? Really?

Again: I expect to play and enjoy BioShock Infinite. It's no System Shock, but it's closer to that *exceptional* game than a lot of others. That doesn't mean I can't wonder why the striving for exceptionalism -- of all things -- is chosen to be the designated horror story in the BioShock universe when so many other human notions have had demonstrably worse consequences for humanity.

As just one possibility that springs to mind, does no one recall the popularity of eugenics in certain "progressive" circles around the very time period in which BioShock Infinite is set? Why would that not have been an even more appropriate social-narrative hook for a BIOshock game littered with "gene tonics?" Why instead try to portray exceptionalism, American or otherwise, as threatening?

I'd be interested in reading a straight news story or interview that explores the real answer to this question.

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I like your answer because it's almost how game treat every other culture and yet nobody bat an eye.

Shawn Johnson
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You have an awesome point there. Especially since they use genetics and altering genes so much in the plot. Wow. I really hope someone at Irrational reads that post you made. They're flexible. Maybe they can tweak the game to incorporate that as well. Maybe as another faction of people.

Craig Lewin
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@Bart Stewart: I think you may be conflating "exceptionalism" with the success of the American experiment. I have only played Bioshock 1 and seen the E3 trailer for Infinite, but it seems to me that the themes being explored revolve around the extremist idea that not only is America exceptional, all other nations and creeds are villainous and unworthy.

Well-reasoned pride and patriotism in the accomplishments of one's country should garner no shame, but I think what is being treated with scorn is an attitude of exclusion that so often comes with patriotism. Bioshock Infinite doesn't appear to denigrate the American experiment--it calls out the ugliness that arises when elitism infects pride, turning it into frothing nationalism.