“If you punch a guy he might catch on fire”: BioShock Infinite’s Bill Gardner on gear, living worlds, and 1912 racism

BioShock Infinite

By on February 18, 2013 at 10:59 am

At a recent preview event, games.on.net had the chance to sit down with Bioshock Infinite’s Bill Gardner, Director of Design at Irrational Games. We spoke about gear customisation, linearity in gameplay, how to handle the colourful racism of the 1920′s, and striking the right balance between ‘gamey’ and immersive.

Click here to read our enormous game preview.

GON: What we’ve seen so far is the start of the game where it’s obviously a little more linear. As the game progresses, is it going to be more like the previous Bioshocks where you have hub areas from which you head off and then return?

Bill: To some degree yes, absolutely, the game starts off where there’s just a tremendous amount of stuff to get across. Like, way more than in Bioshock 1. Just the depth of the world, the narrative we’re trying to tell, and trying to sell Booker’s backstory, and set up Elizabeth, and Comstock, and the [rebellious faction] Vox Populi.  The amount of stuff we are throwing at you, Bioshock 1 pales in comparison. And then, obviously, there’s a much wider range of systems like the skylines and these are completely alien, I’ve never seen anything like a skyline in a game, so, teaching that is a lot more difficult than you might think. So I think it does tend to come off as a little bit more straightforward. But, yes, absolutely, as you get into it and as people start to master the systems and understand enough of the story, it absolutely opens up quite a bit more. It’s by no means an open-world, but you do have the Bioshock-level of choice as to where you’re going.

GON: I was surprised to discover with the skyline that you actually have a certain amount of freedom to change directions and jump off at any time. I was just expecting it to be ‘click to get on here; click to get off there’.

Bill: I can definitely see how people would draw that from what we’ve shown. But, yeah, it was an important goal for us for people to use it as a tool. It’s not just a ‘Point A to Point B’ thing. It’s about letting the player get tricky and use the environment in interesting ways, to close in on enemies really really fast but also to use the space vertically and hop off at any time. You might be getting pelted by a flak cannon enemy, with a massive explosive radius, so you can use the skyline to close the distance and avoid damage there. So yeah, it’s a whole new tool.

GON: It seems to fit with the world you’re building as well, as an open-air, island-based world.

Bill: That was another core goal when we started building the game. We wanted to make good on the fantasy of being in the sky. To be perfectly frank, we were a little disappointed with the way we didn’t really embrace the ocean as a mechanic [in the previous Bioshock games]. Certainly, as a ‘mood’ piece, it was something that set the atmosphere as claustrophobic and dank. As a dying environment it was spot on. But it didn’t mean much for gameplay. The skyline, this time around, is one of the ways we make good on this fantasy of being in a city in the sky. And closing that huge difference in verticality. And creating that feeling of flight, that visceral feeling of falling, without all the annoyances of actually flying.

Originally, we were talking about ways to capture that. And, on paper, it’s like, “Yeah! I’d love to be able to fly!” but, yeah, you really don’t. In first person, it’s just a bit of a mess. It’s not really a solvable problem and, quite frankly, I think the skylines were a better opportunity because you’re jumping between lines and it’s a lot more interesting. Anyway, long story short, that’s our attempt to make good on that fantasy.

GON: Did you consider grappling hooks at all?

Bill: Of course! I’m a huge Tenchu fan… But, I think, again, the grappling hook doesn’t quite create this same visceral feeling that a roller-coaster in the sky gives you.

GON: It keeps you, quite literally, on rails, but also gives you quite a bit of freedom. Related to the world-building aspect of that, how much harder was it to build a city that was still functioning, as opposed to Rapture that was already dead?

Bill: It was a huge departure from what we’re used to. I think there’s a tendency when you’re creating something to go with the same thing, to go with what’s familiar to you and initially when Ken [Levine] was like,  “Oh, it’s going to take place in the sky, it’s going to be a bright, full sunshine, gorgeous blue sky,” immediately I was like, “Oh man. I’ve never done that before. What the hell?” So you go in thinking you know how to do something, and you’re very familiar with that something. So there’s that fear and apprehension [of doing something new].

But then, slowly, as you start to get the content of the people in the world, you get their audio recordings, you start to hear their conversations, you start to get Booker’s and Elizabeth’s reactions to them. You start to get all these things, and you build up the world with all these details and you think, man, we need more space. And the world gets bigger and you add more detail and before you know it you’ve got a world that is far more rich than Rapture. I think there was definitely apprehension, but we’re always looking to challenge ourselves. We had a very specific story to tell so having the populated world was a huge part of that, a huge part of that idealised vision of America in flight, and to just be able to watch that decay as Booker and Elizabeth make their way through the space and go on their journey and watch how they change and how things change around them.

GON: It seems to be really committed to that idea of environmental storytelling.

Bill: That’s very important to us. Going back to System Shock 2 and, by extension Thief as well. Like, Ken, at his Looking Glass days—that was something he helped pioneer, that style of storytelling. It’s something he’s very passionate about, and every person we bring onto the team has to be given a bootcamp into how these things work. Obviously we have the examples, like Bioshock, but it’s very tricky to get that stuff right. There’s a certain level of art to figuring out what you’re trying to tell and how you’re trying to tell it. Frankly, with Bioshock 1 and Rapture we are very proud of it but when you think of it, the story is a lot more limited than what we have in Infinite.

We have Booker and Elizabeth and their back-and-forwards and interactions, that’s a whole new toolset that we have. We have all these different ways of expositing information and immersing you in this world. It’s very different. But at the same time we have the vignettes, the mise-en-scéne. You come into a room and you see the people that shot each other up or you piece together what happened. In a lot of ways, this is the evolution of that storytelling, and we’re introducing all these new themes and all these new methods of storytelling into that formula.

GON: Was that largely what was behind the choice to have a speaking protagonist in a first-person game? A lot of games seem to be doing that recently.

Bill: That’s true, games are doing it more, but for us… well as I said before, Ken is always looking for new ways to push narrative, and right from the get-go he was looking to very specific ways in his head of merging our style of gameplay with our style of narrative in new ways. We had done the silent protagonist thing quite a few times, and we wanted this vibrant, alive world. Just having a mute go through that space wouldn’t work. More importantly, we knew we wanted this character Elizabeth, we wanted this companion character, to push those narrative boundaries we’d established for ourselves, and to push players as they go on this journey with Elizabeth and Booker.

These are two characters that should not be together by any means because they are just from completely different walks of life, and we wanted the player to just watch them come together and have to walk between these extreme factions as they change. So Elizabeth starts off in this tower and she is completely cut off from the world. She has been there most of her life. She’s up in this tower with her books. Imagine how she is going to gel with a former Pinkerton Agent with a shadowy past. They have to come together and go on this journey together. So you watch her evolution and his evolution as well as they try to come together to overcome these odds.

GON: So essentially it’s good to have someone to speak back to Elizabeth so she’s not doing the rhetorical question thing that so many companions have to do.

Bill: That’s exactly right. It would be kind of weird. But that’s difficult in itself. Not just to get Booker and Elizabeth’s interactions right, but also to give Booker his voice, to figure out how frequently he should be talking, what he should react to, and making sure he isn’t stepping on the player’s toes. Because, I think, in some games I play the character your playing tends to voice exactly what the player is thinking, and it’s kind of alienating. I’m like, “That was my line”. If you’re going to have a character, you want them to provide something, to bring something to the table. And that’s what Booker does. He has his own very unique worldview, his own perspective. And you get that. It’s about revealing more of his character.

GON: That’s really interesting because a lot of first-person games—or nearly any game with a voiced protagonist, really—seem to attempt to do the opposite, to get the character to say what the player is thinking.

Bill: Right. Which is odd because if you disagree with that, that’s odd. So speaking for the player is never good, but speaking for the character, for Booker Dewitt who you’re trying to get the player to inhabit, is useful. That’s where you’re trying to get the player saying, ”What would Booker do?”.

GON: So if from the outset you say, “This is Booker” it is less alienating when he is saying things that are clearly not the player’s thoughts.

Bill: Absolutely.

GON: Obviously, Colombia is a white supremacist kind of society.  Are there any concerns of either more-conservative, white Americans being offended by the game? Or, on the other hand, of people being offended by the clearly intentionally overly racist caricatures of non-white ethnicities? Obviously it is done for a reason, but it’s a sensitive area.

Bill: It’s definitely done for a reason, being that we’re trying to be true to the time period [1912], and the spirit of the time. We’ve talked about it a lot and Ken has always said it would be disingenuous to avoid these issues if you are trying to really immerse players in the world of this time, it would be dishonest and disingenuous to skirt around these things. It is part of the world and part of the story that we’re trying to tell. If that [historic depiction of America] makes people uncomfortable, well that’s unfortunate, but ultimately we have a very specific story we want to tell and I think it is pretty clear that we are uncompromising.

But the one thing I will say is that when contextualised, people should and hopefully would understand that this is the way the world was. We are trying to pose these questions and let the player decide how they feel. It would be very different if we said that this would be the only perspective we’ll provide. We have counter points. We have Fitzroy and the Vox Populi in opposition of this racist, xenophobia perspective. So, yeah, I’m curious to see how this stuff plays out. I might be a little apprehensive on my end but ultimately I’m confident that we’re not going for controversy; we’re just trying to be honest.

GON: You’re mentioned trying to ‘immerse’ players in the world. When I started fighting people I noticed the numbers popping up every time I shot someone. That seemed like an interesting design choice. It seems like it would fit in a more ‘gamey’ FPS like Borderlands but in a game that’s trying to produce a more diegetic world it seemed like an interesting choice.

Bill: Every part of the game goes under close scrutiny, and we try to figure out how it fits into the world and game. Everything is weighed against Ken’s vision and the vision of the team and how everything fits into place. With the numbers, we have this tremendous depth to this game, way more than we had in Bioshock 1, so we wanted to represent clearer feedback in terms of how you are progressing as a character. So we felt it was important to put that in. But we also thought that some people might have an issue wutg it so we’ve provided an option to turn it off. I think we do our best to make sure that people can play the game in the way they want, so that their vision can come together with our vision and basically become something they’ll enjoy.

We had a very similar debate internally about adding health metres above enemies in Bioshock 1. At the time, no other games were really doing that, and that was really contentious in the same way. We had this immersive world and we’re trying to tell this story and it feels very ‘gamey’ [to have health bars]. But we did it and, personally, I think it was the right choice, especially when you’re fighting the Big Daddies so you can track your progress. Ultimately, it will always be weighing the game against the narrative and the immersion. So as long as we give people the option, really.

GON: There seems to be quite a lot of different ways to customise Booker as the game progresses. Can you speak a bit to that?

Bill: Gear is one of the main ways you have to customise yourself. Gear is, in a lot of ways, similar to the tonics in Bioshock. The differences here being that there are clearer paths, clearer classes, if you will. You can customise your load out in different ways that suit your play style. So if you really like the skylines, you can get yourself enough gear to make yourself more catered to skyline combat. or you can change those things out, maybe make yourself more of an explosive guy or whatever. So, yes, there is quite a lot of depth in that system. There are also pieces that will give you different abilities to give you buffs or skills, like if you punch a guy he might catch on fire, things like that. So the way these things combine with our other growth systems. We have the upgrade systems for the weapons and vigors.

With the vigor upgrades, for one thing you have multiple uses for each vigor. Devil’s Kiss, for example, you press to throw a fire grenade, but if you hold it down you can set a trap. And then there’s an upgrade so that it bursts out into separate explosions and things like that. So there’s qualitative and quantitative growth for most of the systems in the game. Weapons, vigors, etc. There’s a ton of customisation. It’s really about empowering the player’s play style.

Thanks to Bill for chatting to us!

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