E3 2011: BioShock Infinite Interview

By Jordan Douglas on June 21, 2011, 12:46PM EST

By most accounts, BioShock Infinite's showing at E3 2011 was among the show's best. Irrational shed light on their long-awaited follow-up to 2007's critically acclaimed BioShock in a big way, painting a clearer picture of the world of Columbia and the relationship between Booker DeWitt, Elizabeth and the mysterious floating city. We sat down with Irrational's Shawn Robertson, lead artist on Infinite, to discuss their inspirations, how the game plays, crafting the demo, and more. Enjoy!

GU: What was the vision for BioShock: Infinite's art style? And where did you guys draw inspiration from?

Shawn: It's funny, it's not like it just popped out of our heads at one moment. We've got a great team back at Irrational and we've really taken bits and pieces from all the artists. When we started thinking about a city in the sky in the 1900s, our first stab at it was very dark and gloomy, the clouds were in close and had a dark greenish tinge. It looked very much like a city under water. We literally kept pushing the clouds back and made it a blue sky. So it wasn't like a single moment defined it and we said 'Now we have it!'. As we progressed through the first demo we released last summer, we finally nailed upon this 4th of July Americana. It was definitely a long journey.

As far as our reference goes, we definitely like to look at source material from the time. Nate Wells, our art director, said it at PAX when he showed a photograph of a dead horse on the side of the road with kids just sitting by it. When you look at that, from a BioShock standpoint, the picture tells a million stories. Those are some of the things we can look at for reference, some of the weird photographs from back then. Even the normal ones are kind of weird to us because they're so old. So we took bits and pieces from that and put them into our game.

GU: Narratively, the original BioShock was influenced by Ayn Rand. This time around, you guys have said Infinite draws from the feeling of American exceptionalism during the turn-of-the-century period. Were there specific authors, like Rand was to Rapture, that really influenced Infinite?

Shawn: We started looking at books written about the time. I think one of the books that a lot of the senior staff read was The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Which got us looking at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. It got us looking at Roosevelt, McKinley, [the American] invasion of the Philippines, and it kind of snowballed from there. Once you get hooked on that section of history, then you really start chewing on it. Again, the way we come up with ideas at Irrational is very organic. We didn't sit down and say 'Okay, flying city, American exceptionalism, let's go!'. It all happened very organically.

GU: After watching the demo, it was difficult to tell how exactly the game played and how open it was. The setting seemed very open, but the sequence of events also looked scripted. Is that due to the E3 arrangement, or is that reflective of the final product?

Shawn: As far as exploration, the amount a player can explore and the amount of narrative we're going to present to the player, it's going to be roughly the same as we had in the original BioShock. In terms of open space, we're not creating a Grand Theft Auto game, it's not like everywhere in the city will be open to the player. Narratively, where we want the player to go will definitely be open. A specific example: the skylines that you saw. Yes, there are rails that you're traveling on, but you saw a few different rails and all of those represent different options you can jump to. You're also not stuck on one rail you've jumped on. You can turn around, jump off at any point, and there are roofs you can get onto. So you can use those rails to get to other places, or you can just ignore them and stick to the narrative. They're just another tool that we're providing to the player.

GU: You showed a section in the demo where Elizabeth's powers appear to bend time, which puts you in a different setting for a brief moment. Has there been any talk of using that mechanic for longer stretches, so players can actually interact in those spaces?

Shawn: Well, I don't want to speak on that too much. We have certain narrative elements that we don't want to reveal.

GU: Last question. What's been the highlight for you working on Infinite so far?

Shawn: Working on the demo has been a blast, and seeing the whole team come together. It's really everyone throwing little bits and pieces into the mix and seeing it combine into what you saw. That's the best part of working on a game. Finally showing the demo to the press and seeing everyone's reactions being so positive. Sometimes it's easy to forget when your working at the office that there's other people out there who care about what you're doing.

Personally, I spent a lot of time working with Ken [Levine] on the Elizabeth moments to get the timing right and things like that. Mostly in-engine stuff, scripting and getting the timing to work correctly. But I don't want to take credit for any one thing, because we have so many talented people at Irrational.

GU: Thanks for your time, Shawn.

BioShock: Infinite is scheduled for release in 2012 on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.

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