Bioshock: Infinite interview: Irrational Games design director, Bill Gardner

PC World caught up with Irrational Games design director, Bill Gardner, to talk about the journey to Columbia

The release of the original Bioshock in 2007 was a significant moment in this console generation. Up to that point, the Xbox 360 had received only a handful of games that could be classified as next generation. Then Bioshock came along, bringing amazing graphics, engaging first person shooter gameplay, and a memorable game world set under the ocean. Half a decade later, Bioshock: Infinite attempts to reinvent the franchise by adopting a new setting, time period and location, namely a floating city in the sky. The elements that made Bioshock a surprise hit seem to be intact in Infinite, and with the benefit of an upgraded engine, the game is already raising the bar in terms of graphics, both on a technical and design centric level.

After going hands-on with the latest build of the game, PC World sat down with Irrational Games design director, Bill Gardner, talk about the development of Bioshock: Infinite.

What has Irrational Games been up to since Bioshock 2 came out in 2010? Busy at work or maybe relaxing with some World of World?

Irrational Games design director, Bill Gardner (BG): There is always time for World of WarCraft. [Laughs] Right after the original Bioshock shipped, we spent quite a bit of time examining the game ourselves, looking at what the fans and general audience were saying, taking that feedback and our own post mortems to try to decipher what exactly a Bioshock game is. You spend so much time building it and you start having your own conception of what the game is. Sometimes you need to take a step back and take some time to absorb what the audience thinks. From all of this, we put together post mortems and examined what was next. We looked at ourselves in the mirror and also spent a lot of time playing World of WarCraft [Laughs].

How did Irrational prepare for the development of this game?

BG: There was some prototyping being done, there was a lot of experimentation but we wanted to get back to the Bioshock universe and create something that captures the same elements, themes, and feeling that you get when you first step foot in Rapture. That was very important to us, that sense of awe that you feel when you take the bathysphere down into Rapture. We wanted to do something that recaptured that feeling. So we started to look at what makes a Bioshock game Bioshock, and we came to the conclusion that it is not necessarily about Rapture. It does not have to be about objectivism, Andrew Ryan, Big Daddy or any of those things. It was really about the feeling that you get, the mystery and all of the questions that pop up in your head, the way you unravel them.

What do you feel makes a Bioshock game Bioshock?

BG: Bioshock is about exploring this space, narrative and unique gameplay, but the player is the active participant in unravelling it. Rather than stuff you into a cut scene, we let the protagonist be an archaeologist and discover the questions for themselves. We were talking about different locations and there was a huge pull to the turn of the 20th century, as there is a number of history buffs in the office. Through all those discussions and research, into the history, art and technology at the time, we landed on this idea of a sky city. Part of that came from a lot of the art we had seen at the time. We dug up all of these fantastical pictures of cities in the sky, clear visions of what the future was going to look like. It was fascinating stuff, and as soon as we found this we really honed in on it. It is rare that you see an entire team completely laser in on a vision. From there it was just a matter of doing the research, concept and building the world out.

Was the decision to switch setting from Rapture to Columbia a quick one or a prolonged one?

BG: It was a long process but a huge amount of fun. After examining the conclusion that it did not have to be about Rapture, these sort of floodgates opened in terms of where and when we could set the game. Once it was proposed to have a city in the sky in the turn of the century, we were almost completely on board with that. So it was pretty quick we wanted to make a new game. You look at the world and there is a lot here, it feels very Rapturian, or more accuractely, like Bioshock. But there are things that are different, such as the stark contrast in the lighting, the scope of the world, and the fact that it is not completely dead. Everyone walks in the street and exists in the world, as if nothing horrible was going to happen. But as soon as you arrive, horrible things do happen. [Laughs] You start are this catalyst and these events unfold to the point where you try to escape with Elizabeth.

How do you balance the need for new content while at the same time giving enough nods to the previous Bioshock games?

BG: That was a constantly evolving process. It really came down to a lot of it being gut check, ensuring you have enough there that you do not betray your fans. You want to have enough there to make it feel like Bioshock and not completely abandon it. You want to stay true to the franchise, but also create Bioshock as a game we want to play. Continuing that legacy is very important for us. The themes, mood and atmosphere are very Bioshock. The notion of being caught in the two extreme ideologies is very Bioshock, so that was very important for us to continue and create that feel.

How does the scale of Bioshock: Infinite compare to the original Bioshock?

BG: In the Bioshock games, there is the feeling of being an archaeologist and exploring the world through the information and attempting to decipher the exact history of this place. Even if the history is unfolding while you are in Columbia, there is still a ton to learn. In terms of density and the sheer volume of information recreated for this world, Rapture pales in comparison. Columbia is much more dense and richer, and I hope that shows. From the history that we leverage from the real world, the backstories of the characters and any given street in Columbia, there is a tremendous amount of detail put in to every nook and cranny.

The protagonist in the first Bioshock was relatively quiet during gameplay, but the one in this game is quite talkative. What are the advantages of having a voiced protagonist over a silent one?

BG: There are benefits and tricky parts. You want to make sure that you are getting the protagonist’s perspective on the world. You don’t want to speak for the player but for the protagonist. You want to get his insight, philosophy and perspective. The advantages that you get are exactly that, you get a character that goes on this journey with you. By extension, one of our goals from the beginning was to have a companion character, someone you would believe in and find endearing. So when you have this companion character, it would be odd if you had a mute. It would be odd if she was talking to a wall. To have the two characters play off of each other, to watch them essentially evolve was very important to us. Our goal was to evolve our own style of narrative and that of video games. We really wanted to push the envelope in that regard.

When the original Bioshock came out, it was a timed exclusive for Xbox 360. Now, games such as Bioshock: Infinite are coming out on both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 from day one. Do you see the days of platform exclusives being over?

BG: Obviously you will have first party developers working on exclusives. In terms of whether you will have second or third party exclusives, I can’t speak to that. For us, it is very important for us to get the game in as many people’s hands as possible. We’re really passionate about the world we’ve built, the story we’ve crafted. We really want to show people what video game narrative can do. For us to be on all three of those platforms, that is a tremendous advantage and honour. As a hardcore gamer myself, I’m excited to see the game on my TV and PC at home. Who know what the future will hold, but for us it was the right call to put it on all three platforms.

What role did the studio 2K Australian have on Bioshock: Infinite?

BG: 2K Australia came in on development relatively late. Not sure what they were up to before that, but they came on and helped us in a number of ways, such as finishing off the levels and some technical support. I’m not 100 per cent certain what they did in that regard, but the level and sound designers focused on finishing those aspects of the game. It is a big game, and having them assist as they did with the original Bioshock was great.

What DLC plans are in place for this game?

BG: Nothing to announce at the moment, but hang tight. We’re still determining what’s next for us. Our focus right now is just about getting the game into your hands and seeing how everything goes. From then we’ll determine what’s next.

Any updates on the PlayStation Vita version of Bioshock: Infinite?

BG: Sadly, nothing right now. Whatever we decide and whenever it will be the right time, we’ll let everyone know. I personally enjoy the platform a lot, especially on long flights. Gravity Rush is a lot of fun. [Laughs]

Want to read other video game interviews with key figures from Sony, Microsoft and more? Then check out PC World's complete interview archive.

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Patrick Budmar

Patrick Budmar

PC World
Topics: bioshock, 2k games, Playstation 3, XBox 360
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