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Friday, 01 March 2013 11:06

BioShock Infinite: Interview - Dystopias are very appealing to us


Bill Gardner is a lucky man, as the Irrational Games’ user experience specialist, he gets to help steer the direction of one of video games’ beloved franchises.  BioShock Infinite is layered with concepts and intricate background that more than ever threatens to implode under its own weight.  It is after all a first person shooter, Gardner sat down with us to discuss the balance of story and setting with the simple game-play objective of blowing off virtual heads.

Bill Gardner has been working with Ken Levine, creative director, co-founder of Irrational Games and figure head for the BioShock series for 11 years now, and has gotten to know him well; “We finish each other’s sentences,” says Gardner

“But we have different perspectives.” He continues. “Instead of design, I overlook the entire game and basically try to play the role of the ‘gamer’, keep as fresh as eyes as possible, provide feedback, reports and presentations to Ken and Rod [Fergusson, product director] and the team, suggestions on how to improve things.  So if people are getting lost, or the narrative isn’t quite making sense then we look at getting things changed.”

BioShock Infinite may appeal to a larger audience than normal for a FPS.  The team is aiming to make something successful but with a lot of art, story, setting and background contained within.

“Every part of BioShock Infinite, and really working at Irrational, we wear many different hats, with different perspectives.” explains Gardner “We make very deep rich games, but like you said, they do have different perspectives, with different ways to approach problems and solutions.  You look at the way you can customise your character with the gear that we have and the upgrades, and broad tool set that you have, there are so many ways to play, so I need to do a lot of role playing.”
“The reason I am able to do that, I mean nobody is perfect at it, but I’ve been playing games all my life, as I am sure most of us have.  But I also sold a lot of games, I came from the land of Game Stop, so talking to a lot of customers, talking to gamers, actively participating in as much of the gaming community as I can, just trying to tap into as many different perspectives as possible. “

“I’m always observing, watching how people play and understanding what is appealing and what is not.”

There are layers of storytelling and a lot of subtlety in this game.  Players that just want to shoot people’s heads off could miss many of the details in their rush to get into the action.

“I think that is what is interesting though, out approach to narrative,” explains Gardner “our approach to storytelling is a little different from most games where they will lock you into a cut scene and say ‘hey!  Watch this, watch this,’ and so we’re much more inclined to let people discover the answers themselves, poke around corners and search the nooks and crannies to discover information.  But!  There’s also a balancing act, not everyone is going to want to do that, so the guy that is all about blowing heads off and all that thing, he is not going to absorb that stuff, so.  One of the trickiest parts of my job, and also at Irrational, is knowing what the core information is, and Ken is amazing at being able to sift through all of the vast amounts of data, information and history of the world that we have, and be able to say this is priority one, this is priority two, what’s the best way to get this across?, is it a voxaphone, is it a Kinetoscope, dialogue happening between characters in the street, is it Comstock coming in on his barge and declaring his latest decree.

With Infinite this time we have so many more narrative tools.  The two biggest deviations from Bioshock one and two is Booker and Elizabeth, conversations and watching them grow as characters and watching how they react to what is going on in the world.  It really is a different experience in that regard.”


Unlike Rapture, Columbia is a city at its height, the populous fills the streets and life goes on around Booker De Witt as he attempts to rescue Elizabeth.  As he explores, it is clear there is an undercurrent of differing factions at work here.  Columbia’s philosophical foundations are that of Objectivism mixed with tunnel vision Patriotism, but below the outward faith in Comstock and his plans there are factions brewing.

“We take iteration to the extreme at Irrational,” says Gardner “One of the more rewarding parts is constantly being surprised, I spoke about being surprised by Ken, but I think [ it applies to ] everyone on the team, as they get involved with the vision and understand the world, as they do the research on the history we are drawing from, and the films that were an inspiration to us.  To take that information and watch how different people process that, and watch the subtleties come up in all these different ways that you don’t notice, books on the shelves, the music you hear in the world, the paintings on the walls, the propaganda, all these different things.  And it is, I think, the richest game I have ever seen in terms of the sheer amount of details.

And so, sifting through all that, knowing what will be right, a lot of it is trial and error.  Again, even when you are working on a game there is so much too it, so keeping up with it, and keeping up with the evolution of it becomes a challenge, you have to take on a lot of the communication issues you have with a large team, huge vision and one of the primary ways you do that is have a visionary like Ken to come in and pitch, you know, this is what this level is all about, and this is what we are trying to accomplish here, and this is what Elizabeth is thinking here, this is what Booker is doing, or the villain or Comstock……”

Could implode on itself, you are creating a ‘shooter game’ after all

“… absolutely, it is very easy to lose sight of the myriad of pieces to succeed, so I think it is just a question of checks and balances, everyone on the team is pretty good at being honest with themselves and also with each other, saying ‘go ahead and give me some feedback’” says Gardner.

“To make a game like Bioshock: Infinite and a world like Columbia, you need people engaged on multiple levels, not every level, but as many levels as possible.  So you need to be open to that feedback.”

1912 was an interesting time in history, the modern attitudes to class were beginning to kick in, the automobile was beginning to take hold, the telephone, electricity, Downton Abby !  What about the sinking of the Titanic is that referenced in the game?

“Well maybe,” laughs Gardner “we love the time period, when we started talking about when to set the game, everyone was, turn of the century, yep, boom, done, go go go…”

So is it a prequel to the original Bioshock?

“Everything will make sense when you play the game, whether or not there is a connection, all of that, but that is part of the fun, I don’t want to spoil it for you.  There are so many amazing things happening in this time period, this thirty year time period where the world is changing seemingly every day, if not every year, with new technologies, the automobile, the airplane, radio, all these kinds of things that are completely world changing inventions.  Any one of them in our time period…. If you look at where we are now, what have we got, that’s changed the world recently?  Tablets are amazing, but world changing?  The Internet for sure, computers and the internet, but beyond that imagine all these world changing things happen, so we were completely enamoured with this time period, and trying to capture that feeling.  
That’s why it is a city in the sky, that sense of optimism, we got this thing down, technology will solve all of our problems and anything is possible.” Says Gardner.

There is still got that dichotomy of the way people treat each other, a utopia turning into dystopia if you will.  I believe Ken Levine pointed this out in another interview, it is not so much the central utopian idea that is the problem, people are the problem.

“Absolutely,” explains Gardner “dystopias are very appealing to us, the reason we added a dystopia into Infinite was because Bioshock is usually about extreme ideas taken as, at its root a sound idea, and pushing it out to its absolute extreme.  Objectivism, right?  At its core, there is some sexiness there, the notion that ‘Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow?’ Who can’t get behind that?, but again, when you start killing people because they can’t agree with that or because they are not embracing complete open capitalism, you have a problem.  With Comstock’s central idea, the root of his faith is very appealing, the notion of community and forgiveness and faith all of these things, but when he starts pushing it to the extreme where he perhaps is worshiping the founding fathers, starts believing, whether it is true or not, that he’s known as the Great Prophet and he can see the future, not only of Columbia, but of everything.  He sort of deifies himself as he deifies the founding fathers, it certainly makes for an interesting story I think.”

So when is the movie deal going to be signed?

“Yeah right, Take Two [the games publisher] is great, they are giving us the time to make the game, and they also said, told Ken apparently, that you don’t need to make this thing happen, if you’re not comfortable with a movie that is going to represent the game, the Bioshock world, then you don’t have to do it.  We will see where that develops; I would certainly like to see it on the big screen.”

Me too.


Bioshock Infinite will be released on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC on March 26th - you can see our hands on preview here.

preview here.

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Mike Bantick

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Having failed to grow up Bantick continues to pursue his childish passions for creative writing, interactive entertainment and showing-off through adulthood. In 1994 Bantick began doing radio at Melbourne’s 102.7 3RRRFM, in 1997 transferring to become a core member of the technology show Byte Into It. In 2003 he wrote briefly for the The Age newspaper’s Green Guide, providing video game reviews. In 2004 Bantick wrote the news section of PC GameZone magazine. Since 2006 Bantick has provided gaming and tech lifestyle stories for, including interviews and opinion in the RadioactivIT section.

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