The lights are on
In issue 221 of Game Informer we took a look at the research practices and inspirations of development studios during the creation of era-specific games. Here's the extended interview with Irrational Games' Ken Levine and Nate Wells on developing a 20th century city in the sky.
Game Informer: When it came to BioShock Infinite, did you start with a setting? Or were there gameplay ideas that took priority?
Ken Levine: We started out by researching what BioShock game was to some degree because we knew that we didn’t want to do another game in Rapture. We were very interested in what made a BioShock game and the things that came to us were that it had a setting – not a setting specific setting – but that the setting had to be a character. That was very important. It had to be the biggest character. Rapture is the biggest character in BioShock and Columbia is the biggest character in Infinite. In terms of game systems, how you interact with the world, and how combat plays out, we left that until we tuned into the notion of the period.
Nate Wells: We knew we were going to change the time and the place, and that is a massive emotional and intellectual hurdle to get past – the idea that BioShock could happen outside of Rapture. I guess we jumped it relatively easily, but the truth is that it was difficult to get past. Like Ken said, Rapture is a major character and we were losing a major character. What we were left with was room to make a world that was a bigger and even more significant character than Rapture. But, it also had the liberating effect in that we could do it anywhere and anytime. So then we locked into a period that we found fascinating.A lot of our interests don’t just crop up when we have to make a new game. They are ongoing and the game inevitably is affected by the zeitgeist of what we are reading and are interested in. We were all reading Devil in the White City and it became interesting to use. Stephen Alexander, the lead effects artist, and I were both reading it at the same time, and we found it very entertaining that if you looked at the layout of the world fair or the Columbian Exposition of 1893, it was very similar to Rapture in that it was a sampling of different parts of the world and different parts of technology. It was arranged sort of like Disney World in that you get a sampling of what they wanted you to see that feels very, very video game. So it was a natural extension of that.
GI: Disney is an exaggerated version of reality.
Wells: We’ll, it’s utopian, and the Columbian Exposition was effectively a utopian endeavor. However temporary, it was a three year project to create a utopia in a swamp in Chicago. And it was absolutely beautiful. And the deeper irony is that it was essentially made out of Paper-maché. You have these beautiful buildings that were this thin layer of plaster over this metal framework. It was all smoke and mirrors. And that is the thing about utopias, right? You can see the connections there to the BioShock franchise.
GI: When you are assembling these pieces is historical accuracy important or is it more important to evoke the feeling of the time?
Wells: We have to cherry pick from history a great deal and what we cherry pick are the things we think can carry a great game design concept, or carry a visual or narrative thread through the game. The idea isn’t that someone shows up at your doorstep and dumps the early 20th century on it, and you have to deal with it. We pick and choose what we want, and there are probably threads of that period of time that aren’t useful to us, so we call them out and narrow our focus on the story we want to tell, and the elements of that theme that will help us tell them.
Levine: Even if you think about it architecturally, a city isn’t built – if you went back to the 1900s – not everything was built in that time period. Some of it is Dutch colonial, from when the Dutch owned New York. And some of that may not say what we want to say. So we aren’t really creating reality, we are sampling from reality. Like with Rapture, it feels like a vision of New York in the fifties and sixties, but New York of the fifties and sixties had some of those buildings, but it also had lots of other buildings.
Wells: New York of the fifties and sixties was built in the twenties and thirties, so architecture reaches incredibly far forward in time. So it is somewhat difficult to decide how to depict this time period.
Levine: You have to be selective. You have a feeling in your head and then you ask how to achieve that feeling. We have this feeling of optimism. Of American optimism. So we asked, "What is going to serve us in doing that?" So before we tuned into the whole American exceptionalism thing, it was much more about Art Nouveau. That is what we were struggling with. We said, "Hey, we did Art Deco before, so I guess we’ll do Art Nouveau now."
Wells: But that was a decorative art, not an architectural art. And it was extremely rare, but it is beautiful. There are so many movies and other design philosophies that used Art Nouveau because it is so interesting.
Levine: But it wasn’t doing anything for us thematically, so we moved on and away from it almost completely. We talked about it and discussed it, and it wasn’t saying anything about our world. I think it was because I didn’t have the themes of the game in hand yet and was leading the horse. It wasn’t saying anything. When we tuned into the American exceptionalism thing that started answering questions for us and drove the look of the city.
Wells: On a side note, two places you would recognize is Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings series. It was an Art Nouveau inspired expression. So many times we started building these assets and it looked like Rivendell. So we had to keep scaling it back and make it look more like New York or Paris.