Freedom On Rails: Bioshock Infinite Interview

By Dan Grill on June 22nd, 2011 at 12:00 pm.


Agent Dan stalked the halls of E3 until he caught up with Timothy Gerritsen, Director of Development at Irrational Games and Executive Producer on Bioshock Infinite. They then talked Heisenberg, Bader-Meinhoff, pulp fiction, psychoses… and sometimes even Bioshock.

RPS: The first thing that struck me, relative to the plodding speed of Bioshock 1 & 2, was the speed, fluidity and freedom of movement here.

Gerritsen: They’re intentionally different experiences. When we finished Bioshock, we could have just settled on the same thing; it would have been disappointing to us as a team, it would have been disappointing to just have had the same type of experience. We felt like we had done what we wanted to do. Bioshock was a very different experience; it was a claustrophobic experience, it was a lonely experience, you were exploring a world after a bunch of events had happened and seeing the aftermath. This time around you’re in the middle of it, the middle of a frenetic action, you’re above the world; you no longer have the weight of the world pressing down on you, under the ocean. You’re now above everything, with a precariousness, and there’s a sense that the whole world could just be ripped from under your feet at any time. So it’s a different type of dread. We really want to step away and do some completely different this time around. It’s frankly a challenge. The publisher could have made us carry on; but to their benefit and ours they allowed us to experiment

RPS: It’s interesting that you mentioned claustrophobia, as you’ve changed your psychoses substantially with this move; Bioshock is claustrophobia and paranoia; Infinite is more vertigo and xenophobia.

Gerritsen: There’s this dichotomy between the xenophobia of the founders and the paternalism of the Vox Populi and they’ll save you from the predations of the scary world. You really have these two idealisms taken to an extreme and you’re caught in the middle as a player; all you want to do is get this girl, get out get your money and finish your job and you get embroiled in all this.


RPS: I mean you’re the perfect cynic. There’s nothing more cynical than a Pinkerton’s Detective.

Gerritsen: Yeah, you’re a muscle for hire, you’ll do whatever it takes, you’ll do whatever job is given you, you don’t care. You’re not going to join these factions; you just want to do your job. And their idealism is a compromised idealism. The Founders are idealistically floating above the world bringing America’s glory to the world, whilst in fact they’re exporting xenophobia and acting dictatorially; the Vox Populi have even higher ideals, of human happiness achieved through equality, whereas at the street level their footsoldiers are going around killing the common man, putting themselves above the people they were below.

What do you do? Do you just start shooting people, you could. You could play the devil and shoot the first man you see, and that creates a different type of scenario. We wanted to make you start thinking ‘what do I want to do? Who do I want to attack? Why do I want to get involved?’ You really need to pick and choose the principles you’ll be experiencing.

RPS: It reminds me most of Dashiell Hammett’s classic Red Harvest (later adapted into Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars), the Pinkerton detective coming into a town divided by two gangs with one simple task, and his response to the town’s corruption causing his responsibilities and the effects of his actions to spiral out of control.

Gerritsen: Yeah, there’s definitely some of that in there. There’s so many influences in there; that’s an influence, there’s a classic tale, almost fairytale-like, and at the same time it’s a Bioshock game, we try to take all these influences and blend them in a way that makes something unique. At the end of the day, we’re all junkies of popular culture, of society, history, literature, art… and we try to take these and blend them in a new and unique way. We don’t take one source and say “we’re going to do an expression of that”, we say; “here’s that central idea, what things are out there that are influencing this and driving it forward?”

RPS: It’s that philosophical consumerism you’ve got, that’s reaching out and sampling a bit of everything that can be made relevant, and restructuring it into a new form. The junk shop was a perfect example of that, it produced so much joy as the duo wandered around the shop.

Gerritsen: That’s the velveteen. We had this core of the curio shop, but then the artists go crazy, put this in, and spark off each other. I don’t think the Lincoln idea came until after someone put the Lincoln mask in, the gold statues led to the other moment. We create lines that lead to content, we create content that feed off lines, the story creates the game and the game the story, so really to bring about fresh design we iterate; we go forward, see what that creates and that leads to other ideas. So there’s this back and forth in our creative process.


RPS: Strangely the other people who’ve mentioned that sort of iteration to me recently were the designers of Saints Row The Third; you both share a commitment to making satisfying violence, but where theirs is tied into comedy slapstick, yours also has to be intellectual satisfying, and fit with the wonderful dialogue you guys have been writing. You end up with a lot of the same components with a different purpose.

Gerritsen: Absolutely. It’s certainly challenging; we didn’t come in here thinking, ‘Oh my god, we’ve got this amazing thing’, we came in here going ‘we hope people like it’. It’s something we pour our hearts and souls into and sometimes we have to step back, because as a team you need to see where you feel like you didn’t hit it, and you have to pull it together at some point, and that’s what Ken does for us as Creative Director; he says ‘here’s the central focus, here’s where we are going put our effort, this is what matters’ and at the end of the day that’s what gets us into the final thing you see on screen.

It’s good having that perspective from somebody who doesn’t work on the project all the time, but who has a very clear idea of what the project should be.. going back to the philosophy of the game, there isn’t the same single philosophy running through this, and there’s definitely more of a jump from Nemo to Laputa. There’s a much wider set of perspectives and, you know, there’s so many influences we drew on that I can’t say that there’s one piece of literature or one movie. We never know where the influence is going to come from, we devour everything, so Ken got the idea for one of the core themes of the game from a movie called The Bader-Meinhoff Complex. In Germany, post-1945, the young people saw that there were still Nazis in the government and said “we thought we’d got rid of those guys.” They start protesting against this, and one thing leads to another to another to another… and eventually one guy’s meeting with the PLO plotting to kill Jews on a jetliner and he’s like “what am I doing? I joined this to get rid of the Nazis and now I’m doing what the Nazis would be doing”.

We also looked at the Chicago worlds fair of 1893 and the Devil in The White City (the horrifying true story of a psychopathic serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their deaths in his purpose built ‘murder hotel’ – Ed), science… Bioshock was about the theories of Crick & Watson, the early geneticists; this time we’re looking we’re looking at the early ideas of people like Heisenberg and Einstein, for the first time they were looking at physics and possibilities in a different way.

RPS: Is that where the Tears come from?

Gerritsen: Very much so; that permeates into all the technology you see in the game, the city itself, the weapons, the Vigors; we take things like patent medicines; I give you a bottle and tell you it makes you more vigorous; if it doesn’t kill you and makes you think you’re stronger, I make five bucks off it. We thought what if we applied these theories to these Vigors, and those became the powers in the game.

RPS: Placebos, basically.

Gerritsen: Very much so – there’s Marlow’s Patented Vigors and the Murder of Crows, and that leads to one other thing; we look at everything when we look at a period, and this was both the dawn and the Golden Age of advertising. We looked very strongly at this; the artists loved this, the way the texturing works, the way the text works blended with the idealised images. You see the message and image and, by our modern standards, they’re completely separated from one another. In the context of the age, they made sense. And that really captivated us. You see all the posters in the game are based on the advertising from those days.

RPS: Would you be thinking of doing a commentary? A problem I had when I was watching the game, not a bad problem for you to have, is that I wanted to stop and look as there’s so much richness but the speed we were flying through the world…

Gerritsen: Yes, you miss so much. We have a theory we have in the studio called “Player RAM”; it’s the amount of material you can absorb visually before you blow Player RAM. With all our demos, we ride the line so closely, we blow Player RAM. There’s certain things we showed in the last demo, you didn’t see in this one; that doesn’t mean they’re gone; we just didn’t want to completely blow Player RAM. You might want to go back and play it a few times there is so much. Keep in mind, when you play it, you play it the way you want to; if you want to stand in the street, lovingly looking, so that Elizabeth says “time’s a ticking, let’s get going”; you can do that. In a 15-minute demo we can only show you so much, and we had to focus on the idea of fluidity in the skyline combat.


RPS: Looking at that skyline; with the original Bioshock you had little sense of the town as a whole, or its population, except conceptually, yet here you get to see the whole town laid out and see the huge variety of architecture. Was that conscious?

Gerritsen: Rapture was unbelievable; Bioshock was unbelievable. But we failed in giving you a sense of that city underwater… we felt we could go so much further with that. So it was a conscious choice to create a sense of this city and push it as far as I can. To see what’s going on, to see the society at work, and, again Bioshock was very claustrophobic, whereas this makes you go ‘wow, this is really a city’.

RPS: That was the best thing of last year’s demo, where you walked into that bar and everyone stopped to stare at you; in Bioshock I was tired of being told how huge this city was, every time I came up to a locked door I wanted to see some of the survivors.

Bioshock was a very lonely experience, that was intentional. This time the experience you get by seeing these human beings who are living their lives, that’s something that’s also intentional.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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20 Comments »

  1. syntax says:

    Good read.

  2. Donjonson says:

    Great interview, some interesting answers extracted through smart questions.. thanks!

    • Griddle Octopus says:

      Thanks man – he was a really switched-on interesting interviewee. First met him when he was developing Prey and BOY is he happier now.

  3. John P says:

    Interesting stuff. I had problems with Bioshock, but I’ve always been impressed with the level of research these folks put into their games, and the genuinely interesting results. It’s nice to hear all the themes and influences that Gerritsen is obviously familiar with.

    Compare that with DX: Human Revolution, which seems to have comparatively little of interest going on beyond ‘er um well it’s about transhumanism and … stuff’.

    The Irrational devs seem to put a lot more stock in research, and the results are obvious.

  4. Bob Moron says:

    Thanks for the interview!

  5. DanPryce says:

    I hope they’re not completely done with Rapture – if they can work out how to make it seem bigger, I’d love to have another game there.

  6. Hexanol says:

    Hopefully the nod to Einstein and Heisenberg doesn’t mean what it usually means in interviews like this, which is that the producers are attempting to justify the fantastic elements of their game with facile references to the many-worlds interpretation. I do trust Ken and the gang, but there’s nothing that kills my enjoyment of a setting more than the writers name-dropping ‘Quantum’.

  7. SuperNashwanPower says:

    As well written and high-brow as this interview is, I cant stop wondering if my dad’s new 3D monitor will add real depth perception to the … chest region.

  8. Baconberries says:

    See also: Pynchon’s Against The Day for another perspective on the anarchist/pinkerton conflict in the early 20th century. Also, flying things with people living on them.

  9. werix says:

    It’s good to see them doing the same route that they did in the first Bioshock, philosophically anyway. That is one of the things I loved about Bioshock, that it was a game that took some ideas that permeate society and take them to the extreme. In my eye Bioshock took the almost Libertarian ideal of letting a man do what they want, with no need to worry about morality, without any government or organization telling and taking and the designers went “lets take those ideals and take them to their natural conclusion”. So we got Rapture, a place run by a business tycoon, where people were able to modify themselves to the point where they were no longer human, and a society that saw life-force and children as just another staple of commerce. It wasn’t something I’d seen since, well, Deus Ex.

  10. Urthman says:

    Elizabeth says “time’s a ticking, let’s get going”

    Didn’t anyone pay attention when Valve’s extensive research showed that players almost universally hate characters who do that?

    • MultiVaC says:

      I don’t think you even need any sort of research to tell you that; it’s some of the most obvious common sense. I can’t believe developers keep making the same mistake of having virtual people that constantly nag you to hurry up and stop enjoying the fantastic artwork of their games.

    • Urthman says:

      You’d think so, but apparently even Valve made that mistake with Alyx in early drafts of Half-Life 2. The difference is that they were smart enough to test properly and pay attention to how much players hated being nagged and fix it.

    • Serenegoose says:

      Whilst I’m not going to pretend that I know the context, as a best case scenario a ‘we’re wasting time’ could be a reasonable way to simply say ‘there were context based conversation things around this area and we’ve wandered into them all so poke your face into that cupboard if you please I shan’t say anything witty.’

      Obviously it’s far more likely that it’s just an irksome nag but I like to live in an ideal fantasy universe where everything is done to be nice to people.

  11. Radiant says:

    You should have asked them about Scientology.

    They run every new hire through ‘tology questionnaires.

  12. matrices says:

    Ugh, really? A references to Palestinians being like Nazis? I know the reference isn’t his own, but why would any thinking person today who knows anything about the Israeli occupation and colonization use that comparison?

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      It’s a comparison the Rote Armee Fraktion members made themselves when they were fighting alongside the Palestinians and found themselves killing Jews.

  13. shoptroll says:

    Thanks for the interview! Very cool stuff in here.