A boy dancing around the streets of Paris waving a baguette over his head in BioShock Infinite holds a surprising amount of secrets and stories. Over the weekend, the former Irrational developer who placed the meme-ified Baguette Boy in Binfinite's Burial At Sea expansion explained why he's there. It's an interesting story about how weird game development it is, how weird games themselves are as technical objects, and about creativity within technical constraints.
Like a lot of good stories on the Internet, it started with razzing:
random sensory flashback to the Bioshock Infinite DLC where they wanted to communicate to the player "you are in Paris, France" so they put a little kid in the game dancing around in the street while holding a baguette over his head pic.twitter.com/E77jzW0Air— Pocklecool (@instant_grat) February 4, 2022
With this tweet blowing up, someone tagged in Gwen Frey, who was behind Baguette Boy when she worked at Irrational. She went on to explain the birth of bread-bearing boogieboy in a Twitter thread.
Frey explained that part of her work on Binfinite and its DLC was placing all the background characters. Because every character comes at a performance cost, many of these were "chumps" without AI, without the ability to pathfind around, just bodies looping animations with a few flourishes like voice lines.
Wanting to add more motion to the scene but not having the performance leeway for another AI walking around, she "figured a chump running in a circle around that cylinder could work since I could just expand the collision of it to prevent the player from running through them." She hit upon the idea to re-use an NPC animation from the scene where NPCs dance around Elizabeth in Battleship Bay, using kids because "a couple randomly dancing seemed dumb."
But, she explains, "the kids had different proportions than the adults, so the kids' feet were clipping through the ground and their hands were going through each other," she said. And trying to use inverse kinematics to make their arms reach the same positions as the adults made them raise their hands way up high. A simple solution:
"So I deleted the boy's dancing partner and attached a baguette to his hands. Bam! Boy dances with baguette! Ship it!
"I figured if anyone asked I'd just say "bread is great right?!" I didn't think anything of it at the time, but this boy is the most viral thing I've ever made."
Video games are magic held together with sticky tape and hope. I didn't remember even seeing Baguette Boy myself but apparently he's striking enough to have been cosplayed:
the baguettes fall apart in my hands every time i wear him pic.twitter.com/XSx3HZHHPs— nat (@bird__king) February 5, 2022
Elsewhere in the thread, she explains that during development, Irrational Games restructured the team to be organised into multidisciplinary "Squads" each focused on a particular aspect of the game, each with a Squad leader. So the Liz Squad, for example, had a programmer, writer, designer, and so on who handled everything to do with superpowered sidekick Elizabeth.
Frey handled chumps all by herself so she was Squadless, until the company wanted to "reward" a writer for his good work by making him a Squad leader. The unnamed writer was told he'd become leader of a newly formed Chump Squad, Frey said, and would take over the chump work she'd been doing. You know, rather than the writing he'd been doing, and was ostensibly being rewarded for.
"The writer freaked out," Frey said. "He wanted to write, not do this stuff! Also, everyone knew that I did this stuff!" So after he protested, Frey thought she would become Chump Squad lead. Alas, it wasn't to be, and rather than give Frey a Chump Squad of her own, they created a new title for single-person roles and declared her Chump Czar. This would be Irrational's only Czar.
"Years later I founded a company as a solo dev, and I thought about calling it 'Chump Czar'... but I don't want to be solo! I want to have a team some day, ya know?" she concluded.
"So I created 'Chump Squad.' I figured I didn't get my squad in AAA so I'd make it myself."
Given some of the behind-the-scenes stories which have trickled out of Irrational over the years, sometimes it's surprising the studio held together as long as it did. Trying to reward a writer by promoting them to a wholly different role they don't want to do, and downplaying the person who had been doing that work, is amazing. A recent report by Bloomberg claimed that troubles continue at Irrational head Ken Levine's new studio, Ghost Story Games.
In 2019, Take-Two announced a new BioShock being made by another studio, Cloud Chamber. Alice Bee will tell you BioShock 4 should let you fire an albatross from your hand.