Monday, March 14, 2011

PAX East 2011: From Background To Center Stage: Building Game Worlds As Main Characters

Irrational Games is one of few developers that hold a distinct grip on creating unique and memorable game worlds. In System Shock 2, the game took place on a faster than light military spacecraft. In BioShock, the underwater city of Rapture captured the imagination and wonder of growth during the 1960s in a dystopian setting of degradation and madness. BioShock Infinite, their upcoming title, is set in the city of Colombia, a city built in the clouds set in 1912. While the game may not take place in the same setting or feature the same characters as BioShock, it features the same themes and ideas about a failed utopia.

Some of the developers working on BioShock Infinite took time out of their schedule to appear at PAX East 2011 in Boston, Mass. this weekend on a panel titled, “From Background To Center Stage: Building Game Worlds As Main Characters.” The panel was moderated by Julian Murdoch and consisted of Irrational team members Ken Levine, Co-Founder of Irrational Games and Creative Director, Shawn Robertson, Lead Artist, Nate Wells, Art Director, and Stephen Alexander, Senior Effects Artist.

The first slide to be shown is seen above. It’s a representation of one of their meetings, where one team member suggested throwing out all the rules that made a BioShock game BioShock. Rather than go for another game underwater, they came up with creating a city in the clouds. They knew the city would play a big role in the game. Their previous experience with BioShock showed them exactly how powerful a setting could be when perfectly detailed and matched to the characters and narrative.

From there, they began shooting different ideas on creating the look and feel of the city. They all agreed that the turn of the century would be the best period for the game. Levine talked about their use of art deco in BioShock and instead began looking at the art nouveau movement. The visuals of that style led them to posters and paintings of the 1893 world’s fair, where American exceptionalism was at an all time high. He talked about how in the span of about 20 years, Americans saw the invention of electricity, phones, cars, movies, and planes. Speculative science fiction art began to depict new ways of living and he postulated that if you asked someone during that time period if in 10 years could they see themselves living in the sky, they probably would have said yes. That idea began to shape the narrative, creating a dichotomy of technologists vs. luddites, and then eventually morphing into what the story is today.

The look of Colombia was also important to make strikingly different from Rapture. The team showed a rough first draft of a city in the clouds, emitting a dark ominous feel that they felt matched too closely to Rapture. Instead, they went for a visual style they described as July 4th blue, which features more light and sky than in any previous Irrational game. This only seems logical seeing as the game is set in a city in the clouds, but this was also one of their challenges. How do have the main character moving from place to place in a city with no ground?

What they came up with was the above; a rail system called skylines that connected between buildings, allowing the rider to jump from raid to rail, creating a fun experience that makes sense story-wise. The time period saw a big push in industrial transportation, so taking the idea of trains and putting them in the sky between buildings as a way to transport items and other objects made sense. Once a mocked up version was created, the concept was brought in and shown during the 10 minute gameplay demo released back in September. After its implementation, Levine said it recreated the feel they wanted, which was that of a visceral roller coaster with a gun.

The subject of cinematics was brought up and the team agreed that they feel too jarring. They take the player out of the experience and into a passive watching mode, which clashes with the medium of video games as an interactive experience. The team cited Half-Life as a big inspiration for this, and pointed out a few ways they think they improved upon them. In BioShock, players experienced everything from their own perspective, but as opposed to Half-Life and Half-Life 2, Irrational put every story point at a T intersection. They wanted to put the action and story right in front of the player, not to the side or behind. If the player isn’t looking in a particular direction, they could miss the story beats that drive the rest of the game. This was also one of their challenges in BioShock Infinite because of the game space. You aren’t confined to small corridors underwater, but in open landscapes in the sky, where things take place above, below and all around you.

The last point they touched on was the believability of the game and story. They confessed that it's one thing to let yourself go in a city floating in the sky where people shoot fire from their hands, but it’s the small details that make that setting believable. One of the reasons people believed in Rapture, they said, was because you could go into someone’s living room and it looked like someone’s living room. It's one of the things they were working on since System Shock 2 where, for example, they showed a pool table surrounded by bags of potato chips and bottles of liquor. They compared these types of things to other games were crates were lying around lifelessly. They concluded by saying that pool table gives background context; the other is just a crate.

If you want to watch the whole panel, you can view the video at BioShock Infinite is being developed for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC, and is looking at a 2012 release.

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