January 10, 2013

Bioshock's Lead Writer spills on the new game

1UP has a pretty sweet interview with Bioshock Infinite's lead writer, Drew Holmes. He's chats freely about the game, here's some of the choice bits from the interview.


Elizabeth Cosplay
1UP: And also... The game is more up-front than anything in BioShock, just in terms of giving you this mystery right up front with flashbacks. Or flash-forwards or flash-sideways...
1UP: Yeah. Where you see airships bombarding New York City. Can you talk about how you've built those into the fabric without breaking the immersion?

1UP: How long have you been with the project? Have you been with BioShock since the start?

Drew Holmes: I started back in March. I came from Volition. They gave me a call and they said, "Hey, do you want to come check out the game?" Because Ken [Levine] was... I think he quickly realized that the scope of Infinite, especially from a writing standpoint, was going to be so much larger than BioShock. The Boardwalk level of the game... That script alone is two to three times the size of all of BioShock. As you start to get into the world and explore it... Just having a fully living world this time around, a place that's not dead... We had to populate that. We got a pretty sizable writing team. There's Ken. There's myself. We had Jordan Thomas, who worked on BioShock and BioShock 2. He's at 2K Marin. He came in to help flesh out that story. Joe Fielder, too. It's been a massive undertaking. The script is just hundreds and hundreds of pages long. It's huge.

1UP: You said you wanted the world to be "living." The part that I've played so far, the first hour and a half or so... There are a lot more people. You're not behind glass walls. But it still feels like you're separate from them. They're all doing their own thing. Does that change later in the game? Do people have more interactive incidents?

DH: When you first get into Columbia, I think we wanted to set the tone of... Booker is still feeling his way around the city. It helps to make you feel a little bit more like an outsider. The people of Columbia are there to give background on the city and the beliefs of Comstock and his founders. It helps people immerse themselves in the mythology of the world. Then, as you progress through the game, you'll meet new characters that will crop up and you'll have interactions with them.

1UP: Having come in to the game some time this year, how much of it -- the plot overall, the story, the main, core dialogue -- was set in stone? How much influence have you had, or what kind of role have you had with that part of the game?

DH: My role has really been to help get a lot of the scenes done. When I came on board, the world was there, obviously. Columbia has been around a long time. The main characters were there. A lot of the plot was there. Ken knew where he wanted it to go. It was just a matter of, "Okay, let's actually start putting words on the page and getting stuff recorded."

One of the really cool things about Irrational is the level of iteration that happens. Good writing is always about rewriting. I think Ken, being a writer first and foremost, understands that the way to make great art is to continually iterate on it. The way that Irrational tells their stories, through first-person environments with no cutscenes, helps sort of. You want to keep that immersive quality. You're not having to lock yourself into cinematics that have to be done months and months in advance. It allows the story to be more flexible, and it allows you to tweak and make significant changes a lot later than in other games.

1UP: The question I was leading up to was... With so many high-concept similarities, how do you come into that and say, "Okay, we have these things, and conceptually, fundamentally they're similar, but this is something different"? How do you express that? How do you define that?

DH: We feel that there are two main pillars as to what constitutes a BioShock game. The first is the setting. Rapture was very much a character in BioShock. The same thing with Columbia.

Irrational's goal is to build these very deep, complex, immersive worlds that you can just spend hours exploring every nook and cranny in. Making sure that everything has a story. That's constantly drilled at the company. What is the story? What is the story? If I walk into a store, we don't want to just have this plain, dull... Everything should be like, "Who lives here? What did they do? What happened the moment before you got here?" Combat should... You should come up on people who are talking about things that are relevant to the world and relevant to the plot, so that you feel like you are constantly being fed information through the gameplay, through exploration, rather than just having to sit still and have someone talk to you about what's happening in the game.

The other BioShock pillar is the suite of abilities that we give to players. We empower people to adapt to whatever play style they want. In BioShock it was the plasmids and the weapons. You learned how to use those in different combinations. The goal for Infinite was to expand on that set. Now we've got the Vigors, we've got a new weapon set, you've got Liz, who is a huge gameplay element. She can not only open Tears for you, which will really change the landscape of the battle. But she's going to be watching you in combat. If you run low on ammo, she's going to be ready to toss you ammo packs so you don't have to stop fighting and go scavenging for ammo. She's going to toss you salts if you run out of salt on your Vigor. She'll toss you health if you run low on health.

On top of that, you've got the Skyline system. Now it's no longer just moving from corridor to corridor very cautiously like it was in BioShock. Now, if you want, you can hop on the Skyline and zip around and use the tears to distract the AI while you go up and get a great sniper position. There's a broad toolset available to players. We've got gear on top of that that's really going to help you to find and experiment with different play styles. You can gear your guy up to take on those combats in the way that you want.

1UP: I'm listening to what you're talking about in terms of game design. So far, what I've seen has been somewhat different than that. It's been much more linear. I've just gotten the Murder of Crows. I've gotten three Vigors and all of them were lined up for me. I've gotten two weapons and those were lined up for me. I've gotten two Tears. Those were lined up for me. It's all been pretty straightforward. Go to the store, etc.... At some point, does that change?

DH: Yeah. The important thing, especially when you're dealing with such complex interactive systems that we have... It's important that players get a feel for those elements before they start to combine them. Early on, in these first couple of hours... Like Ken said in the initial demo, it does start off as a slow burn. We don't want to just throw people into a gameplay system that they don't understand. If they're confused, we've lost them. They don't want to play anymore. I think you see, as we showed in that later gameplay demo... When you have this broad suite of abilities available to you, you've been taught over the course of the game how to use those, so that then you can start to experiment.

1UP: One narrative mechanical change I've noticed in the game, over the original BioShock, is that respawning isn't really mentioned in the story. When you die you just go back to a checkpoint. It doesn't have the Vita-Chambers. Can you talk at all about the change that happened there?

DH: The respawn mechanic is still there. When you die, you'll come up in this little office area and you'll walk outside. So as you play through the game, that mechanic is still heavily ingrained in the narrative. But we're a little more... It's more mysterious at first. That's something that starts to become apparent as you play through the game.

So that mechanic is still there. It has been tweaked a little bit. When you die, there will be a penalty. It'll cost you a bit of money to respawn. Death doesn't feel cheap. You can't power through the game like you could in BioShock, where death really didn't matter because you could come back and fight...

1UP: But if you're fighting a Handyman and you die and you pay to respawn, you'll go back to him and he'll still have health...?

DH: It depends on the difficulty level. On the harder difficulty levels, when you respawn, he'll get some health back. If you're playing on Easy... Irrational is very good about making sure that people who just want to have the experience of the game can do that without being challenged too much. We're making sure that Easy mode is really for the casual fans who want to experience the story. But for the harder difficulties, the respawn is going to come with some serious penalties. In 1999 mode, if you hit that penalty of death and you don't have enough money, you don't have enough stuff to revive yourself, you're going to get kicked back to the main menu. It's set up to be a very hardcore, old-school mode.

1UP: I'm curious where you draw the line -- maybe personally, but also as a team -- between making a statement and setting up a straw man. I love BioShock, but I do feel that Andrew Ryan is a little bit kicking-the-dog when it comes to Objectivism and that sort of thing. It's kind of an easy target. It's amusing to play, but... I'm curious to know how you find the balance there with a game like this. Clearly it's making some statements.

DH: The statements that we are or are not making... We do our best to leave that up to the interpretation of the player. Going back to BioShock, you hear... A lot of people saw it as a criticism of Objectivism and Rand. There were people on both the right and the left that said "This is a championing of our beliefs." I don't think Ken was making a statement either way. He was just saying, "This is the facts of this universe. This is what Rapture was built on." It allows players to interpret that as they see fit.

I don't think that Infinite is any different. There are certainly strong religious themes. There are strong racial politics, because of the time period that it's set in. I think as long as you are true to the time period that you've decided to place your game in... If we set this game in 1912 and we didn't bring up the racial politics of the time, it would feel cheap. Immediately we would start to lose players through that. We want to immerse them in this time period. If we're not willing to go head-on with the big topics, then we're doing a disservice to ourselves and to our fans.

comstock poster from bioshock

1UP: You mentioned the religious themes and imagery. When you first come to Columbia, the first thing you see is a cathedral, the churches. But there's not really any specific religion being referenced. It's totally divorced from Christianity, despite using all the iconography of Christianity. Instead, it's this religion built around the Founding Fathers of America.

DH: Everything is focused around Comstock, who is the founder of the city and is their prophet. Everything is centered around his beliefs. He has a very specific belief system that he has crafted over time. As you play the game and you find his audiobook logs and his sermons that he's left, you get a sense of his character and his reasons why he has done the things that he's done.

I think the greatest antagonists, the greatest villains... Nobody ever truly views themselves as evil. The greatest villains, throughout the history of storytelling... They're doing these horrible things, but they view themselves as doing the right thing in their twisted minds. Comstock is no different. He has these dark philosophies about the world, but we show his reasoning behind them and the way that he's twisted his own viewpoint of the world to make him a much more complex and interesting villain.

You want your villain, the bad guy, to be interesting and complex, because then it's that much more rewarding when the hero defeats him.

1UP: Something I thought was also interesting about this game, compared to BioShock... BioShock could be set in the real world, for all intents and purposes. It's self-contained and isolated. But already I'm seeing that that's not the case with Columbia. That during the Boxer Rebellion, the whole city flew over to China and bombarded Peking. Can you speak to that at all?

DH: Some of that is... The answers will have to be delivered by experiencing the gameplay. We don't want to divulge too many secrets.

1UP: But unlike Lost, this starts in a church, rather than ending there... [laughter] Actually, as soon as I asked that, I realized that I have seen little hints of strange mysteries about perception and reality and those sorts of things. I guess I can maybe see where that might be going. Who knows? There's the mysterious couple with the British accents who are having you toss coins...

DH: Yep, yep.

DH: Both: Flash-somethings. [laughter]

DH: It goes back to... BioShock starts with the plane crash. You land in the middle of nowhere. The whole story was built around not knowing what was going on. That was central to Jack's story. This time around, that's not the case. You start the game off in the rowboat. You are going through Columbia for a specific purpose. It was important for us to get a lot of the questions -- in terms of who Booker is, what is he doing there and why -- out of the way, so that we weren't dealing with any sort of, "Oh, this is just going to be the exact same story as BioShock." It's not. It's very different. We wanted to make sure that players had an understanding of where we were starting and where we were going, but still keeping those mysterious hooks that are going to pull you along. We tell you Booker is on a mission to go get Elizabeth, to wipe away his debt. But it's unclear as to who sent him, or why exactly he's the one that's being sent on this mission. Those are the things you'll discover as you play the game.