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Games Have a Place to Critique Politics: Interview with Irrational’s Bill Gardner Part 2

BioShock Infinite has been played and reviewed industry-wide (ours is coming soon, I promise), and it’s been met with high scores across the board. In the second part of our interview with Bill Gardner from Irrational, we delve into what it took to get Infinite to its level of quality, as well as whether or not games are challenging their audiences enough.

I love BioShock’s illusion of freedom, straddling open-world and linear gameplay – what’s the best way to manage that balance?

I think that, certainly earlier on, you have that crucial information to get across, and you will find the world opens up considerably as you progress through the game, and you understand the core of the characters … what Booker’s and Elizabeth’s backstory is and their roles in the world. You understand the philosophies and all these different elements but you also understand the gameplay and how you’ve been introduced to the skyline and so on. These are brave and challenging topics to take on, so you will find, again, the game will open up a lot more as you go on. I think in terms of sheer vastness of the space, I would say Rapture pales in comparison in scope and depth as well. I think it’s very interesting figuring out what the right balance is between the, as you said, openness and making sure people understand where they’re supposed to be going and they’re properly debriefed on the critical information.

Do you think that the atmosphere has been weakened by the fast pace of the game?

We always try to…meticulously craft, if you will, the pacing. I think that it’s really all about balance. So there were definitely going to be some sequences that are fast and intense and things are going to be coming at you at light speed, and there’ll be other points that’ll slow down, have more of a BioShock 1 feel, like when you got into the Hall of Heroes. So there are things that will slow down, feel tighter and more claustrophobic and tell the story of the war veterans there. So yeah, I just think trying to find the right balance, again, we find that we just have to keep sculpting it till it’s right.

Do you think games will ever join the ranks of “movies as art?”

It’s a real interesting challenge because, to me, and I think you would agree, that games are art already. I think that’s what’s important, that we know it is. And I think, hopefully, with some of the work we’ve done with Infinite we’ll open up more eyes and turn more heads. I think there’s a lot more open here to interpretation. We have all these mysteries and all these questions to propose, and we answer them, but at the same time, I think art is about that interpretation. You mentioned the race issues earlier on, and I think those are great examples that there is this level of interpretation and discourse we want to engage with. There’s no question in my mind that games are art. I think you see more and more titles embrace games as art. There’s a huge indie movement going on right now, you see a lot of these interesting concepts that would never have occurred to me, certainly, but I think BioShock Infinite is hoping to ask big questions … it asks the gamer, those that are playing the game to immerse themselves in this world and ask these questions, and to challenge them, unlike a lot of other games.

Absolutely. There’s no question that Ken (Levine) is the chief visionary, as the Creative Director and also as the amazing force of nature. He doesn’t always necessarily know the path to get where he’s going, but he knows how to ask the questions, he knows how to direct, he knows how to tease the answers out and inspire, so I think that absolutely…sorry, what was the original question?

Oh yeah absolutely. But Ken’s always looking to be challenged, he’s always looking for ideas and feedback, given how deep the world is and rich it is, I know I keep saying that, but it does need all hands on deck and it does need to ask the level designers ‘what’s going on in this space?’ and to ask what Elizabeth is doing in this space and what Booker is doing in this space and sort of evolve the narrative and also evolve the world as we develop the game. So yeah, very collaborative, Ken gets right in the trenches with the level designers and developers and tries to work out the flow of the space to work out the gameplay and make sure it incorporates his narrative goal and make sure it incorporates his vision of what Columbia is. Everyone’s encouraged to contribute.

Elizabeth is incredibly eye-grabbing – do you think this strength will be a detriment to Booker’s average macho guy appearance?

Yeah, he’s got that full head of hair that I’ve kind of lost…

(Laughs) Well I think that, yeah, you know, you want your protagonist to be appealing. I think the key difference here is that Booker doesn’t have the screen time. We spent a tremendous amount of time and effort and energy into making Elizabeth not only a believable but also a lovable character. I think the attention to detail in the world is unparalleled, but the attention we put into Elizabeth, I think dwarfs that. Just getting her eyes to look right, not just the model, but the way that they move, the way that they track items in the world, the way that she’s watching but doesn’t look for too long, and they can carry her mood and her expressions.

And all these things that you think, I mean we’ve got great animators, but you quickly realise you need a lot more tech than you thought, you need a lot more work from the narrative team to really focus on ‘what’s the mood we’re trying to sell in this space and how can we reflect that in Elizabeth … so if Booker were on screen it’s possible we probably would have had to do the same thing, but I think that what this question really comes down to is “who is on screen?”, and I think that Booker, in terms of his richness and originality comes across, I hope, in his narrative as you unravel his backstory.

Be sure to stay tuned for our review of BioShock Infinite landing shortly!

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