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Interview: BioShock Infinite designer on utopias and dystopias

Bill Gardner talks extremism, narrative design and why realism reigns supreme

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Regarding plausibility, it's very common for FPSs to aim for realism and authenticity, and yet video games are capable of creating worlds that no other medium can, like Columbia for instance. Why do you think there's such a focus on authenticity among most shooters? Why is realism so important?

It's a really good question. I think from my perspective, it's maybe because there's a misconception that that's what gamers want and that's all they want. And to some degree it's true: you get the latest drivers and the latest video cards and you really want to show what your beast can do. So what better way to do that than to say "hey this is New York City!" and to show the latest greatest game with all the settings cranked up. Realism sells that, I think.

You look at Elizabeth, and she's by no means super ultra photorealistic. That's not our goal, it's about making her relatable and believable and lovable. I think there's plenty here [in Infinite] that would make you want to crank up the graphics card all the way and crank up all the options, but I think as an industry it's the misconception [that gamers want realism] mixed with taking the easy road.

It's by no means easy trying to create photorealistic graphics, but if you're trying to strive for that goal and to also mix in a crazy aesthetic that may be the exact juxtaposition to photorealistic? Yeah, I can see how that would be a hurdle for you. Certainly it's an interesting quest to try to get photorealism, but it's just not something that we're interested in.

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So the quest for realism and authenticity reflects our desire to get the most out of technology?

I know that there is a part of me that is interested in that chase. Not in the work we do at Irrational, but I'm interested in that pursuit because I want to see games evolve, and I think as we're able to prove the limits or reach the limits of the graphical capabilities of PCs and consoles, I think that that is another step that allows us to say "okay, we can move on and explore other things as well". We can explore different aesthetics. I think it's a noble pursuit but it's not something we're interested in doing ourselves.

Has Irrational spoken about Oculus Rift?

I'm excited about it just as a gamer, but we haven't really announced anything and we're not really talking about anything.

BioShock is often held up as a prime example of the seamless mix of storytelling and gameplay. Do you think storytelling will continue to be an imperative moving forward, considering the growth of mobile and other industry developments?

Absolutely. You're right though - there is a tremendous amount of change in the air and a tremendous amount of innovation in mobile gaming. But what's interesting right now is that things are expanding. We have opportunities for different kinds of gameplay and different types of audiences. I think video games are rich enough that you don't have to say you either have to go AAA or mobile.

They can co-exist and feed off one another, and in some cases they can interact with one another. In terms of storytelling, it seems like the AAA space with consoles and PC games and cutting technology games, that seems like the most natural fit because of the scope and the scale and the investment from the player, the amount of time you can sit down and invest yourself in the characters and pace things out.

On the other hand, it's difficult to tell a story if you're going to be playing for 30 seconds between bus stops. That's not to say there is untilled earth there, I think there's definitely opportunity in the mobile space to introduce that, and to some degree you already see it. Obviously with Infinite and what we're currently working on at Irrational, this is the right space for us and there is a tonne of opportunities still left. I hope that people see new avenues when they experience Booker and Elizabeth.

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What do you hope that modern players will take from the story?

The big take away is what you take in with you. There's a very clear perspective here, but there's a tremendous amount of interpretation that the game is open up to. Particularly when you play all the way through. Ken and the narrative team, and the team in general, have gone to a lot of effort to make sure we answer all the questions, and that the amount of detail is there, and that everything is rich, lived in and believable.

In terms of the overall message, that will become clear when you make it all the way through, but the themes remain very true to what the first BioShock was about, which is extremism - about taking an idea that is sound on its own, but if you take it too far it's very ugly. You go from Utopia to Dystopia. That's what's interesting to Ken and the team - to take something that can be beautiful and push it out.

Look at the example of Comstock's faith: there's a lot of really amazing parts in there, the community, the forgiveness and all these different parts that are very warm and endearing, but he pushes it too far. It's the same way with Andrew Ryan - objectivism, that's in itself a relatively extreme belief, but the heart of it, which is again about what's mine is mine, and is a man not entitled to the sweat on his own brow - that's appealing I think.

But again, when Andrew Ryan builds Rapture and you look at the way it's split - the rich are with the rich and the poor with the poor, and people are dying in the street - that's incredibly ugly. We really wanted to pose questions for the player and let him decide, but that's definitely a recurring theme in BioShock games.

Columbia is quite ethereal and beautiful. In contrast, the first death is incredibly ugly and jarring.

That's important. With Rapture you never really got to see the world in its heyday, you didn't see it when it was a Utopia. In Columbia you're there - and you're walking the streets, you get to experience it. And there's a sadness when it's lost, when you look behind the curtain and realise there's ugliness there, and you're woken from the dreamlike trance. Ken is always talking about the style of narrative of slowly pacing things out, mixed with that Kubrickian or Lynchian dreamlike quality. But then you see a little bit of the ugliness. To have that wakeup call is important.

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