How did you get into the industry?
I was relatively old to get my start. I had always loved games, but never really understood that people made them. There was no known game industry at the time, games just sort of appeared on the shelf. There was no Internet, and not a lot of media to promote games. I never understood that there were teams of people who made these things. I was at a point in my career where I was becoming unhappy with what I was doing; I was a computer consultant in New York on Wall Street and I really didn’t enjoy it. I was almost 30, and I thought to myself, “What am I doing with my life? I need a career change to do something I actually enjoy.” I saw an add for a job at this company called Looking Glass that said game designer, and I was like, “Well, what’s that? It sounds good, whatever it is.” I applied for the job, interviewed with them, and for some reason they hired me, even though I had no prior experience. As soon as I walked in the doors, I knew that was the place I was meant to be. At Looking Glass, I worked on Thief, and then I left to form Irrational and we created System Shock 2 with Looking Glass.
What role did technology play in the difference between System Shock 2 and the first Bioshock?
I think the most important distinction was graphically. No matter how many wonderful ideas we had for visual storytelling in System Shock 2, we simply didn’t have the rendering power to visually present something that felt real. In Bioshock, we had assets that allowed us to make a visually complete space. So yes, the biggest change most definitely came in the form of technology and vastly improved visuals.
Bioshock Infinite exhibited incredible use of motion capture technology. What was it like working with that sort of technology?
I’d personally worked with motion capture technology on System Shock 2, but back then the technology and the engine were both very crude. Our animation director on Infinite, Shawn Robinson, led the motion capture process. We have a MOVEN suit in the studio, but for Elizabeth we worked with a motion capture studio at 2K. Mostly, Shawn would work over Skype with an actress named Heather Gordon, who was the likeness for Elizabeth, but not her voice. She was wonderful! She was able to express that character emotionally through her motion. Shawn and his team also did a great job. Some of it is down to technology, but a lot of it was based on performance, direction, and hard work.
What were some of the inspirations behind the setting, characters and religious undertones in the original Bioshock?
Obviously, Ayn Rand. Having read ‘The Fountain Head’, I found her philosophy interesting and lateral thinking. It was very individualist, and also very cold. I was attracted to the fact that in this philosophy, there was no boss; you were the boss – it didn’t ask for any subjugation. My thought experiment was taking a utopian ideal and seeing where that philosophy went and seeing where it might bump up against reality.
Rapture is located underwater, how did that come to be?
Before we even had Rapture as an objectivist philosophy utopia, we looked at what is an island. In reality, if you look at the Bioshock games and even the System Shock games, they all take place on a metaphorical island. An island is separate from the rest of the world. The reason I liked working in that space is because you could really create an environment and make it feel whole. I like the idea of a closed culture, where the culture could be this monoculture that took over. I also liked the idea of how ridiculous it was that he built these New York style buildings at the bottom of the ocean. It took a certain audacity to do that, like sticking your middle finger up to “God”. Ryan could say, “Screw you, I’m going to do it.” Because that’s part of Ryan’s philosophy – it is a bit of a “screw you” philosophy – he challenges accepted norms. The fact that Rapture was so outrageous was a challenge of an accepted norm; you don’t build Rockefeller Center at the bottom of the ocean.
Where did the idea of Columbia come from?
We just liked the idea that there was a city in the sky, because that notion was present in science fiction at the turn of the century. We also liked the idea that it was designed for everybody to see, unlike Rapture, which was hidden. Columbia was this idealized floating platform of American ideals. It was designed for people to point at and say, “Wow, that’s amazing!” It’s a showpiece, designed to be seen and to tour the world, like a traveling world’s fair. The idea that it was angelic, and city nestled in the clouds was part of it as well.
In high school English, we read ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’ and within the first few pages, I immediately thought of the Lutece twins. This is no coincidence, I assume?
The Lutece’s were a tricky character, and evolved very late into the development of the game. We knew we needed a character that had the job of explaining things and providing exposition and, to some degree, guiding Booker and Elizabeth. This character is usually the most boring character. He’s the old man who shows up and tells everybody what’s going on – it’s very difficult to do that character well. There are very rare exceptions, like Doc in Back to the Future. I really struggled with this character for a very long time. I’d always loved Tom Stoppard, including ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’, ‘Arcadia’, and ‘The Real Thing’. He just has this love of language and understanding of combining English and things like chaos theory (in Arcadia). What I liked most about ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’ was that you had these two characters that talked about impossibility – and were faced with it in a most simple form; the coin flip. That coin flip dictates that the world they’re in is not the world that WE perceive. I love the idea of these two characters who operated in a world that made sense only to them, but the only part that didn’t make sense was the language. A similar example is the Lutece twins’ “Dies, died, will die” and “he doesn’t row.” That was the first sequence I wrote for them, and when I wrote that line, I thought, ‘Ok, I know how to write these characters.’ They were able to use language to explain the absurdity of the world they’re in, and I love the love they have for each other, or themselves, depending on how you want to look at it. Obviously, there was a huge debt to Stoppard in coming up with those characters, and I seriously loved writing them!
Why the transition from a silent protagonist in System Shock 2 and Bioshock to a number of vocal protagonists in Infinite?
It was mostly that thought of ‘Well, we sort of did that already.’ So much of the first Bioshock’s narrative was that you were a non-entity, and we tried to leverage that in the story. Once we had done that, though, it was very hard to do that trick again. We really wanted to spread our wings, and the challenge in Infinite was creating an emotional relationship with another character that you cared about, meaning Elizabeth. To me, she is really the main character of Infinite, and in fact the primary mover of the whole Bioshock franchise. She was so important to us; we knew we needed Booker to speak in order for he and Elizabeth to have a meaningful relationship. Having a speaking main character never really worries me, because I’d worked on Thief, where we had a speaking protagonist. He had to be a little less formed than a typical character, as you sort of want the player to think about the characters’ thoughts and motivations.
The original Bioshock had multiple endings, and Infinite did not. Did that decision come late on in the process?
So, the idea for multiple endings in the original Bioshock actually came fairly late on at the request of the publisher. They did not at all push things creatively on us, but the multiple endings were where we compromised. I was not too keen on that idea. My concern was that I did not know how to write multiple endings, and to some degree the game to me was about the meaninglessness of the choice. It was strange to me that you could kill some Little Sisters and still get the good ending. Originally, I was going to have just one ambiguous ending. If I had to choose one, I definitely prefer the happy ending, because that was a beautiful sequence – and in Burial at Sea, Elizabeth (SPOILERS) dies to set that up. Going into Infinite, there was no question that there would only be one ending.
Was it difficult to marry the features of a first person shooter with the narrative element seen in the Bioshock games?
It was quite difficult! A lot of people wanted to experience the game only as a narrative, and the interactive component was one of the trickiest parts of the game. Finding a balance between narrative storytelling and first person shooter elements was challenging. My connection to Bioshock Infinite will always be to Elizabeth, and her whole journey through the game, Burial at Sea, and to some extent the original Bioshock.
The franchise is in many ways about how people take bad things that have happened to them and turn them into other bad things. Bolshevism destroyed Andrew Ryan’s life in the Russian revolution, and he creates Rapture, and an entirely different nightmare with that pain he felt. Daisy Fitzroy goes through something similar in Columbia. Elizabeth, though, takes her horrible experience, and turns her own exploitation for something good, to free others. To me, that’s a very positive story in a world of real violence. Usually, the violence and exploitation continues, but in Elizabeth’s case, it does not. (SPOILERS) Many people have expressed to me that Elizabeth’s death in Burial at Sea crushes them. But I think that if she didn’t make that sacrifice, the cycle would continue. She was willing to sacrifice everything to end that cycle.
You’ve referenced literature numerous times when talking about influences on both Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite. Apart from Ayn Rand and Tom Stoppard, what are some other literary influences?
The book I always go back to for the horror element from the original Bioshock is The Shining. They were also confined to a tight space – they’re snowed in at a hotel. They’re very much trapped in the past, I took a lot of that into account when writing the splicers. Also, living in both San Francisco and New York, I’ve seen a lot of mentally ill people sort of in a fugue state; they can’t perceive their surroundings, and are sort of living in a memory. You can’t help but feel terrible and compassionate when encountering these people, and I wanted to get that across with the splicers. I wanted the players to feel empathy.
Stylistically, the Coen brothers are superb in they’re films, and I wanted the game to have a compelling visual identity. Paul Thomas Anderson and Stanley Kubrick are in that same boat. In building up tension to action sequences, we oftentimes referenced Spielberg. The arrival of Songbird, for instance, is very Spielberg-ian in terms of setting up action and intensity and playing it out. We draw from so many other creators that it’s impossible to list them all, but we’re indebted to each and every one of them.
Talk about some of the science behind Bioshock Infinite, in particular the floating city and the distortion of time.
The floating city was a fanciful idea I had. If you took a point in space and kept that point constant in time and space, and then put something on top of it that wasn’t constant, would it hold up the non-constant thing? Essentially, the city, being non-constant, would endlessly be falling upon that constant point in space, which would catch it because it’s locked in space. I approached a friend of mine whose girlfriend is a physicist at MIT, and asked if we could chat about this idea. I threw this idea at her, and she did have some problems with it. One such problem was how would you build a structure that would hold up that point in space and wouldn’t collapse, and there was a lot of talk about magnets and things like that. I also saw this video with magnetic flux pinning, which is actually conceptually feasible. The quantum mechanics themselves were son interesting as well. There’s this thought experiment: you have this person on a plane, a 2D world, trying to imagine a sphere, and they would perceive this sphere as a circle. Quantum mechanics is similar, we can’t really perceive the many worlds that quantum theory suggests, but it makes for some great metaphor. From a conceptual and philosophical standpoint, this world where all the choices you have ever made and will ever make exist and have happened, is an interesting one. I’m sure we can all think of points in our life where we went left and could have gone right, and we imagine what would have happened. Well, what if the person who went left could meet the person who went right? They’re the same person, but they would be different, wouldn’t they? That sort of became the basis for Booker’s entire story. To learn that the person you’ve been fighting against this entire time is you, just a you that made a different choice, that’s huge. And then tying it all to this religious tone and the baptism – going into the water one man and coming out a different man. That’s the whole concept of a baptism; it’s a transformation. You come out a saved person. I always wondered, ‘Well, what happened to the guy in the water?’ We tied that with quantum mechanics, and it makes for an interesting story.
So, you must have brilliant ideas every day.
I wish I could say, ‘Yeah, sure I do’, but these ideas take a long time to develop. What happens is you have a lot of disparate idea, and you work with the team and talk to people, and some of those ideas spark other ideas. We had the concept of the floating city before we tied it to quantum mechanics. And we also had a character that could tear holes in time and space. Then we thought, ‘Well, wait a minute, could this be tied into why there’s a floating city in the first place?’ because at that point, we still didn’t know how the city would be held up. Booker even has a joke about it, he says, “Giant balloons?” and Elizabeth gives him a scientific explanation, and he says, “So, not giant balloons.” In our talks about how the city would be held up, we determined that there’s no practical explanation for it unless you start getting into things like quantum mechanics. Ideas start attaching to each other, and bigger ideas start forming, but they aren’t conceived all al once, and one person can’t conceive them all. It’s a process that takes time, and a group effort.
Recently, it came out that there was a Bioshock in the works for the Vita. What was your idea for that?
It’s weird, because I make these big narrative games, but really the games I play are turn-based systemic games. Things like Civilization and XCOM and Diablo are the games I play the most, and I love game like Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgea. I always wanted to make a game like that. Originally our game Freedom Force was going to be turn based, but the market at the time didn’t really seem to want that type of game. So, I though we would did this Final Fantasy Tactics style sort of game set in the battle between Ryan and Fontaine before the fall of Rapture. We wanted fans to be able to experience this not from a first person experience, but from a tactical standpoint. I was really excited about it, but unfortunately it didn’t pan out.
What’s next for Irrational Games?
Basically the goal is to make a game where the narrative is really replayable. That’s a super hard challenge. I don’t want to make a game with branching storylines, I want to make a game that is much more systemic, and the narrative is handled in a systemic fashion. We’re looking at games like Civilization and Crusader Kings II and how they handle their relatively crude narratives and that’s not meant as an insult, it’s just that the goal of those games is not a narrative experience. Imagine playing civilization, and Napoleon shows up, and you have a conversation. He says, ‘You know, I’m really pissed off about how you’re encroaching upon my border. Also, I really value our culture, and you seem to be stepping on our toes with the culture you’ve been building, and I don’t like that.’ But then you’re talking to Genghis Khan, and he says, ‘I really love the culture that you’re building, because we don’t have that and I find that very personally appealing. Maybe if you kick the Germans out of this area we can form some kind of alliance.’ Imagine the story you could develop from just the events that happen in a Civilization game. You’re playing one character off the other and as you make alliances with some characters, you piss off others. This brings personality into the game, and maybe Napoleon collects Magic cards, and you can go into the world and collect magic cards and give them to him, and that makes him happy. That would help calm his anger about your border dispute. But you could also give the cards to someone else, and there would be different results. Everything you do in real life is going to make some people happy, and piss other people off, sometimes you make multiple people happy, but it’s really bad for your wallet. You’re always balancing those things in life, and no game simulates this balance except those strategy games, but those don’t really have meaningful narrative. On a high level, that’s what we’re trying to do. We want your decisions to ripple out to other people in a systemic way. These are our goals, but we’re quite early on – although we do know what scenarios we want to model. And that word scenario, that’s a better way to address what we want to make. So, Game of Thrones is a really great scenario – the whole theme is everybody‘s trying to get the Iron Throne, and there’s a million different stories that branch from that. It’s no the story of one character like Bioshock was. It’s the story of a situation, and all the rippling effects of that. While that may remind you of a Telltale game, it’s not going to have a set number of states and it’s going to be gameplay oriented. It’s hard to explain, because there’s nothing quite like it out there, but those are our goals.
What are some of your favorite games?
I’ve mentioned Civilization and XCOM, and I also love a game called Dark Cloud 2, a lot of the Zelda games, Mario 64. The Looking Glass games are up there as well. I’m currently playing Risk of Rain and Diablo III, I really love systemic games. I have every system, even the Nvidia Shield – and I also play on my iPad and iPhone. I spend most of my time on my PC though.
What are your thoughts on the game industry, and what are some trends you see for the future?
There’s this great joke on 30 Rock where Dennis becomes a beeper salesman, and someone asks him, “Why are you selling beepers?” His response is that technology is cyclical, even though his friend is quick to dispute that and call him a moron! But, when you look at games, it is kind of cyclical, isn’t it? What are people playing again now? Artisanal little systemic PC games like Day-Z, Minecraft and Rust. Even League of Legends and DOTA are very old school in a lot of ways. There’s no way Steve Gaynor could have convinced someone 10-15 years ago to put Gone Home on the shelves, but he put it on Steam and kicked ass! And I’m sure now he could get it on the shelves because he’s proven that it’s an amazing game! You can have that kind of experimentation with digital distribution, and you couldn’t have that before. I think that’s the most exciting thing happening in games right now!
I think you’re spot on there! Someone asked me where I thought the industry was headed and I said smaller teams and more procedural systems.
You’re absolutely right! More systemic games, the right balance of procedural and hand crafted systems, and small teams are the future of gaming. Sometimes in development you have this giant team, and right after you’ve shipped a game, you don’t really have much time to begin working on the next game. Not only do you have people that need to be paid, as an employee, it’s demoralizing to have to come into work and do nothing while the boss figures out where you’re going next. Smaller teams help alleviate this problem. Also, I look with a certain degree of envy towards the film industry, because you can say “I want to work with that guy” and you can, without having to work at the same company as them. There are so many people I would love to work with in the games industry, but the industry itself doesn’t really work like that – and I hope one day it does!