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INTERVIEW: BioShock Infinite and the problem of history

What does a videogame have to say about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair? I spoke with BioShock Infinite design director Bill Gardner about the problems of putting history in a videogame.

Early last week, some Australian journalists, myself included, played through the first four hours of BioShock Infinite in at an event held in Sydney’s Town Hall. Midway through my session I was also able to interview the game’s director of design, Bill Gardner. The transcript of our chat follows below.

I focussed mainly on the historic influences of BioShock Infinite, as much has been made of the game’s use of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and other events such as the Massacre at Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion in China. Gardner was kind enough to talk about the historical influences of the game, but many significant questions about the game remain open, in my mind.

In particular, the use of Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion in one sequence (which I had not encountered when I spoke to Gardner) left me feeling unsettled and apprehensive about the game’s approach to real-life events. BioShock is a series that many hold up as an example that mainstream, expensive videogames can still do things right, but with BioShock Infinite, the evidence of this is not yet clear.

I have more thoughts on BioShock Infinite coming soon. For now, this interview deals with some initial questions.

 

Dan Golding: I wanted to talk about the history of the game, the setting of it. Obviously the main thing is the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Can we talk about that?

Bill Gardner: There’s a big part of the team that’s really enamored with the time period. We have a lot of history buffs on the team, Ken [Levine, creative director] being one of them, of course. The turn of the century has always been a topic of discussion in the office, and a point of fascination. There’s a natural draw to that location or that timeframe for when we were talking about where to set BioShock Infinite.

So 1893, the Chicago’s World Fair, man, oh man. It was a showcase of so much that was going on in the world, of the amazing feats that were being pulled off, seemingly every day. The world was constantly changing, with all the new technologies. The airplane, the fascination with flight, the sort of naive belief that everything was going to be in the sky.

We were talking about setting BioShock Infinite in a city in the sky, and our artists dug up some art from the time period, that was supposed to be a vision from the future, and they actually had floating cities, and I was like ‘Holy shit, that’s it, we’ve got to do that’.

Then again, the time period had all the strife, all the political upheaval, the social changes that were going on, mixed with the technology, with everything coming to a head, right before World War One. It was an amazing time, I argue the most amazing time in history, and I think most of the people on the team would agree. It was a no-brainer [to set BioShock Infinite there].

DG: With the political themes that came out of the World’s Fair—just playing through, there’s the idea of Columbia as a ‘New Eden’ in the game already. If you take the Columbian Exposition, with the historian Frederick Jackson Turner proclaiming the end of the Frontier at the exposition, are we talking about Columbia as a new Frontier for America?

BG: Absolutely. With BioShock, there’s a level of interpretation when you look to history, when you look to all of our inspirations that come up, hopefully, in the game. But also there’s the unique things that we’re doing with the story—there’s so much to discover there.

This is what excites me the most, to hear this level of interpretation, this level of discourse. But absolutely, it’s safe to say there isn’t a single square inch that hasn’t been thought about in how it ties into the overall narrative, in how it ties into the story we’re trying to tell. Columbia is meticulously crafted.

So the themes, going back to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, of all of the sources of inspiration, that is probably the truest, the one we continually looked back to. But there’s such a wide array of inspirations in this game, I think it’s impossible … with the exception of that one source, it’s next to impossible to say ‘this means that one thing’.

DG: Well what are some of the other inspirations?

BG: Well we’re very much students of the media. I think a lot of games tend to draw from the same inspirations, the same sorts of movies over and over again. With us, it’s always changing, it’s always a wide array of things.

Let’s put aside history for a moment. There’s tonal inspiration, like from Spielberg, in the way he builds up pacing, and tension, like the boat scene in Jaws. Then there’s everyone from Soderbergh, the Coen brothers … those I guess aren’t all that diverse, I guess, they come from the same sort of philosophies there, in terms of how they build up their narratives.

I’m trying to think of something a bit more ‘out there’… like, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, you know? We looked to that for costume inspiration, and the car itself, in the industrialised world. So it’s all over the place.

DG: I noticed in the game that some of the women’s outfits in the posters are sort of Gibson Girl-esque?

BG: Sure. I’ve heard that thrown around a bunch. My fashion design comes from Project Runway, [laughs] so I’m very modern in that regard!

In terms of the specifics of the dress of the time, one of the challenges of this project is trying to stay true to the time in terms of the aesthetic, but also trying to make it fresh and make it appealing to today’s aesthetic. You can’t just do a straight retelling of it.

Look at Elizabeth’s outfit. Originally we had a very different outfit for her, and it was a little bit more true to the period. And I thought, ‘a user is going to look at this and be like, why the hell would I want to hang around with her?’ She wasn’t attractive at all. Revisiting that to keep it true to the time, but also so it has a little bit of appeal to the modern eye.

Same thing with the architecture, with the dress… it’s not just a straight retelling. Look at this room [Gardner gestures to the neo-classical vault that we are sitting in at the basement of Sydney's Town Hall]. This is 1890s or so, but it’s … kind a boring! [laughs] So we’re just trying to walk that line.

DG: With Elizabeth’s dress—did you change that?

BG: There’s two dresses. There’s one that comes in later in the game that I think we’ve shown in trailers. There’s the another one in the beginning of the game here [that journalists had been playing that morning] that was changed.

DG: So going back to the setting—I think the architecture and the design of the game is amazing, but where does the violence sit with that? Because it’s quite a gory sort of game.

BG: We’ve had conversations about this, and we had extended debates about this with the first BioShock. The reason we were okay with it in BioShock Infinite, was, that if you think about the time period, things were brutal. You think about this stark reality, you think about getting your arm caught, in the gears of a conveyer belt, or an assembly line, or what have you, it’s brutal. We wanted to capture that brutal reality and contrast it with this idyllic vision. It was something that we were able to justify and that made sense for the game.

Frankly, there’s also the element of, as a gamer, I play everything. I find it very rewarding to be able to get that hit reaction, when you’re hit with a melee weapon, and there’s a variety of reactions that can happen there. Obviously it comes down to that, that it wasn’t a stretch. The gamer will be the final arbiter of that.

DG: In terms of the historical context for that, I’ve heard Wounded Knee mentioned in the game already—I don’t know how much of a role that plays in the game…

BG: If you go back, you’ll see it more and more as part of Booker’s history…

DG: He’s not a Native American character, though, is he?

BG: I shouldn’t answer that, just for the sake of spoilers. That will be answered for sure.

But it is an important part of his history. It’s interesting, because there’s history, and there’s Columbia’s history. You have to sort of peer through the veil of Columbia’s propaganda in the game.

But it is an alternate reality, obviously there was no Columbia at all. There was no Columbia that interceded with the Boxer Rebellion, but Columbia basically ended that encounter. That was part of the reason that Columbia succeeded from the Union, from America, because they overstepped the bounds, and put an end to it with violence.

DG: That’s an interesting choice, the Boxer Rebellion. I was surprised that the War in the Philippines didn’t play a similar role in the game. Or maybe it does?

BG: I would say play the game…

DG: Okay.

BG: Not quite the same as the Boxer Rebellion and Wounded Knee, but there’s reference to a lot of these events. More in spirit, really.

I mean, in a lot of ways, Columbia is the ‘Great White Fleet’, you know, that showing of American might and ingenuity, and military power, so I think it’s more in spirit, I would say, with the Philippines.

DG: Okay. So the interesting thing about my play this morning is that, I play games, I’m totally fine with violence. But I’m also really excited by history, and I want to show friends the setting of the game, the way it’s really evocative of history. But at the same time, I’d probably shirk away from doing that, just because of the violence. What do you think of that tension?

BG: That’s interesting.

So, two things. Number one, obviously it’s a shooter, so there’s going to be violence. In terms of the over-the-top violence, the executions, the thought there was that you can opt out there, or opt in. It’s important to stick to the BioShock philosophy of letting players approach the experience how they want, whether it’s talking about their tools, figuring out which tools are right for each combat situation, or with the options. We have the option to lower the gore, and we have the option to opt out of using executions.

So yeah, I’m sensitive to that. We have to stick true to a, that’s a shooter, and b, that we have a specific story to tell, and that we decided early on that it was right for the tone that we thought.

But yeah, I think it would be a shame if someone thought that it was too much, and that they couldn’t enjoy the game because of it. But ultimately, there’s enough—hopefully!—in the game, and in the world, and in the richness of the world that people can look past the violence.

DG: And you’re right in that there is some historic justification for violence. I’ve also read that The Devil In The White City is an influence? With H. H. Holmes, the serial killer in Chicago during the fair…

BG: I didn’t even know about him until I read the book, I was like, ‘holy shit’. I actually spend a lot of time researching serial killers, and I hadn’t even heard of him! But yeah, The Devil in the White City is a huge influence. Mostly tonally, just to get the voice right, and what was going on in the world, and to immerse people in the world. But yeah, amazing story.

DG: Absolutely. I’m just reading it at the moment, actually. The other thing is, of course, that the Mayor of Chicago was assassinated only a few days before the end of the Exposition.

BG: Yeah, I know right? Unbelievable. The way things are set up in the book too, like the building of the Ferris Wheel, this monolithic structure.

DG: Was that a mechanical influence? With the transit system throughout the city of Columbia, is that where that comes from?

BG: Believability is a very important part of a BioShock world. Trying to make the skylines believable was a very difficult part to get right. So yeah, it was definitely looking at the architecture of the time, of the trams of the time, at Ferris Wheels, and even roller-coasters.

I mean, do you know where the baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, got their name from?

DG: No.

BG: They had street cars at the time in Brooklyn, and the lines they had that powered them, overhead, would occasionally fire bursts of electricity off them. And occasionally, people were hit in the street! So people in Brooklyn would dodge them, and so they called the team the Brooklyn Dodgers after that.

Again, though, it speaks to the brutal nature of the technology of the time, going back to what we were saying about the violence. But the technology was amazing, too. The craft that went into things was amazing, but it was so dangerous, too.

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