Interview: Irrational Games’ Shaun Elliott

Back in summer of 2007 Irrational scooped up countless plaudits and awards with its gloomy yet inspired first-person shooter BioShock. After almost six years they’ve returned with BioShock Infinite. We sat down with level designer Shaun Elliott to discuss how Irrational has gone about succeeding BioShock, the seemingly dramatic shift in tone and how the team has created a relatable AI in Elizabeth.

BioShock Infinite

The original BioShock was a huge success both critically and commercially, how did you go about developing Infinite after that?

Right off the bat, as soon as we started putting pre-production ideas together, we knew that we wanted something that felt like a spiritual successor to the original game but didn’t bind us to any of the specific aspects of it. Whether it was gameplay or a mechanic, the specifics of the fiction or the history, we wanted to pave the way for us to do whatever we wanted with Infinite.

At the very beginning a couple of ideas stood out. We’d all read the book Devil in the White City and its depiction of the 1983 Chicago World’s Fair was really interesting. We looked at it and thought it was kind of like a BioShock city. There was something about the time period where it had enough in common with Rapture – the idea of this very forward-thinking, hopeful notion for technology; the Wright brothers had made their first flight and some of Edison’s applications for technology were being introduced. It was a time where pretty much anything seemed possible and for America it was a period where they felt that, instead of being this worldwide backwater to all the continental powers and empires that were around at the time, they were looking forward and saying this country can be anything it wants to be.

At the same time we needed a unifying art treatment. In the same way that Art Deco spoke for everything in Rapture, for Infinite we initially thought we’d go with Art Nouveau. It has this really light and airy motive, but over time we found that the game was very atmospherically similar to the original game, very dark and heavy and stormy. So we asked ourselves, what would happen if we flipped it? Instead of going dark, what would happen if we go to the opposite extreme? At the time we were questioning every assumption we had of BioShock. Did we need Big Daddies? Was that the core of BioShock? Did we need Little Sisters? So we made the flip, at least for a significant part of the game. As for the Nouveau, we found that we could have a variety of styles and they would still cohere the same way you can go around London or New York and you’ll find a wide variety of architectural motifs but the city still feels like one place.

Was it ever tempting early on to renege on BioShock and Rapture?

Ultimately that was Ken’s decision, but I know that everyone on staff was excited to do something new; to keep the BioShock DNA but make something fresh. The act of creating Rapture was tremendously rewarding for the people that worked on that but they really wanted to up themselves; do something grander and different. It was probably really liberating to think that they didn’t have to recreate Rapture. From the design side it was absolutely exciting for everyone because we’d already done this game with relatively small indoor spaces and suddenly we could use verticality to an extreme degree.

Has that shift meant the horror and oppressiveness of Rapture has been dialed back?

We find opportunities for that. The same way that we discovered the city could have a number of architectural motifs we found that it didn’t have to be one-note by any means. We found ways to incorporate environments that tonally resemble those from the original BioShock while still having these larger and more expansive environments. Rather than pulling the same tricks, you know, shadows moving in dark corridors, it was more interesting for us to see how we could unsettle people with the lights turned on. It’s a different type of horror. It’s not something popping up with fangs and claws and saying boo at you – it’s more of David Lynch type of thing.


BioShock is obviously heavy on story, how do you feel about story in games at the moment?

I’m a fan of opt-in and unobtrusive storytelling. I like what we’re doing in as much as it has that opt-in aspect. There’s one form of art where someone’s telling you what it’s like to go to another world and there’s stuff beyond that where they’re dropping you into that other world that’s there for you to discover. So in Infinite there are the more sustained cinematic moments between Liz and Booker, but even more important than that for me are the moments where you just stumble upon or overhear something. You’ll see more and more as you play that instead of guys just rushing out to kill you, you’re working your way through a city where things are happening and if you choose to pay attention before you start dropping bombs you’ll learn something about people’s motives and what’s happening in the city.

That unobtrusiveness and general openness has become more of a rarity since BioShock launched back in ’07.

Personally, I like to push against games. I like to push against systems and fight back when I feel like they’re making me do something specific. One of the main things I do is combat design. When I watch people play, instead of saying ‘okay, I don’t want people to do this’ and author the experience until I pretty much guarantee that the platonic play through I have in my mind is the only playthrough that’s possible, I’ll instead think, ‘what can I do to better accommodate that, what can I do to make this a better experience’.

I just love, when I’m playing a game, trying something subversive and being rewarded and not punished for it.

Speaking of the combat, it’s a hell of a lot meatier than it was in BioShock. Was that something you set out to alter right from the start?

Yeah that was a huge thing for us. Not to make it like a military shooter but to identify early on some of the things we could improve from BioShock. One of them was the range of encounters. In BioShock it felt like you had this big tool set with the plasmids, but in the end it didn’t really matter what tool you used for which job. One way to deal with that is to expand the range of enemy archetypes. You make the environments work with those archetypes so you’re not having the same encounter over and over again. In BioShock, if all the AIs bum rushed you down a hallway you just shocked and then dealt with them with the shotgun and it was more or less always effective. So we’ve started creating situations where the enemies are trying to stay away from you at longer range. There are powers like undertow where you can grab an enemy and pull them toward you, but undertow won’t produce a result every time, you have to actually think about what you’re doing.

Ken’s spoken in the past about a general reluctance in the industry to broach some of the more adult topics that film and literature regularly toy with. In the demo there’s already references made to racial purification, slavery, xenophobia. Why do you choose to tackle topics like these?

For us, it just makes perfect sense. If we’re going to set a game in this time, and we want to immerse you, it has to be informed by all these things. The Founding Fathers, just that title alone has some veneration in it, but they were all slave owners. These are the facts of history and to shy away from them seems really un-genuine.

It’s not about pushing your buttons, we do want to challenge people and make them think about what they’re seeing but we’re not trying to make them think, ‘here’s the bad thing and here’s the good thing.’ Even with the notion of morality, we don’t want there to be a black and white binary we’re tracking all the time. So it just makes sense of us to tackle these things.


One of the most interesting things about the demo is Elizabeth. She’s not just a gameplay asset or a means to advance the story, she’s integral to everything. In the past, AI characters have tended to stray a little towards the annoying, how have you gone about creating an emotional connection between her and the player and also ensuring she’s not annoying on a fundamental gameplay level?

We knew we could not predicate player failure on her state. The first rule was you were never going to die, you’re never going to see the game over screen because her health bar dipped below something. Not even in special circumstances. It just doesn’t happen. She can take of herself, and she’s there when you need her, but she’s not always jumping in your face and screaming that your game is about to be restarted because you chose not to help her. That was the first big step.

The other step was actually proactive; things we could do to really make her invaluable to the player. So she’ll give you money and things that she finds in the world and she’ll point out enemies, but again you can ignore her if you want. And then the tears are the ultimate expression of her usefulness. The deeper you get into the game the more tear options you start to see, often at a single time, but the opportunity cost stacks up because she can bring in as many as she wants but she can only bring in one at a time so you’re faced with a choice. So it’s really about associating her with being able to do all these things. Creating these big benefits during battles is another way to say she’s not a health bar that needs defending, she’s a set of super powers for you.

Was giving Booker a voice integral to creating that relationship between the player and Elizabeth?

Yes, certainly. It’s essential that Booker is a character and can interact with Elizabeth so he doesn’t just stare at her as she undergoes all these big changes; the drama of her life having broken out of prison and trying to make sense of the world she’s been living in her entire life but never really touched. So it gives us this chance to help that seem more human, but it also helps us build up the mystery of who Booker is. You know he’s there to clear a debt but you don’t know what that debt is when you start playing. People start recognising him and we’re able to do some interesting things with having him be an embodied character that people know instead of just some strange visitor.

This interview was originally published on Strategy Informer.

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