BioShock Infinite Interview: Irrational's Timothy Gerritsen

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With Irrational Games' latest title revealed to the world at an event in New York City last night, we had a host of unanswered questions. We had a chance to discuss the title with Irrational boss Ken Levine; however, we still craved more information.

Thankfully we were given time to grill Irrational's director of product development, Timothy Gerritsen, regarding the idea of returning to the BioShock world, how the two titles are not tied together and how it was important to actually showcase a floating city within the game engine.

BioShock Infinite launches in 2012 on the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3.

Shack: I'll start with the same question I asked Ken. Seeing the demo, this looks like a brand new intellectual property, yet at the end "BioShock." Why has Irrational decided to go back to that "brand."

Timothy Gerritsen: At the end of BioShock, we were in this amazingly cool position that corporate said to us, "Creatively, what do you guys want to do? Where do you want to go?" They could have just said, "You guys need to give us a sequel, you need to hit these feature lists and check off these boxes" and that's not who we are as a developer, that's not who we want to be.

We really enjoy the BioShock concept. The ideas of what BioShock is. We're not done yet. We have a lot more to say but it's really so much bigger of a concept than just a location. We had these ideas and concepts and we said, "Let's do it. Let's throw out all the rules. Let's kill the sacred cow. Let's make a game that is a BioShock game but it's totally a new IP."

It's totally something new. How can we create that, "Oh my god, what the hell is this?" experience that people had in BioShock 1. If we just keep going back to Rapture, because we felt we had said what we wanted to say in that universe. We wanted to move on. And coporate, Take-Two Interactive, gave us this freedom and said, "All right."

They could have said, "No, you guys. Screw you, this is what you gotta do. It's gotta have this and have that," but they gave us this freedom to do what we wanted to do. So by us, this was a choice. There are so many possibilities that we have for the concept that is a BioShock game, and that's really the declarative statement. That's why we called it Infinite, instead of just calling it BioShock 3. It's not just a number, it's not just a sequel. This truly is a new experience. We want to build something new.

So really to us, this is a new IP.

Shack: So, keeping the name is a choice you made because you love the "core" of what BioShock is?

Timothy Gerritsen: Exactly.

Shack: And the "universe..."

Timothy Gerritsen: I wouldn't say "universe." I would say the concepts. What is a BioShock game? To us that's part of it as well, we're exploring it as a developer, "What is a BioShock game? What makes a BioShock experience?"

What is it about? Is it just this set of features or is it about something else? Let's explore that. Let's do something new. Let's do something amazing.

Shack: In the trailer there some nods to the original BioShock, the Big Daddy figure, for example. Was that something added just for fan service or is that something connects these two universes? These games take place decades apart from each other. But is the original BioShock connected to Infinite?

Timothy Gerritsen: We did that because we wanted to say, "You know what, all the rules are broken." When that guy comes out and he's stomping along and he smashes that deep-sea diver suit. That's our way of saying, "You know what? All the rules are gone. This is a totally new experience." So for us that's all that was about. That's us saying to the fans that, you know, we wanted to create that, "What the hell, you guys here?"

We want fans to go, "Aw, fuck. They're going back to Rapture!" We want that. For us it's like, "No, man. You're going on a ride. You're going to see so much more." That's what that is about. That's not about tying it together. It's about, "Fuck it! You're in a whole new universe now."

Shack: You guys should have started the trailer off with some smooth Bobby Darin again, then.

Timothy Gerritsen: (laughs) No. We were definitely "head faking" but we don't want to take it to that extreme.

Shack: BioShock was a tremendous success. 2K Marin's BioShock 2, in some ways was a big success as well, but the original is elevated by some gamers to this peak. Do you feel that, now, Irrational is competing with its own success?

Timothy Gerritsen: No, not really. For us, we've always been driven about, "Who are we creatively? What do we want to do? What are we trying to say? What kind of experience are we trying to make?" That's why we didn't do [BioShock] 2. That's why we didn't return to Rapture. That's not enough. That's resting on our laurels. We could have gone anywhere. We have so much more to say.

It's about trying to do something new and move the industry forward. Something no one has ever seen before. I don't think we're competing with ourselves at all. We're trying to improve ourselves. We're our own worst critics. We have to be the ones who point out the flaws before you guys ever see them.

Shack: Is part of that making the playable character a person who speaks and has a history?

Timothy Gerritsen: That was a conscious decision we made. There are no sacred cows. In BioShock, you were this cipher and you didn't know who you were and that was part of the mystery. Now the mystery is something completely different. You know about this city, you know your mission, you know what you're there. But there are other mysteries. We want to create that "everything is new" feeling from BioShock, but if we stuck to the same old rules that wasn't going to be good enough.

Shack: Early on when you showed off the original BioShock, people were aware of this Big Daddy figure. In fact, some people said they knew a little too much about the game when it came out. Is there a name for these new behemoths?

Timothy Gerritsen: This was our first reveal and it's sort of the tiniest tip of the iceberg. There's so much more we want to get into and reveal, but this was our opening night. We don't want to get into those details just yet.

We do have concepts. I don't want to say that we have these categories of enemies but we have concepts for how this all works together and what this all means. And I can't wait till be get to a point and say, "Okay, here it is!" But that's not tonight.

Shack: The game looks cleaner than the original BioShock, of course it's been years now. The characters have a Pixar-style smoothness to them. They aren't so rough. Maybe not the enemies, but especially Elizabeth. There's a very stylized look to each character...

Timothy Gerritsen: Yes. Glad you noticed!

Shack: How has the engine evolved?

Timothy Gerritsen: We knew it would be a challenge. Ken comes up with these crazy, "Hey, I'm going to do this and that!" My job is to sit down with the team and go, "How the hell are we going to pull that off?"

The old engine just couldn't cut it. So we went to a new engine. BioShock 1 was Unreal 2.X that we heavily modified, this is based on Unreal 3 but, again, we heavily modified it. We built out own lighting system. We built, I don't know if you saw, the building actually float and move around. It can't be a gimmick. It actually has to move. It's got to be real, it's got to be all moving. We created this performance technology that literally allows us to move everything around without a performance impact. For us, it's all about creating this immersion. It's got to be this floating city. It was all built to create that experience you saw. And a new art style. Let's not just revamp. Let's throw out all the rules.

Shack: Was there anything you saw in 2K Marin's BioShock 2 that you at Irrational learned? They tweaked some of those concepts.

Timothy Gerritsen: For us it was all about going from [BioShock] 1 to now. Our focus was keeping our heads down. They made a game that we feel was a good game. For us though, it's about, "What do we want to be about?" Keeping our heads down and focusing on our dream and our creative vision for this.

Shack: The "plasmids" I guess I'll call it. In the demo, Booker drinks a liquid out of a bottle and gains the "Murder of Crows" ability.

Timothy Gerritsen: For us it was about what do we do "powers" wise. How do we create combinations and opportunities? Our core design philosophy throughout the entire game is opening up possibilities for players. We didn't want to create this, "Here's this radial system. Here's these eight weapons. Here are these eight powers. How do they fit?"

The problem we ran into with BioShock is that, you could get to a point where you could have one gun and one plasmid and pretty much just go through the game with that. Like I said, we're our own worst critics. So that was one thing we identified. Like, if all your have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. We didn't want to create that situation where people would just use the same thing over and over again. You saw some powers and some weapons tonight, but there is so much more to it than that.

It's about creating opportunities where, "Oh, I used this shotgun and this power and that worked. But it's not working here anymore. What do I have to do?" It's about changing it up. "Oh, if I combine this with this, what happens? And now I'm adding this Elizabeth character." She brings a whole different set of variables into the equation.

Shack: Is Elizabeth simply an A.I. character the player will encounter? Is it more than that, or does it open the door to a co-op experience?

Timothy Gerritsen: She is not a character that you play. She is definitely a character along with you. She is not, however, just a "Press A and make Elizabeth dance" kind of thing.

Shack: Well that's disappointing.

Timothy Gerritsen: (laughs) Well, maybe in DLC. But honestly, that's not what she's about. She is a variable. You can't just make her work. There are consequences to waht you do and what she does. And you don't have to use whatever she is bringing to the table. She has these unique abilities and you've got your unique abilities and when you combine them, cool shit happens. It's about, deciding you as a player, "Do I want to use that?" In the demo at the end, you don't have to blow-up the bridge [to disable the monster], you could have just kept going.

Shack: There was a sense of morality in the original BioShock. You mentioned choice and consequence. Is that sense of morality back in Infinite?

Timothy Gerritsen: Again, we're not really going to dig too deep tonight. But, definitely. The BioShock experience is always about, "There are choices you as a player makes and what are the consequences of that?" The reason we wanted to go back to BioShock and the reason we called it Infinite is we felt there were infinite possibilities.

Shack: There was a big narrative reasoning behind the idea of plasmids. It was this abiltiy offered to the world of Rapture that ultimately destroyed the city. There's this Project Icarus, or What is Icarus concept for Infinite: Does that return as narrative device in Infinite?

Timothy Gerritsen: Well, yeah. Obviously there's a reason why all of this is happeneing. Again, I can't really get into too many details.

Shack: No, I want you to tell me the ending of the game right now.

Timothy Gerritsen: (laughs) If you looked carefully you may have been able to see hints about what is going on, from that demo. Yes, that's part of the mystery we want to leave that to players.