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Cloud castles: Irrational talks next gen costs, Bioshock sequels, and educating Call of Duty

An enormous chat with level designer Shawn Elliott

If you're looking for a game to wash away the staleness which besets contemporary publishing, Bioshock Infinite is that game. It's no money-squeezing follow-up, but a calculated, even mocking response to the celebrated original. It's a game not just of vast mysteries - just what is the nature of the "debt" that haunts Pinkerton detective Booker DeWitt? - but of small ones - an anachronistic choice of music here, a cryptic coin-tossing episode there.

The combat is the most pedestrian thing about it (well, unless you count the insipidly high octane boxart), which is saying rather a lot given that the combat often sees you dangling by one arm from a speeding monorail, throwing lumps of magma at robots. After playing an hour or two, I cornered Irrational's level designer Shawn Elliott for a protracted, engaging chat about the difficulties of publicising such an exotic mix, current directions in first-person shooter design, the significance of free-to-play and the fate of an industry hell-bent on spending hundreds of millions per game.

So, how many times have you had the boxart question today?

Quite a few, I'd say. It seems to be a hot topic, surprisingly.

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Selling a more involved, less action-driven FPS like this to the so-called "frat boy" demographic must be a challenge. How do you do that without compromising your vision?

I'm not going to duck that, but it's overseeing marketing and stuff - I just make the stuff, I don't sell it, you know? So, I really am not involved in any of that, but I can imagine that it's a very difficult challenge to take and create a single image that says everything that needs to be said in the game.

I mean, God - imagine, you know, writing a book and trying to make the same kind of statement with a book cover, a movie poster or anything. Stanley Kubrick is one of my favourite directors and his movie posters are always phenomenal, but they don't ever really tell me anything at all about the contents of the movie, so I imagine it's a challenge.

We have several principal characters: Elizabeth, Songbird, the city itself is the biggest character - that's Bioshock, you know, the city as the character, that's the essential DNA that threads all Bioshock games together going forward. So, how do you sell that? Then there's the skyhook and skylines, which are also essential, there's Liz opening tears, and you can imagine quickly that gets confusing.

Box art in the 80s, for early games they tried literally to put everything on there - so you'd have game box art where there's a dinosaur on one side, there's a spaceship on the other, and you really don't understand what the hell is happening.

I'd have thought an epic ensemble artwork like the posters Lucasfilm put together for Star Wars would have suited you guys very well.

Maybe so.

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You say you're not involved - but it must impact you when somebody produces art for your game that doesn't reflect the content. Isn't it frustrating, or at least interesting?

No. I wasn't frustrated at all, because the interesting thing is that the game so far has largely been discussed by enthusiasts - those people got to see our very first stab at the game at reveal, they got to see the E3 trailer, they got to see pretty much everything - any time we put media out about the game, every screenshot or whatever they have been aware of it. So I don't really have to worry that they're getting the wrong impression, because they've picked up on every impression that we've made.

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