Interview: Irrational’s Tim Gerritsen on BioShock Infinite

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After seeing the reveal trailer for Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite, and watching a ten-minute live gameplay demo, I had the opportunity to speak with the studio’s director of product development, Tim Gerritsen. We only talked for about fifteen minutes, but after three years of silence, he certainly had a lot to say regarding the studio’s labor of love.

You may already have seen a couple of tidbits from the following interview, but now you can follow our entire conversation. Gerritsen and I discussed the history of Infinite’s development and the game itself, which is attempting to “redefine what BioShock is.” He also brought up the pedigree of Irrational Games as a developer — it’s a studio with a brain and a heart, not one that merely pumps games out.

1[image credit: Smithsonian Institution]

Destructoid: What can you say about the process that went into choosing this time period?

Tim Gerritsen, Irrational Games: After we finished up BioShock 1, we really had the creative freedom to, kind of, do whatever we wanted to do. Take-Two was very supportive of us creatively, and said, “Hey, you know, what do you guys want to make?” And we were looking at a lot of different sources at the time — and, you know, everybody brainstorms, everybody comes up with cool ideas — and we were really struck by the [World’s Columbian Exposition] of Chicago in 1893, the World’s Fair…

…the White City.

Yeah, and several of us had read [about] that, and we were just like, “Wow, you know, that period is so evocative, so cool; we would so want to do a game in that.” And at first, [there were questions like], “What do we do there?” “How do we want to do it?” And then we were like, “You know what? We haven’t finished with BioShock yet. We haven’t said everything we want to say about BioShock. Let’s throw out all the rules; let’s redefine what BioShock is.” Let’s think about — you know, no sacred cows; we have so much more we want to say, but we don’t want to just whip out a sequel; we don’t want to just say, “Oh, here’s, you know, the next BioShock — here’s the rote list of features that are from BioShock…”

…checking all the boxes.

Yeah, checking all the boxes. Because that’s not who we are as a studio; that’s not who we are creatively. And we are a company, you know, we are a game developer that really cares about what fans think. We’re gamers; we make gamers’ games. And we wanted to really be true to the BioShock experience and create something new, and create that same sense of wonder that people got from the first BioShock.

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And so that all sort of jelled and came together, and we were like, “Ah, we love this period; it’s so open, and so immersive, and [there are] so many things we can do with this period and this time setting.” And then, over time, it just evolved into… “How do we make it capture the feel we want to capture?” And Ken [Levine, Irrational Games’ creative director] sort of hit it at one point, and said, “You know what? BioShock 1 was all about December 31, 1959, and it was New Year’s Eve, and it was New Year’s Eve in an art deco setting.” And this [Infinite] was, “Let’s create July 4, 1900,” and that was the original concept. And, “Let’s create something that supports that.” I mean, the game, obviously — that’s not what the game is about, but it really created that central, galvanizing moment for us as developers.

So I’m just trying to think in terms of timelines — was it, after the success of BioShock 1, did 2K come to you and say, “Oh, we’d like you to spit out a BioShock sequel,” or something like that? Or was it that, you guys sort of said, “We want to do more with this property; we just don’t want to do a rote sequel”?

Honestly, it was, “What do you guys want to do?” Total creative freedom to do what you want to do. And we felt like, “You know what? There’s so many ideas and so many concepts that we feel we wanted to hit with BioShock.” But we didn’t want to go back and do, just a — You know what? BioShock is so much more than just a location. It’s so many concepts and so many ideas that, you know what, we’re not going to just keep coming back to Rapture. We said what we wanted to say about Rapture, so we were the ones that were like, “We want to stay in the BioShock universe; we love this game, we love the concepts. But… let’s throw out all the rules. No sacred cows; let’s redefine what a BioShock game is all about.”

You’re speaking of keeping it within the BioShock universe, but —

Not really the “BioShock universe”; really, “what a BioShock game is all about.” And what BioShock is really all about is: the mystery, the discovery, the “oh shit” moment, the — you know, it’s the tourist’s‑first‑time‑to‑New‑York‑City kind of experience. You’re just wandering around, going, “What the hell is this? This is amazing.” We wanted to capture that moment and that sense of exploration. And that’s why we felt, “We can’t just go back to Rapture again. We can’t just keep playing that,” because it’s not going to make that experience — you can’t create that sense of wonder and mystery. And then with BioShock Infinite, it’s about creating this sort of open-air, larger-than-life, floating-above-the-world experience that is every bit as expansive as Rapture was claustrophobic.

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So you wanted to say more about BioShock, but you didn’t want to go back to Rapture. But how much do you think the effectiveness of that game was tied to its location, and then this game —

Well, certainly, [BioShock] 1 was tied to that location. But we felt that the core concepts of it: this mystery, this exploration, this narrative mystery, this conflict that’s going on — you know, there was a conflict in BioShock 1 that you were immersed in; there’s a conflict in BioShock Infinite that you’re immersed in — we sat down and said, “What are the core elements? What are the essences that made BioShock, BioShock? And let’s explore that, and then throw out all the rules. Let’s not just make a game where we check off feature lists. Let’s come up with the essences that make a BioShock game, and then explore those themes and take them in totally new directions.”

Just from what I’ve been hearing from people who’ve been anticipating this game, a lot of people that I’ve talked to, at least, were hoping [for] — if not necessarily expecting — an original IP. So how do you tell the cynics that this isn’t just BioShock in Columbia instead of Rapture?

Okay, sure. Honestly, Infinite’s sort of an expression of all the ideas — of saying, “We are throwing out all the rules.” And I can totally see why the cynic may look at it as, “Eh, they’re just doing the same thing.” [But] really, for us, we feel this is a new IP. That, because we are just sort of saying, “You know what? You’re going to have to discover once again, as you play this game, what BioShock really is and what it’s all about,” that — to us — this really is a new IP, and it really is something completely new. It’s that same sense of “what the fuck is going on here” that we tried to create in BioShock 1.

And we, as a company, that’s what we’re about, if you look at our pedigree. We’ve never done any games where we were just like, “Eh, let’s just do a by-the-numbers sequel; let’s just check it off; let’s just put it out.” And we have worked on sequels in the past. We have worked on [SWAT 4]; we redefined what SWAT was when we did [SWAT 4]. It was like, “What is [the essence of this game]? We’re going to create a uniquely Irrational experience.” With [Freedom Force vs. the 3rd Reich], again, it wasn’t, “Oh, let’s just make ‘Freedom Force 2’ and then kick it out.” It was, “Let’s redefine this experience; let’s do something very, very different.” And even for Tribes: Vengeance, it was the same thing — it was, “Let’s not just make another Tribes game; anyone can do that. Let’s make something that captures what we as a development group want to do creatively.”

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And so for BioShock, it was, “We have more to say. We really don’t want to leave this space yet.” So we went to the company [2K Games] and said, “We want to stay in BioShock. But we want to do something completely different.” And for us, it was amazing that we got this creative freedom from them, because it’s a risky proposition. They could’ve said, “No-no-no-no. It’s got to be, just kick out the next one, guys.” You know, “Keep the money going.” And they gave us the creative freedom, [but] this is risky stuff. Who knows if another publisher would’ve given us this kind of freedom to say, “We’re going to rock the boat; we’re going to change everything; all the rules are thrown out the window”?

So has this pretty much been in development since BioShock shipped?

Um… yeah. I mean, we worked, obviously, on other things during that early time period. But yes, this is something that we’ve been working on for quite some time. We started in 2008; we’re not shipping for a while yet, so this has been our labor of love, and the thing that we’ve been really pouring our hearts into.

Going back to, I guess, the cynic’s perspective… from a gameplay perspective, it looks [very similar to BioShock] — first-person-shooter–style gameplay, but with powers. BioShock 2 expanded on the powers that there were in BioShock 1, and here it looked like you have a lot of similar stuff — the electric shock, and other stuff — so what I was wondering is, how are you differentiating this from BioShock 1 gameplay-wise?

There’s so much that we’re doing differently this time around. Elizabeth creates so many new opportunities for you as a player. She’s not just this drone who comes along and, you know, “Press A to use Elizabeth.” That’s not what she’s about. You can not use her, and you have to deal with the consequences of that. It takes it out of her, and it takes it out of you, to use these powers. [As] you saw, she’s winded; she’s got a bloody nose. This isn’t a game about superheroes who can just, you know, “I am the greatest superhero in the world; I can do whatever I want,” you know, this power-trip fantasy. There are consequences to all of the actions in the game. There are all of these abilities and new weapons and new powers that you have access to; we’re not just going to do the radial dial, where you have eight selections of this, and eight selections of that, and that’s it. There’s going to be opportunities for you to mix things up in a way that is uniquely new to the game.

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One of the things we discovered in BioShock 1: we felt like everything kind of felt like a nail because all you had was a hammer. You got to the point where there was this weapon, this plasmid, and you could just keep using them for the rest of the game once you got them. We wanted to change that up and make a new game that’s much more about, “What am I dealing with right now? How do I get through it? The thing I was using before doesn’t work anymore, so now I have to change it up.” And now, with Elizabeth added to the mix, she creates these unique opportunities, and you have to decide: “Do I want to use her power, or what is the cost of her power — and how is that going to change things up? How do my powers affect things? What powers do I want to go for? How are these powers going to grow?”

And so there’s so much we want to dive into and really show you, but really, what we showed you tonight was just the tip of the iceberg of what this game is. There’s so many more aspects to it, that really, one of the proud problems and challenges we had in revealing [it] was, “How do we create a ten-minute experience to show people the basic core elements?” So we didn’t get into a lot of the depth. We didn’t say, “Oh, here’s our combat system; here’s these weapons.” We didn’t want to do that; that’s, again, not who we are as a company. But we really wanted to just pick — “What are the beats, what are the high moments, and how do we carry those across?” And down the road, we will get into much more detail on that. But I can assure you, there’s so many new aspects to this. And one of the mantras we went by, as a development team, was, “Create player opportunities; don’t restrict player opportunities.” So once we get to that round where we can say, “Okay, here’s what the details are; let’s sit down and show you [them],” it’s going to be very exciting.

You were saying, “It’s not a game about this time period,” so —

It’s a game of the time period, but it’s not, it wasn’t — we don’t want to just make, “Oh, well, here’s a history lesson.” It’s an entertainment experience. We wanted to immerse you into it and get that feel and that wonderment of, “What’s going on here?”

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Okay. So certainly, BioShock 1 had a lot of that, “Oh, this looks just like something out of the 1950s,” you know, things like that. So you don’t just want to make this an alternate history game or anything like that…

Well, the thing is, obviously, there weren’t floating cities in 1900. And so you’re always running that challenge […] so if you stop to think about that, you know, that’s something that we don’t want you to do. We just want you to enjoy the experience. And so for us, it’s about creating that moment-to-moment feel of wonderment and excitement.

Certainly, all of our games are very deep — the setting, there’s a reason for everything we put in our games. We struggle internally mightily on that. We spend time doing tons of research and the justification for it all. But we don’t want to create a game where you sit there for three hours just scrolling through, “And in 1902… and then in 1903…,” and you’re just reading the history of this time period. We want you to live the history of that time period.

So everything — all that research we do, all of that looking at the world, looking at the timeline — we build that into the entertainment experience. There’s little bits that you hear — I don’t know if you caught them in the demo — just little audio nuggets, little visual nuggets. If you’re a student of history, you’ll catch those little bits, and it’ll make it all the more exciting for you. So we’re speaking to the history — you said you were a history buff — we’re speaking to the history buff, but at the same time, we’re making an entertainment experience for all players.

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Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite is currently set for release in 2012 on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC.


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