PAX East: Drooling Over Bioshock Infinite

by | Mar 17, 2011 05:46 PM ET

Irrational Games' "Bioshock Infinite" panel is the one big video game thing I did at PAX East. I spent some time in Indie Alley (obviously) looking at independent games, but I didn't wait in line for anything hands-on in the Exhibit Hall, and I didn't go to any of the other panels that were about specific games. And even when I wound up in line for the "Bioshock" panel, it was as much about being at the right place at the right time as it was about really liking the "Bioshock" franchise and wanting to know about the next installment. (I did plan poorly, though, and realized once I was in the line that I was really, really thirsty, so thanks to Chicazul for not only bringing me beverages, but getting an Enforcer to let her into the panel to hand them over.)

The panelists included writer Julian Murdoch, creative director Ken Levine, lead artist Shawn Robertson, and senior effects artist Stephen Alexander. After showing us the trailer -- which most of us had seen before -- they spent an hour talking about what has influenced their vision of Columbia, the city in the sky that takes the place of Rapture in "Bioshock Infinite."

Now that I've gotten back home and spent some time on the Web, I see that a lot of what the panelists talked about was already out there, so I'm sure it wasn't all new to a lot of the audience. But at the same time, it was really cool to hear. And even though what we saw of the game was far less complete than this 10-minute gameplay video, I still felt the people around me get excited watching it. What we saw was a few seconds of traveling through the city on rails -- but without background, texture or scenery. It was movement across a drape of checkerboard, and, at least in my part of the room, people wanted to see more.

A few random notes:

  • Read "Devil in the White City" if you want an inside look at one of the Irrational Games team's sources of inspiration.
  • They've branched out from some of the tech vs. Luddites angles they were originally taking, finding that dichotomy less interesting after a time.
  • Columbia has evolved and developed as they've worked on it, which makes it more like a real city, where people's tastes and interests change as time moves on. The changing aesthetic of the city is part of that city's history.
  • The team had to convince themselves to take the dramatic step of completely revising the game world -- a little like convincing themselves that hunting a buffalo would be just like hunting a raccoon.

Game sequels are tricky, since they all too often fall into the trap of becoming a reskinned version of the original. But if you break the mold completely, people who loved the world of the first game are going to be disappointed. Based on what I saw in the panel, I'm looking forward to "Bioshock Infinite" more now than I was when I saw the trailer. It's clear that the entire team is really focused on making the world robust and believable, drawing on turn-of-the-century art and speculative fiction to get there. So it's not just a palette change and a swap of sky for water -- it's a new world that will, I hope, be as immersive as the old one.

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