Games Have a Place to Critique Politics: Interview with Irrational’s Bill Gardner

bioshock-inf-feature

There is little doubt in any gamers mind as to how god damn good BioShock Infinite is going to be. But there’s more to it than that – the original BioShock was not only a meta masterpiece, it was an incredibly effective critique of capitalist philosophy and really forced us to look at how morals and society functions.

I was lucky enough to sit down with Irrational’s Bill Gardner to probe him on Infinite‘s politics, and how this game may change how we see our favourite entertainment genre.

In your role as Infinite’s Design Director, what issues have you found with the game thus far?

Too many to list [laughs]! If you build a game as deep, as complex and as rich as BioShock Infinite, there’s a lot to take on; there’s a lot of challenges. So I think the trickiest part is really making sure that the vision of the world is getting across. So trying to find the right balance of ‘what’s the right amount of information to get across to the player’, ‘when should it be coming to the player’. Of course, the start is going to have quite a bit more narrative because there’s a tonne of exposition you need to get through, and there’s a tonne of information about characters and the world.

Booker’s backstory, Elizabeth’s backstory and why she’s in the tower, thinking about Comstock and the foundation of the city … all these different elements and trying to figure out the right way to exposit that information. So that was, I’d say, the biggest challenge for the project as a whole. So yeah, narrative pacing and comprehension – those are huge elements.

infinite screenshot2 Games Have a Place to Critique Politics: Interview with Irrationals Bill Gardner

Why won’t you give me a hug?

Is the game purposefully confronting?

How do you mean?

In terms of race-relations and this religious, hyperbolic worship of Comstock. Is it made to be confronting or is it a consequence of the themes?

Well, there are a lot of controversial issues in the game; I think they’re there specifically because we’re trying to have an honest telling of what we think the world was like at the time. You know, the world was fairly racist. And obviously, faith played a very important role in the time period. But what’s interesting to us is taking these ideas and pushing them to the extreme. The same way, you know, objectivism as a face… as a heart rather, it’s pretty appealing.

You know, the notion of ‘is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow’, right? I personally agree with that, I think most people would. But when you look at Ryan (BioShock) and you follow those philosophies to the extreme, they become a problem. So we’re not interested in taking sides, we’re not interested in performing a diatribe of ‘this is wrong!’ We’re just presenting different philosophies, the counter-points, and letting the player decide how they stand on these things. With regards to the issue of race, we always said internally that we thought it would be disingenuous to not include those things, because that’s the way the world was. They’re not there strictly for shock value or controversy. They’re there because it’s honest.

Do you think aspects of Infinite reflect the USA’s current politics?

What’s interesting to me is that, when you look at history, whatever philosophy you look at, whatever the ethos is, whatever the ideology is, you see the way that these ideas are represented. You see them echo. You see them presented in a very similar fashion again and again and again. So what I think is interesting about a lot of the movements that are going on currently in America and in the world, I think you see a lot of the same methods of presenting and one side twisting the other side… these are age-old tricks and age-old problems, so I don’t think we certainly look at current events and say ‘oh we’re doing that.’ I think it’s these re-occuring themes, like the xenophobia that you see in Columbia…I mean that was real at the time.

This notion of the Kinley, the Manifest Destiny and the White Man’s Burdern, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this. It’s up to the white man to spread the ideals of America and to, again, essentially rule over the world and preach and teach, to win over the hearts and minds what America’s all about. Because at the time, the American way of life was the only way, the right way and that’s very much what Comstock is all about… it’s his way or the highway. So again, I think you see these themes repeating throughout history, and that’s interesting to us. Extremism, and the game’s about the way that these things do keep repeating themselves, and to really pin the player in-between these extremes and letting them decide where they stand and try to understand the core of the philosophy and why it’s appealing, but also how it can go wrong.

Do you personally think that games have a place to critique politics?

I’m glad you asked that, because I do. I think that as much as we’re not trying to necessarily critique modern events specifically, but the themes. I think that, really, games as a whole don’t do enough to challenge gamers. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there to push the medium. There’s a lot of opportunity to elevate the medium in a lot of ways in that there’s not enough questions asked there are plenty of topics to take on and I don’t think we’re doing it necessarily as much as we could. That’s our goal, to give gamers the credit they deserve, and I think with BioShock, we found gamers were willing to take on complicated topics and willing to challenge issues and are willing to be challenged.

Do you feel that BioShock 2 let the series down at all?

I have an interesting perspective, because having worked on BioShock, I never got to play with truly fresh eyes, right? So with 2, I was super psyched. You know, I bought it day one, went home and played it and loved it, so I really enjoyed playing it. What’s interesting for Infinite is that it’s its own thing, it’s got obvious ties to the universe of BioShock and you’ll figure out what that is when you actually play, of course.

infinite screenshot1 Games Have a Place to Critique Politics: Interview with Irrationals Bill Gardner

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No Its Booker De- *snap*

Before you were talking about giving players credit – do you think you’re average COD player is going to like this? Is that who you’re aiming for?

I think every game is going to try and get as broad an audience as possible. I have my own litmus tests that I put the game up to when I’m playing. I have my own style of play for sure, but I also have a diverse set of friends who I’m always thinking about ‘how would (x) play this and how would he think about it?’ Really, what it comes down to is I think we do our best to try and find the way, the specific type of narrative that this specific type of gameplay we have is, you don’t have to dig into every piece, you don’t have to dig into every system and element and growth and the gears and that, you don’t have to dig into every side-alley and every voxaphone. I think what’s important is that you’re able to ‘go for the throat’ if you just want to stick to the main mission and not really focus on absorbing every facet of the world.

There’s sort of a minimum amount of information that you need to get. So I spent a lot of time personally, as the team has, trying to make sure these people are going to understand the story, whereas the archaeologist, the person who is going to go and really consume every last little piece of data that we throw at them, that they have enough to feel rewarded. So it’s a very difficult line to walk, it’s a process of constant integration and trying to get as much feedback as you can, and trying to be brutally honest with yourself and to admit you’re always going to be wrong at first and trying to take what you have throughout and reiterate on it till you have something you think captures the vision for as many players as you can get a hold of. But I do think, again, given the sort of, the way we approach these issues, I think we’ve found the sweet spot.

Make sure you stay tuned for the second part of our chat with Bill Gardner next week!

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