Some time ago, game designer Ken Levine commented wryly about the shallow pool from which video game creators get their ideas.
"Most video game people have read one book and seen one movie in their life, which is Lord of the Rings and Aliens or variations of that," he had said. "There's great things in that, but you need some variety."
At the time he and his team at Irrational Games were a half-year way from releasing BioShock, a first-person shooter set in a failed underwater utopia rusted with Ayn Rand Objectivism, a philosophy of exclusionary excellence that had failed the sunk city.
"Look, I just steal from other sources," he freely admitted.
Four years later, the influences for Levine and Irrational's next big game are just as atypical: a photo of a dead horse, a horrible fire that occurred 100 years ago this week, and even the spirit that motivates the Tea Party.
The ideas are helping to animate BioShock Infinite, a highly-anticipated game set in 1912 aboard a fantastic floating city called Columbia that is rife with conflict between a group called the Founders and group called the Vox Populi. Much of their motivations remain a mystery, but their schism emerged, Levine has explained, over the concept of American Exceptionalism, over the nature of America's place relative to the international community. Columbia's patriots preciously guard their gun rights and fret over the influx of non-whites to their society.
BioShock Infinite is a video game, one in which the main, advertised action of the 10 minutes that have been shown of it so far, is shooting. The games Irrational makes these days, however, are not just about what you do in them but what you experience. They're intentionally transportive software that treats, in the words of the game's lead artist Shawn Robertson, "a city as an actual character in the game."
Nate Wells, art director for Irrational Games' BioShock Infinite, on the first of several reference photos that helped inspire his team's upcoming game: "This image is really the foundation of how Irrational believes a story should be told. Use simple, direct imagery that communicates a clear message with environmental content, without inserting a sign which reads: "Isn't This Tragic?". Provide a striking visual, and free the player to generate their own emotional response and personal stake in the narrative."
The city the BioShock builders are creating draws from influences captured a century ago. At PAX East, a gaming convention held in Boston earlier this month, Levine and three other senior creators on the game showed a series of photos — and some amazing early gameplay videos — that helped inspire the look and feel of their Columbia. (Those photos, including the arresting one of a dead horse, are presented again in this story, with captions by the game's art director.)
"We want to create a world that's interesting to explore, a society that's interesting to explore and discover," Levine said. "And you can't have a society without a battle of ideas."
Wells: "We passed around the book Devil in the White City, and started talking about the Chicago World Fair 1893 and the sense of optimism and the sheer volume of innovations on display at that event. It just adds so much to the palette.
You also can't have an Irrational gaming city without those ideas, according to the game's art director Nate Wells, who said, "We can't build a building or lay a street until we know what the story is."
The ideas thing is unusually important to the BioShock enterprise. It's a sort of thought-as-theme that doesn't emerge in the finished product of many other video games. "I say this as the hugest World of Warcraft fan in the universe," Levine remarked," What are the philosophies of the Horde and the Alliance? That's kind of hard to say… I think they are very visually distinguished from each other, but we start with what are the ideas, and how do we make the visuals reflect those ideas."
The original conflict of ideas for BioShock Infinite was going to be a rift between technologists and Luddites. "The more we played with it, the more it felt like this is not a conflict that feels organic and would tear the city apart."
They found instead the energy of nationalism, the spirit Levine and team see around the worked, in the literature they've read — he cites Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here — and throughout American history, through the John Birch Society and the Tea Party.
"We thought of this before the emergence of the Tea Party," Levine said, batting off a suggestion that this game, a game specifically about an America movement, set to be released during a Presidential election year, is a commentary on the politics of now. "I think these are themes that happen over and over again," he said. "We looked at some of the extremes of what ultra-Capitalism could bring [in the first BioShock] before the [real] collapse of the financial system. It's not that we have a vision of the future. We have a vision of the past."
Wells: "While it's never our intention to give a wholly accurate historical representation in our spaces, sometimes a piece of reference emerges that gives such a compelling portrait of a different era we have to draw from it. In a time before large-scale image reproduction, there was only hand-painted text. This storefront, and the entire street on which it sat were dominated by an overwhelming mass of it, with whole cities looking as though they had papered-over with book pages. Though it doesn't call out a specific date, it is so clearly not now. It's also interesting that this store, at photographed around the height of mass immigration in America, has text only in English."
The Irrational team also found their game energized by the the passions of labor conflicts. The same fervor for worker's rights that motivated recent mass protests in Wisconsin and awoke a nation following the fire at the Triangle shirt factory in Manhattan on March 25, 1911 deepens the rift in BioShock Infinite's Columbia. Levine said he is working on a level of the game now that draws on the events of that tragic fire, a disaster of employer negligence that killed more than 100 immigrant workers who toiled in intolerable conditions.
There isn't much Lord of the Rings in all that, and maybe only a dash of Aliens. Yes, a dash. More specifically, of Alien, the first movie in that sci-fi series. There's one scene that's set during a meal. A spaceship's crew is chowing down, joking with each other. Suddenly one of them chokes, writhes, and, in a bloody instant, a small alien bursts from his chest. "I remember sitting outside the theater afraid of that movie and watching that scene through the glass of the door," he said. Today, he marvels at it because it was so horrifying while being so…. brightly lit.
Wells, on an influence for BioShock Infinite's airborne floating city, Columbia: "After settling on Columbia, we immediately started digging into period architecture and photography and it became clear in about five minutes that this was going to work really well, but also, it was going to be extremely difficult to pull off."
BioShock Infinite is not a dark game, not dark like the first BioShock or like most of the games with guns that are popular today. At PAX East, art director Nate Wells showed how the new game was going to be dark, was going to have dark skies, but then they turned them bright blue. He, Levine and the rest believed they could evoke mood and emotion in their game without what they believed would be the easier path of dark streets and mood lighting.
They could make a brighter game and still make their player feel the gravity of a tough situation and the drama of a place. They can make their game about a 1912 America that feels modern, one that is set on a city rising beneath a blue sky, set aloft by the drifts of history and the zeal that drives those who see themselves as patriots, back then and right now.