The Creation of Columbia at PAX

by on March 16 2011

24 comments

“You could float 12 different kinds of cities up there–the question is, does it fit the narrative and support the narrative?” -Nate Wells

Ken Levine and Irrational’s senior art team packed the house at PAX East 2011 with an hour-long discussion about the studio’s approach to creating video game worlds. Art director Nate Wells, lead artist Shawn Robertson, and senior effects artist Stephen Alexander joined Ken with moderator Julian Murdoch to show the evolution of BioShock Infinite‘s flying city of Columbia–starting from, essentially, Rapture in the sky. Newly-revealed concept art and Sky-Line prototype videos accompanied the presentation.

Video of the panel is available from GameSpot and G4. The GameSpot version includes the Q&A section at the end.

One image that appeared several times throughout the panel was this simple guide, created by BioShock art director Scott Sinclair and given to Nate as he took over art director duties for Infinite:

The image pokes fun at the notion that creating the game would be as easy as moving the city up to the clouds, but it also serves as a reminder that at one point Columbia really was a lot like Rapture. This concept image shows a scene that’s so dark and constrained by clouds that it might as well be underwater. Even the Art Nouveau architecture is reminiscent of Rapture’s Art Deco:


“This is a lie we tell ourselves every time we start a game,” Nate said, referring to early assumptions about the straightforward BioShock-in-the-sky approach. “I think it’s evolutionary. If you go to the dawn of man, there’s a cave with elders sitting around going, ‘Today we’re going to hunt a buffalo. It’s pretty much a big raccoon. We’re just going to do what we do in raccoon hunting, like, more.'”

Of course, he added, “if it really was like this, we’d be so fucking bored that we wouldn’t know what to do.”

The bright Fourth of July Americana look that Infinite had adopted by the time it was announced came later–but once it did, it became obvious to the team that it was the right approach.

Throughout the panel, the crew showed pieces of period reference photography, much of which was drawn from the excellent Shorpy Historical Photo Archive. It’s an invaluable source for those interested in past eras (including Ken, who describes himself as a big documentary nerd). Nate also called out Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, which simultaneously chronicles the creation of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair and recounts the story of Dr. H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer. Many Irrational team members read the book while developing Infinite‘s setting and concept, and it helped to crystallize the optimism, ambition–and darkness–that characterized the era.

Later, the panel audience was shown a proof-of-concept video showing a player leap from Sky-Line to Sky-Line armed with a rocket launcher. While visually primitive, the footage was an important step in development, as it gave the team a glimpse at the kinds of gameplay Sky-Lines could support. That video was followed up with a test from the art team showing how audiovisual presentation could help sell the experience to players. Both videos can be seen in the GameSpot and G4 footage.

Ken summed up the ultimate goal for Sky-Lines in BioShock Infinite: “It’s like being on a rollercoaster, but you’re hanging in the air and you have a fucking gun.”

Finally, during our PAX fan event, we were presented with an unexpected mashup of the Art Director image and Robb Waters’ take on Dog in a Wheelchair. Apparently, community member Japester sketched this remarkable Dog in a Balloon Harness during the panel:

Posted this March 16 2011 11:45 am, under Insider
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  • musecuts | March 16, 2011 1:30 pm

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    Awesome! Thanks for the photographs, during the panel I was wondering what their source was.

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  • Ruffalo | March 16, 2011 1:48 pm

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    The panel was great! I was wondering if the Difference Engine had any influence on the creation of BioShock Infinite. Devil in the White City was a terrific read.

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  • japester | March 16, 2011 3:44 pm

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    HA! I can’t draw at all, so I am both horribly embarrassed and deeply honored that my crappy little sketch made it onto the blog. I love art, so I found the panel fascinating (and very funny). But I simply couldn’t get the art direction scribble and Robb Waters’ stylized take on Shawn Robertson’s concept out of my head.

    If a variation of this ever makes it onto a shirt, I will die a happy man. LOL.

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    • borrego | March 16, 2011 9:23 pm

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      That’s the funniest damn thing I’ve seen all day! Nice work!

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      • japester | March 17, 2011 12:59 pm

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        Thanks, borrego! :-)
        I really dislike my drawings, but this one still makes me chuckle every time I see it. Most of it is is a pure ripoff of Robb’s design.

        I can easily picture an animated version of this walking/floating out under the IG logo during a game opening. Have the little back legs floating in the air, making small walking motions. And then a happy little bark. LOL.

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      • borrego | March 17, 2011 9:10 pm

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        I imagine the same thing as what you’re saying with the small walking motions. Having four tiny little engines puttering those four balloons would be awesome! Still cracks me up lol

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  • laforzadimente | March 16, 2011 3:48 pm

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    Haha the dog was pretty clever. I’m glad they decided the make Columbia bold and beautiful, the dark city in the clouds hardly seems interesting. It might as well be on the ground with the little amound you can see around it.

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  • magicmaker | March 16, 2011 4:35 pm

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    I watched the panel vid and the art directors guide pic is among my favs. It is ironically similar to ones I am given at my job. So simple but so complex to do.

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  • seannorthridge | March 16, 2011 8:25 pm

    Theres that lovely Cabaret concept art!

    Thanks Chris!

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  • mcroddi | March 16, 2011 8:35 pm

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    Excellent Panel. Nice to post the links for those who couldnt attend.

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  • 1srkarkan | March 17, 2011 2:35 am

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    “This is a lie we tell ourselves every time we start a game,”
    I wanna see if that’s really a lie. So let me start the game =D

    Awesome work!

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  • sharpwatermelon | March 17, 2011 9:16 pm

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    Panel was easily the high point of PAX. Can’t wait for more info.

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  • joonongenoemd | March 20, 2011 4:10 pm

    Wow I love the awesome concept drawing in the begining :) the rest is just awesome :) this is indeed a game that I need to get to get the bioshock collection complete again :)

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  • insectswarm | March 21, 2011 8:38 pm

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    The developers are extremely smart.

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  • finchlynch | March 22, 2011 3:03 pm

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    I loved being able to see the panel even though I was unable to attend PAX east.

    I love the Q & A about being able to maintain a feeling of Horror/Terror during the daytime/within a bright color palette. I am looking forward to see how Irrational handles this.

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  • 1srkarkan | March 22, 2011 5:18 pm

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    When will be a Event in Germany. Maybe in Freiburg (freebourg ←lol) or better in Teningen 😉
    I think you know why i would like it =D

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  • patcheschance | March 24, 2011 2:42 pm

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    Love hearing about Devil in the White City. I ordered it from Amazon moments after reading that. I’m maybe ten pages in and it’s great.

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  • March 25, 2011 12:19 pm

    […] on some ground covered during Irrational’s PAX East panel on world creation, Ken described how BioShock Infinite once revolved around “a rift between technologists and […]

    See Original Post at [irrationalgames.com]

  • cobeyj | March 26, 2011 10:18 am

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    I’m really sorry I missed PAX.

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  • quancro | April 11, 2011 1:22 am

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    wow share with the fans .. is cool…. thanks alot .. irrational games

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  • senyadraquille | April 13, 2011 11:02 pm

    i found the art director one hilarious. underwater house: no….house above clouds:yes

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  • May 25, 2011 12:52 pm

    […] Pax, rendez-vous sur la page d’Irrational Games. Vous trouverez également un article sur la création de Columbia, qui a été longuement discuté à […]

    See Original Post at [bioshockways.com]

  • davidfort | June 1, 2011 10:12 pm

    Finchlynch: The idea of Horror/Terror in the daytime was explored in Resident Evil 5 I believe, and the general consensus was that the game erred more towards Survival Action than the traditonal Survival Horror RE is known for.

    I am in awe of the art in Bioshock Infinite. To be able to imagine such a world, and then create it so vividly, is mind-jarring. All people I have shown the Reveal Trailer to have gone ‘Holy Shit! That looks awesome!’ the moment the POV is thrown out the window.

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  • gladiator49 | June 2, 2011 3:08 am

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    I really wish that I was at PAX.

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