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AusGamers BioShock Infinite Interview with Drew Holmes
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 11:25am 29/01/13 | Comments
AusGamers chats with Irrational Games' Drew Holmes about coming on board to join the BioShock Infinite writing team. Read on for what he had to say...

AusGamers: Ladies and gents, welcome back to AusGamers. You are here once again with Stephen Farrelly, with a friend of the site, Drew, who has been out to our house in Australia before. He’s worked on Saints Row, and a bunch of other games, now, obviously, [he is] working on BioShock Infinite -- which is a massive coup, I imagine.

Drew Holmes: [laughs] It’s been pretty great.

AusGamers: Yeah. So just run us through jumping on board.

Drew: In terms of coming on board with the company? Well, I got a call saying “Hey, would you like to come and check out the game, and do some writing for BioShock Infinite”, and I said “Are you kidding me? Of course!”. So I started back in March, I think; have been working hard ever since, and it’s been phenomenal working on a game like this.

AusGamers: How complete was the game, in terms of its narrative when you came onto it?

Drew: It was really far along. I think though, one of the things that Ken [Levine, BioShock Creative Director] realised as they were putting the game together, is that it was so much bigger than BioShock 1 -- certainly from a narrative standpoint. One level of the game was about three times the size of the entirety of BioShock 1’s script.

So Ken realised that he was going to need a writing team to really help him get this thing out the door, so he brought me on. We also have Joel Fielder, as well as a few other writers. We brought Jordan Thomas, who was really integral in the creation of the story. Jordan had worked on BioShock 1, and BioShock 2 -- was the Creative Director at 2K Marin -- so he was great. And then Kristina Drzaic as well, she’s also on the writing team. So we’ve got a pretty sizable team, all working on the story.

AusGamers: For you guys... and I always like to ask this question about games where an established Universe is the focal point: how established was that when you came into it? And where you guys adding to that, even in a superfluous way, so that you kind of had context for other things that you were adding into the game from a narrative level?

Drew: Yeah. For the time that I came on, it was back in March 2012, so Booker, and Columbia, and Elizabeth -- and all of these things that are sort of the central focus of the story -- were all there, and it was just about really honing the narrative, and working with the whole team to sort of craft this compelling story that’s really going to draw players in, and immerse them in this world -- creating characters that are very complex and multidimensional, and you want to get to know them more.

It’s just about creating those sort of layers on top of layers in terms of the themes, and the meanings, and finding the right ways to deliver those twists and turns along the way.

AusGamers: Was it a different experience for you, writing a game that has such a dynamic narrative, instead of... I mean, obviously something like Saints Row is quite dynamic as well, but a lot of that is also cut-scenes. Whereas here, stuff is just delivered to players on-the-fly, and based on their own curiosity, they’re going to learn more or less, depending on where they go.

Drew: Yeah, it’s really sort of apples and oranges at this point. I think one of the great things about the narrative in a BioShock game is because it’s so much about the world, and you can get so much storytelling just through the environment, by just spending time walking through parts of the city, and really spending the time to go off the beaten path, and see what you find.

With the people who are sitting in their rooms talking about stuff -- just having normal conversations -- or finding these audio-logs that will give you a better sense of what people’s inner-thoughts are.

Building that sort of experience, that’s truly interactive; where we don’t make use of cut-scenes. It’s a first-person adventure, where you’re experiencing these things as Booker. It’s all about just trying to come up with these scenes, and writing these scenes in a way that the player has agency in them, and they’re not just sitting there watching a scene unfold.

AusGamers: Did you bring anything unique, that you feel, to the writing process? Obviously there was a key narrative already in place, but do you feel that you brought in something kind of unique?

Drew: I would like to hope so. Everyone on the writing team has certainly had a big contribution, in terms of crafting not only the main narrative, but also the background stuff. Because if the world doesn’t feel believable to you, then you’re not really going to get invested in the characters.

I’ve shipped a lot of games, and I think having an understanding of how you write for games, and how you keep the players engaged in the story that you’re telling is a useful toolset. But Infinite is sort of this unique thing that -- especially this story, the setting, and these characters -- you really haven’t seen anything like them in a game before, and we’re excited for people to finally get their hands on it.

AusGamers: Ken was saying just before that he wrapped up on Friday. Are you still going?

Drew: There’s still small little bug-fixes and tweaks; just making sure that... because as Ken really gets out to start to promote the game, we make sure that as things are coming online, if there are small things that we can tweak, or cut, or just making sure that nothing is getting lost in translation.

But I think, for the narrative team, everyone is focused on just experiencing the game for themselves at this point.

AusGamers: You probably can’t mention your favourite narrative scene, because that would be spoilers, but just based on the demo that we played through -- of the first two hours or so, which everybody is going to be talking about anyway -- is there something specific in there you can mention, that kind of resonates?

Drew: Yeah. Personally for me, I think the meeting of Liz, when you get to Monument Tower, and you get to see the world that she’s grown up in. She’s been locked in this tower since she was a small child. So sort of seeing how she was treated, and really getting that first sense of how endearing she is, you want to know more about her.

The performances from [Booker and Elizabeth voice actors] Troy and Courtney are absolutely phenomenal -- they are really the thing that has pushed these characters to the level that they’re at. I think their understanding of the characters... sometimes they know the characters better than anyone on the writing team. They really committed to the process, and the story, and the characters, and it’s just been great working with them.

AusGamers: I reminded myself then when I mentioned the demo, because there’s the boardwalk scene, where a tear happens early on and you see the 1980s. And I noticed that the music going on in the background of the boardwalk scene was actually “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cindy Lauper. Can you explain that?

Drew: The short answer is no, but it’s something that, as you play the game, I think we do a really good job about raising questions that are really clear, about “Why are these certain things happening?”. But it’s a hook to get you to play. We don’t ever present a question that we’re not going to answer. So as you play the game, things will become a little bit clearer.

AusGamers: Ok. So it wasn’t just a case of “Oh, we can’t actually license that song, so we’ll just make our own version of it”?

Drew: No. Everything is there for a purpose. We never want to put anything in a game that hasn’t been fully thought through. Everything exists for a reason, and as you play the game, that reason will become clear.

AusGamers: Now this is obviously a really hard question for you: but do you have a favourite character, outside of Elizabeth and Booker?

Drew: Outside of Elizabeth and Booker, I’m partial to probably Daisy Fitzroy. I think that she probably provides a really unique viewpoint on the city of Columbia -- especially in terms of the themes that we’re touching on, like the racial politics. She is a strong voice, and Kim Brooks was phenomenal in voicing her.

Comstock is also... as the antagonist, it’s a really interesting antagonist that you’ve never seen in a game before. His philosophy is very unique; the performance is great. The great thing about, not only the characters, but everything you see in a BioShock game, is nothing is as it seems the first time you look at something. There’s always something behind the curtain so-to-speak, that you’re going to discover as you go through the game.

AusGamers: The first game was a really dour experience, where you arrived in an already broken world. Obviously you arrive in Columbia and it’s bustling -- there’s a lot of discourse, but it’s bustling. The two characters that take you there: are they brother and sister? And if not, were they introduced to kind of add a light element to an otherwise heavy experience? Because I love the caper music that comes on when they’re around.

Drew: All I can say is that they play an important role in the story; you will meet them as you play through the game. And without getting into spoiler territory, you will see them throughout the game.

AusGamers: Now I brought up that I have a theory about how the first game and this game actually do connect, and Ken said that he was not allowed to talk about anything at all -- that he just couldn’t touch on it -- but told me that it was good that I was thinking in that direction, so I’m hoping it’s the right direction.

But for you, did you go into it assuming that the Universes were actually interconnected?

Drew: It’s a BioShock game. We’ve said that BioShock Infinite is obviously a spiritual successor to BioShock 1. But in terms of how things are connected in the broader sense, we really want to put that on the players to experience as they play the game, and come to their own conclusions.

AusGamers: I like that you avoided what I actually just said; that’s very clever.

Drew: [laughs]

AusGamers: So you’re wrapping up. What’s next for you?

Drew: A vacation [laughs]. It’s exciting to finally get to people getting the game in their hands, and getting to experience it on their own. Whatever comes next, we’ll deal with that when the game is on the shelf.

AusGamers: Do you think that it’s... obviously the big thing in videogames these days is multiplayer, multiplayer, multiplayer. Do you think it’s really important for a game like this to get out and show that, not only is there narrative in videogames, but there is narrative that you can only do in videogames? And is it a hope on your part -- just a personal hope -- that this might spark more interesting writing in videogames?

Drew: Well, what we set out to do at Irrational... this company was one of the first to do this type of game, and what we want to do is really push the envelope, in terms of how videogames can tell stories. That’s really what this company’s focused on I think.

In terms of what should, or shouldn’t be in this game: we’re focused on giving a quality experience to players. We play around a lot of different features, and we want to make sure that nothing that is ever going to go on a shelf, from Irrational Games, is ever going to be dictated by marketing; it’s going to be what our vision of the game is.

That’s really all we can focus on, it’s what we work on. We can’t be in the business of saying what other people should do -- this is what we’re doing, that’s why we’re all here, and that’s why we’re working on this game.

AusGamers: Alright. Well we’ll wrap it up there Drew, but: a) congrats for getting such an awesome gig, and b) congrats on such an awesome game. The first two hours were massively compelling, and I can’t wait to get back into it.

Drew: Fantastic.

AusGamers: Cheers. Thanks for that.

Drew: Thank you.
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