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Talking About “BioShock Infinite,” Part 1

Talking About “BioShock Infinite,” Part 1 (photo)

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This week, the video game world held its breath while waiting to hear what the Irrational Games development studio would be announcing as their next game. Surprisingly, creative lead Ken Levine and his crew are returning to the hallowed “BioShock” franchise. However, they’re setting up an all-new experience that leaves the underwater city of Rapture behind and flings players back in time to 1912 and the floating city of Columbia.

Whereas Jack — the hero of “BioShock” — was a mute cipher, “BioShock Infinite” offers a new hero named Booker DeWitt. He’s a former Pinkerton agent hired to find a woman named Elizabeth, who’s been missing for 15 years. Turns out she’s in Columbia, which disappeared into the clouds after an international incident and hasn’t been seen in years. While the gameplay bears some similarities to previous “BioShock” games — superpowers in the left hand, guns in the right — “Infinite” looks to tell an all-new story with all-new subtext and metaphors. After the game was revealed last night, Irrational’s director of product development Tim Gerritsen spoke about how the drive to reimagine what a sequel means and making turn-of-the-century American exceptionalism manifest into a video game.

We were all speculating as to what this could possibly be before tonight. And, for my part, the last thing I was guessing was more “BioShock.” I guess the various subterfuges you guys were pulling worked. Why stick to the “BioShock” branding, when you could have ostensibly called this something else?

After “BioShock,” corporate came to us and said, look, what do you guys want to do? They could have said, “You guys go pop out a sequel. Here’s your feature list. Go.” And they came to us and actually said, “What do you guys want to do?” And we really felt like “BioShock” is more than just a location. And we weren’t done exploring that space. But we had said what we wanted to say about Rapture. We were done with that. That’s why we didn’t do two. And we were like, all right, we want to stay in “BioShock”. What do we want to do? Well, let’s do something completely different.

We were all like “F— it, no sacred cows, what is a “BioShock” experience about?” And let’s explore that space. And the reason we called it “Infinite” was because there were so many infinite possibilities we came up with during the early stages of design. That word became a declarative statement on the nature of “BioShock.” What is the experience about? And, to us, in large part, it was about the exploration, the mood, the setting, the narrative, the mystery of what’s going on within a location rather than just being about a location. And we knew, if we go back to Rapture, we’ve already explored that space. One and two are about Rapture and we want to do something completely new.

You talk about “BioShock” as a conceptual space. So what are the pillars, what are the boundaries, what defines that space?

That’s really what we are exploring with “Infinite.” Part of the discovery process we put in with “Infinite” is that we want the player to help us define that, get that mystery solved as they play. So we don’t want to give away too many details. But to us, it’s partially that exploration, part of it is that mystery, how the narrative works within that space, immersing you in a setting that is so tightly built that it feels real. Ken [Levine]’s said,”It’s not a game about the time, it’s a game of the time.” So it’s something that sets you in that time period. And as a player, you don’t have to think about it.

We’re not going to give you 20 pages of “In 1902, this is what happened…” because that’s not who we are as a company. We wanted to create an entertainment experience. We meticulously research everything you see on the screen, from advertising design of the time frame to the technologies that were available. Obviously, they didn’t have flying cities at that time, but everything has to feel real to us. We put so much time and effort in making all those bits come together.

Then we said, “OK, how does that fit into a “BioShock” experience? How do we create that mystery? And how do we change it up?” This time around, you’re not just this cypher. In “BioShock,” it was “You don’t know who you are. You don’t know why you’re there. No one knows about this setting, it’s totally secret.” This time, you’re a character. You’ve been given a mission. You’ve been given a place to go that everybody knows about. But there’s still mystery. There’s still discovery. So when you get to the world, then that’s when it all begins, what’s going on.

08122010_BioShockInfiniteColumbia2.jpgRapture is one of the most iconic game locations in the last ten years, but in conceptualizing Columbia, a lot of the tools that you would have used in Rapture go out the window. So how do you build mystery in an open-air environment? You’re not in a glass dome anymore.

It was definitely a challenge [and] what the early part of our development was all about. In “BioShock,” you’re in this claustrophobic setting, where it’s like the whole world is crushing in on you at any moment. This game is the opposite. It’s about limitless possibility in the big opening expansive space. How do I navigate it? What are the endless opportunities that I have to get around this place? But how do we make it into that same narrative mysterious experience?

Our challenge as developers was to not sit on our laurels and just crank out another game, so our goal is to make something bit as iconic, every bit as new, and every bit as exciting, but in a completely different way.

What are the influences on Columbia? Because I look at it and it reminds me of that Miyazaki movie, “Howl’s Flying Castle.”

We kind of became enamored of the Columbia exposition in Chicago in 1893, the World’s Fair. It was like this pageant of everything that was great in America and everything great in the world. It was America saying, “We’re part of the world, too. Let’s put it on as a presentation for the world to share.” We loved that concept and that feeling. And then we’re like, “Okay, but it’s a flying city.” So how do we combine history and fantasy together? That was the big challenge for us.

With “BioShock”, it was about creating December 31st, 1959. That was the central core of the visual. This game, what gelled it for us all, was when Ken [Levine] said, “You know what, this is July 4th, 1900.” Conceptually, we’re saying the game takes place in 1912, but that was the core moment when we as a team locked the concept. Then we piled on the architectural influences. There’s these ad influences, the first motion pictures, the first radio. How does this all blend together and how do we create a world that feels cool and is exciting and interesting, and yet completely alien, the same way that Rapture did.

It seems the environment too is a lot more changeable than it was necessarily in Rapture.

Yeah, absolutely. You’re literally on a floating island. So anything can move at any time.

Especially when you have a character like Elisabeth who looks like she can control the weather.

You picked that up? [laughs]

08122010_ColumbiaBioshockInfinite.jpgYou talk about Columbia being a symbol, both in the fiction and in the real world. For all the optimism and almost arrogance that America had at the time, there was probably a little bit of hesitance, too. Is there a way you can communicate that design-wise?

Honestly, what captivated us was, in that time period, there was this whole sense of technology can fix everything. There’s going to be a device for anything and it’s all going to be amazing. This is before World War I. So machinery and technology is going to save the world. There was this sense of total optimism. Yet for every brightness, there’s a darkness. And the reality is, there was never going to be this “Oh, we flip a switch and suddenly machines make it all better. All the social issues are going to go away.” That’s not reality. America over the last hundred years has dealt with that. So in the game, that’s one of the things that we explore.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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