"BioShock Infinite" Writer Drew Holmes on Racism, Realism and Crafting Non-Annoying Characters

We sat down with one of the writers of 'BioShock Infinite.'

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Complex Original

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We've had plenty of time with BioShock Infinite—enough to write a 10-step guide to the game's first few hours, not to mention a list of the 10 biggest changes to the series.

So it was a great pleasure to sit down with Irrational Games' Drew Holmes, one of the talented writers crafting Infinite's multi-layered story. There was plenty we wanted to pick his brain about, and thankfully he was more than forthcoming, even—no, especially—about potentially sticky topics like racism.

Or how most companion characters in games are, unlike BioShock Infinite's Elizabeth, hopelessly irritating, and the challenges of making sure Irrational didn't commit the same fallacies that countless developers have before them.

There's plenty more, so read on and enjoy.


So you are a writer on Bioshock Infinite.

One of the writers. Ken [Levine] is really the creative director/lead writer. So it's—we've got a good-sized writing team. So there's Ken, there's myself, and then we have—Jordan Thomas helped us out a lot. He's at 2K Marin and he worked on BioShock 1 and BioShock 2. So he came out for a long time, stayed in Boston, and helped us work on the story. And then we've got two other writers…it's a good-sized team. I mean, the script for Infinite is, like—I think it was, just one level, during the boardwalk level, it's probably two to three times the size of all of BioShock 1's script. I mean, the world is alive, now. It's not dead. It's fully populated with characters. And so it expands the script enormously, especially because, you know, you've got Booker and Liz, and Booker talks, and Liz and he have this big dynamic, and the story's all about them and their journey. Like, it's huge, and I think Ken quickly realized that the story was far too big for one guy to tackle, and so set out to put together a writing team that would work really, really well together.

There's a lot of ambient dialogue, and it all comes together to make the story a lot richer.

Yeah. I think, you know, what's really central to a BioShock game is the setting, you know? And Rapture was a very specific type of setting. Columbia is different, but I think the same sort of tenets are still true. You want to be able to come into this place and feel that you can immerse yourself in the world, and feel like just by walking around the city, you get a sense of what it is, who lives there, you know, why the people that are there—what they're doing. What are their beliefs? Everything that, you know—because games are so, games are obviously interactive, I think one of the things that is constantly drilled into us at Irrational is: what's the story? And that's for literally everything in the game, you know? Anything that you can interact with in the world, anything you can see in the world. Environmental storytelling is such a big part of the company. You always have to be thinking, you know, what is the story of this place? Who lives here? Why? What are we trying to get across to the player? What are they supposed to be understanding? And I think making sure that that world then feels like these people are real and they do have their own lives and they are living in this fantastical city in 1912. It's all about making sure that things feel authentic. To really let players, you know, just get lost in the world.

There are so many visual details as well that do the same thing. If you just played the game on mute you'd still be able to pick up on so much of that.

Exactly! I think that's exactly right. I think, you know, when you play a game, no one ever wants to just sit and be talked to. Exposition in games is death. It's much more interesting for players to see an environment that has been set up, right, so that it feels real, and then allow them to sort of draw their own conclusions as to what exactly is happening in the world. It makes for a much more interactive experience, I think.

There are a lot of things that start out subtle and become more and more evident, like how the residents of Columbia worship America's founding fathers.

Yeah. I think what's really cool about BioShock games is that nothing is ever the way that it seems at first. There's always something behind the curtain. And it's about the player's journey, in terms of, like, finding out what actually is the truth. Not only the city, but of the characters.

I like not having a silent protagonist anymore, because there are moments when Booker's murmurings matched my thoughts about the world exactly, like when he realizes the people of Columbia are looking for him.

That's what's so great. That's what I think is so great about that moment. After you've gone through the city, and you've sort of got this sense—you start out in the boat, you know, and there are these weird sort of messages left from people that, you know—you're, obviously, sent on this mission. You get to this city. Booker is still very unclear as to what's happening, and the city seems a little off. And that moment where you see the hand with the brand, and Booker raises his hand [and his hand has the same brand]—that moment, it puts you on edge, right?

He goes "Oh shit."

There are clearly questions—there are clearly answers to questions that you're having, right? But it's not immediately apparent what those answers are. You're just going—you're very sort of, you're in Booker's—I think what's great is that immediately draws you, the player, in parallel with Booker. Because now you're both sitting there going, "What the hell is going on?"

There's a great moment right after that where the interracial couple gets brought out on stage, which is a totally different direction—when did racism become a big part of what you'd explore?

I think the moment that you decide to set a game in 1912, that's something that—you don't set a game in 1912 if you're not willing to sort of tackle that theme head-on. I think that is so steeped in the culture of the time, that if you're going to create a world that is authentic, you've got to be willing to sort of address that issue. And I think beyond just saying, "Oh, it's set in 1912, and so this is what it's going to be," right? It's a central theme to the story. It's central to the broader things that we're trying to get across in terms of, you know, Booker and Liz's journey, and Comstock, and how everything unfolds. We keep the story very close to the chest, but I think early on you see the religious aspects of the game, right? These things that are very core to what the game is about. I think much in the same way that the infanticide in BioShock 1 was central to the story. You can't separate the gameplay from the story. We certainly don't, and so I think as you play the game, you know, these big, broad ideas start to become apparent. And I think that's what really elevates the game's story into something that makes people—that's what makes it a BioShock game.

Before the racism is revealed, the city feels dream-like, but it drops a little hint, about the racism, and you go what? And then BOOM—you're asked to throw a baseball at a black girl.

No, but that's exactly what—that's the point. That's the goal that we set out with that scene. Certainly that's what Ken wants, right?

They bring them out and it's like, "Oh my god."

Yup. Exactly. And that's because nothing in a BioShock game is ever what it seems. And I think what's great about it is it's—much like in Rapture, right, which was this rigid belief in an ideology and how things spin out of control—it's much the same with Columbia, right? This sort of rigid adherence to Comstock's laws, right, is really what sets the stage for the major conflicts in the game.


And you do a really good job of setting up these mythical-seeming characters, and they're basically straw men, they're like the Wizard of Oz—you know you'll get to meet them eventually and they're not going to be what they seemed.

Yeah, I think that's what makes for the most interesting characters, are people that are multi-dimensional. You know, like, I think the best villains are always villains that never view themselves as the villain. They always have a point of view that they are trying to achieve. No one ever views themselves as purely evil. I think that's what makes great villains. It's what makes, you know, our hero's journey that much more rewarding: if there is a complex villain that you're up against. That's what we want. We want players to be thinking about this world that they're in, and deciding for themselves who's right and who's wrong.

So where did the city come from?

I think it came from a wish to, you know, not repeat ourselves. I think that by, certainly, looking at the time frame that the game was going to be set, looking at: what were sort of the broad themes of the time, with American exceptionalism—it was, you know, right around the time of the World's Fair in Chicago. And that sort of belief that America can do anything, right? I think you sort of just take that, and you—because it's a video game—you sort of take that and you start to push the boundaries of what you could get away with, right? What really is the most fantastical thing for the time period, right? And the floating city is one of them. And I think what's great about a BioShock game's unique setting, having it now be Columbia, having it be up in the air, it's also about, you know, pushing gameplay boundaries.

Whereas in BioShock 1, in the underwater Rapture, it looked amazing, right, but you never got to really get a sense of it, because it's just a corridor shooter. Which worked really well for the game that it was. But I think, you know, we always want to try to push and innovate and try to, you know, do things that no one's ever really tackled before. And so by setting it in the sky, immediately you can go, "Now we have a new—we can play around with a concept like the skylines," or something, where now it's not just a corridor. You're walking around in the city, now, if you see a skyline overhead, at a moment's notice you can hop on that skyline, and you can zip all over the place and discover, you know, new spots in the world. Hidden places. Use it in combat to, you know, get out of the enemy's range or find a sniper position. It's about—I think BioShock games in particular are all about giving the players this broad tool set to sort of, you know, customize their gameplay experience  and allow them to make lots of different choices to really feel like they are owning their gameplay experience.

And it does a great job of starting out small and building to the point where there's a huge environment to explore and experiment in.

Yeah, exactly, and I think, you know, the game does start off at a pretty slow burn, because we want to make sure that, you know—these systems are so complex, and so new to players that before you really toss them into the deep end, you've got to make sure that people understand how these things interact. So you start off and we'll give you your vigors so you sort of understand that system. And then we'll let you play around with the skylines; okay, so now I understand and know how the skylines can work with the vigors and work with my weapons, and that's cool. And then we introduce Liz. And then Liz will start tossing you stuff in combat, right, and making sure you're well stocked on supplies. And then we start to introduce tears. And so it's this slow little trickle effect that you're learning these systems over the course of the game, so that by the time we get to something like we saw in [the later level] Emporia, in the demo at the start, you know, you understand how all of those systems interact with each other, and you're able to make those snap decisions.

I'm like, you know, I want to jump on the skyline, have Liz open this tear, use a Devil's Kiss vigor on the oil slick that she opened up, and then, you know, jump over some place else so I can grab a sniper rifle, and then Liz is going to toss me some salts so I can send a Murder of Crows—and you know, you're constantly making these moment-to-moment decisions [snaps fingers] that I think really, you know, give players—you're always thinking two steps ahead, I think, because there are so many options available to you. It just feels like there's no scripted way to go about these combats. It's however you can think of trying to tackle an obstacle, you're going to be able to do it.

The first BioShock game was written so that people who had never heard of Ayn Rand or objectivism could still pick up on that aspect a little bit but just enjoy the game as a shooter, whereas players who were familiar with that philosophy could really sink their teeth into it and understand the game on a deeper level. Is that the same in Infinite?

Yeah, absolutely. I think you always want to, you know, approach telling a story like this—the people that want to sort of dive into the deeper meaning, right, it's there for them, and people who really sort of understand the sort of religious themes that we're tackling, or the American exceptionalism, or this sort of the populous movement of the Vox Populi, will have this sort of broader understanding of the world as a whole. But at the same time, you know, it's still at its core a kick-ass first-person shooter, right? With Liz's complex story and journey right at the forefront. And so I think the core of the story really is Booker and Liz and their journey through Columbia.

And then the backdrop, really, and the deeper appreciation comes from exploring the world and sort of diving into the religious themes and all this background, much like BioShock 1, right? Like you said, I think there are certainly players who could play that game never having heard of Ayn Rand, right, and still have an appreciation for the story because of the front story that was being told. It's just, you know, we respect the people that want to pick up a BioShock game and play. We respect our audience to, you know, come to the table with—you know, we're not going to talk down to them at all. If people want to sort of delve into what the deeper meaning of the game is, it's certainly there, right? We're going to invite that. We want to raise, I think, the level of debate in video games.


I want to ask you about Elizabeth, but first I want to ask you about something specific in the game. What's up with that part where the enemies who are shooting at you just stand down when Comstock tells them to and kneel there and let you kill them?

So those guys I think—you know, that's the first introduction to Comstock. What's that doing is presenting the player, you know, with what the founders' philosophy is. They're fully devoted to Comstock, right? And they will do whatever he says. And I think what's interesting, you know, is coming up on that moment, right, guys have stopped attacking you. You jump off the skyline. They're not attacking you, right? And you chose to kill them.


I think it's really interesting because I think, you know, we talk about the sort of moral ambiguity of the game, you know, sort of the moral grey areas, that—what we constantly want to do is present scenarios to the player where you're going to be thinking, like, is what I'm doing right? You know, same thing with the raffle moment [when the theme of racism is introduced in the game]. There's a clear—you're presented—it's one thing to have that moment at the raffle, and just watch everything play out. I think the moment that you're then presented with a choice, right, you immediately start to think about the world that you find yourself in, and who these characters are and what their beliefs are, right? And the fact that you have to make a decision on what to do—the fact that you're forced to think about, even for a split second, are you going to throw that ball at the couple or are you going to throw it at the announcer? That immediately puts you in the sense that you know what, there are things in this world that are going to be unexpected, right? And I think you immediately know that you're going to be intellectually challenged as you play this game.

I chose to not be racist, and later on that interracial couple came back and helped me out. Is that going to happen a lot? Consequences?

You know, there will be choices, like that raffle moment. But that's—I think it's not all about the binary "what do I want to do?" I think in BioShock 1, the choice that you had in terms of saving the Little Sister or harvesting the Little Sister, was incredibly powerful—the first time it happened. The second time, a little less and less. And by the time you're at the end of the game, you're not even thinking about the choice that you're presented with anymore, because by then it just becomes a button.

Do I want more now, or more later.

Right. This time around, we want to constantly be throwing curveballs at the player to force them to sort of re-evaluate where they find themselves, right? It's much more about thinking about this place that you find yourself in, thinking about the characters that you're interacting with. Who's right? Who's wrong? So that you're never—you never sort of check out and disengage yourself from the experience. It's always about, you know, what would you do in these situations?

So Elizabeth is a big focus, and she really shines because of the writing.

I think she has been the biggest challenge in the game, certainly from a narrative standpoint, because she's so—she really is the protagonist, in a lot of ways, of the story. Getting her to a state where she is a living, breathing character, who's charming, and funny, and endearing, and you want to spend time with her, was sort of the goal. We wanted to create a character who had really never been tackled before in a video game. You've seen companion characters a lot in the past, but none that are really your partner for the game, you know? And that don't act like just this AI that's here to do things for you, right? She has an opinion on the world. She has a viewpoint. She's been locked in this tower her whole life. Now that she's out, she's getting to experience the world for the first time, and she goes through this very complex character arc that, you know, by the time the game is over, you're going to have a very deep appreciation for who she is and what she means for the game.

Was it challenging to make sure that she never got annoying?

Yeah, absolutely, and it actually, you know, for quite a while, I think we went too far in the naivety direction. She was very like, [effeminately] "What's this? I've never seen this before," right? And it became really grating on people, because it was just like, you're just walking around with the dumb girl who's never seen sand before. So we played around with that and immediately saw that like, okay, this is—if we're going to want someone to spend, you know, hours and hours and hours with this girl, we're going to have to make her likable.

So you gave her books in her tower so she would know what sand is.

Well, yeah. We gave her books. We made her much more mature. She has knowledge of the world, but she doesn't have that experience, which I think actually makes her more endearing, because you're getting to see her interact with the world for the first time. And yeah, I think her—Courtnee Draper, who voices her, just did an absolutely phenomenal job. She and Troy [Baker] both—Troy does the voice of Booker—they really committed to these characters, and, in a lot of ways, know them better than the writing team, I think. And they've been great in all the recordings, you know, just saying like, "We've got a paragraph here," and they're just like, "You know what? I think we can do it with this sentence." And trusting them to get that emotion across without having to have—no one ever wants to listen to a speech on how a character feels. If you can get it across in one sentence, and you've got actors good enough to do that, stay the hell out of their way and just let it happen.

Well you all did a great job.


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