Head in the Clouds: Writing BioShock Infinite

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Head in the Clouds: Writing BioShock Infinite

The toughest question to answer is “How do you write for a BioShock game?” Wait, let me back up.

I started at Irrational almost a year ago. At that point, there wasn’t a “writing team”, it was just Ken Levine. Luckily, Ken is a smart guy and knew that this upcoming game was going to be big. Bigger than any game he’d worked on before. So I tricked him into hiring me, and a couple months later we realized it was still a really big game, so Joe Fielder tricked us into hiring him as well. And the three of us, along with Jordan Thomas, tried to wrangle the beast that is BioShock Infinite.

The writing team at Irrational is structured a lot like a television writing staff. (At least I assume. I’ve never worked in TV, so maybe they don’t have a special room for footrubs and/or quiet sobbing.) We’ll sit down with a problem to solve (“How do we make Infinite make any sense?”) and pitch various ideas (“Free drugs in every box?”) until one of them sticks. (*INSERT ENDING OF BIOSHOCK INFINITE*) Then we’ll grind on that idea until it either sucks and we start over, or it becomes something… well, good. Hopefully.

But the key is this: We’re never satisfied. Something can always be better. The first idea is never the best one.

Our roles at Irrational are pretty well defined: Joe is the guy who can churn out an insane amount of writing in a very short amount of time, and I hate him for it. I’m really good at finding pictures of dogs who think they are people.

And Ken is able to take everything, mash it up, and deliver a coherent, challenging, and medium-defining piece of art.

So back to the first question: “How do you write for a BioShock game?”

You just start. And then you do it again. And again. And again. And eventually you get something pretty damn cool.

Hopefully, on March 26th, you’ll all agree with us.

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4 Author Replies

  • As an aspiring writer, my dream job would be to be a writer for a game company. I know I am majoring in Creative Writing in college. Would this be a good step in that direction? Or maybe the better question I would like to somehow find out somewhere would be: How you get a job as a writer for a game company? I want to assume that there are requirements for such a job, but it is my dream.

    • Having a writing background is obviously a huge asset, but it’s important to remember that videogames are a completely different medium than film, television, books, etc. Understanding game design is critical to being a good game writer. It’s not like you’re delivering a story/script from on high and then saying “make this!” It’s about collaboration, and the more you understand how games are made the easier that collaboration becomes.

      As for getting your foot in the door, it comes down to being humble. I got my start in QA back at Volition on the first Saints Row game. I knew I wanted to write, but you can’t just go “Hire me as a writer!” with zero game writing experience. You need to work up to that. Being in QA allowed me to learn how games are made, but more importantly it helped me build relationships with the “Guys in Charge” who gave me my break. The industry is a lot smaller than it seems, and if you leave people with positive impressions, that goes a LONG way in helping you achieve your goals down the road.

  • Still waiting on this, almost done paying my Song Bird edition & hopefully we’ll see a Demo for this next month.

  • Awesome stuff

    Drew i have a question:

    the girl who cosplays as elizabeth (forgot her name, russian name, beautiful girl btw), i heard there were plans to use her in commercials, is that still correct, and when might these commercials pop up?

    • Yep, that’s still correct! We actually scanned her face and based the CG model for our TV commercial on it. You’ll be able to see it when our TV campaign starts a little bit closer to the launch date.

  • My Songbird Edition awaits, as do I! ;)

  • …. and speaking of bioshock, whatever happen to that bioshock game that kevin levine promised for the vita? will it ever happen? or should i just forget the whole thing ever happen? can we at least get borderlands 2 for the vita? Randy Pitchford said that it could happen, but i haven’t heard anything since.

  • @ Folklore_Legendz: I’m pretty sure Ken Levine never “promised” a Bioshock for the Vita. I do recall him saying something along the lines of “it’s being worked on” or “I plan to do it”, but plans can change. And he never came out and said “I promise I’ll make a Bioshock for the Vita”. I’m sorry, but people like you, who take every little announcement and claim it’s a *promise* then feel slighted when things change, bug the hell out of me. Stop putting words in the devs mouths.
    And Randy Pitchford said Borderlands 2 on the Vita was possible, but they were too busy to do it, so it would be up to Sony to find someone to port the game. So asking Drew, from Irrational, about it, is an exercise in wasted time/energy.

    On-topic: Thank you Drew, for this little write-up. Still not sure if I’m going to buy Infinite, but reading this was enjoyable. It’s nice to see that game writers are normal people and don’t always have these amazing ideas that just appear in their minds, waiting to be placed on paper. You struggle, sob and get footrubs like the rest of us. :)
    Keep on gaming! (writing, too)

  • @AizawaYuuichi: hey it may bug the hell out of you, but is it something that i should care? it’s not that i’m putting words in anybody’s mouth, he works for irrational games right? so i made it sound a bit different from what kevin levine said at the E3 event, but so what it doesn’t change the fact that he mention a bioshock game for the vita. and i (a potential customer) wants to know more information about it. does it sitll bother you? (if so) then you can kiss m………

  • Won’t read this post because I want no spoilers, but I am looking forward to finally playing Bioshock Infinite and it is great that you guys spend the time to come here to read and reply on comments :)

  • Hopefully there will be some updates on the Move controls for Bioshock Infinite :P

  • I really, really cannot wait for this game!

  • I like the fact you put in the methods of ‘Never being satisfied’ cause it expands for more ideas to look towards, then go back to what you wrote and retrace the roots of different formalities have the story make sense to the players. It’s almost like me, when I’m in the writing process of my lyrics for my band and I constantly need to write more, cause I’m never satisfied with the concept of the idea. I want the songs to make sense and relate to others and still make it enjoyable, with a new twist to the tracks. Keep at what you do and looking forward to the game, Drew!

  • I honestly love hearing interviews from writers and understanding the process of how games work. Like the 1st comment, I’m aspiring to work in game development. The problem is I don’t know which field to work in. I’m exploring my options but I’ve always been interested in animation and story telling.

    I honestly will not finish a game if the story hasn’t kept me emotional invested or engaged, even with great combat (with the exception of artistic games like Journey). I know thats harsh, but gameplay mechanics are going to be similar throughout. Maybe a few new opportunities to test out new powers or new tactics, but I want to feel like I’m that guy doing those things, not taking back seat (which most games can’t accomplish). Music is just as important as well.

    What I’m trying to say is that I’m glad you guys are focusing on great stories. Your games have kept me invested and there is no denying this one will too. Your gameplay is excellent too so thats an added bonus. Keep up the good work.

  • Awesome! Honestly, sometimes it’s hard to remember that there are writers and game designers beyond Ken Levine, so it’s nice to get a reminder of the cooperative brainstorming process that goes into creating this game :p

    I really hope it lives up to expectations, which are extraordinary high as the first may be my favorite game this generation. But no matter what, I’m sure it’ll be a great game :p

  • To Drew thanks for the video it’s insightful.
    can’t wait for the game :-)

  • Awesome interview! As someone who is going to university soon to study game design and video game writting, I’ve always wanted to make a game as well written as Bioshock or a Tim Shaefer game. This interview was really helpful, and I’ll be playing infinite day one for sure =D

  • Thanks for some great insider info, the previous Bioshock games are the best! And I know a huge part that comes from the great storytelling and I can’t wait for Infinite. But I have a couple questions that I hope you or someone else can answer for me. The retail version for the PS3 is going to include the first game is this also going be included with the PSN download version and will it be available in digital format on same day as retail release? I am really wanting to get this day one but also would prefer going digital route. I have the original on my 360 but I would love to replay it my PS3.

  • any avatars coming ?!

  • love the 80’s cop-show theme music in this interview, lol… what song was that?

  • did anybody else hear battlefield music towards the end of the video? haha

  • awesome =D period……

  • So I have to play to figure out what happen to Liz’s finger?

  • LoL…can I trick you into hiring me to promote your game..

  • Would you kindly send me a free copy of the game? >:D

  • @Blazin_Blackie I see what you did there LOL….. I am definitely supporting these guys. It seems like they are putting so much in this game, just hope it shows in the full product. I wish I had the money for the Songbird edition.

  • well never really liked the bioshock story mainly becuz i didnt get it but the gamepllay was preety good looking forward to infinite

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