Ken Levine talked with Rock Paper Shotgun's Kieron Gillen for a long while about some design choices and features in Bioshock Infinite. It's always impressive seeing Levine give an interview since the guy knows his shit, and it makes a lot of sense that he cites Stephen King's On Writing as one of his major influences for how he thinks about games.
Probably the most interesting bit of the interview, for me, was hearing about the way they're scripting sequences to make the game feel more natural and unscripted. Think how Left 4 Dead operates with facilitating player discussions and conversations based on a variety of factors (how the player is doing, who is alive, etc.)
It’s a Bioshock game, so people expect a certain level of polish and visual oomph that you don’t expect from an RPG necessarily in moment-to-moment. Our action sequences are much more custom, much bigger. We have this opportunity to create this great level of consistency, like the scene in the doorway where she puts your hand around her neck, that’s so specifically animated. But then when she is in the world her actions have to be roughly on a par with that, consistent with that, even though we have no control over what the player is doing, or where he is going to be. It’s really complicated and really challenging, but we thought “it’s time to make it happen”.
Gillen: So what’s the real challenge? Apart from “everything”, what have you had to push and pull at to get that stuff working?
Levine: Okay, so, because we have these very specific moments – we know you’re going to go through that door and Elizabeth and that’s a scripted moment – then when you’re just walking around the city, we don’t know what the player is going to be doing. So the rest of the stuff in the store’s demo is not intended to be scripted in the same way – like the part where she puts on a Lincoln mask. She’s just goofing around. She’s using her own systems to do that. We build in these little moments, like the Lincoln head moment, and we build them where they can happen in a variety of play-throughs, and we have to have some redundancy, and we didn’t want them to repeat, or to stack up. So we had to build this system where the game is watching: Has Elizabeth done anything interesting for a while?Is there anything interesting that she could do here? Ah, there’s this Lincoln head, let’s do this. It’s walking an interesting line between scripting and emergence. Because you can’t just have pure emergence, you have a semi-emergent system where things like the Lincoln head can happen, if the situation is right.