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Lead artist Shawn Robertson talks the aesthetic evolution of BioShock Infinite

Justin McElroy

It doesn't take long looking at screens or video from BioShock Infinite for you to realize it looks like nothing else on the market. We talked with lead artist Shawn Robertson about how the game's unique aesthetic evolved.

When you were building the world, what were some of your aesthetic influences? For me, I kept flashing back to Main Street at Disney World, you know, when you first walk in?

Good call, that's the period, that Gilded Age of America, the early 1900s when everybody's so full of hope and optimism. We didn't start there, it's definitely a journey. When we started, when we had the idea of a city in the sky, we were looking a lot at Art Nouveau, and Art Nouveau is kind of a dark, goth movement of the time, swirlies, very organic. The first few maps we built might as well have been Rapture. We brought the clouds in, it was dark and stormy, the clouds had a greenish tinge to them, it was very claustrophobic. Then we started pushing the clouds out.

Gallery: BioShock Infinite (E3 2011) | 6 Photos

We started looking at 1893 Chicago World Fair, started looking at American Exceptionalism, Main Street U.S.A. of course, the hope and optimism of that time really appealed to us, and we knew we could play against that with our story. So it definitely didn't spring fully-formed from our head, it was definitely a journey that our art team and Ken had to struggle to get to.

I assume you're doing a lot of research in books and the internet. When you see something from the period, do you try to transplant it directly into your world, or do you try to shape it?

We definitely have a filter we go through, we're not going to see something and bring it directly in, there's always some sort of filter, whether it's something as silly as, "This isn't gonna fit this area that I need it to," or, "Wow, I really like the way the windowsill looks on this building but I like the way the stairs twirl around on this building so I'm going to combine these elements."

The first few maps we built might as well have been Rapture.

You're right about source, we get a ton of our inspiration from source. You think about photography at the time, there are a lot of photographs because it kind of came into its own then. You can go back and look at the source pictures. You look at, especially like a street of New York in 1900, you can recognize it, but it's very different. You look at the signage, the traffic, the people, those are all things that exist on a New York street now. You have to look at the specificity of the signage, the people, what they were wearing. You try to absorb that and bring it into Columbia.

You're drawing inspiration from reality, but Columbia is pretty out there architecturally. How functional does that architecture have to be?

We build it as if it were an actual city, the last thing we want is geometry for geometry's sake. If we're going to go through the trouble of making a jetty or building, we want it to have a reason. Building hierarchy is very important to us, you're never going to walk into a building and walk right into someone's bedroom. The rest of the rooms in a house may be irrelevant, but the implication is that they're there. That's very important to us that we bring that sense of space to the player. We want it to feel like a real place with a real history so they want to explore it.

When Infinite was announced, Levine talked about how a BioShock game didn't necessarily need to be Rapture and Big Daddies, but that's really a narrative idea. I'm curious, from an aesthetic point of view, what typifies a BioShock game?

Really, for us on the art side, the core of what a BioShock game is is a sense of space. The world is its own character, it's a place that you want to explore, that you want to be in. You want to find out what's around the next corner, that you're going to take your time and learn about its history.

Does it have to be period? Is that a convenient shorthand for making it foreign and explorable?

It's funny, we never approached as a shorthand. We genuinely get excited about history and stuff like that. A bunch of us while we were talking about this were reading Devil in the White City, about the serial killer on the loose at the Chicago World's Fair. You get kind of caught up, one person's like, "You've got to read this book," and then, "Check this out, I found this," then the next thing you know it's like, well, we're all excited about the 1900s. It's a good starting point.

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