"A good monster is a monster you can imagine in repose."
That was the advice acclaimed horror writer and director Guillermo del Toro gave Ken Levine, the creator of the BioShock franchise, during a conversation on the Irrational Games podcast. Levine takes those words to heart in his own creative direction, and before building any terrifying monsters, he makes sure Irrational develops a rich, empathetic backstory that places each of the deformed, viciously homicidal creatures in routine settings, where they perform the most base of actions: contributing to society, petting a dog, relaxing, mourning.
Four Irrational members – Levine, art director Nate Wells, lead artist Shawn Robertson, and sound man Pat Balthrop – gave the PAX audience a glimpse into the secret lives and creation of five major BioShock Infinite villains: the Motorized Patriot, Handyman, Siren, Boys of Silence and Songbird.
Before crafting the grotesque, mechanical parody of George Washington with a mini gatling gun, Irrational considered the society in which its city in the sky existed. The early 20th century saw vast advances in America's science and technology fields, leading to a widespread fascination with robots and complicated machinery. This hive-mind imagination could have created such things as the "automatic gentleman," a personal robot servant for ladies on the go in 1912, and the first piece of concept art that catalyzed the Motorized Patriot's conception.
"There's this fantasy that people of the time wanted these automatons to do things for them," Wells said. "We don't start with a gun. We set the vibe first."
The Motorized Patriot experienced a few transformations after the automatic gentleman. Two such transformations: a lightning-powered creature with a weather vane on his head, and another a wandering "town crier" with a clock in his chest. Just as Rosie helped build Rapture, explaining her rivet gun and drill, the George Washington automaton has a place in Columbia's world that explains his final regalia and gun – but Irrational isn't sharing that just yet. Levine only figured it out himself about two weeks ago, he said.
The Motorized Patriot's face is a lesson in cracked veneer and fading blush, inspired by a creepy porcelain doll from the early 1900s that Levine's mom displayed in his childhood house. It had glass eyes, rosy cheeks and it "scared the fuck out of me," Levine said. He had a dream once that the doll flopped its head around on its own, and a follow-up dream where it killed his mom, he said.
That may explain the distinctly disturbing vibe that permeates Levine's titles. Or why every one of his titles features an overbearing, seemingly impermeable guardian figure. Thanks for the psychology lesson, Levine.
The first vision of the Handyman Irrational showed the PAX audience wasn't of his hulking arms or gorilla-like mechanics, but a black-and-white sketch of him petting a small dog with one gigantic metal finger. Other early images had the Handyman cowering, anguished, collapsed in an armchair, highlighting the intense emotional backstory of this particular monster. Irrational wouldn't divulge its specifics, wanting players to encounter it in the game for maximum effect.
The Handyman's iterations showed various forms of visual compassion, emphasizing his human elements within the tubes and gears of his robotic build to convey the tragedy behind his actions. The final version features a glowing heart in the center of the Handyman's chest, and his depressing animated history was founded on a piece of A.I. voice-over, Levine said: a wet cough.
The Siren – a mysterious, mythical woman floating above the BioShock Infinite universe in shrouded beauty – began as an old man in a cape. He was dubbed the "Resurrector" and he resembled the corrupt insane asylum warden from Beauty and the Beast, described as a "Jonathan Edwards, sinners in the hands of an angry god" character.
The Resurrector raised people from the dead, as his title suggested, but Irrational found the logic lacking in such a straightforward power. It was too fantastical, and the team wanted something new, different, and sensical for the time period.
There was a movement in the early 20th century involving "the ether," Levine described, a serious scientific belief in an ectoplasm that could perform cosmological feats, such as resurrection. In a world discovering magnetism, bacteria and radio waves, a mystical ectoplasm wasn't a complete stretch to many renowned scientists and thinkers, including Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle's belief basically destroyed his career, Levine noted, but it still makes for a wonderful excuse to add a floating woman who raises people from the dead to a 21st century video game.
Boys of Silence
The Boys of Silence are terrifying. Sound man Balthrop said the team worked on the Boys of Silence's sounds for months and months, initially using female metal singers, Malika, to rasp out the harshest, roughest screams that the sound team blended into what sounded like the mechanical rev of a factory belt starting up after years of disuse. When he played the concept sound file, the PAX audience was visibly affected by the resounding, horrifying metal-yell din that filled the hall.
As wonderfully grating as that sound was, Balthrop and Levine described it as a "wet" noise, meaning it didn't sound like it would come out of the body of the Boys of Silence. The improved noise begins with a boot-up noise and adds in the scream with grinding ting-tings of metal gears and power. You can hear it in the below video (listen to it on full volume).
"I love that sound," Levine said, no doubt making a few members of the audience question his sanity.
The Irrational boys gave a lot of credit to artist Rob Waters. He's said to draw characters over and over until they're perfect, detailed exactly to his specifications, and fit into the world just so. The Songbird was no different.
He drew a scene of Elizabeth petting the beak of a giant, semi-metallic bird, who leaned into the touch gently. It was a loving scene of a dangerous beast, and it clicked immediately with Levine and the rest of the team.
"He found the characters through the emotions," Levine said.
Balthrop played with the Songbird's voice – or lack thereof, at first. The Songbird began with no voice at all, generating only the sound it imparted on its environment. The result was missing a layer, Balthrop found, and so he started screaming in his studio. As such, the Songbird found its voice. Listen to Songbird slash Balthrop screaming below.