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Gamefest: Designing Rapture To Make Sense In  BioShock

Gamefest: Designing Rapture To Make Sense In BioShock

July 28, 2008 | By Christian Nutt, Michael Zenke

July 28, 2008 | By Christian Nutt, Michael Zenke
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More: Console/PC, Design



How do you create a believable space for an entirely unreal location? Gamasutra was at Microsoft's Gamefest event, where 2K Marin's lead environmental artist Hogarth de la Plante and lead level designer Jean-Paul LeBreton looked back at the creation of BioShock's city of Rapture.

The duo, now relocated from the original 2K Boston studio that created the original with 2K Australia, are working on BioShock 2 - but they explained how they created the original in this fascinating lecture.

De la Plante began by recognizing the challenge inherent in creating Rapture. "This was a strange place that was a challenge to make real," he said. "BioShock was really something that was renowned by critics for its narrative storytelling and its moody environment."

He noted the collaboration between the art and design departments as a key factor in the game's success. Even still, that relationship was not without its troubles. "Communicating was really hard at first but is the only reason this thing turned out at all," he said.

LeBreton concurred. "One challenge with BioShock is that we committed pretty early on to having as few cutscenes as we could as possible," he recalled. "A lot of our environments were tasked with a goal that a lot of environments don't have, to tell a story."

This was at times difficult, because of the nature of the underwater city of Rapture. "Making the fantastic believable is important, because when you start with something weird you have to work to make it not seem arbitrary and goofy," he noted.

The presentation began with a tour through discarded versions of BioShock levels created before the art and design teams began to work closely together. Said De la Plante, "It's hard to get across that a lot of these spaces are architecturally flawed. Some of the arbitrary things about this space are that there's a balcony, there are some city street meshes in there, placed pretty randomly, there's a little ramp that goes down - it's arbitrary."

"The reason that this is bad for design," he continued, "is because we're a semi-non-linear game. We were finding that people were having a real difficulty in finding out where to go and what everything was."

The purpose of the talk is to "find out what the thought process was" behind BioShock, and establish "the importance of having a believability to your spaces."

The Shifting Of Roles

De la Plante continued, "We started off in a very different place than we ended up. I started building levels way back in the Quake and Half-Life 1 days. The role of level designer was really broad back then. It really was much like one person taking all of the creative control over how one place looked and sounded and played. It was very much like one person runs the show, and it was very design-focused. That continued on for many years, and we had ten to 100 times as much detail."

"Basically, if people don't know or haven't gathered already, we have a very standard Unreal development process. At a certain point in BioShock's development process, probably I would say early 2006, our design team had constructed every location you would visit in the world of Rapture in BSP form, really roughly."

The artist was straightforward about the team's somewhat unrefined design processes of the time: "They kind of lobbed that package of stuff over the fence - what we ended up with was a space-dungeony spaghetti dinner." He joked, "Hey art guys, this is a train station! Make this into a train station with meshes!"

The accompanying slide was that of a strange-looking maze, a complex of corridors that resembles no real structure ever created by a human, despite attempting to look like one. LeBreton identified the problem: "This was designed in a vacuum, which is bad. There are lot of things where if you just draw this out, you're not thinking about the aesthetic soul of the place and, more germane to the design, you're not thinking about how people are navigating it."

De la Plante chimed in, saying, "At this point the design team on BioShock had constructed all of our levels without much consultation with the art department. Conversely the art department had been building our own prototype of what we thought Rapture was supposed to look like and we weren't communicating. Both departments figured, 'Hey, we know how to make a game and they don't.'"

Quipped the artist, "My joke about it is that the artists thought all of the designers were dice-rolling nerds and the designers thought all of the artists were coke-snorting rock stars."

LeBreton added: "It wasn't that we didn't know what we wanted, but the visions weren't unified. There was no point where anybody could sit down and play a game and say, 'That's BioShock.' We were in on the before and the after. We were tasked with, let's try something new. We were tasked with sitting down and working together to find something we were both happy with."

Some more recognizably BioShock art was shown, and LeBreton continued, "At the end of it we ended up with this, which has a lot of the art stuff going on, and a lot of the freedom to move around. It was really the first success case where we could say, 'That's Rapture, that's BioShock, that's success,' and unsurprisingly it came out of collaboration."

De la Plante concurred, saying, "JP and I basically just sat together for four or five days and hammered things out and it was really fun."

LeBreton continued, "The things we banged out were the signature things that expressed the spirit of the place through architecture, and you were able to snap those things into the architecture we'd just created."

Beginning the Four-Step Process

The BioShock staffers followed a simple formula: function follows form follows function. De Le Plante began, "The first component is function. The first thing we like to think about is what is a space's fictional function. This was important to us because Rapture was supposed to be a real city, so we didn't want a lava room or a ramp world. For Olympus Heights we knew we needed a high-rent apartment tower."

Said LeBreton, "It just goes back to making the whole fantastic believable thing. A really important thing for design and navigation is that if you decide on a form for a place early you are able to move forward with a design principle."

"If you're in a mall and you want to get to the bathroom, you know you need to go from the shop you're in and go out to the concourse," he explained. "You follow the concourse one of two ways till you find the food court and the bathrooms are usually off of the food court. Real world architects have thought of these problems a lot."

"Generally a player is not going to get too confused to be able to find their way out of the bathrooms and hallways when they want to find their own way in their level," the designer summarized.

De la Plante went on to state, "The next part of the equation is form. This is generally an aesthetic consideration."

LeBreton completed the loop: "The third part is back to function - the actual moment-to-moment function, the moment-to-moment gameplay experience, and all of the smaller details of how it's laid out. It's not really that gameplay was done as a pass after art or vice-versa, and so the way that it shook out really was that the moment-to-moment gameplay could be built into the levels and have a leg to stand on."

"That gels actually with a lot of good FPS design. You need places for the player to cover, places for enemies to hide behind, and you need not too much clutter."

The lead artist then noted: "At this point in the process we're moving full steam ahead building BioShock levels, and this is the birth of what we call the level architect position. One thing we don't want to get too hung up on this talk is labels - the level architect position is kind of an artist who is a little design literate, but it's also a collaboration through the entire design phase."

The fourth step in the process is what they call mise-en-scene, the film and theatre terminology meaning "set the scene."

De la Plante explained, "What happens is we build a space, we figure out we have an underwater apartment tower, we figure how it's going to look, JP decides how the gameplay is going to function, and then we ask a question: what happened before the player got there?

"This is really where BioShock is firing on all cylinders; the more levels we put mise-en-scene into, the more ambient story comes through the world," he happily noted.

LeBreton continued the description. "We've formalized the level architect position and we pair them off with a level designer, and they collaborate from day one," he said. "The main point is to get both departments on the same page and get something we can critique and define and get something out in the block-out stage. This is where most of the high-level creative design happens.

"We have the level architects who are first and foremost artists as the ones who are doing the BSP. That was the thing to come out of this whole process is that in order for art to make spaces that they could turn into polished, finished spaces, they had to do the BSP. It's really easy to make changes, " LeBreton said proudly. "One of the things is that we have them sitting together."

De la Plante concluded their process description, saying, "The potentially controversial thing about how we're doing things is that the designer does not have that level of control I talked about earlier. Transitioning away from being a pure designer, I found that having someone whose job it is take it away from me, make spaces that look nice and play well, and is part of their job description, I'm happy to hand it off."

He smiled, and said, "If what you get from that is a game like BioShock, it's a pretty good compromise."


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