In anticipation of the release of Bioshock Infinite, we recently attended the BAFTA Q&A session with the Creative Director at Irrational Games Ken Levine. Prior to the actual Q&A we were treated to a short presentation which focused on the creation on your companion character Elizabeth. Being the studious type I took some notes, and these scribbling are what I wish to share with you today.
Lets get to know Elizabeth. As well as being integral to the story line, Elizabeth plays a vital role in the gameplay as your companion Ai. Following on from previous projects such as System Shock 2 and Bioshock, the aim with Elizabeth was to create a believable partner to accompany you as you explored Columbia.
The way Ken described it, there are three key elements to make Elizabeth. The Human part, the Combat part and the Environmental interactions.
The first big question tackled when creating Elizabeth was how to simulate a believable human. Traditionally speaking most Ai’s are there to shoot you, which as Ken says is much easier to program. In order to make Elizabeth a viable companion instead of a simple enemy she needed to have a much more complicated range of reactions, interactions and emotions.
Of the three parts to Elizabeth (the scripted part, the combat part and the ‘hanging out’ part) the hanging out part was the most difficult to perfect. In order for her to appear real it was important to determine what sort of things is she interested in when she looks around the world. In order to manufacture the appearance of human curiosity, digital markers were placed within objects in the game world. These markers provided points for Elizabeth to focus on, guiding her reactions and letting her determine what is interesting and when. The information concealed in these markers appeared to be quite complex, for example certain markers would tell Elizabeth that if she has seen something once before, she may not be interested in it again. A real person may study a fine painting once in depth, yet only glance at it the second time they enter that same room. Replicating this behavior with Elizabeth helps to minimize annoying, unrealistic repetition and helps to make her seem more real.
Elizabeth has a large range of emotions, and these will vary depending on the players actions and the script. We were told that Elizabeth has a large number of emotional states, and that these states can be used to guide how she speaks and behaves. The way Ken described it was that if the player had just taken part in a huge battle and was surrounded by bodies, it would be unrealistic for Elizabeth to skip over to a door and open it cheerfully with no fear or compassion. In short these emotional states are key in making sure Elizabeth reacts appropriately, both in the scripted parts and depending on the players actions.
Another key goal was for Elizabeth to become liked by the player. Ken suggested that people who help us out are often liked, and this forms the basis of Elizabeths combat behavior. In order to do this it was key to determine ways in which Elizabeth can help you.
It was important that Elizabeth did not simply pick up a gun and start shooting. They didn’t want her to become a become a gun turret, and kill stealing is never popular. Instead it was decided that Elizabeth would have a range of skills complimentary to the players own combat. The goal was to make her appear smart and capable, and so she was given believable skills which could easily have been learnt from books during her captivity.
These skills include code breaking, lock picking and an in depth knowledge of the history of the city. As well as these learnt skills she can call out enemies, throw you ammo and health and of course open tears.
Interacting with the environment around her was key in making Elizabeth appear truly engaged in her world. In order to appear real she needed to have the ability to touch and explore things around her, and to have them react appropriately. In order to showcase this we were treated to a short section of the actual gameplay: Warning, I don’t think the below will spoil the game for you, but skip the next paragraph if you are overly spoiler sensitive!
Here we were shown a glimpse of the game in action. We joined Booker and Elizabeth on an artificial beach, where we had all of the fun of a traditional seaside holiday resort to explore. To the tune of a seaside version of ‘Girls just wanna have fun’ Elizabeth soon breaks away from Booker to trial some of the activities surrounding them such as skipping stones, dancing and weightlifting. Though Elizabeth is never far from Booker, her actions are independent, and the world reacts to her with an impressive degree of detail. She also holds idle conversation with Booker adding yet more to the realism. Drawing on her knowledge of the city Elizabeth excitedly tells Booker a little of the Beach’s history, before explaining that it only exists because of a complicated series of rain catchers and pumps.
It was interesting to find that most of this interaction would vary based on the players actions. Though a lot of detail and programming went into the beach, Ken noted that there was nothing to stop the player simply ignoring the setting completely and heading straight for the door. Very frustrating for those who spent long long hours making the game, but I suppose that is the price you pay for realistic player guided gameplay.
As a final note we were shown a little more of what actually goes into creating such a complex Ai character. In reality Elizabeth is not one woman but a combination of women all contributing to one role, with separate actresses for movement and voice as well as a good dose of programming.
Ken praised voice actress Courtnee Draper for her commitment to conveying the range emotions behind the character. We were shown a short video (available here) showing the intensity behind the voice acting, and how this was achieved. Elizabeths movement required a specialist motion capture artist, because in Ken’s words ‘not everyone can move like a Disney princess’. These real elements were combined with digital parts, such as her oversized emotive eyes, to create the final Elizabeth.
The conclusion of the presentation was that the overall goal was to make Elizabeth the pillar of the game, posing us the question is it possible to interact with people without turning them into observers?
I suppose this question will only be answered in time, but successful or not the fact that these sorts of questions are being asked is promising in itself. I can say for now that despite having my own initial reservations about taking the Bioshock franchise in this direction, this taste of the future of companion Ai’s was certainly very intriguing. After seeing the work and innovation that has been put in here something tells me that if anyone stands a chance at making this thing work, its probably Ken Levine and the team at Irrational.
Until next time,
Bioshock Infinite is due for release March 26th 2013 for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC