BioShock Infinite’s floating city Columbia is, simply put, gaming’s greatest environmental achievement since 2007’s Rapture. Developer Irrational Games spared no expense when it came to delivering something players had never seen before.
“I think Columbia is so layered and dense, I’d need to spend time reverse-engineering a core example to state what its aesthetic is in a sentence,” says Sinclair of the 1912 setting. “The quick answer is that Columbia is a massive stew of references. Some of the key research came from sources like Hello, Dolly!, Gangs of New York, Main Street (USA), Moulin Rouge, the 1900 Paris World Expo, the documentary America 1900, Boardwalk Empire, as well as a handful of websites like www.shorpy.com.”
Columbia is attractive, but also functional, intended to feel like a real place that people could inhabit – despite its irregular location. “We never want players to reach a point where the world is familiar and just fades into the background,” says Sinclair. “Columbia was conceived with the foundation of a believable cityscape, without sacrificing the fantasy elements.”
Irrational built levels by first blocking out space and then adjusting it to suit the needs that the design dictated. “From these block-outs we would make a couple of paint-overs in each level to work out what the buildings would look like,” explains environment artist Jamie McNulty. “These shots then got re-drawn into architectural template swatches that would inform the components to make up our buildings.
“We modelled the sections of these buildings in 3ds Max, applied them to a procedural building rule set, and worked out all of the kinks within the rules. Each building face could be set to have closed storefronts, open storefront bottoms, walls that tile windows, flat bricks and so on. We then started replacing any of our general block-out geometry with these procedural buildings to dress up the space.
“However, once we had the buildings and the general décor prepared, it still felt like something was missing,” McNulty continues. “It was a detailed terrain mesh. Using hand-crafted, zone-per-zone terrain meshes gave us the ability to tailor cobblestone walkways, roads, sidewalks, fancy patterns on the ground and so on. We finished our environments by painting vertexes on the terrains to provide texture variations like dirt, water or grass. These meshes helped to make the place sing.”
Creating a beautiful façade for the city was one thing, but convincing the player that it’s all set thousands of feet from terra firma was another. “Seeing open air and reminding players of the possibility of falling off the edge was a must,” says McNulty. “You can get caught up making tight alleys or creating streets with rows of buildings on each side, but without the open air it would have felt like a regular old street on the ground. With Columbia we almost always have one side of the street open to the sky.
“Once we realised how much sky we needed to show, it became a technical challenge to be able to draw the vistas and the views into the distance that opening up the streets created,” he recalls. “It’s not just opening up a spot, it’s also building the foliage [and] the world’s edging.”
There was also the question of creating the sensation, not just the view, of being on a floating city. “Our amazing programmers created Floating World tech for us to use,” explains McNulty. “It allowed us to parent multiple objects in Unreal to a single node. We could animate that node to move, bob and sway as we saw fit. This meant we could build with hundreds of meshes and just move them as a group ”
Why BioShock Infinite is a literal roller-coaster ride as well as a figurative one
One of Columbia’s most interesting features is its Sky-Lines: snaking, golden rails that twist, turn and dip through the towering architecture. Players can attach to these Sky-Lines using the Sky-Hook, enabling them to reach previously inaccessible heights, or – in some of the most spectacular moments – dropping from one rail and attaching to another in an exhilarating few seconds of free-fall.
“One of the greatest challenges of all was working out how to incorporate these Sky-Lines,” says environment artist Jamie McNulty. “Our budgets were squeezed to the very last drop in order to create any space that had a Sky-Line. These needed large areas to be able to create the ups and downs required in a roller-coaster-type experience. However, we still needed more architecture, more floor space, more nick-knacks on the ground and more people in the scenes so that it never felt sparse. It was a very tough balance.”
If you want to read the entire BioShock Infinite article and learn about Irrational Games’ approach to animation, enemy design and the creation of Elizabeth, then pick up your copy of 3D Artist issue 53 today. You can purchase it through the Imagine Shop or digitally through greatdigitalmags.com. Alternatively, why not make big savings through a subscription?