BioShock Infinite has a standout, iconic NPC: the bread boy.
The bread boy appears BioShock Infinite‘s burial at sea DLC episodes in an over-the-top Parisian dream sequence. He was the subject of a recent viral tweet which poked fun at what the tweeter saw as a clumsy way of telling players Hi! You are in Paris!
But the reasons the bread boy exists why he dances, why he’s holding the baguette – tell a broader story about how games are made and the very specific, very strange challenges that developers face.
So I turned to Gwen Frey, founder of Indie studio Chump Squad and Maker of the Bread Boy for the inside story.
Frey is currently working flat out on it a puzzle game called lab rat for Chump Squad. But already in 2011 she was at Irrational Games and worked as an animator BioShock Infinite and its downloadable content.
The Bread Boy scene from burial at sea takes place in a fantastical Paris, where everything is just a little too perfect. Of course, once this dream disappears, the player will be back in Rapture, the underwater city where most of them live burial at sea
“I thought it looked really good. But I found it quite static,” Frey said. “I spoke to some level builders and they agreed, like there just wasn’t enough movement in the scene.”
But adding movement to the scene wasn’t as simple as picking an NPC and blessing it with the powers of locomotion. Those NPCs… were fools.
“A fool is fair […] like a skeletal web just playing a looping animation,” Frey said. Chump is the nickname given to this particular type of NPC by the developers of Irrational Games, but they appear in practically every game of this type. They are characters that do not have virtual brains or pathfinding, unlike AI characters that have specific programmed behaviors.
The jerks in this scene from burial at sea have head and eye tracking scripts that Frey created. This allows the NPCs to react to Elizabeth’s presence (so they can say “Bonjour!”). But that’s about it.
Chumps were developed early in Frey’s tenure at Irrational Games.
“As soon as I got there, we basically realized that we could have a lot less AI on screen than we thought when we looked at the specs for the consoles,” Frey said. Due to the computational load of the AI characters, the team was only able to have seven on screen at a time – eight if you count Elizabeth, who is with us BioShock Infinite is an NPC and the player’s constant companion.
But it’s a lonely city in the sky with only seven characters visible at a time. So Frey worked on a system to implement chumps: NPCs that were animated but mostly stationary. They can be made to move, but their movements are scripted rather than AI controlled. The game could support many suckers on screen at once because they are so computationally easy.
And it would be a sucker that solves the movement problems in the Parisian scene. Watch the video for an in-depth description of how Frey beefed up the Bread Boy and unknowingly started a meme.
People seem to enjoy looking at the Bread Boy – even if it makes them laugh. Now Frey is working hard on a game that is intentionally funny: lab rata satirical puzzle game coming out this year from their studio, Chump Squad.
lab rat was born out of Frey’s early pandemic feelings of the absurdity of being trapped indoors doing silly little tasks on a computer.
“I felt like this rat in a cage just doing chores,” Frey said. “I looked at how technology was treating us, and it felt — I won’t say evil.” An evil AI, such as GLaDOS, would be actively cruel to humanity. What Frey felt was a little more distant and indifferent.
“Technology isn’t mean to us — technology is pretense,” Frey said. “It’s inauthentic. It pretends to be there for us. But it defines us. And it judges us. And it makes assumptions.”
At the same time, Gwen felt like it had been a long time since there had been “a really fun, good puzzle game.” The result is lab ratto be released later this year.
“The biggest thing for me is always that games have the ability to reach people,” Frey said. “And if I could make someone laugh with that, you know… that’s it. That’s the best feeling.”
The Bread Boy is pretty goofy, but it’s a reminder that every part of a game bears a developer’s fingerprint and the oddest details can point to an interesting story. This iconic, indelible meme boy exists due to a combination of technical limitations, the need to create a more dynamic scene, and a creative solution to the problem.
All in about the time it takes to make a baguette!