NEWS - Thursday, August 12, 2010

Just Announced Bioshock Infinite

In a recent interview, Bioshock Infinite’s game director Ken Levine talks about the upcoming title.  I know you all want to know about the game so without further adeu, here it is, the interview about the upcoming game Bioshock Infinite.

The Cloud City

Levine sets the stage for BioShock Infinite succinctly: "Unlike Rapture, this wasn’t a secret, underwater city constructed in silence and hidden from the world. [Columbia] was constructed in broad daylight in the 1900s America as an example of the success of the American experiment. This was like the Apollo project for the 1900s... But as the city floats around, to show the despots and the tyrants the success of our system, something terrible happens. As it turns out, this isn’t just a flying World’s Fair; Columbia is a Death Star. There’s a terrible, terrible international incident, and it turns out Columbia is armed to the teeth." In short, things go bad, the city disappears completely into the clouds, and for a long time, no one hears from the floating fortress.

The game’s story picks up in 1912, several years after those disastrous events. "You’re a character this time. You’re not an unknown cipher with no identity like you were in BioShock 1." You even have a name: Booker DeWitt, "a disgraced former Pinkerton agent... a man who prowls the docks when there’s trouble... a man who gets things done." You’re in Columbia to find a girl who’s been kidnapped and held prisoner. In any other game, that’d be a pretty generic premise. But this is BioShock, so there’s a lot more to this damsel in distress (named Elizabeth) than you might first imagine. Levine explains, "Finding Elizabeth is not the problem. Busting her out of her immediate prison is not the problem. The problem is you discover this woman is incredibly powerful. This woman is at the center of the conflict that is tearing the city apart. So once you bust her out you have to work with her, combine your abilities, combine your powers, and form a partnership to get out of this city."

The Iron Fist of Democracy

The first BioShock wasn’t set in the "real" world, yet the ideals and style of the game’s alternate 1960 setting infused every aspect of its underwater city, Rapture. And in the same way, BioShock Infinite is heavily influenced by the culture of the early 1900s. "We wouldn’t recognize America in 1880," Levine explains. "America was an agricultural backwater. It was agrarian. It was not really a player in the world stage. We’d gone through the Civil War, where 620,000 Americans died. Think about that. That’s like today, if six million Americans were killed in a war. This was not a country interested in imperialism."

"But by 1900, 20 years later, we weren’t a small agrarian country anymore. We weren’t producing wheat and cattle -- we were producing radios, motion pictures, cars. We were producing way more than we could consume. And you know what we needed? We needed markets. And we looked to the East, we looked to Asia, and we saw a great open path to all of Asia for us, and that was the Philippines. It had just thrown off the Spanish, and there was a lot of conflict about, ’should we annex the Philippines?’ President McKinley, at the time, at first didn’t want to. He had been through the Civil War. He had seen the death and destruction at Antietam. He had seen what happens in war. And he thought about it a long time, and finally he made his decision." But that decision is glossed over or ignored in most U.S. history books: We did annex the Philippines, and Levine says, "This is the world Columbia enters into: The time when we took the Philippines. Where we killed [around] 1 million Filipinos..."

"The same way Rapture represented a certain spirit of America at the time, so does Columbia." And that jingoistic feeling of superiority pervades BioShock Infinite’s world. Signs you find scattered around the city reflect America’s initial violent approach to imperialism. On a wall you see a poster of a woman holding up a sickly baby with words "Burden not Columbia with your chaff" emblazoned across the bottom. Meanwhile, the very first sign Levine shows off in the demo shows Uncle Sam surrounded by various minorities cowering in fear; the text around him reads: "It is our holy duty to guard against the foreign hordes." Unlike the first BioShock, which was heavily tied to objectivism, BioShock Infinite is "less about a particular person this time and more about a period. There were a ton of ideas going on around this time. One of them is a utopian future; a future where technology was going to solve all our problems. One is a sense of America really becoming a player on the world stage...and we really thought we could be a positive force. But look at what happened in the Philippines. It’s really interesting to see the world in this really positive sense, then to see what really happens."

You Never Really Leave Rapture

The world you explore in BioShock Infinite may not have a ceiling (or floor) anymore, but watching the game in action, you’ll get a definite sense of déjà vu. Off in the distance, radios play scratchy, period jazz tunes as you explore the city. The people you encounter attack with the same ruthless, single-minded tenacity of Rapture’s Splicers. And they use strange and psychic abilities (which for lack of a better word I’ll just call "Plasmids"). Like before, you can shoot lightning from your fingertips and catch projectiles in mid-air.

So what’s different? Levine wasn’t specific, but he did mention that, "you?re not going to be restricted to just the eight weapons of your radial." And instead of injecting your new Plasmid powers via a massive hypodermic needle, you drink a vile-looking potion. The powers you and your partner Elizabeth wield come with much more immediate consequences as well: After every increasingly tense encounter, Elizabeth looks weaker and weaker. She hacks and coughs on the floor, and her nose starts to bleed. Ken says, "This is a world where there are consequences. This is not a world where people toss around super powers that come without costs. We?re telling the story of real people caught in an unreal situation." And while that seems a lot less binary than the Little Sister conundrum in the first game, I don’t doubt your own moral choices will play an important role in the game.

But even without the underwater tombs, what’s BioShock without a Big Daddy? Even in the demo, you don’t find any lumbering SCUBA-suited monsters... you find something worse. One tenacious foe you fight, a metallic beast with an exposed, beating heart contained in a glass chamber in its chest and a face straight from turn-of-the-century "strongman" posters, was Big Daddy-like in his refusal to die easily. But he wasn’t anything compared to the enemy who closed out the demo. A giant, winged monstrosity swoops down from the sky to snatch Elizabeth from you -- a creature with the imposing frame of a Big Daddy, but the sleek contours and speed of a wicked looking crow.

And there’s still time for even bigger changes; Levine isn’t ready to rule out any possibilities for BioShock Infinite’s gameplay. "Anything, whether it’s multiplayer or Kinect or whatever, it’s about deciding if we have something unique and special to say. Same with BioShock 1. When we didn’t have multiplayer in BioShock 1, people were shocked. But I didn’t have anything in particular I wanted to say about that. Cause if you go out there, and you have something to say that other people are saying better or you don’t stand out in any particular way, then it’s a creative failure, and I guarantee it’ll be a commercial mistake. That said, we haven’t made any determination about any of these elements because we’re still sussing things out. If we have something unique and something specifically ’BioShock Infinite’ to say about any of those things, then we might."

Unanswered Questions

Just because Levine is returning to the BioShock franchise, doesn’t mean this is his personal take on "BioShock 2." He feels that 2K Marin "fulfilled their mission. They continued the story in Rapture, and they fulfilled that mission ably." So what’s BioShock Infinite’s purpose? "We have a very different mission. Our mission is to demonstrate that there are these core components that we’re continuing, but the franchise is not just about Rapture. It’s a much broader franchise. And not a lot of franchises have the freedom to do that." As Levine makes clear, when he introduces something new into his game, "Everything has to demand to belong there. To me, what makes a BioShock game, why this had to be a BioShock game, is because you’re in this amazing place that’s both fantastical and absurd, but also completely believable."

But for all the tantalizing answers the demo, the trailer, and Levine provide about BioShock Infinite’s background, they produce even more questions. How does all this relate to BioShock 1? Where do these amazing powers come from? The denizens of Columbia seem, at times, almost normal -- so what is it that fuels their psychotic, glowing-eyed rage? And for those things, Ken isn’t ready to answer. "All I’ll say about is that when you watch the demo again, you’ll see things you probably didn’t notice the first time." You’ll get to see gameplay footage soon, but, with a distant release date of 2012, most of your other questions will probably take a lot longer for Levine to get around to answering.


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