The hype around upcoming videogame BioShock Infinite has been building for years.
Developers Irrational Games set the bar pretty high for themselves with 2007’s BioShock, a first-person shooter that won critical acclaim for its immersive and unique setting, solid gameplay and engaging storyline.
Recently I spoke with Bill Gardner, director of design on BioShock Infinite who has previously worked on Freedom Force, Tribes, SWAT 4 and the original BioShock.
While BioShock was set in the underwater city of Rapture, Infinite moves the franchise into the sky with Columbia, a city among the clouds. The new setting is not only higher than Rapture, says Gardner, but far larger, richer and more detailed too.
“We have a reputation at Irrational to take iteration to the extreme,” says Gardner.
“This project very definitely continues that tradition. There's probably more richness, detail and information in the first 30 - 45 minutes of Infinite than there is in the entire experience of Rapture.”
Welcome to Columbia
I recently played a preview of BioShock Infinite and one of the things that really stood out was just how impressive the setting of Columbia is. It has a level of detail that many games don’t get close to, something Irrational worked hard to achieve.
“We spent a lot of time making the world believable and making it feel lived-in,” says Gardner.
“It's a tremendous amount of fun to put yourself in the shoes of a Columbian, walk the streets and think about what would be for sale in the shops and what actually happened there. You can feel that when you play the game - it feels like a real place, a place you actually want to go to.
“We put a huge amount of love into the game, there's a lot of research gone into it and I hope it shows. Columbia has a lot of history and ties into an alternate American history. I really hope when you're walking down the streets of Columbia it feels like a real place.”
“It’s unravelling as you’re playing it”
BioShock Infinite also takes a different approach to how it ties the story into the setting.
“The starkest contrast between Rapture and Columbia, besides the scope, the brightness and the sky setting, is the story of Infinite. It's unravelling as you're playing it,” says Gardner.
“With BioShock, obviously we're very proud of that, but Rapture was almost like a museum where the party had already happened and you were coming to it after the fact. With Infinite, the events are actually happening, they unfold as you're actually walking through the space. You're the catalyst as Booker DeWitt. You're making your way through to meet Elizabeth and the world starts unravelling.
“In Rapture, you were essentially a cipher - a faceless, nameless individual making your way through an abandoned world. This time around we really wanted to make sure you had a clear role with a clear background and story. I think we've hit that with Booker.
“We wanted to make sure players had a lot more to invest in with the character and the world. Playing as Booker and making your way through this space with Elizabeth, it feels like a completely different experience.”
New vigors, new combat
While still a BioShock game, the setting of Columbia brings with to Infinite a full range of new weapons and vigors (powers). Some are similar to those of the first two BioShock games, but the new vigors were designed to suit the new gameplay.
“One thing that made creating the weapons and vigors easier this time around was that we had so much more variety in the environments,” says Gardner.
“I'm very proud of BioShock, but that gameplay experience was fairly homogenous. All the environments were tight and claustrophobic, so that lent itself to a very specific, kind of limited style of combat.
“You'd generally be fighting three or four guys at once, fairly close to you. As they were always at close range, something like a sniper rifle, an area-of-effect weapon is going to be pretty useless right. This time round, you're often fighting a large number of enemies at once and with the environments we have all this verticality to play with in interesting ways. The scope of the combat spaces is much more vast so things like area-of-effect and long-range weapons become much more meaningful.
“So we have the Murder of Crows, which can stun a large group of enemies at once, but would've been kind of pointless in BioShock. We also threw away a tonne of vigors. With each vigor we'd prototype it, give it a full effect pass, several balance passes, then if it's not right we'd pull it out, or change it until it is right.”
The Murder of Crows power is similar to Devouring Swarm in Dishonored, which summons a swarm of rats to eat an enemy to death. I asked Gardner if the team at Irrational were worried by the similarity when Dishonored was released last year.
“No,” he replied. “When you're in development for such a long time, similar powers come up in other games. When Dishonored came out we were all surprised at how similar some things were, but that was a sign we were doing something right, I thought, because the games are filling a clear niche.
“The rats power in Dishonored, that's a cool fantasy thing and it ties nicely into the fiction of that game. It was all about the plague, so having a swarm of rats power makes sense. I think it's a fantastic power. By extension, I think the Murder of Crows is as well.
“It fits in with the nature of the world of Infinite, the types of enemies you're fighting and so on. We were huge fans of Dishonored and it's always encouraging to see more games in the genre we have - the neat little RPG/shooter hybrids, if you will, so titles like that coming out is always rewarding.”
Who is Elizabeth?
For a lot of Infinite, DeWitt will be accompanied by Elizabeth, a computer-controlled character with her own set of unique abilities.
“You're on a journey with Elizabeth, watching her evolve as a human being,” says Gardner.
“She's someone that can also really help you out in combat and give you a new set of skills and abilities. Her 'tear' ability gives you new ways to exploit your tools, it opens up opportunities for all these tremendous environmental interactions. She can really turn the tide in combat.”
Exactly who Elizabeth is and why she is important to DeWitt's story and Columbia is something players should discover for themselves while playing BioShock Infinite.
While Infinite requires players to make choices throughout the game, the consequences won’t necessarily be obvious.
“It's something we battled quite a bit with, trying to find the right amount of change with choices,” says Gardner.
“We have a very specific story to tell. Ken [Levine, Irrational’s creative director] had a clear vision of what the world was and what the narrative he wanted to tell was. We didn't want to deviate too much from that, it's not a game about morality meters or making huge changes on the world.
“We're big fans of Mass Effect, but that's just not what we set out to do. This is the story of Elizabeth and Booker and watching how they change and evolve as characters, and rather than combat that with sweeping changes through the choices the player makes, we wanted to allow minor changes to the world rather than to the story.
“If you choose to do something that hurts someone, you may bump into them later on in the game and they'll treat you accordingly. It won't make you feel like you've had a huge impact on the narrative, but you will feel you've impacted on the world to some degree.”
Tackling racial themes
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was released in the United States late last year with a large degree of criticism over the racial themes in the film. Outspoken director Spike Lee publically stated he would not watch the film due to its repeated use of the word ‘nigger’.
Tarantino argued that as the film was set during the slavery era of America’s history, it would be detrimental to not include racist language and severe treatment of black slaves.
BioShock Infinite’s Columbia is a white supremacist setting and the game contains racist characters and images that could potentially cause controversy. Videogames are often looked upon even less favourably than films as entertainment products able to tackle serious issues appropriately, so I asked Gardner if Irrational were worried about that, especially in the wake of the response to Django Unchained.
“The reason we're taking on those complex and controversial topics is we're telling the story of this world at this time,” says Gardner.
“These racial issues are hugely sensitive in America, and rightfully so because it's a really dark spot on American history. But it would be disingenuous to skirt around those things. It's uncomfortable, for sure, but we're trying to make an honest portrayal of the world at this time.
“With Rapture there was a lot of appeal there, when you think about objectivism. Andrew Ryan's speech as you descended into Rapture said things like ‘Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?’ and you think yeah, sure, I can get behind that.
“Then you get into how that philosophy was taken to the extreme and it gets ugly. With Infinite and the themes of American Exceptionalism it's similar, it's about taking ideas to the extreme. The game has a lot of challenging issues and I'm curious to see how they're received.”
Gardner acknowledges that gamers are not generally given such serious issues to deal with and says that is reflective of Irrational’s philosophy.
“We don't take on easy topics, we try and challenge gamers,” says Gardner.
“As a whole, I don't think the industry gives gamers enough credit. I think there's a belief that gamers aren't willing to take on the heavy topics that we do. The fact that put them in our games is a testament to our faith in that willingness of gamers to put themselves in a different world, into difficult situations, difficult times, and to be able to look at something objectively and decide how they feel.
“We're not interested in taking sides ourselves, we want to pose the issues and let the players decide. This is not a diatribe, it's not us saying "the world was bad at this time", there were some amazing things happening in 1912. But there was also some ugliness. We want people to come along with us on that journey and see a window into a different time.”
Focus on single-player
BioShock Infinite will not include either competitive or co-operative multiplayer modes – it will focus entirely on the single-player experience. Gardner says this is what works best for the game and will ultimately please fans the most.
“I think we've doubled down on what made BioShock great,” says Gardner.
“The amount of mystery at the beginning of Infinite is astounding, you're juggling so many questions. And I think we’re a lot more successful this time at pulling you through the experience, by introducing more mystery and evolving the fiction as you're playing.”
Fans have just over a month left to wait before they can decide for themselves if the experience really delivers – BioShock Infinite is set for a release on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on March 26.