BioShock Infinite: The possibilities are endless in Irrational's secretive sequel
2nd Apr 2012 | 18:30
The name says it all - more, perhaps, than you might think. BioShock Infinite is about time travel, subspace rifts, callbacks to previous Irrational games, and ideas that feel like the future.
It's about the groundbreaking, the clichéd, and a story of unique ambition. In short, it's about whatever it takes to make the most exciting game of 2012, expectations be damned. As Irrational boss Ken Levine likes to remind us, there are no sacred cows.
"Besides all the sort of gameplay stuff that is unique to BioShock, I think we're just trying to make a world for people to explore and be in," he tells us. "There is just no other medium where you can get that kind of feeling. A world that lets you explore it at your pace, that lets you discover all its nooks and crannies; and this feeling of the fantastical and, in a lot of ways, the real."
This is Infinite's message for today - as opposed to yesterday when it was all about rollicking trailers that looked more like movies than a game. Now it wants to assure us that, for all its Final Fantasy-esque transmogrifications, it's a very familiar BioShock underneath. Its open spaces and highfalutin decor might shine in a midday sun, but its corners are still as dark.
Columbia, the game's city in the sky, harbours many of the same tensions and demons as BioShock's Rapture. A political powder-keg held up by rockets and balloons, it floats around the world teaching foreigners the American Way - much as the Death Star teaches planets how to explode.
To Booker DeWitt, a disgraced investigator sent there on a rescue mission, Columbia is a chance for redemption. But to the object of that mission, a buxom maiden called Elizabeth, it's a birdcage. Her powers to manipulate space and time have made her central to a war between the Founders (the ruling class) and Vox Populi (a violent civil rights movement). Her warden, ironically, is a giant mechanical bird that doesn't react well to betrayal. Not well at all.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
To know these things hungers us to know more, and Levine is very specific about what gets told and when. Of the 15-minute E3 trailer he explains: "We always have elements that sort of edify. We had a nice one in the last demo with the New York street scene, the movie theatre, the Revenge of the Jedi thing... it sort of put some of the things we've been talking about in context. Describing it never would have worked."
The scene in question sees a headstrong Elizabeth, determined to use her powers to revive a dying horse, opening a portal to 1983 instead, into the path of an oncoming truck. "You can't explain why these things are fun or why they're interesting," says Levine, "They either are or they're not. So I loathe to tell people what they've missed or if they've missed anything at all, because I don't think that's how it works, or how it should work."
Don't ask him, then, about what happens next. Don't ask if there'll be twists, or a level where one of the city's towers turns into a rocket ship and flies into a black hole, emerging in a small flat in Richmond where someone's carving a Rapture-shaped pumpkin. That may well be what happens, but you won't hear it from Ken Levine.
And besides, there's so much else to query in that dazzling, vertigo-inducing trailer that often literally plays like a rollercoaster. The tangled weave of 'skylines' that somehow strings Columbia together is a lot less intimidating than it appears, we're told, and not just because the trailer occurs several hours into the game. A Dead Space-style 'pinger', suggests Levine, will keep you on the right track - whether it's towards an objective or a user-defined point of interest.
There's a point in the trailer, furthermore, when a button prompt labelled 'FALL AND SURVIVE' - you're jumping off an exploding zeppelin into thin air at the time - makes clear that Infinite is often simpler (and safer) than it looks. Don't be surprised if its more rambunctious moments turn to QTE-style inputs to keep you in the game.
"It seems quite overwhelming but there are a couple of things that you're not seeing there," says Levine. "The fact that we've had several skyline sequences before, each one adding a layer of skill to it. The first skyline is basically just 'jump on this thing'. Generally, what you do is balance the amount of narrative going on; when you're not presenting a lot on the game system side, you present more on the narrative side. BioShock 1 is an example of that: the opening level doesn't have a lot of tools but has a very heavy narrative push."
How about some of the other intricacies? The relationship between DeWitt (you) and Elizabeth, for instance? As tactical as it is emotional, it's as central to how Infinite plays as are 'vigors' and 'nostrums' (read: 'plasmids' and 'tonics' from BioShock 1). Elizabeth conjuring up rainstorms and whirlwinds is one aspect, the alley-oop to your own BioShock-style combos. Plucking strategic objects like cover points and doorways out of parallel dimensions is another, each appearing as apparitions you have to carefully select. Used too much though, Elizabeth's powers make her suffer.
"At the beginning you're sort of exploiting her to some degree, in terms of what you need from her, what she wants, and what you want out of her," says Levine. "That relationship evolves over time. She's going to be there to help you; opening tears; going through a story with you that I think you'll be sympathetic to."
Other choices in the trailer - whether to euthanise the horse, for one - are more than just tactical trade-offs. They have narrative significance, triggering what many games would consider 'cinematics'. Just don't expect some kind of Mass Effect-style morality system. Levine insists that it's more about consequence than choice, hinting at the kind of fatalistic narrative seen in the first game.
"I'm more interested in watching the player's reaction to seeing what those consequences are, rather than managing some sort of numerical spectrum of good and evil. Because I don't think there is one in life. If there was, life would be a lot easier.
IN YOUR HANDS
"It's going to be interesting for people to get their hands on it and actually experience the traditional BioShock verbs of using weapons and powers - weapons in one hand, powers in the other - but also having this ability to alter the environment you're in through the tears; and making decisions you're going to have to make on top of the decisions you're already used to having to make."
All of this, he hopes, will put Elizabeth on a par with the heroine that inspired her: Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2. "Elizabeth is such a focus for us. Can you get past that veil of having this robot with you? In some way gamers can fill in the blanks like they used to do with graphics, and obviously there will be some blanks to fill in with Elizabeth.
But can there be those moments where you feel like you're actually with a person? Can that happen? That's our goal, because I think if we can have that in a world that feels real, with a person who can feel real, that's going to be something that people haven't really experienced in a game before."
Will it work? Levine doesn't know. Reminding us of the time when a room full of QA testers tore the first BioShock to shreds, mocking its dialogue and breaking his heart, Levine doesn't pretend to have all the answers. All he has are the instincts of himself and his team, which up until now have been pretty much impeccable.
"I would rather try big things and stumble sometimes," he says. "People say that Skyrim has bugs, but, good God, how could that game not have? Who knows, we may fall on our face, but I would rather fall on my face being ambitious than just pumping out the same thing every year."