Jordan Thomas has no overall map for Rapture, the majestic underwater city in which the BioShock series is set. He doesn't have blueprints or a population figure. He works a little more by instinct.
Thomas is the creative director of Bioshock 2. He's got one of those dream gigs in games, overseeing a major release that has the budget and the ideas to be great, and one might even consider his job an easy one if you went by the logic that a sequel to hit video game like 2007's Bioshock makes Bioshock 2 a can't miss.
The problem is that Jordan Thomas is swimming against a current of doubt that Bioshock 2 can be great, can be creatively successful when, even on the eve of its release, past some pretty positive previews here on Kotaku, it can't shake the sense of being more a commercial project than an artful one. Such are most video games, of course, but Bioshock's faithful didn't want that to happen to their own and didn't cheer when Thomas' bosses much higher up on the executive level at publisher/developer Take-Two Interactive were talking in 2009 about Bioshock as a franchise that can spin five sequels just like — questionable example — Star Wars.
It's weird and welcome, then, that Jordan Thomas sounded nothing like a shill when he spoke to me last week about Bioshock 2. Instead he sounded like a man immersed in the craft of game creation almost incapable — this is praise — of talking in selling points.
"I'm more suited toward the potential in difficult problems rather than the divisive critical argument," he said as we began our interview discussing the wave of skepticism Bioshock 2 seemed to be up against.
The 2007 original was beloved, a first-person shooter that drowned its player in the underwater failed art deco Utopia of Rapture, asking the player to make moral choices about the fate of half-living little girls called Little Sisters while strategically battling enemies, including the hulking Big Daddies with a diverse arsenal of direct and indirect tactics — plus being exposed to the limits of free will in a video game. That was game of the year material. Bioshock 2, a return to Rapture… this time YOU are the Big Daddy… this time there are Little Sisters and menacing BIG Sisters.
Thomas, who worked on the first game as a level designer of its most positively received level, Fort Frolic, said he and his development teams genuinely sought to find "the soul of the thing."
What's a Bioshock? They sought to identify the first game's values. "The two words that came to the fore were expressivity and immediacy," he said. The expressivity was all that choice, the options for the player to shoot a bad guy, toss fireballs at him, hack a turret that would take him out, electrify a puddle and then coax him to run into it, and so on. All that choice had immediate consequence, not just delayed pay-off, Thomas reasons. Choice also involved saving the Little Sister or harvesting her for energy.
Expressivity and immediacy in a shooter. Those don't sound like the values you chase if you're making a cash-in. What hooked people on the gameplay was something the Bioshock 2 team could build upon, Thomas said. Tactically, even more of a varied and specific arsenal could be offered. The upgrading of super-power plasmids, for example, would no longer just make the flame-tossing or electricity-zapping powers more powerful. These powers would change as they were upgraded.
"Take all of that logic and map it to story," Thomas said. "We found people responded well to shaping the story in a shooter." So, he decided, there could be even more choices to make regarding the fate of the Little Sisters and that of other characters encountered in the game world. Mindful that even the most fervent fans of the first Bioshock recognized that the game lost steam and ingenuity in its final act, Thomas said coyly of the sequel, "I want Act 3 to be about you and your choices." He suggests that his sequel won't stumble near its end.
Thomas works out of 2K Marin, one of four development teams on the sequel, compared to two, 2K Boston and 2K Australia, involved with the first. 2K Australia is back, and added are 2K China working on some artwork and Digital Extremes doing the game's Bioshock-prequel multiplayer. "It ends up being organs of a single body," Thomas said, deflecting a concern that too many cooks could be spoiling Rapture.
Early on, Bioshock 2 was more supernatural, Thomas explained. Then he pulled back on that. Instead the driving focus became presenting a more personal Bioshock, a goal Thomas strained to explain without giving away core plot elements. Thomas could almost be interpreted as saying "this time it's personal," the hoariest of sequel-hyping cliches, but he's not. There's a struggle in the new game that, without giving it away, is about family. It's a different hook.
Ask Thomas what made Fort Frolic so special and how to bring more of it to Bioshock 2 and he goes in another direction heartening to the fans of craft over commercialism. He praised that Bioshock 1 level for its "great script from Ken [Levine, Bioshock's chief visionary]" and its "unity of themes." It was a massive level that had the player exploring the mournful artwork of sculptor Sander Cohen and partially featured, Thomas' words, "balletic combat." Theater is what it was. "I think much of Bioshock is theatrical," Thomas said. He said theater takes advantage of an "economy of content," its few actors and elements of its set and, importantly its lights that showcase what matters and leave in blackness what doesn't. The player experiences a game set under a spotlight. And Thomas now thinks of his team as that beam brightening only what matters. "Thinking as a spotlight helps to focus the developer and not to waste anything. Shine it on the key idea of anything a player might do."
Thomas doesn't look ahead to Bioshocks 3, 4 and beyond, should they ever (probably) exist. "The speculation you're referring to is not something that has factored heavily into our development of Bioshock 2," he said when asked about those 2K executive hopes for more and more Bioshock. He can't even tell me what Rapture is like in the 80s, just over a decade past the single-player campaign of Bioshock 2, other than to suggest that Rapture in the 80s would be a topic for bad jokes.
Rapture is where Thomas wants to be, improving gameplay and cajoling more decisions from the player to shape the action and the story. "I can't think of anywhere else I'd want to be," he said.
He had no final hype points to end his Kotaku interview. Asked for a final blurb or last details he wants to mention to readers out there, he instead offered this: "I supposed just that we are looking forward to what they feel about it. We genuinely believe Bioshock is more about asking questions than sending a message. We want to know what your answer is."