Please, don't write off the dazzling BioShock Infinite as simply BioShock in the sky. Yes, it has plasmid-like superpowers ("vigors") and an impossible retro sci-fi dystopia, but this is a BioShock that greatly contrasts with the one Ken Levine and Irrational Games created four years ago.
BioShock Infinite is more of a rollercoaster-powered thrill ride than its forebear. It's still a smart shooter, now woven with concepts of American exceptionalism and Jeffersonian ideals, threaded with an undercurrent of domestic violence, xenophobia and jingoism.
But it also has literal rollercoasters, thanks to the zippy skyline transportation system that connects the flying pieces of the city of Columbia. It has huge zeppelin fights and time-ripping portals and vigors that left players fire a murder of crows from one hand while firing a shotgun with the other.
Ken Levine, creative director at BioShock Infinite developer Irrational Games, talked about the facets of this complex game and its new approach to narrative at a recent preview event, starting with the concepts behind the floating city of Columbia.
"There was so much sci-fi art about cities in the sky," Levine said, referencing the early 19th century influences behind BioShock Infinite's unlikely setting. "That wasn't just happenstance, it was because there was so much optimism about science. They had electricity and movies and cars and radio," Levine says excitedly, rattling off a quick succession of innovations that impacted our world.
Columbia's freedom of movement and implied limitlessness exists in contrast to its dark, violent inhabitants—and to the dark, claustrophobic confines of Rapture, an aspect Levine feels may have been under-explored.
"We didn't really 'pay off' the ocean in BioShock," Levine says, "so I wanted to make sure we do that [with the sky] in BioShock Infinite." Irrational Games did this in the form of the game's high-speed rail system that serves as a theme park ride for the player, perhaps the most exciting new gameplay mechanic in the 2012 game.
Levine tells me this while we're sitting poolside at a Santa Monica hotel. He's drinking a preferred brand of hot chocolate—"It's only 25 calories," he says of the beverage—to keep his energy up during a long day of interviews.
"The game looks very colorful and very Disney-like," he says of the bright, airy Columbia, a city more physically stable than BioShock's sunken city of Rapture. "I like that, because it's contrasting what's going underneath, the darkness that the Vox Populi represents."
The Vox Populi, BioShock Infinite's "internationalist, anti-capitalist, Karl Marxian group formed as a response to the excesses of the city," represent more than just a faction in conflict with Columbia's Founders. They're also a new storytelling beat, Levine says.
That faction, Levine says, "won't automatically aggro on you," the player, like the Splicers of the original BioShock. Indeed, during our BioShock Infinite demo, we saw protagonist Booker Dewitt and his sidekick Elizabeth weaving through angry Vox Populi unharmed, bitter faces who taunted the two instead of attacking them.
"In BioShock, in the beginning of the game, you come off an elevator and there's a woman with a baby carriage," Levine recalls. "She's singing to it, but you see she's actually singing to a gun. We love that beat, but the moment she saw you, she immediately came after you." Irrational wants to stretch that beat.
"What if you didn't always know what's going to set those people off? Wouldn't that be interesting, to tell a story that way?"
The dialogue between Booker and Elizabeth will also tell that story, he says, allowing them to comment to each other on game events, allowing for "more storytelling than just what the player might see with their eyes." Players won't just have to rely on audio recordings and one-way conversations to extract the story of BioShock Infinite, Levine says.
Elizabeth, your super-powered companion in Infinite for a "substantial part of the game," is designed to help keep players engaged and informed, but not bothered by her presence as a sidekick. She's supernaturally gifted, but not your bad-ass equal.
"If [your AI companion] shoots guns, like you, they sort of have to be a net zero because you don't want them to win the game for you," Levine says of the dangers of included a computer-controlled ally. Players will instead control when and where they want Elizabeth to use her reality-tearing powers.
"Part of the interesting story is figuring out how she became this person. When you find her, she's in this Faraday cage and doesn't know that she has these powers," Levine says. Rooting out the mystery of Elizabeth and her giant protector, Songbird, is key to BioShock Infinite's plot. (Levine wouldn't tell me what Songbird was, whether he was fully mechanical or partly organic.)
It seems the component that Levine is most guarded about is BioShock Infinite's plot.
I asked the Irrational Games founder about the possibility of BioShock Infinite's story expanding beyond the disc, wondering if like Fallout 3, Mass Effect 2 and L.A. Noire, this (for now) single-player, story-driven experience would continue. He couldn't quite say.
"I'm very protective of the story," Levine says. "A lot of people want to do BioShock comics, BioShock Infinite comics—and there's the movie situation—but I'm very reluctant. If I can't be heavily engaged in it, it's tough. To some degree, sometimes a franchise gets big enough and you have to build your team around where you can have people you trust. I brought in guys like Steve Gaynor, who did [BioShock 2] Minerva's Den, and there are other people that you can eventually trust—but I'm still protective of it."
"I'm still fleshing everything out."