Impossible is just the beginning.
BioShock Infinite, technically the third game in the series, is actually only the second to come from the team at Irrational Games. Lead by Ken Levine, Irrational's work on BioShock was universally lauded by critics and gamers alike, and the game itself is now considered to be one of the best of the generation, with a metacritic rating of 96% - the second highest of all time on Xbox 360.
It was, in other words, rather good.
Since Infinite was revealed at E3 in 2011, the buzz around the title has been considerable. Any questions as to whether or not Irrational could follow up their seminal work seemed to be answered; any nay-sayers silenced. Just how impressive was it? Read my impressions - I was, shall we say, rather glowing in my assessment. Looking back, I wouldn't change a thing; I can still remember it vividly, and it still thrills me to think about it.
Time's an interesting thing, however, and rather a lot of it has passed between then and now. Gamers expectations have changed, and the visceral excitement of discovering BioShock is behind us. Can Irrational really deliver something that blows us away all over again? And just why has it taken so long, during which time little has been shown (until recently)? Why was the game delayed?
To find out the answers to these questions, many of which were supplied by NZGamer.com readers, we sat down with Irrational's Bill Gardner, BioShock Infinite's director of design. His answers, which you can read below, were certainly detailed and interesting; most tellingly, however, they were delivered with considerable passion, rather than with any of the usual signs of fatigue and exhaustion that often accompany last-minute interviews.
Let's hear what he had to say...
How did it feel to pick up BioShock once again after 2K Marin handled the 2nd installment? Like riding a bicycle?
I think that, early on, it was clear that we didn't want to go with the safe route. It was pretty clear that we're never satisfied to leave well enough alone, as a company at Irrational. There was definitely a feeling of coming home, that this is familiar, but we set out initially to really push ourselves and challenge gamers as well.
We certainly could have gone with the familiar; we could have gone back to Rapture. We're always pushing ourselves, finding new ways to innovate; to tell stories, to push narrative. We really wanted to stay true to what made the franchise great - the way the story is told, the way the player is an active participant in that story, the way we don't lock you in custcenes and all that [stuff].
We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what went wrong with BioShock; we spent a lot of time beating ourselves up, frankly. Chief among those issues was the fact that you had no voice; you were a cypher, and had no personality and no backstory (to some degree you did, but it was not nearly as meaningful as we wanted.) Right from the get-go, wanted to change that; we wanted to give you a personality and a backstory.
So we created Booker. It was also that we wanted to change a lot of the feel; we wanted to make it so that it wasn't just you coming into this museum, this dead world like in Rapture. We wanted [Infinite] to be much more vibrant and to have a much starker contrast, and to push ourselves.
Again, because the story is told in a very similar way to BioShock, it has a lot of the same feel, but it's obviously very different - you're in the sky, for one. Look at the vast differences in scope; look at the fact you have a character with you the entire time, to feed off and have a back and forth with. That was one of the core goals of the game; to really have someone with you on this journey and to watch these two characters evolve as human beings.
To us, that was a huge shift in the way we were approaching development. Taking on a companion character is a huge challenge, something I think a lot of developers tend to overlook when they're going in. In particular, with us, with what we're trying to do with Elizabeth, what we're trying to say with her narrative - I think we really took on way more than we realized.
I think it pays off; when you play the game, you really are enamoured with this character. Sometimes you just want to sit back and just watch how she's observing the world, how she's interacting with the characters and all that. As much as it was familiar, there were so many new challenges for us that it felt completely alien at the same time (from a development standpoint.) I think, again, that for the player the end result is that it hits the sweetspot of the same but different; it feels kinda BioShock-y but it's a completely different world, with a completely different approach, and really an evolution of what the series is all about.
What was the inspiration behind Columbia? Was it just because it's the literal opposite of Rapture?
[laughs] To some degree, I suppose there's some truth in that. What it came to was, after we spent all that time post-morteming (examining what makes a BioShock game a BioShock game), we started to come to this comfortable realization that 'you know what? it doesn't have to be about objectivism or Rapture or that particular setting or characters.'
So when we opened ourselves up to different possibilities, we felt this tremendous pull to the turn of the 20th century. There's a number of history buffs in the company, including Ken [Levine], so we started talking about that time period and [the reaction] was 'oh my god, we have to do that.'
Such a huge part of that time period was that the world was changing every day; there's new technologies, from the automobile to the radio, and then all of a sudden there's the airplane. That notion of flight, that notion of the optimism that 'technology is going to solve everything'.
We spent a lot of time doing research into visions of the future - what the future would look like, at the time. They had a lot of - really bizarre - artwork of people on flying bicycles and all these ridiculous flying contraptions. I can't say for sure if they were done seriously, if they actually believed that we were going to have a bicycle that you sit on and you just pedal and it has little wings, it will fly up and you're off in the sky, but that sense of optimism was really something that we were enamoured with.
That's the time period, and setting it in the sky, that solved a lot of our issues with BioShock, about the homogenous environments and combat, where it was tight and claustrophobic, and all of a sudden we could really open things up and push the combat variety, and really push ourselves in terms of the way we present the story, and the way in which we can really expand the scope. I think it was just a natural fit.
It's rare in development that you have this unanimous pull to something, but as soon as we established 'turn of the century, city in the sky' everyone was on board and it was just 'go go go go!' It was just one of those happy . . . I don't want to say accidents, but as soon as we came across it, we were all on board.
Why skyhooks? Where did that mechanic come from?
One of the things that makes a BioShock game, in our opinion, is this feeling of believability, that everything ties together in a way that you can believe, that everything makes sense and has a sense of place.
When looking at Rapture, one of the disappointments that we had (as developers) was that we didn't really make good on that fantasy of being at the bottom of the ocean. I think that most of the ocean was window dressing; if you think of the ocean as a character, and certainly as a gameplay mechanic, it was non-existent. Everything took place outside of the windows.
I think we wanted to address that; we were killing two birds with one stone here, we wanted to make sure that we were making good on being in a city in the sky, making good on that fantasy (like what is it going to feel like to fly? how do people get around in that city? how do you solve the issues of the verticality?). We also wanted to make sure that we're not falling into the same trap we did with BioShock, where the sky is just part of the setting - not part of the gameplay.
All these questions, all these issues we wanted to address, and we were trying to figure out ways to make it so that we could address those issues and we talked about a variety of ways to traverse and make it feel like you were sort of flying, but we didn't want to take on flight.
I think, in first person, when you're flying, it usually doesn't feel very good. It's not really a solved issue in terms of complexity, or in terms of interface. So we wanted to create that feeling, that exhilaration of flight, without the annoyances of the controls and the overwhelming nature of not really understanding the interface.
At one point, someone had this notion of what if we had T-bars (like, when you're skiing, the little lifts that take you up to the top of the mountain) and that quickly became this notion of a roller coaster in the sky. That was the direction we were going with the whole time; a weaponized roller coaster.
Obviously, there's a big difference between a roller coaster and what we have with the skylines, in that you can jump on and off them at any time (and so can your enemies), you can change direction, you can use weapons; they're going to feel quite a bit different. But that feeling, that visceral feeling of going down a drop on a roller coaster, that captures very much the spirit we were looking for while still allowing us to facilitate that travel and that verticality, as well as a new tool in combat.
Continue reading on page 2.