Few upcoming games have raised higher expectations than BioShock Infinite, Irrational Games' upcoming follow-up to the critically acclaimed BioShock. Ever since E3 2011, when Irrational first showed a staggeringly attractive, unbelievably exciting looking demo for what Infinite was intended to be, the press and fans alike have been gushing, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to sit down and play the thing. Then, at E3 2012, the game simply did not appear. Studio head Ken Levine has frequently remarked that the team wanted to focus more on finishing the full game, rather than trying to polish up another E3 demo. But then more stories came. Multiplayer had been toyed with and excised late in the cycle--though, as Levine has frequently remarked, it was also never an announced feature; senior Irrational staffers had left during the development process; and of course, the game was delayed into 2013, after originally staking out a holiday 2012 release date.
It all looked very worrisome. Here was a game that had won scads of E3 awards, but suddenly seemed to be coming somewhat unraveled behind the scenes. So when various press members were finally allowed to sit down and play BioShock Infinite over the course of the last few months, it's maybe not surprising that much of the coverage has focused on Levine and the behind-the-scenes machinations at Irrational, rather than just the game itself. Somewhere in there, BioShock Infinite the game started to play second fiddle to BioShock Infinite's development history. But let us not forget that there is a game here, and one that will be arriving on store shelves in just under a month. And based on the few hours I've spent with it, it's looking like a very, very good one too.
In addition to being able to play BioShock Infinite's first few hours, I also had the opportunity to talk to Levine about some of the core design choices of the game, its many themes and character relationships, and the challenges of changing one's mind so far into a development cycle. I came away from the experience feeling very confident in BioShock Infinite, though having played it, I can't help but wonder if our expectations for it were ever terribly realistic in the first place.
Before I launch into the larger meat of this, a couple of videos you should catch up on. First, the original E3 demo which won all those awards. If you've never seen it, you should, because I will be referencing it periodically throughout this piece. Second, embedded below, you should watch the opening five minutes and change of the game. This way I don't have to just recap it for you, and you have a sense of what you'll be getting into.
Now then, assuming you've watched, you'll notice the immediate similarities to the opening of BioShock. Let me be very clear that those similarities permeate just about every aspect of BioShock Infinite. The pace, the feel, the aesthetics, all of it is distinctly BioShock. Yes, you are now in the floating sky city of Columbia, and the year is 1912. Everything is bright, colorful, and alive, versus dead, dilapidated, and haunted. But nonetheless, from the second I ambled up onto that dock and launched myself skyward, I was keenly aware that I was pushing my way through an Irrational joint.
I only mention this because of the apparently not-entirely-accurate original demo for the game. In that first E3 demo, Infinite looked something close to effortless. As Booker DeWitt, tasked with protecting the lamb of Columbia (a young girl named Elizabeth with frightening, almost incomprehensible powers), you appeared able to move and fight past the hordes of angry soldiers of the city's leader (a religious zealot named Comstock) and the opposing anarchist forces of the Vox Populi with ease, jumping and flying through the city using the various "skyhooks" with no problem at all. Let me be clear that the final game isn't quite as effortless looking or feeling. Skyhooks now are, in fact, used via button prompts that appear on screen, and your character will essentially magnetize to them. Combat, both using guns and the various special "vigors" that provide you unique powers, really does feel like a better version of what you played in BioShock. The guns feel a bit weightier, and the AI certainly seems up to the challenge of keeping you at bay, but I wouldn't say I saw anything as outwardly unbelievable in terms of pacing, scripting, and sheer excitement as what was shown in that first demo.
Sections of that demo may appear later in the game, but at least a few of them were redesigned and repurposed for the final product--most notably, that first scene where Elizabeth creates one of her (seemingly) interdimensional tears into a more modern world, featuring a movie theater marquee with the title Revenge of the Jedi. That's now been pushed into an earlier piece of the game I was able to play, and now takes place in Paris, France (with a quick glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the background) for reasons I'll explain shortly. So if you don't see specific bits and pieces from that demo, it's probably because Ken Levine and crew decided those parts needed to change.
Everyone Needs An Editor
Undoubtedly by now you've heard some stories about how it can be a little rough working for Ken Levine. He has something of a reputation for being a harsh, sometimes mercurial editor, reportedly cutting or changing large swaths of content at seemingly inconvenient times during development. In Chris Plante's profile of the designer for Polygon, he specifically called out a story involving Irrational's former art director, who left prior to Infinite's completion, wherein Levine asked that an entire section of the game's art be redone because it didn't aesthetically fit with the rest of Columbia. And then there was Infinite's multiplayer, a whole section of the game apparently experimented with late in development, and abandoned prior to the game's delay into 2013. I asked Levine about whether he thinks this kind of work environment is challenging for his team. In Levine's mind, this kind of rewriting and reworking is not only necessary, but is rather a benefit of having the kind of creative control Irrational has over the game.
"The challenging part is that you want to give people a ton of freedom. But at the end of the day I also have an editorial role, which is really to be the voice of the gamer. If, as the voice of the gamer--and with this, you can really only do your best, because I'm obviously not representative of every gamer--but if you see something that doesn't work, as the voice of the gamer, you have to take action on it. At the same time, you don't want to smother things in the crib. So the question is, when is the right time to say, 'Okay, we've experimented with this, and it's not working?' That's always the challenging thing. You try to relay to people, 'Okay, look, just give me enough time so that if it doesn't work out, we can make a change.' And that's always a really rough audible to have to call. When is the right time to say this is or isn't working? As a developer, I'm always going to feel like, 'Hey, if I just had a liiiiittle more time to develop this process...' But then you look at the clock, and realize if you're on the wrong path, there's nothing you can do about it at that point.
"I think it can be very challenging for certain developers. Once you understand the process, you realize that it's a very rare thing to have in the industry to work somewhere where you can make mistakes. Most game companies, you take your swing at it, and that's it. Honestly, I think that's why a lot of games are...I think a lot of times mediocrity doesn't come out of people who aren't good developers, it comes out of the fact that usually you get your first shot at it, and that's it. Especially if you're on a really tight development cycle. As much as I think people can get frustrated when the work gets thrown out, I look at it as a huge blessing, the fact that I throw out as much of my own stuff? I'm reeaaaaaalllly happy you're not playing my first draft of this stuff."
Past that opening section, where Booker is launched into the sky and effectively baptized in order to gain entry into the city, Infinite wastes little time in getting you into the action. You're almost immediately in the thick of your hunt for Elizabeth, who is trapped in a tower, locked away by Comstock for reasons not yet revealed. The early goings of the search are replete with gunfire and chaos as you immediately make your impression on the picturesque city of Columbia. But once you meet up with Elizabeth, the game takes a different turn.
Elizabeth is an immediately fascinating character. Though you're only tangentially aware of her powers when you first encounter her, it's apparent that she's a curious, bright, almost effervescent presence. She twirls and wanders through her prison, a massive scientific laboratory that she's mostly unaware of. Scientific posts, with two-way mirrors, litter much of the area, but again, she does not know this. Instead she goes about her daily routine, which includes periodically toying with opening "tears" into what appear to be other universes. When she does this early on, it's to the aforementioned version of Paris, a place she professes a desperate desire to see after you first meet her.
"I think a lot of times mediocrity doesn't come out of people who aren't good developers, it comes out of the fact that usually you get your first shot at it, and that's it."Ken Levine on the benefits of creative control.
However, she is initially resistant to your presence, more alarmed by your sudden intrusion than grateful for a potential rescue. But eventually she flees the tower with you, as the largely unseen Songbird (her monstrous protector, who at this point in the story has not been explained in any great detail) thrashes and crashes into the tower, all but destroying it. When you do finally escape, you awake on a beach. Not a normal, ground-level beach, mind you, but a man made one full of happy Columbia citizens, who laze about in the sand and partake of nearby amusements as you would at any boardwalk. Elizabeth has found a group of nearby musicians and dancers, and revels in the opportunity to experience a world outside her prison. It's kind of a beautiful moment that I was honestly reluctant to interrupt.
This scene in particular is one Levine references as one of the most key moments in the game's script, and one that saw the most rewrites.
"Certainly, the boardwalk area you saw, that beach scene went through a lot of revision. That was the first time you were with Elizabeth and out walking around. Just figuring how what that was going to feel like and how that was going to work...that was the first area I wrote where we had all those people around. You see them earlier in the game, but that's the first piece I wrote. So that was sort of our test bed. So we rewrote, and re-recorded...some parts of the game you get right the first time. But that's the exception, not the rule."
In those first few hours of the game, Elizabeth establishes her self as both an intriguing character, and an exceedingly helpful one. She will dart around during combat, finding you ammo and health power-ups. One thing I didn't see was her fighting enemies one-on-one as she did in that original demo, but there's no indication that she won't ever do that, either. More to the point, Elizabeth feels like an independent entity. Sure, she follows you around wherever you go, but she isn't some escort mission tag along. You'll talk to her, chat with her, learn things just through casual conversation. It's all scripted, of course, but it's scripted in a way that feels extremely mindful of the player.
Interestingly, at one point, Irrational debated whether to even have Elizabeth speak at all.
"The first idea we had for her was that she was a mute," Levine told me. "The reason we were going with that was...what's the word...cowardice? It would be really convenient if she was this really great, expressive person who didn't have to speak. And then at some point we realized we were just hiding from the challenge. So we decided to go all out with her as a character. The other one was, I think we knew what she was going to be pretty early on, and a lot of it was just finding the right actor. Once we had that, you have that actor and that voice--in this case it was an actress named Courtney Draper--that helps you. Because you hear her talking when you write her. And the really big challenging part was figuring out when she first got free on the beach, what degree of naivete...you play her too young and too naive...honestly, someone who had been trapped in this tower by herself in real life would have some serious issues. Rapunzel would have some serious emotional damage. But that's not necessarily what you want to play.
"So then it's like, 'Do you want her to have a sense of the world? How much of a sense of the world do you want her to have?' You play her too naive and too young, we showed that to some people and it wasn't really working. But there's a degree. She hasn't seen any of this stuff before. Some of this stuff is, for her, very exciting and joyous. And some of it is downright terrifying. You see all of those colors as you go along. But also, the other important part as we went along, was how capable is she going to be? You know, the fact that she had all this time for book learning. And you see that as you go through the game, she has all these skills that, while she was in the tower, she had all this time to pick up. That was a big moment of revelation for me, where it was like, 'Wait a minute, let's make her a real partner. Not just in the story, but what things could she help out with along the way?' Because she really does have a pretty broad skill set."
The Challenge of Perspective
The relationship between Booker and Elizabeth is only barely fleshed out by the time my demo ended. But you can see a glimmer of something developing between them. It's nothing romantic, yet it's more than just the typical protector/protectee relationship. According to Levine, exploring the dynamic between these two, both mechanically and from a storytelling perspective, became his primary obsession in writing the game.
"If I'm going to spend years of my life on something, I want to look back and say I left it all on the field. I think that's extremely important to do. Because otherwise, you look back and you say, 'I could have done this, or I could have done that.' And that's a bad feeling. If you're making video games, and you're not putting your whole heart and soul into it, what's the point?"Ken Levine on taking on challenging developmental concepts.
"If you look at BioShock 1, Jack doesn't really have a story. I mean, he does, you sort of find out what his story is. But for most of the game, he seems like a nonentity. And he is, which is by design. So it's really a story about the events going on around you and the history of what's happened. For Infinite, there's a huge amount of that, there's a huge amount of archeology, where you can just explore the world and learn all the details of the world. But the two differences are that the world is not a graveyard, it's still very alive, and the future is still very much a question, unlike Rapture where it's pretty clear that this place is done. Here with Booker and Elizabeth, really, it's a character piece much more. That relationship to me, how you make it roll out in the space of a first-person shooter, and not have it play out in cutscenes. It's a different skill set. I won't say if it's easier or harder. I sense it's much easier from having written movies and plays to write a scene that plays out in a cutscene in an entirely controlled environment. Our struggle was to get across this relationship where we don't know exactly what the player's going to be doing, where they could break it pretty easy. That was a major challenge. Then, of course, the basic challenge of how do you write interesting characters, then on top of that, having to mix it into the first-person shooter, mix it into the player agency, mix it into the world going on around them, that was very very challenging. But I was endlessly fascinated by exploring that relationship."
Given that first-person perspective isn't always the most helpful in regards to this kind of storytelling, I asked Levine if the team had ever considered going a different way.
"It was always first-person. Our skill set, how we render these worlds, in third-person you can't really get up as close and look at things the way we'd like. It would seem to be a shame to be pulled back from that detail. Look, you can do a lot of detail in third-person, but we really like the player to be able to really zoom in on the smaller stuff, the tiny little books in front of you, and such. The game for us was a process of letting go of things we knew would be hard to do, and just saying I guess we're going to do it. You know, Booker talking, Elizabeth as a companion, the people in the world talking, everybody not being dead like in Rapture, or crazy. These were all the things we had to convince ourselves we were going to do. We had enough experience to know that each of these were going to add new levels of challenge, new levels of content creation, and just make our lives more difficult. But then, I have this theory that if the game developer is having an easy time, the gamer is not having a good time. If I'm going to spend years of my life on something, I want to look back and say I left it all on the field. I think that's extremely important to do. Because otherwise, you look back and you say, 'I could have done this, or I could have done that.' And that's a bad feeling. If you're making video games, and you're not putting your whole heart and soul into it, what's the point?"
The City in the Sky
Columbia is a massive city. Its various floating buildings and monuments seem to stretch on for miles. Orienting yourself to the place can be a bit tricky, though I rarely had too much trouble figuring out where to go. More to the point, it's easy to get lost in Columbia just poking around and looking at all those details that Levine mentioned. It's a gorgeously rendered place, pristine in quality but menacing in its aesthetics. Turn of the century propaganda posters line every wall and billboard, albeit ones never seen in reality. Here, Columbia is an island unto itself, a monoculture completely invested in itself and its own well-being. Every building looks pulled right out of the same architectural catalog as every other. In a way, it reminded me a lot of Disney Land, an idealized place built as much as a tribute to its own exceptionalism as a functioning city. According to Levine, that comparison was no accident.
"I went to Disney World when I was maybe ten," he said. "It made a huge impression on me, perhaps in ways that I didn't even understand at the time. Like if you look at Disney World in general, as a concept...you've been on the Pirates of the Caribbean or the Haunted Mansion, they are really the early predecessors of the BioShocks and the Half-Lifes of the world. They're pseudonarrative experiences where you don't know where the audience's attention is going to be, or be focused on. So everybody in the audience in the Haunted Mansion, as old and crude as it is in some ways, it's aesthetically beautiful still, and there's so much detail going on that there's no way you're going to see it all in one visit. And you're looking this way, and your friend's looking that way, and that's what to make makes it a sort of proto-game in a way. That's one that had a really profound experience on me.
"Then you think about how they built things. You know, Main Street USA, it's wonderful, and it feels authentic, but it's a giant fake in every way. It's built to three-quarter scale, it's not normal sized, the buildings are smaller, the doors are smaller, because it wants to empower kids to feel larger. It's a sort of monoculture of architecture, in that it all matches, it's all built together at once. Whereas in real cities, you know, look out the window there's a whole hodgepodge out there. And that's what's sort of similar about Rapture and Columbia, they can be monocultures of architecture, and they're all built at the same time by a single driving force, whether it's Andrew Ryan or Comstock. With Main Street, I think Disney was trying to build something that reflected his memory of his youth, and probably an idealized memory of his youth. I think that Columbia is, in some ways, a reflection of a time that people think existed in their heads, but never really did. There was never a town square as idyllic as that, with the parades breaking out all the time. But we really wanted that feeling, we really wanted to create that shiny apple, and you sense the worm crawling underneath. To get that, the apple had to be very shiny."
Columbia's Fury Found
Though he's mostly just a looming presence in the game's opening hours, Comstock makes a brief appearance at the very end of the section we were shown. Comstock, who is Columbia's spiritual and political leader, strikes an even more imposing figure than that of Andrew Ryan. His proselytizing and prophesying is found all over Columbia, in quotes repeated by citizens of the city, seen on the aforementioned pieces of propaganda, and in the few moments where he directly addresses Booker. According to Levine, Comstock's inspiration came from a mixture of political and religious figures of the time, and less from any one source, such as with Ryan, who was almost exclusively built around the ideologies and characters of Ayn Rand.
"Comstock is the embodiment of a lot of the thought of the time, but not any one person, necessarily. The sort of expansionist nature, the xenophobic nature, the revivalist religious nature, the Americanized religion. Specifically moving the center of gravity of the religion away from the Middle East to the United States. Their version of Christianity is very North America centric, literally involves the founding fathers being given divine gifts. That has certain similarities to certain religions, in some ways he's very Old Testament, talks about Columbia being an ark, the righteous in this ark and the Sodom below. He's just a mix of a lot of different thoughts of the time, and the challenge for me was figuring out what was appealing about him, what makes people drawn to him. Because you don't want to just tell people, 'Hey, you will follow him if you have an ecstatic religious experience,' and there's no other reason. So finding out what was appealing about him, that was important."
Religious themes aren't the only controversial element being addressed in Infinite. Additionally, the racial attitudes of the era are front-and-center in the game, especially during one segment early on in a place called the Hall of Heroes. Booker is a veteran of the Siege at Wounded Knee, as are other people apparently now residing in Columbia. In tribute to the heroes of the Siege, the Hall of Heroes features a crude animatronic display featuring overtly racist caricatures of Native American savages. Another section next door features a piece on the Boxer Rebellion, with all the overt stereotypes of Chinese people from the time. Given the nature of Columbia as a kind of hyper-segregationist society, it's not surprising that these themes would be shown and examined in such a blatant way. Still, it's not something you see done with much care or craft in games very often. I asked Levine if he ever had any concerns about addressing this kind of material in a game like this.
"The only concern is that you want to make sure everything you do-- and this is not just for challenging material, but all material--is that you're telling the right story."Ken Levine on dealing with challenging themes in games.
"The only concern is that you want to make sure everything you do--and this is not just for challenging material, but all material--is that you're telling the right story. If you stay on course, and you're grounded in your basic idea, people are going to go along with it and won't throw the controller down and say, 'Why am I playing this thing?' Because the challenging the material it is, the more dangerous it becomes when people say, 'I'm not going to go there.' I think people have a decent sense of whether it's necessary or not for the story. It has surprised me that I get a lot of questions about, 'Is this okay? Is it okay for games to deal with this subject matter?' That's kind of a shame, because why wouldn't it be? People build games about the things they're interested in. And I, and the members of this team are very interested in things like the evolution of society, and the evolution of culture, and science, and art, architecture, etc. And that people want to come along for our nerdy little interests is great.
"When we made Freedom Force, which is sort of a Silver Age comics tribute, it's because guys like Rob Waters and myself are huge comic nerds. We made that because we understood that period really well, because we had read so much of the content. So we can go into it and be totally authentic, because it was our background as fans. When I worked on a games like Tribes: Vengeance, I wasn't a huge fan of the franchise, and it showed, I think. It didn't have that same kind of authenticity as an Infinite, or BioShock, Freedom Force, or even System Shock 2. I was such a fan of that first game, I brought in such a love of Shodan and that world, that I was able to be super authentic in my writing, and I think that reflects in the quality."
A Month Away
BioShock Infinite's success as a game is readily apparent in those first few hours. The combat is fast-paced and challenging, the new special powers acquired via vigors are varied and useful, even at the very beginning, and the storytelling managed to sink its teeth into my brain pretty much from the get-go. If there was ever an expectation that BioShock Infinite would be something revolutionary, or unlike anything we've seen before, I will stand here and tell you that the game in its near-final state does not reach such lofty heights. But in absence of being something wholly new, Infinite nonetheless reminds you of some of the best gaming experiences of the last several years, not the least of which is the original BioShock. Maybe it won't live up to the loftiest of expectations, but few things ever do. All I know is that after spending a few hours with it, I just want to keep playing more. I want to explore every nook and cranny of Columbia, see every sight, fight every enemy, do everything there is to do. It's been weeks since I played BioShock Infinite, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since. I don't know of a higher compliment I can pay a game than that.