Our subscribers originally saw this story when it appeared in issue 210 of Game Informer, but now our online readers can get check out the full text of the article.
Out Of The Sea, Into The Clouds
A young girl named Elizabeth was whisked away to a faraway city and locked up in a tower. Confined to a single room, a hulking beast guarded her for 15 years until a brave man came to her rescue.
This premise sounds like a fairy tale populated by idyllic characters and unambiguous intentions, but it serves as the narrative core for the next BioShock – and the situation is more complex than it seems. The minds responsible for Rapture’s flooded corridors, Andrew Ryan’s twisted ideals, and the Big Daddies’ fatherly instincts wouldn’t be content to tell a simple fairy tale. With BioShock Infinite, Irrational Games returns to the series it created, leaving the ocean behind and turning its gaze toward the sky.
Elizabeth isn’t a typical damsel in distress; she has latent, dangerous special abilities that are slowly awakening. The faraway city where she is kept is called Columbia, a world-famous floating metropolis and one-time testament to America’s power and industry. While the hulking beast is Elizabeth’s jailor, it is also the only friend she has known during her long years of captivity. And the brave man who saves her – that’s where you come in.
The city of Rapture defined the identity of the BioShock series when Irrational Games released the original title in 2007. The ruined underwater utopia was more than just a collection of tunnels and rooms for players to shoot splicers – it became another character in the story with its own dark secrets. Given the popularity of the setting, gamers weren’t surprised to learn that the sequel (developed by 2K Marin) returned to Rapture. The art deco paradise and its iconic denizens – Big Daddies and Little Sisters – seemed to be inextricable aspects of the BioShock brand.
You won’t see any of them in BioShock Infinite.
“When we started working on this game, we decided that even though it’s a BioShock game, there are no sacred cows,” says Irrational’s president and creative director Ken Levine. In other words, everything gamers associate with BioShock was up for assessment. This process began shortly after the first game’s release, and resulted in a comprehensive look at its strengths and weaknesses.
“If you’re not the most critical person of your own stuff, you can’t progress as a game developer,” Levine says. “For us, we have this game that gets great reviews, and this great Metacritic average. But, it’s not about continuing what we did. It’s about saying, ‘Where are the opportunities?’”
For Irrational Games, finding opportunities isn’t simply about adding a few new weapons and characters. Three years after the project’s inception, the Boston-based studio has a brand new game engine, a visually stunning setting, a multifaceted story, and deeper gameplay – all while retaining the core of the BioShock experience.
“For us, BioShock has never been about a city,” Levine says. “It’s been about an idea. It’s about going to a place that’s mysterious and strange and learning about that place and the powers you can use. It’s about how you interact with that environment, how you interact with those characters.”
Even without the trappings of Rapture, fans will still see thematic and gameplay connections to the previous two games; this is still BioShock, but any lingering homesickness you may have for Andrew Ryan’s failed experiment will fall away the second you lay eyes on Columbia.
City In The Clouds
In the year 1912, the floating city of Columbia has disappeared from public view. A collection of islands held aloft in the air, the city is a technological marvel. Buildings bob on clouds, bridges and freight lines connect suspended landmasses, and the sky stretches off in all directions as far as the eye can see. Columbia is a seemingly impossible feat constructed as a monument to the United States’ growing superiority. “Imagine an Apollo project, but in 1900,” Levine explains. “As a demonstration of the glory and the power of the American democratic system – of what its technology, its industry, and its endeavor could accomplish.”
Prior to its disappearance, everyone knew about Columbia. Unlike Rapture, it isn’t one man’s work hidden at the bottom the ocean; the airborne city was conceived and built by the U.S. government to be paraded around the world as a shining beacon of prosperity. “It moved around, almost like a mobile World’s Fair, from country to country,” Levine says.
Traveling to ports around the world, Columbia was a symbol of peace and diplomacy. However, the city’s existence also implied a subtle, sinister threat. Imagine living overseas and watching an entire American metropolis float overhead in the early 1900s – an era where radio, automobiles, and airplanes are in their infancy. Imagine the shock when you compare the vastness of the United States’ technological prowess to the other nations of the world. Even when dispatched in the name of strengthening international relations, Columbia sent a clear, unmistakable message on behalf of America: We are beyond you.
Columbia’s population believed in the message their city conveyed, embodying the same ideals they preached. Revering the founding fathers as gods, valuing devotion to religion, and fearing anyone who didn’t fit in, the city’s leadership instilled a sense of extreme American nationalism among the citizens – in some cases, to a fault. “In the same way that Andrew Ryan represented a certain spirit in America, Columbia represents a certain spirit in America – good and bad,” Levine says.
That was the state of Columbia prior to the beginning of BioShock Infinite. As the game opens, the city has been lost for years, vanishing after a violent and high-profile international incident. Irrational isn’t revealing the exact nature of the event, except to say that Columbia was hiding more secrets than anyone had suspected. “This Apollo project became a Death Star,” Levine says. “It turns out Columbia wasn’t just a World’s Fair. It was a battleship, and it was armed. Heavily armed.”
The event in question created a schism between the leadership of Columbia and the United States, and Columbia disappeared into the clouds. Despite rampant speculation, its activity and location during the last several years are unknown – until a client approaches a man named Booker DeWitt with a proposition.
The Go-To Guy
The protagonists in the first two BioShock titles can hardly be called characters. Jack and Subject Delta served mainly as silent sets of eyes through which players could experience the action. They had little initiative of their own, instead receiving their objectives from voices over the radio. In BioShock Infinite, players do not control a blank slate who does what he is told. Booker DeWitt is a man with his own dialogue and backstory, as well as a history of getting out of tough situations.
“[Booker is] known as a man who gets things done,” Levine says. “If you need something accomplished, maybe legal, maybe not-so-legal, Booker DeWitt is the guy people turn to.” A capable, experienced protagonist also allows Irrational to throw out one of the conventions it relied on in the past: radio conversations.
Instead of taking orders from an unseen ally, Booker discerns his own goals, which he makes apparent to the player through dialogue. “He’s a smart guy,” Levine explains. “He’s been in scrapes before. He can figure what he needs to do to advance his objectives.”
With a reputation built through his work as a Pinkerton agent and strikebreaker, Booker is approached by a mysterious man with an unusual mission. He tells Booker a tale about a woman named Elizabeth, kidnapped and held hostage for 15 years. The man wants Elizabeth freed and brought back to him. Booker assumes that the job will be a basic rescue and escape mission until the man tells him where Elizabeth’s prison is located: Columbia. Even more intriguing, the man knows the location of the lost city.
Once Booker arrives, players notice that all is not well in Columbia. Explosions and gunfire can be heard in the distance, propaganda posters taking extreme nationalistic positions adorn the walls, and some buildings are dropping out of the sky. The city in the clouds is being torn apart by war; the violent international incident from years ago caused a splintering among Columbia’s population. Two factions – Columbia’s ruling party and an underground resistance group called the Vox Populi – are vying for control of the city.
The ruling party wants to maintain the status quo – a fervent devotion to God and country. The Vox Populi want to wipe out the nationalism and xenophobia that permeate the city, and they will go so far as to blow Columbia out of the sky to do so.
At one point during our demo, we saw a member of the ruling party named Saltonstall holding court in a gazebo to a crowd of empty chairs, denouncing the ideals of the Vox Populi: “The needs of our great city of Columbia must come before the desires of any foreigner, whether they be enemy or friend. For I have looked into the future, and one path is filled with amity and gold, and the other is fraught with the perils of a hostile and alien world!”
Shouting from gazebos isn’t what leads to Columbia’s strife. Armed conflict between the ruling party and Vox Populi broke out, and the battles between the two factions are tearing the city apart. As if rescuing Elizabeth in the midst of a revolution in unfriendly territory weren’t dangerous enough, Booker soon learns that she is at the center of it all.
Running contrary to the standard damsel-in-distress trope, finding Elizabeth is not the ultimate goal in BioShock Infinite. In fact, she is a companion character who accompanies you through much of the adventure. Booker will locate Elizabeth near the beginning of the game. Getting her out of Columbia is the tricky part. “The princess is not in another castle,” laughs art director Nate Wells. “She’s in the first castle.”
The reason Booker and Elizabeth are united so early is that their developing bond plays a major role in the action, from a gameplay perspective as well as a narrative one. Kept in a one-room prison in a tower for 15 years, Elizabeth doesn’t know anything about the world around her. Though naïve in some respects, her greatest asset is a dormant set of powerful abilities that she learns to control throughout the course of the game. Once the two meet up, Booker and Elizabeth both use their unique skills to aid each other in their escape; Booker has ingenuity and proficiency with firearms, and Elizabeth has an arsenal of psionic abilities that are getting stronger by the minute.
Wherever Booker goes with Elizabeth, conflict seems to follow. As you spend more time with Elizabeth, you’ll gain insight into her significance and, more importantly, her personality. “You develop this relationship and learn about her, and you’re both learning about the city together,” Levine says. “There’s a notion of prophecy in this world, and that Elizabeth is very important to fate of the city.”
The prophecy, along with her powers, is what puts Elizabeth at the center of the war in Columbia. The ruling party and the Vox Populi both want her for their own agendas. “The powers-that-be certainly have the upper hand, but Elizabeth is the wild card,” Levine explains. “She could be a complete wild card and trump card for both sides.” Thankfully, she has Booker to help keep her safe.
As Alyx Vance in Half-Life 2 and Yorda in Ico both demonstrated, integrating a companion provides an opportunity for the player to form an emotional attachment to a character that simply isn’t possible through conventional cutscenes and dialogue. However, adding another person to the equation also presents challenges to keeping the game balanced and fun to play. If Elizabeth is too powerful, she could just kill all of the enemies with her abilities. If she’s too weak, Booker would have to worry about monitoring her health bar. The team at Irrational is aware of the issues posed by companion characters in other games, but your time with Elizabeth won’t be plagued by them.
“We wanted her to impact your gameplay, but we never wanted her to drive your gameplay,” Levine says. “We don’t want you protecting her, keeping her from dying, because we don’t think that’s interesting. We don’t want her driving the action where she kills a bunch of enemies. She just sets up opportunities for you to do super-awesome cool s---.”
In our demo, gun-toting supporters of Columbia’s ruling party are swarming Booker. He fires a few electro-bolts from one hand while shooting his rifle with the other (yes, dual wielding powers and weapons is confirmed), but the horde of enemies is too large to hold off. Just when it seems hopeless, Elizabeth unleashes her powers. The sky darkens, thunder cracks, the winds pick up, and rain starts to fall on the advancing pack of goons. She shouts: “Hit it now,” and Booker fires a bolt of lightning into the crowd of soaking wet enemies, electrocuting the entire group.
Elizabeth asks for a moment to rest. Using her powers takes a physical toll on her, depending on the level of exertion, and she needs some time to recover after using them. Unfortunately, the two don’t have long enough to enjoy the triumph of their teamwork.
Shortly after the electric storm, they encounter a hulking robotic humanoid on a metal bridge. Our first thought is that this is BioShock Infinite’s answer to the Big Daddy, but we’re wrong. Irrational is currently calling these enemies Alphas; they can buff and resurrect lesser units, as well as summon artillery strikes, making them challenging (and high-value) targets in any encounter. Booker uses telekinesis to grab a mortar shell and throw it at the creature, but to no avail. Elizabeth uses her power to weaken the structural support on top of the bridge – an example of Irrational setting up an opportunity players can choose to exploit or ignore. Booker uses his telekinesis again, this time throwing a mortar shell at the support, which comes crashing down on the Alpha and destroys the bridge in a cacophony of explosions and falling metal.
With the threat dispatched, it seems like the two partners have a chance to catch their breath. “That was the one who was chasing you, right?” Booker asks. Elizabeth responds quietly and grimly: “No. That wasn’t Him. That wasn’t Him.” A thundering crash echoes from atop a building behind them. “That’s Him!”
The God of the Sky
Both the ruling party and the Vox Populi want Elizabeth in their hands, but the biggest obstacle to her escape (and Booker successfully completing his job) is a vigilant, winged sentinel that the people of Columbia refer to as “Him.”
“This thing is going to appear as a god of vengeance coming down upon you, and he’s huge,” Levine says. The massive guardian stands 30 feet tall, and like a Big Daddy, wears a suit strapped with mechanical implements and a helmet with glowing portals for eyes. Unlike Big Daddies, however, this beast is not mass-produced. There is only one guardian, and it has only one job: Keep Elizabeth locked in her prison. He was built expressly for that purpose, but by whom is a mystery that will only be revealed when you play the game.
“In this city, he serves a similar role [to the Big Daddy],” Levine says. “But we didn’t want to repeat that dynamic. We loved that dynamic, but we think that traditional Big Daddy/Little Sister dynamic has been explored. But there are echoes.”
The huge winged guardian isn’t some malevolent creature that wishes Elizabeth harm. It has guarded her faithfully for all 15 years of her captivity, and during that time, the silent creature was the only living thing with which Elizabeth had any contact. While he was technically her captor, he was also a friend, caretaker, and protector. When He drops from the sky and attacks Booker like an unstoppable juggernaut, it isn’t out of malice. He just wants to bring Elizabeth home.
“Elizabeth and [Him] have a complicated relationship, because she loves him,” Levine says. “He would take care of her, but he also imprisoned her. It’s a kind of growing up story; she needs to get away from him…He is hell-bent on keeping the two of you apart and getting her back to her cage.”
How does Elizabeth’s relationship with Him affect the inevitable fights players will have against the beast? If it is so powerful and relentless, why isn’t BioShock Infinite one long chase scene? “Think of the dynamic with Him as a series of encounters that always end in some kind of resolution: you get away, he takes Elizabeth, he separates you from Elizabeth, et cetera,” explains Levine. “He will appear at several points during the game, and these will be large, impactful events…His role in the game will continue to evolve in surprising ways.”
Elizabeth wants the best of both worlds: to escape Columbia with Booker without harming her friend and former jailor. Even if Booker could just electro-bolt and shotgun Him to death (which he can’t), it would irreparably damage his relationship with Elizabeth. “Booker is being challenged and having his life threatened by it, but this woman he’s growing attached to also has a deep connection to this thing,” Levine says. “From a feelings standpoint, it’s like the girl you love and her father.” You won’t find any easy answers when faced with these encounters; reconciling the bond between Him and Elizabeth with the bond between Elizabeth and Booker forms the emotional core of BioShock Infinite.
War in Columbia
Indiscriminate assault may not be an option when you’re staring Him down, but Booker has versatility when it comes to taking on the other denizens of Columbia. When compared to the first two BioShock titles, Infinite has more options for customization and combat, as well as more variety in the kinds of fights players encounter.
“People liked BioShock as a story experience, but some people felt it wasn’t the tightest or most diverse combat experience in terms of great gunplay,” Levine acknowledges. In the original, players tended to stick with a single loadout of plasmids, weapons, and tonics. For Infinite, you’re going to need to be more adaptable. Not only are the radial menus gone (no longer limiting your selection of guns and powers), but you also have more abilities with varying levels of power.
Columbia’s version of plasmids are called vigors, and they aren’t fueled by a single resource. Instead, each vigor has a set number of charges when you obtain it, which eliminates the need for a blue mana bar. Weaker vigors like telekinesis have more uses per pick-up than stronger ones, but they will still be a resource you need to manage – no more buying stacks of Eve hypos and firing off powers left and right. If that sounds disappointing, don’t worry; the way vigors are consumed has an upside.
“The limitation on the charges is more about being able to scale them to different powers, making some of them hugely, awesomely powerful,” Levine explains. “Whereas in BioShock they all had to be roughly the same power because they all had roughly the same cost.” Just like ammo for the best weapons is scarce in many games, limited-use vigors are much stronger than the normal tier, and allow Booker to demonstrate a more impressive array of abilities.
One new power, dubbed Murder of Crows, unleashes a wave of the black birds on a target from a distance. In our demo, Booker obtained the ability after rifle-butting the bodyguard of the loud-mouthed politician Saltonstall over a railing near the gazebo. The bodyguard dropped a black bottle in the shape of a crow, which bestowed the ability after Booker drank it. Given their temporary nature, it’s clear that vigors don’t rewrite the subject’s DNA like plasmids, but Irrational isn’t ready to reveal exactly how they grant exceptional powers to users.
Another major addition to the combat is a part of Columbia’s infrastructure: the skylines. These rails were originally built between the floating islands of the city to transport freight, but they aren’t just a bathysphere-like mode of transportation. The skylines are heavily integrated into the outdoor combat experience, adding a dimension of speed and verticality to battles. Since they’re essentially rails, you can focus on combat instead of navigation as you ride them.
“The goal of the skylines is to feel fast, agile, and dynamic,” Levine says. In the demo, after Booker kills Saltonstall’s bodyguard, the politician grabs onto a skyline and zips away. The skyline moves people incredibly quickly – think of it like a rollercoaster going downhill. As Booker pursues, an enemy comes zooming toward him in the opposite direction with a weapon raised, preparing for a mid-air joust. Booker sends him flying with a well-timed melee attack, accompanied by a slow-motion camera effect that sells the weight of the impact.
While this sequence seemed fairly scripted, skylines are built into many of the outdoor environments, letting Booker access different areas and elevations freely. “It’s kind of like a designer’s dream to just make a jungle gym,” says lead designer Bill Gardner. “To make a crazy playground and really find out what works.”
By leaping between skylines, shooting enemies as you zip by them, and getting a new vantage point on the battle, the shape of Infinite’s encounters can change quickly. The goal is to empower the player, not frustrate them with first-person platforming. “I want to make it clear: this is not a game where you stumble off a ledge and fall to your death,” Levine assures.
With a new system for handling vigors and the promise of taking to the skies, BioShock’s brand of combat is looking better than ever. However, even with new tools at your disposal, you may want to use some restraint. Sometimes the best way to win a fight is to not start one in the first place.
The theme of choice was prominent in the original BioShock. Should you harvest or save the Little Sisters? Is this the right time to fight that Big Daddy? Would you kindly? While the notion of free will isn’t one of the main thematic hooks in BioShock Infinite, player choice remains a key component.
In BioShock, Big Daddies were opt-in boss fights. They wouldn’t attack you unless you provoked them, but every splicer in Rapture would instantly charge you on sight. With Infinite, more residents of Columbia are like the Big Daddies, going about their business with no particular reason to attack. For example, we saw Booker stumble into a bar while evading mortar fire from Saltonstall. Some of the patrons turned in his direction, and others just continued their conversations – then someone pulled out a shotgun and all hell broke loose.
“Imagine that Wild West scene: You go into a room, and everybody’s got their hands on their guns, but nobody’s drawing,” Levine says. “That’s a dynamic you don’t really see explored, and we wanted to expand it out…We didn’t want to repeat the Big Daddy/Little Sister dynamic, but we did want to explore interesting relationships between the player and the AIs.”
This tactic also gives Irrational a chance to deliver narrative in a different way. Booker can observe characters having discussions and other interactions, relying less on audio recordings picked up off the ground. The situation still has tension, because you won’t know who will be the first to attack, but it also conveys story without taking control away from the player. Alternately, you can just kick down the door with guns blazing; the choice is yours. “Once the shooting starts, the narrative’s over in every game,” Wells says. “That’s why [other developers] take your gun away and letterbox the screen. We don’t like to do that. In some ways, those tactical realities provide a solution that’s completely organic for narrative.”
Your choices also have a greater impact on how Booker’s abilities progress. One of the problems the team identified with the original BioShock is how players didn’t have to live with many of their choices. For instance, if you didn’t like your plasmid and tonic loadout, you could just swap in new ones at a gene bank. That is no longer the case with Infinite.
“We definitely heard some concerns from the audience,” Levine says. “I think there was a sense that BioShock was simpler than System Shock 2, and part of the reason for that is that you didn’t have to make permanent choices. It was so malleable.”
Instead of letting players switch out their vigors and passive abilities (called nostrums), the team is implementing a system where you make more choices regarding Booker’s progression. For example, you may come across an unstable nostrum, and when you pick it up, you have the opportunity to select which of three possible abilities the nostrum bestows. Once you choose, that ability is there to stay.
How you build your character – the weapons you favor, combat tactics you use, and which nostrums you select to support that playstyle – also impacts the vigors you find. “We’re making a lot more smaller scale but meaningful permanent decisions throughout the course of this game,” Levine says. “When you pick up a vigor, for instance, based on the decisions you’ve made, that’s going to be a different vigor.”
The choices you make with regards to how you engage enemies and build your powers affect your moment-to-moment gameplay, but those aren’t the decisions that turned BioShock into a phenomenon. The most infamous choices from the previous titles revolved around the Little Sisters. Selecting how to handle these innocent and ghastly girls was effective because it forced the player to weigh personal gain against committing a reprehensible act, more Adam at the cost of a life. “That exact concept is not returning,” Levine reveals. “Once a moral choice gets explored that way, it just becomes a game system.”
Just because you won’t be choosing to harvest or save young girls in Infinite doesn’t mean you won’t have compelling decisions to make. The nature of those decisions, however, will remain mysterious for a while longer. “It’s safe to say that the game is set in a context of interesting moral and political questions,” Levine teases. “Beyond that, I’m not really ready to talk about it.”
BioShock Infinite was codenamed “Project Icarus” during its early development. Considering Columbia’s high altitude and the game’s high ambitions, the name is appropriate. Irrational Games set an industry standard with the original BioShock, but rather than revisit a familiar setting with familiar technology, the team started over from scratch and blazed a trail in a new direction. “Our guess was the fans would give us permission to do something quite different,” Levine says. “That they didn’t want to pick up where we left off.”
Even with a new setting established and the main characters revealed, BioShock Infinite still has plenty of secrets to reveal. For instance, during our demo, we saw several objects shimmer briefly with a wave of a bluish light. The shimmer seemed to alter them, changing pictures within frames and the words on banners. What these occurrences mean is open to speculation, but they are undoubtedly clues pointing to a larger mystery. One thing is certain: There is more to Columbia than meets the eye.
“We’ll protect a lot of the story stuff until the game comes out,” Levine says. “There are things within things within things that I’m not even going to go near. After playing BioShock 1, I’m sure you understand there are things I can never discuss. Just like there are things very particular to that game, there are things very particular to this game that I’m not going anywhere near.”
Given Irrational’s reputation for masterful storytelling, we’re satisfied with not knowing all of the details. The joy of discovery is part of the BioShock series’ identity, and we can’t wait to explore the mysteries of Columbia. We came away from our time with BioShock Infinite feeling similar to the first time we saw the original BioShock – with a sense that we had just seen a title that is likely to define the video game landscape in the years to come.