The spiritual successor to the highly acclaimed 2007 hit “BioShock,” “BioShock Infinite” takes players to 1912 Columbia, a city suspended in the air by giant blimps and hot-air balloons. The city has split into two factions: On the right are The Founders, who transformed Columbia from a symbol of American values to a xenophobic wasteland. On the left is the Vox Populi, a once-peaceful minority that has become a brutal, violent militia.
Playing as former Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt, you’re asked to deal with this raging civil war. It’s a far cry from the underwater, Ayn Rand-inspired libertarian dystopia of the original, and one that’s also entirely unique in video games.
Of course, the “air city” comes with its own unique brand of gameplay. The many Sky-Lines of “Infinite” can be used by Booker, his enemies, and even the long-imprisoned Elizabeth. Once you grab hold of one, a small circle indicates your landing spot, on either the ground or another Sky-Line. As you ride, you’re able to fire weapons at other enemies (on Sky-Lines or otherwise), use Elizabeth’s special time-shifting powers to bring them down entirely, and more.
As a mode of transportation it’s convenient, but as a combat mechanic it’s nothing short of spectacular, allowing the player to flank opponents, reach higher points in the environment and stage fantastic escapes.
“It’s a much bigger game in every way imaginable,” says Ken Levine, creative director and co-founder of Irrational Games. “[“BioShock” titles] have very intimate spaces, but [now] we also have these huge spaces that we can zip through on these Sky-Lines about 80 miles an hour. And that’s really daunting, because we’re expanding the kind of things we can do in the game to a huge degree.”
In addition to this amplified scale, “Infinite” is also, in many ways, a more human experience than its progenitor. For one thing, your relationship with the aforementioned Elizabeth is in many ways the center of the experience; once you help free her from incarceration, she’s frequently at your side. And unlike your character in the original “BioShock,” Booker DeWitt actually speaks.
“I really think your interactions with Elizabeth are like nothing else you’ve seen in any other game, in terms of how believable she’s going to feel,” says Levine. “I think it’s a really unique game that doesn’t really fit clearly into a category. It’s definitely a shooter, but it’s got its own unique feel. I think the same is true for the first game—we just sort of expanded the palette.”
Achieving characters with enough emotional weight to pull the story along brought its own set of technical challenges.
“Booker and Elizabeth speak with each other, interact with each other in a way that it’s very hard to predict exactly how it’s going to happen,” says Levine. “What if the player starts shooting here? What if the player does this? What if the player does that? We have to be incredibly flexible.” As such, Levine has spent an enormous amount of time working with the voice actors to bring things to life. “I write a script and I do a billion types of takes,” says Levine. “Well, what if she’s across the room versus right up in your ear? That can happen in the game, because we don’t know what the player is going to do. We record multiple versions of lines for a motion, for distance, all that stuff.”
The same is true for the characters’ bodies. Using procedural animation achieves more dynamic, varied ways of interacting with the world around them than the more traditional motion capture can produce. In essence, the machine figures out where the characters are in relation to one another and what they are doing, and then chooses the appropriate vocal response and animation from a huge database of possibilities.
“When she’s across the room, [it’s] just not upping the volume of her line,” says Levine. “That doesn’t actually work. People don’t just get louder; they change the tone of their voice. We have to do all of that dynamically.”
Though on a much larger scale, the combat in “Infinite” also feels consistent with that of the original “BioShock”. Expect plenty of dual-wielding: weapons in one hand and powers in the other. Exactly how the player chooses to wield these powers, however, not to mention how to gauge the reactions of Columbia’s many inhabitants, is far less predictable this time around.
“The second you saw a slicer in ‘BioShock,’ they’d attack you right away,” says Levine of the original “BioShock.”
“The Big Daddy and Little Sister were the only characters in the world that didn’t do that, and they engendered a lot of interest in the game because you observed them in their native state.” Extending that role to everybody in “Infinite” was a huge challenge for the Irrational team.
“Maybe it’s hard to set them off,” says Levine. “Maybe some guy has his lunch on the table, and you touch that lunch and that’s gonna set him off. Maybe he’s just kinda crazy. It’s much more of that Wild West feeling: You come to a space and you don’t know what people are gonna do.”
Set against Columbia’s civil war between The Founders and the Vox Populi, “Infinite” concerns itself with an important moment in a skewed but still relevant rendition of American history. Watching as civil unrest has come to the forefront of American politics with the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, it’s impossible not to make the connection. But the source of inspiration is not as direct as one might expect.
“We’re not a ‘ripped from the headlines’ company,” says Levine. “That’s a real fast way to make your stuff irrelevant. However, what’s interesting about Occupy Wall Street is that [it’s] what we were thinking about these issues two years ago and talked about these issues two years ago—not because we saw the future, but because we’re students of history.
“And if you’re a student of history, you know that what’s happening with Occupy Wall Street is not entirely a new phenomenon,” continues Levine.
“You look at the rise of international labor movements, the Teddy Roosevelts. Teddy Roosevelt was quite progressive also in a lot of ways, [but] he was something akin to being a conservative. He didn’t really fit into that natural definition, but he definitely saw those impulses abroad 100 years ago, just as there were the same impulses in the world 50 years ago, during the 1960s. These sorts of conflicting viewpoints are starting to tear our country apart. And so we were very much inspired by those things—and frankly not terribly surprised, given the economic environment, that we’re seeing similar tensions. Generally those things don’t happen when everybody’s got their 401K—people are less likely to be out in the streets either protesting on the right or the left.”
The attempt is to make something classic, a game that stands the test of time.
“I think to some degree if we were trying to make a game about a modern-day event, it would date us much more than setting it in a historical period, because you’re already dated to start with,” says Levine. “That’s why we won’t do ‘ripped from the headlines.’ I’m not here to beat a political drum—I have no interest in that. It’s not because I don’t have my own political viewpoints; we’d just rather ask questions than answer them.
Indeed, this same ideology intersects with the Irrational team’s approach to making and selling video games.
“In this day and age, in this part of the economic cycle, $60 is a lot of money for everybody right now,” says Levine. “We really feel a responsibility to give something to people, [that] not only can they not get from any other game, but any other entertainment. So we take that responsibility very seriously.”
And based on the spectacular demos we’ve seen of “BioShock Infinite” thus far, they appear to be making good on that promise.