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Interview: Irrational Games Leaves The Sea For The Sky With  BioShock Infinite

Interview: Irrational Games Leaves The Sea For The Sky With BioShock Infinite

August 12, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

August 12, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC

The underwater world of Rapture may have birthed the BioShock brand, but it doesn't own it. Last night, Gamasutra visited the beautiful New York City Plaza Hotel terrace room, which with its atmosphere of old-world glamour made an appropriate location for a surprising reveal: Irrational Games and publisher Take-Two's BioShock Infinite, which takes the franchise out of the familiar sea and into a brand-new world of sky.

In a cinematic trailer, the lamp-eyed Big Daddy lurking on the ocean floor was revealed to be just a toy in an aquarium -- BioShock Infinite is set in a fascinating year-1912 floating world of airships and massive balloons.

It's rich with an artistic tone that recalls turn-of-the-(twentieth) century America and its innocent, optimistic palette darkened by the backdrop of over-fervent patriotism and arrogance.

Creator Ken Levine explained to the media that the first-person shooter's central location, Columbia, was formed from an initial moon landing in 1900, a demonstration of the high ideals of imperialist America.

However, like Rapture, the double-edged sword of self-importance and lofty ambitions seemed to take its toll -- the world in the sky, heavily armed, began to undo itself and a violent conflict began.

Just as undersea Rapture combined science-fantastical futuristic elements with a poignant nostalgic direction and tones of sociopolitical philosophy, so too does Infinite's world, a theme that with this title seems to firm the BioShock ethos even more than Rapture's iconic Big Daddies and Little Sisters. Most of all, says Levine, the franchise's goal is ultimately never-before-seen worlds.

The player is cast as Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton hired under mysterious circumstances to bring home a woman named Elizabeth from the city of Columbia, where she's been held since childhood. Finding her is the easy part; retrieving her is more difficult, as she's soon revealed to be at the center of conflict in Columbia. As the player must work together with Elizabeth and accept her help, the concepts of choice and consequence that have categorized BioShock appear sure to play a role here.

The team built a new engine for the game, to allow for interaction and gameplay drama in its troubled, crumbling in-air world. Levine said that to create a world so completely different from Rapture, and to support gameplay in a vertigo-inducing sky-high environment, new tech was a must.

The game also aims to expand its scale over the previous two BioShock titles, with the goal of more diversity in opponents and more options so that there's no ideal combination of weapons or resources that works for a player in all scenarios. Irrational also plans to continue pioneering environmentally-responsive enemies who appear to live in the gameworld, and whose behaviors and reactions to the player, hostile or otherwise, depend on the situation.

"We always thought BioShock was bigger than the city of Rapture," lead artist Shawn Robertson said, sitting down with Gamasutra to discuss the game. So while to date the brand's been specifically correlated with the world of the first two games, "we knew that moving on to this title there couldn't be any sacred cows; we knew the story we wanted to tell. Little by little, it became apparent that we didn't have any more stories to tell in Rapture. We wanted to take the audience to a completely new place."

The Irrational team hasn't been slowed by fear of taking things down such a radically-different path, or of reactions from audiences acclimated to another world. "We have to be excited about a project and excited about what we're doing to put our full effort into it," he says. Not that it's necessarily easy, but taking risks is important: "We always want to take that leap of faith to try something new," Robertson adds. "It's an extremely difficult thing, to let go of things that are comfortable to you."

Working with creator Ken Levine, who Robertson says is a major influence on the team, helps with risk-taking and vision, according to Robertson. "A lot of us have been with Ken for over ten years," he says. "There's a lot of trust between Ken and [our teams.]."

The thematic approach that unites BioShock Infinite with its predecessors is more a product of a unified vision rather than of specific intention -- "We didn't set out in BioShock to tell a story about objectivism; we're not setting out this time around to tell a story about turn-of-the-century jingoism," says Robertson.

Instead, the undertones of political, economic and sociological backdrop that frame the BioShock games are an ideal tool to frame what the team hopes will be emotionally-resonant stories about individuals. "We do find that these things serve as a great backdrop to tell a more human-sized story," says Robertson. "The story we're trying to tell is about the player and Elizabeth... we like to keep the 'opera-sized' story, the political turmoil, in the background."

But familiar visual and stylistic elements create instant emotional connections. Old-war propaganda posters decorated the Plaza's room, combining the cheerful with the haunting to the same effect that many fans adored in Rapture -- for example, one poster managed to advocate naively, in innocent pop-art, for the benefit of blue-eyed "purity." In the context of historical events, actual vintage propaganda is haunting, and old real-world posters are a source of inspiration, Robertson says.

"The art team loves digging through old posters, old videos," Robertson enthuses. "There's a video going around of San Francisco in 1905, before and then after the Great Quake. We like to draw from actual events; we get excited about things that provide the backdrop of the time. We look at the era of McKinley and Roosevelt; we look at our foreign policy at the time. It gives us a broad brush to paint with, and allows us to create interesting stories."

The game is slated to launch on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC during calendar 2012.

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