What Was Icarus? BioShock Infinite

The over-speculated and hotly anticipated Irrational Games project that was to be revealed today?

BioShock Infinite.

The announcement of the latest game in the BioShock franchise, slated to launch on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC in 2012, seems to belong to the category of “expect the expected:” As we all turned to the unexpected (Freedom Force, SWAT, X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter, Kingdom Hearts or Yar’s Revenge), I don’t think many of us really did see the new BioShock game coming – not one by Irrational, at the very least. How unpredictably predictable!

First and foremost, let’s concentrate on the much-hyped teaser trailer, now housed at www.bioshockinfinite.com instead of whatisicarus.com. After the jump, we’ve used screen captures from the video to illustrate the post, and you can also find the trailer embedded below.

In a cunning move that must have “shocked” many viewers, Irrational’s CG teaser starts with an underwater shot that is then revealed to be, instead of a return to Rapture, an aquarium built in the memory of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (one that comes with an eerily Big Daddy –looking statuette):

Soon, the protagonist is sent crashing through a window by a larger golem/robot, revealing to players the actual setting of the game:

The posters, statues and texts that so ubiquitously decorated the walls of BioShock 1 and 2 also make a prominent return in the teaser; on the left, one poster reads “IT IS OUR / HOLY DUTY / To protect them from the foreign hordes and the traitorous anarchists;” on the right, another proclaims “Burden not Columbia with your chaff,” in other words, the former touting xenophobic propaganda and the latter urging citizens towards genetic purity:

What is not making a return in Infinite, though, are the philosophical undercurrents of the previous two games; instead, set in 1912 in the fictional floating city of Columbia, the game shifts its focus slightly further away from the philosophical towards the political and societal, more concerned with the apparent boundlessness of modern progress, the idea that “technology will transform everything”1 as well as the politics of the early 20th century, “the era of McKinley and Roosevelt … [the U.S.A.] foreign policy at the time.”2

In these terms, Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo describes Columbia’s look and feel, based on an ingame demonstration shown to the games press, as “American Obnoxious” after Levine himself dubs the style as “American Exceptionalism.”3 Eurogamer’s Welsh seems to agree with Totilo’s characterization of the cityscape, stating that compared to the original games, Infinite seems to be more straightforwarded, with Levine “…aiming for a more robust, satirical tone and more pointed engagement with politics this time around.”4 Additionally, Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Gillen mentions an additional point of importance:

“The fascinating thing about Columbia is that while it’s a failing utopia of some sort, it’s far more functional than Rapture. It’s a game set in the period before World War I has reshaped and coloured this kind of thinking.”5

While the heroes of the first two BioShocks were mostly empty vessels for the player to overtake and inhibit – sometimes more, sometimes less successfully – in BioShock Infinite, the protagonist is to be more fully realized and storied as we are to play as the “disgruntled former Pinkerton agent” Booker DeWitt who is “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.”2

Curiously, in Elizabeth, Irrational have suddenly produced a, uh, a more standard video game heroine, and indeed this well-endowed character has already earned the dubious distinction of being characterized as a “skinny-waisted, dark-haired, cleavage-showing damsel”3 and a “big-eyed, dark-haired and buxom in her Edwardian frock.”6

While Elizabeth is to be but an NPC (yet another failed opportunity at a co-operative mode!), Levine nonetheless promises players that she will never feel like the common escort mission nuisance that so many games are burdened with. Neither is she altogether bulletproof, however, as Levine explains that “[DeWitt is] not a super hero and she’s not a super hero, and you’re both up against a very difficult challenge that pushes you to the extremes.”3

As the game boldly goes beyond the previous games’ setting in Rapture, lead artist Shawn Robertson pre-emptively explains to Gamasutra that Irrational Games “…always thought BioShock was bigger than the city of Rapture,” stating that they “knew that moving on to this title there couldn’t be any sacred cows; we knew 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.”2

In these terms, Infinite is not quite sequel, and not quite prequel – despite being set before BioShock 1 – nor does it seem to narratively connect, in any tangible way, with the earlier games of the franchise. In speaking to Kotaku, Levine seems rather ill at ease with speculation on this topic, stating that he does not think it “particularly constructive to have that conversation”3, instead choosing to draw a parallel to Square’s treatment of the Final Fantasy franchise.1

According to Levine, from hereon the BioShock series will adhere to two “core principles:”

“First, it has to be set in a world that is both fantastical and yet also grounded in the human experience. Second, it has to provide gamers with a large set of tools, and then set them loose in an environment that empowers them to solve problems in their own way.”7

Unlike with Irrational’s earlier FPS games – SWAT 4, Starsiege: Tribes and BioShock 1 – the team has now moved on to newer, Unreal 3 -based tech. According to Levine, in order to “bring Elizabeth to life, we had to build brand-new animation and AI systems. To create wide-ranging indoor and outdoor fire fights at 30,000 feet, we had to rethink, rebuild and expand the BioShock arsenal.”8

Levine in fact mentions that Infinite shares no code, at all, between Irrational’s previous projects, stating that their latest project is “about getting out of our comfort zone for us, because we had used [Unreal Engine 2.5] engine on several games before.”1 As an illustration of the new tech, you can view the first and latest official screenshots from the game below:

According to early write-ups of the in-game demo, the game’s combat remains much the same, with a weapon housed in the right hand and plasmid-like abilities in the left. While no references to plasmids or tonics have yet been made, DeWitt’s abilities seem to be acquired much in the same way: For instance, for the player to acquire the ability to send forth a flying murder of crows, a bottle of the same name must be drunk. DeWitt also utilizes lightning and even telekinesis to “pull a shotgun out of a man’s hands. The gun floated in front of the man, pointing at him, shot him, then zipped into the grip of our hero.”3

Previously, criticism was hurled towards the bathyspheres and trains of the first two games, both in which transportation figured as a neatly camouflaged loading mechanism only. In the latest BioShock, however, Irrational have introduced Sky-Lines, rails that are used for travelling “from room to room and from one city block to the next.” Furthermore, according to Totilo, these Sky-Lines are also used by other citizens, not just by the protagonist DeWitt.3, a move that seems to effectively tie in with the way Columbia is “not a city that’s as devolved as Rapture”1

Effective implementation of the neutral NPC is indeed an all-important step towards creating more believable game worlds, and while Levine points out, in a Joystiq interview, that the earlier games too had what he calls the friendly “guy on the other side of the glass window”1, these characters were shielded and separated from the rest of the game worlds, never at once betraying their role as nothing but pre-programmed cutscenes. PC Gamer’s McDougall draws further attention to the topic stating that he expected

“Splicers to have personalities and dialogue, to be characters. They were characters, but that didn’t stop them from running at you with a knife. They were basically monsters with voice actors.”9

If you’re craving for more information despite the whole of internet already being Infinitely full of it, PC Gamer have a minutely detailed playthrough of the closed-door in-game press demo, and Joystiq have additionally posted a transcribed video interview with Irrational Games creative director Ken Levine:

Expect the floodgat… I mean, a tornado of Infinite news to come crashing over your gaming news feed over next few days.

  1. http://www.joystiq.com/2010/08/12/video-interview-ken-levine-on-bioshock-infinite/ [] [] [] [] []
  2. http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/29872/Interview_Irrational_Games_Leaves_The_Sea_For_The_Sky_With_BioShock_Infinite.php [] [] []
  3. http://kotaku.com/5607451/bioshock-infinite-goes-beyond-the-sea–into-the-skies [] [] [] [] [] []
  4. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2010-08-12-bioshock-infinite-preview?page=2 []
  5. http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2010/08/12/irrational-anthem-their-new-game-unveiled/ []
  6. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2010-08-12-bioshock-infinite-preview?page=3 []
  7. http://irrationalgames.com/insider/announcement-from-ken-levine/ []
  8. http://www.thatvideogameblog.com/2010/08/12/columbia-soars-over-rapture-as-irrational-games-announce-bioshock-infinite/ []
  9. http://www.pcgamer.com/2010/08/12/bioshock-infinite-info-screens-and-trailer/ []