When members of the gaming media went into an Irrational Games press conference Wednesday night to hear a major announcement from BioShock auteur Ken Levine, we were expecting the unexpected. Which was stupid. Expecting the unexpected is impossible, after all, but we tried.
Levine came out on stage, he gave some perfunctory greetings, and the lights dimmed for a trailer. We’re underwater, and there’s a Big Daddy. Cute. The view pulls out—the water was just a fishtank, and we’re in a first-person point of view, inhabiting the body of some poor schmoe as a very angry machine-man rearranges his bones for him. Our protagonist gets tossed out the window into the void of a flying city, plummeting into an early-1900s skyscape. A woman reaches out to save him, showing off some serious telekinetic chops. Then, the logo: BioShock Infinite.
The common refrain in the room after the presentation: “I didn’t expect that.”
Nobody figured that Ken Levine had called the press to The Plaza in New York last night to announce the most obvious move possible: a BioShock title. Here was the man, or so the mythology went, that had struck a blow against the industry’s sequel-itis by declining to work on BioShock 2. He had clout, truckloads of it, and the closest thing to carte blanche that anyone gets in this business. And yet he chooses to make another BioShock game?
Well, yes and no. It depends how you define a BioShock game, because the world Levine unveiled last night had little resemblance to anything that’s borne the BioShock name before.
First and foremost: We’re not in Rapture anymore, Toto. Infinite takes place during the early 1900s, in Columbia, a utopian sky city built on massive airships. Levine explained that Columbia is constructed “as an example to the world of the success of the American system.” It isn’t a secret project like Rapture—it’s an international P.R. stunt.
But then, the story goes, something goes terribly wrong. Levine didn’t get too specific, but he did say that Columbia is also “a Death Star,” so let’s assume that the disaster involves Columbia raining murder down from the sky. Then the city vanishes, and nobody down below knows where it went.
This is about where your character, Booker DeWitt, comes in. It’s another split from BioShock tradition, as the hero has a name, a history, and even a voice—during a quick gameplay demo on Wednesday, he occasionally piped up with some hard-nosed private-dick dialogue.
DeWitt is a disgraced former agent for the Pinkertons (a corporate police agency that saw its real-life heyday in the late 19th century). A mysterious client comes to DeWitt with a job: Retrieve Elizabeth, a woman who has been trapped on Columbia for years. As it happens, Elizabeth is the telekinetic wonder who appears at the climax of the Infinite trailer, and her powers are the topic of ongoing conflict among the residents of Columbia.
What’s most striking about Elizabeth in the preview footage—aside from the whole moving-things-with-her-brain deal—is her look. The humans in Infinite are rendered with bold features and a bright color palette. They look more like people from a Fable game or a Pixar film than the shadowy, tarnished characters that featured in BioShock. Likewise, Columbia itself is a sparkling burg with the atmosphere of a World’s Fair. The ambience couldn’t be further removed from the mildew of Rapture.
It’s all the result of a development-team mantra that Levine repeated throughout the night: “There are no sacred cows.” Levine didn’t want anyone on his crew feeling beholden to what had come before, and he claims that Infinite doesn’t borrow a single line of programming from the BioShock codebase. But just because Levine declared open season on cattle doesn’t mean that Infinite is an entirely new beast.
The old BioShock DNA was most evident in the gameplay demo. There was DeWitt slugging down a bottle of mysterious goo, and within seconds, his left hand went into a painful spasm. They might not call it a “plasmid” in Infinite, but there’s no mistaking the symptoms. The original game’s first-person-shooter model—weapon in the right hand, quasi-magical powers in the left—is intact.
Near the end of last night’s combat demo, as if to drive the point home, sidekick Elizabeth trapped a gang of angry barflies in a pool of water, and DeWitt zapped them with a bolt of lightning from his hand—the quintessential BioShock force multiplier. Trapped amid another mob, Elizabeth offered up a huge hunk of metal for DeWitt to fling, with nothing but an extended hand, at the attackers. It looks like Elizabeth isn’t the only one who drank the telekinesis plasm—er, mystery juice.
Still, the differences from Rapture in BioShock Infinite are so drastic that it’s fair to ask: Why that title for this game? What makes a BioShock game, anyway? Levine said that it’s defined by a setting like “nothing you’ve ever seen before,” but that’s PR pablum. As far as I can tell from these early previews, a BioShock game is one that explores the American identity through the lens of Levine’s visionary historical sci-fi. That’s the common thread.
Infinite is exploring a chapter of American history—the turn of the 20th century—that doesn’t get a lot of play in modern fiction but has clearly captured Levine’s fascination. During his presentation, he read from a speech that William McKinley gave in justification of the Philippine-American war. “We could not leave [the Filipinos] to themselves,” McKinley was purported to say. “They would soon have anarchy and misrule…. There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all.” Levine hit that line a little harder than the rest.
It appears that passions of racial superiority will play a part in the cultural fabric of Columbia, and more specifically “purity.” That word kept popping up in the Infinite art that was on display last night: “purity,” drenched in flags and George Washington and Lady Liberty and any other patriotic imagery the talented Irrational artists could dig up.
The inspiration for Infinite may be antiquated, but with fights raging over gay marriage, Arizonan immigrants, and a Muslim group’s right to worship near Ground Zero, the question of what constitutes “pure” America is as current as ever. If Levine’s past work is any indication, Infinite will explore that rich vein of American identity in surprising, thought-provoking ways. We can expect at least that much.