Irrational Games has been very careful with its drip-feed of information about this year's highly anticipated BioShock Infinite. We've gotten a sense through demos of how the story shapes up -- at least on the surface -- and what sort of gameplay systems will be in place, but when all is said and done there's really very little in the way of tangible information available about what to expect from the game.
That's why last week's reveal of 1999 Mode was met with equal parts excitement and consternation. Finally, we had something more to go on. We learned that this optional gameplay mode stands apart from Infinite's difficulty settings. There's a more challenging experience that awaits those who choose it, but the press release told us that the challenge stems more from the permanence of the choices you'll be making.
Like the best mysteries, the revelation of 1999 Mode created just as many questions as it answered. Fortunately, Irrational design director Bill Gardner was kind enough to get on the phone last Friday to answer a few of these questions. You already heard last week about the dev team's old school plan for accessing 1999 Mode in the game. After the jump you'll find more detail: how the mode works, what the intention with it is, perhaps even a hint or two about what else you can expect from Infinite later this year.
I know you're all as excited as I am to hear something more, anything more, about BioShock Infinite. That's why, after trying and trying to capture all of Gardner's words in a feature format, I decided instead to present this interview as a straight Q&A.
G4TV: Maybe we could start off with some more general talk about what 1999 Mode is and where it comes from?
Bill Gardner: In order to turn back the clock, obviously there are some features that we're going to have to use that are standard. There are features like the AI accuracy, health, the bog-standard difficulty scaling and all that stuff. Maybe it makes sense to look at the genesis of this mode to really help make sense of this.
If you look at the games back in the late '90s, I think that there was something [to them] that we felt was missing in BioShock. A lot of that has to with the permanence of the choices you're making. With sitting at an upgrade station and really slaving over which upgrades you're going to take. We felt this in playing BioShock. One of our goals was to make it accessible, but we felt you could play the game how you see fit. Whatever tools you want to play with, go for it. You want to play with the shotgun? Have fun. You want to play with the crossbow? That's great.
We knew that was an issue, to be honest. We wanted to make sure there was more meaning in those choices, more meaning in the choices you're making for your upgrades and the moment-to-moment combat and things like that. In looking back at what we wanted to take on next and looking into what our fans thought and getting in touch with our community, there was this trend... where they all felt there was this lack of permanence.
So we took a look at System Shock 2, we took a look back at a lot of the games that a lot of our hardcore fans hold dear and we noticed, again, the pieces that were missing [in BioShock]. Which upgrades am I taking and how does that really have... more gravity in System Shock 2 than in BioShock? It's really about making it so the player is choosing specializations rather than being a Jack-of-all-trades.
Fast forward now to 1999 Mode and how we're implementing it, it really comes down to the scarcity of the resources. That was a huge part of System Shock 2 and a lot of the games back then. You look at X-COM, you look at the survival horror games of the late '90s, like Resident Evil, that's a huge part of it. The other piece is about the choices of your character.
Do I specialize in a machine gun or a shotgun? The sniper rifle or the pistol? And once you choose that, making sure you're able to be a superstar with that tool. But that comes at the cost of other choices. If I choose the shotgun, that means I'm not going to be as effective with the sniper rifle. The more you walk down that path, the more you're solidifying your fate.
Occasionally you'll come into a combat [scenario that challenges your choices.] Picture a really long sniper alley. And picture there being snipers at the other end of it. And you have a shotgun and another close range tool. You have the option to swap to the sniper rifle, but it's going to be pretty ineffective, depending on how far you've walked down that path. You have to live with that decision. You have to make do. In the moment-to-moment, just really... getting in a Zen mode with your tools, figuring out how to become that specialist and living with it.
G4TV: How are specializations selected? Does 1999 Mode begin with you marking off choices on a character sheet?
Gardner: It's meant to be a lot more organic than that. It's meant to be-- you know, you're finding the upgrades in the world. You start off where the world is your oyster, you can go in any direction. You start to walk down one path and the choice is put before you. You pick up your first Nostrum, your first weapon upgrade, and then it's like, which of these upgrades do you want: the sniper damage upgrade or do you want the upgrade for the shotgun. Then you sort of have to continue to walk down that path.
There are definitely no character sheets; we didn't feel that that was a part of the experience that would really gel with the fact that you're Booker DeWitt, that you ARE this character. We want you coming in the same way [as everyone else] and choosing the specializations as you go.
G4TV: Could you talk a little more about what Nostrums are and how they function?
Gardner: Nostrums are analagous to the Gene Tonics in BioShock. However, I should just say for the sake of clarity: Nostrums are different, fundamentally, than Gene Tonics across all modes. So with Nostrums, there are permanent upgrade choices you make through every mode. With Gene Tonics in BioShock, you could pick whatever Gene Tonics you wanted and you could swap them in and out, and there was really no commitment there. By the end, you could essentially collect them all.
That's not the case with Nostrums in BioShock Infinite. You're exposed to a smaller portion of them throughout the entire campaign and, again, they're permanent. The big difference in 1999 Mode, as you're choosing one or the other, the upgrade you didn't choose means that you're leaving other tools behind, forcing a specialization.
G4TV: So Nostrums present you with a binary choice?
Gardner: To be honest, they're a binary choice in both [modes]. It's really about the weapons and Vigor upgrades that you're choosing. Certainly there are Nostrums where, if you choose to specialize in Skylines, if you're choosing Nostrums that make you more effective on the Skylines, that's going to come at the cost of making you completely ineffective at certain aspects of ground combat or certain aspects of various other systems.
G4TV: The 1999 Mode press release specifically mentioned there being some kind of resource or resources related to respawning. Could you talk a little bit about how that works?
Gardner: I don't want to get too much into the specific mechanics of our respawning, but I think the key difference here is that we're definitely going to be paying the price in 1999 Mode. When you die and respawn there is a resource associated with it. I'm not really at liberty to talk about exactly what that is, but there are some pieces that will perhaps change in the environment when you respawn. The most important bit is, you are being charged a resource and when you run out of that resource, you're gonna actually have a game over. Talk about old school.
G4TV: So players will see an actual screen pop up with the words "Game Over" on it?
G4TV: So you're going to need some sort of resource available in order to respawn after dying. Does this mean that players will be able to find the equivalent of 1-UP extra lives scattered throughout Columbia?
Gardner: You still can save the game. Saves work very similar to the way they did in BioShock across all modes. So you still have to manage that the same way you would manage saves in System Shock or Duke Nukem or what have you. You still the ability to do that. But, again, it's possible to paint yourself into a corner where you have the opportunity to bootstrap your way out.
You're really running low on resources and enemies are just around the corner, you're pinned down and it's like, well, sure, I can save, but if you don't have a save from before from a save point, you're screwed. Either you choose the right specialization and you know how to exploit those talents or you die.
G4TV: If resources are associated with respawns, what sort of situation could arise where it would be more advantageous to take the hit to your resources and respawn instead of just loading an earlier save?
Gardner: I think it's really a question of time. You're going to end up losing some time. I don't want to get too much into the nitty-gritty of exactly how the saving works, but obviously there are some restrictions and you're going to have to choose carefully.
G4TV: Does that mean there's no 'save anywhere' feature?
Gardner: You can save anywhere, but there are restrictions. When combat breaks out, you're not going to be able to just save. I think that being able to save at any frame of an enemy's attack is a little bit ridiculous for a number of reasons. So it's not like the old 'hit F5 while you're walking down the hall' sort of thing.
G4TV: When the press release came out, I and many others looked at the name of the mode and immediately thought, 'Hmmm... System Shock 2 came out in 1999.' That can't be a coincidence, can it?
Gardner: That's the gist of where it came from. This is all about legacy, this is all about going back to our roots. Obviously paying fan service to our longtime fans, but also looking back as developers ourselves and saying 'this is how we used to play games.' I, personally, love System Shock 2. That was [released] before I started [working at Irrational], and I remember playing it at home and... sweating over the upgrade screen, practically sweating over whether to take the health recharge or the speed boost. Creating that feeling, that's the goal here. It's really like saying, whatever you choose, you're really committing yourself. You have to live with those consequences.
G4TV: I'm pretty sure that at least a few of Irrational's long time fans saw the 1999 Mode news and immediately broke out and started playing System Shock 2 again, in search of hints about the mode. What would you suggest that those fans look to?
Gardner: I would say it's pretty much what the message has been. It's really about sweating over those choices. It's about permanence. It's about real gravity behind everything you're doing, there's consequence. It's not going to coddle you. Difficulty modes are great to be able to crank up the enemy health and all of that, but the way that we're changing the balance, the way that we're changing the systems, is such that it's going to feel completely different. It's going to feel like 1999 again because we're not afraid to let the player punish himself and paint himself into a corner.
G4TV: What sort of rewards will there be for opting to accept that added challenge and play through the game in 1999 Mode ?
Gardner: The one thing I want to be clear about is that, again, this mode is about capturing the spirit of what it was like to play a game back then. It's not really about reinventing content or introducing new content, it's about taking what's there and experiencing it the way you would back in 1999. So there are going to be Trophies and Achievements and all of that, but it's not about [having a] new ending or all that. It's really about that feeling. Capturing, as gamers internally, what we are in love with from that era. Trying to reach out to our longtime fans and say, 'Hey, we're not forgetting you.'