After years of keeping quiet, developer Irrational Games--the crew behind the original BioShock--held a mysterious event at New York City's Plaza Hotel last night to announce the company's latest endeavor, only known up until now as Project Icarus.
Ken Levine, creative director at Irrational Games, took the stage and rolled a trailer (see right) showcasing Columbia, a gorgeous city in the sky flanked by American flags, skyscrapers held up by gigantic hot-air balloons, and gruesome bionic creatures that immediately made us think of BioShock's Big Daddies.
It wasn't long before we began seeing more reminders of Rapture: billboard propaganda, superhuman powers, and utter chaos. With the trailer complete and the lights up, Levine announced that Irrational's next game would be BioShock Infinite.
BioShock Infinite takes the franchise out from the ocean floor and launches it above the clouds. The original BioShock's Rapture dealt with a mysterious utopian city that crumbles under its own obsession with power; BioShock Infinite will play on the ultrapatriotic--albeit ultimately ignorant--American ideals of the early 1900s. Columbia differs from Rapture because the public is aware of its existence. We hop into the game just as Columbia has disappeared into the heavens and out of the public eye, just as this city--once a great feat of American ingenuity and strength--is experiencing its downfall.
Levine compared Columbia to a theoretical "moon landing of 1900--an expression of American genius designed to demonstrate to the world by example the founding democratic principles of the United States...however, what started out as the Apollo Project became the Death Star. The city, which turns out to be armed to the teeth, goes off-mission, becomes embroiled in a violent international incident...and promptly disappears behind the clouds."
Is BioShock Infinite in the same universe as the original? When exactly does it take place? Who do you play as? When will the game come out? We got to sit down with Tim Gerritsen, director of product development at Irrational Games, who filled us in on some more details.
Infinite will not just be "BioShock in the sky," as the title looks to encourage more exploration--something perhaps the original claustrophobic BioShock couldn't allow. A thrilling extended gameplay clip (that actually felt somewhat choreographed) indicated that the game will provide the player with much more freedom to roam and discover Columbia organically. Players should know they'll be treated to a new array of weapons and powers in addition to a female companion who helps along the way. At one point during the action, the character drank a potion known as "Murder of Crows" that enabled him to cast a swarm of black birds at an angry mob of Columbia's citizens.
Fans of the original BioShock should know that we're not dealing with just plasmid powers this time around. Gerritsen specifically noted that the player "won't be able to just run around with Electrobolt and a shotgun." It appears BioShock Infinite will provide much more of a challenge and really open the flood gates to experiment with power and weapon combinations. Also, arsenals will not be limited to the finite radial selection tool we saw in the first two BioShock games.
In terms of a specific date, Gerritsen told us to think around the time of July 4, 1912. The rise of Columbia follows real events like the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and then skews off on a historical fiction tale of the nation flexing its muscle as a world superpower and the preceding fallout from such unmitigated hubris.
So does BioShock Infinite take place in the same universe as the original? Gerritsen wouldn't comment specifically, but did say that everything we saw in the trailer--the Big Daddy references and all--was there for a reason. Keep in mind that BioShock Infinite takes place around 50 years before the original BioShock and its city of Rapture.
Who will we play as in BioShock Infinite? Gerritsen shed some light on Booker DeWitt, the main character in the game. He's a man "who gets things done," someone who was hired by a shadowy figure to pursue a woman named Elizabeth, a lifelong native of Columbia, the person in which the entire city's internal struggle revolves around.
Surely Irrational Games is set to continue BioShock in ways we hadn't imagined, telling interactive stories and commenting on society in a style only Ken Levine and company can deliver. BioShock Infinite will see an Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC release sometime in 2012.
We tapped CNET editors Dan Ackerman and Scott Stein for some more analysis of last night's announcement:
BioShock Infinite is, at least judging by this early first look, filled with exactly the same kind of literary and historical allusions that made the original BioShock one of the freshest and most thought-provoking works of interactive entertainment in years. The vibe here is more Jules Verne than Ayn Rand, with steampunk-like visions of floating cities and airships. But running under the surface of this more colorful, even whimsical location is a dark thread of American history.
The story of Columbia represents a what-if scenario where the first threads of American empire-building were not muted by the forces of isolationism, but instead bolstered by the advanced technology of the game's alternate history--a fictional take on Alexis de Tocqueville's observation that America was "proceeding along a path to which no limit can be perceived." To that end, the game is filled with propagandized imagery, including the deification of George Washington as a godlike figure standing against the forces of foreign influence (Scott delves deeper into the disturbing eugenics thread of the game's backstory). Take away the floating cloud city and superpowers, and you have an alternate history that is both surprisingly believable and frighteningly relevant.
Aside from Ayn Rand, one of the greatest influences on the BioShock series might be America's history in eugenics. Eugenics, defined by Francis Galton as "the study of all agencies under human control which can improve or impair the racial quality of future generations," was the underpinning of both Nazi Germany and part of early 20th century America.
A bag from the event came with a dirty, sinister immigration tag from Columbia, dated 1907, complete with a disturbing checklist of ethnic stereotypes ("Mongoloid 1, Mongoloid 2, Mongoloid 3") and entries for head/body part measurements and mental acuity. The year 1907 also happened to be when Indiana became the first state to legally allow the compulsory sterilization of individuals, leading to a program of mental institution sterilization programs in the Midwest that were the underpinnings of Midwestern eugenics. BioShock Infinite supposedly takes place around 1912, the year that the International Eugenics Conference held one of its first meetings in London.
Genetic manipulation runs rampant through the previous BioShock games, but so does the idea of selectivity. The press event began, uncoincidentally, with a mural of George Washington standing tall while keeping leering foreign stereotypes at bay. If Columbia is a floating beacon of purity, it also looks to be a precursor to the underwater utopia of Rapture--literally, a flying eugenic battleship.
How will this play out in the game remains to be seen, but Ken Levine and Irrational games look like they're aiming at nothing short of a comprehensive alternate retelling of American history.
We'll have much more on BioShock Infinite as it develops. Make sure to watch the August 17 episode of preGame for more analysis of the game.