By Alec Meer on August 24th, 2010 at 9:06 pm.
50% of the conversations I had at GamesCom went something along the lines of “have you seen the BioShock Infinite demo? Game of the show!” The other 50% went “God, I can’t believe they’re making another BioShock game. Why can’t they do something new instead?”
There’s point and purpose to the latter, and it has flicked across my mind too. Not forcibly enough, however, to defeat the excitement I felt when I saw the teaser, and redoubled when I saw in-game footage in Cologne last week. Cast your mind back to 2007, when RPS was a tiny digital acorn getting impossibly excited about the prospect of a new high-concept sci-fi game from the creators of System Shock 2. Bioshock was almost all we posted about for a frightening amount of time. Whether the game itself did enough to live up to that early promise, mystery and anticipation seems academic now, to me. I want to get back to that excitement.
Whatever BioShock Infinite turns out to be, it’s an attempt to do that.
It’s an attempt by a huge a developer to, rather than simply carry on making sequels or give up entirely, dig down to why we cared about BioShock in the first place. Throw away the surface, get down to the formula: a mysterious, impossible place, bound in pseudo-science, history, political allegory and oh-so-teasing mystery. Yeah, there’ll be some sort of denouement that explains the slightly clunky title, but the lack of numbering is, I think, the key. It’s a statement of intent, that BioShock games have key elements, not an overarching story.
Irrational (and, more to the point, owners 2K) could have done a Bungie. They could have just kept on going, becoming tethered to characters and stories and lore and fan service. They could have become jaded, fearful to stray from the path and eventually seeing key people move on, hungry for creative challenge. Instead, they’ve decided to rescue their own game. BioShock 2 was a pretty cool game, but its intrinsic similarities in both theme and mechanics to its forerunner obbed the concept of freshness. Dust the big ideas down, start again – and hopefully correct and improve some of the foundations that some players felt so unsatisfied by.
Who knows? Maybe it really will simply be Flyoshock, a different setting but the same game. A demo at a conference is a demo at a conference, not a game. However, it’s also a demo absolutely suggests a developer taking a big swing, really seriously wanting to impress people rather than take another money-bath.
Kieron’s done a fine job of sharing what’s in that demo with you, but I’ll add in a couple more details. Oh – I’m told the footage should be made public sooner rather than later, by the way.
Particularly, here’s some noteworthy quotation from one of the producers demoing the game in an excellently-decorated faux-1900s boardroom at GamesCom. He’d clearly spun the same yarn dozens of times during the show, but it remained compelling. Forgive the stacatto style – more was said, but this was as fast as I could type, due to a No Recording mandate.
“At the end of the 19th century there was a time of great change new technologies on the stage, telephones, gramophones, movies for the first time, movie stars that could be promoted. Advertising on a mass scale, all of these technologies were coming together at the same time.
[Columbia was] A world’s fair that will travel around the world showing all of these new technologies and new American ideals. Columbia began to travel from place to place. It was soon discovered that you could use this thing as a weapon. A Battleship, floating death star. [Then it disappeared suddenly following some manner of conflict.] It suddenly became a myth, some kind of floating boogymen that would show up in people’s nightmares. No-one knew what Columbia was doing or why it was there anymore.”
[The player character, Booker, is introduced.]
If you had competition and you wanted them shut down you hired the Pinkertons. These guys were dirty dirty guys but even by their standards Booker was too much. Now he sits in the bar all day, but people come to him because he’s the ultimate fixer.
[A man comes to him, asking that he rescues a woman called Elizabeth, who was captured 12 years ago. He agrees, because he can find anyone. Where is she? Columbia, the lost flying city of legend. Erk. Fortunately, this guy knows how to get there…]
Elizabeth has amazing powers… When booker gets to Columbia he finds her very quickly. She’s at the centre of a conflict that’s tearing Columbia apart.”
Aaaand cue demo. Where we start, Brooker has just been parted from Elizabeth again, but he doesn’t quite seem to know how. Again, refer to Kieron’s analysis of the demo for proper meat, but I was particularly curious about the condition of Columbia. It looked in good nick, for the most part, and certainly not like the rusty collapse of Rapture, but clearly something has awry. No-one seemed in charge, and no-one seemed bothered when a cathedral-island tumbled out of the sky, its titanic tower carving a ferocious furrow into one of the streets below.
Further signs of abandonment came upon encountering barking political candidate Saltonstall. He’s teased with banks of posters, suggesting he’s a big deal, the Andrew Ryan of Columbia. But then there he is, right around the corner, standing on a deserated bandstand, bellowing racist manifestos to an audience of precisely no-one. For race, for faith, for fatherland! Then he sees you. He’s not happy about it either. Clearly, you’re not the right kind of audience.
His face distorts, demonlike, a horrific effect – and he sends in the crows. Combat, running, sparking handrails in the sky, a bar full of first conversing and then attacking thugs, an immense sense of scale and colour… Again, Kieron’s already described it, but I was lapping up the hugeness of it all, the hints of where else it might be possible to go, how fixed the course was, and appreciating that the place felt a little more alive than Rapture.
The scripting was evident, although the game was played live by a producer. I can forgive the cheating, as this is a game that won’t come out for two years. That said, it still makes me cautious, reticent to believe those incredible sights are truly representative of what I will play in 2012. But: no corridors, no small fights against just three guys. It’s BioShock alright, but a whole lot of the old shackles would appear to have been thrown to the ground.
It’s less lonely, too – Elizabeth is soon back. I would say mysteriously so, but it’s not long before she demonstrates that she’s scarcely a damsel in distress. The lady is an efficient and talented killer. Both her and Brooker chat as they hurry on; it’s action movie dialogue, and perhaps a little jarring to hear a ballsy American voice emanate from what is supposedly you, but it’s confident and slick, the two characters immediately likeable. That may be a trick in itself – Elizabeth’s origins are undeclared, and Booker’s supposed to be a violent thug.
Elizabeth, especially, is a peculiar creature. My eyebrow immediately shoots up at the heaving cleavage, but at the same time the woman’s face is pinched, almost cruel – and not quite attractive. I suspect she’s designed to confuse rather than titillate. Someone, I hope, is screwing with us.
She’s a fascinating piece of character design. Unusual, compelling, and ever so slightly sinister. Is she designed to endorse sexualised game heroines, or to mock them? I don’t know yet. I also notice that, facially, she looks ever so slightly like a Little Sister. Which is intriguing/disturbing/clever/unwise on multiple levels, but it would be incredibly dangerous to chase conspiracy theories at this stage, I suspect – it may well just be me projecting because I know this is a BioShock game, or a side-effect of the semi-shared character art style.
The fight escalates, as one of Columbia’s apparent guardians appears. This is the strange robot seen in the teaser trailer, a bizarre construct of pistons, massively oversized puppet parts and a head that’s almost, but definably not, human. Obviously, it’s hard not to make Big Daddy parallels, but the thing’s completely different. It’s fast, leaping catlike from roof to roof – agile and focused rather than sluggish brute force.
It even throws a horse at you, which immediately has me hoping there will be a multiplayer mode, despite Levine’s recent hints there may not be. I would very much like to throw a horse at someone.
Something’s shared with the Daddies though – a certain sense of tragedy. When the brute is knocked off a collapsing bridge by Booker and Elizabeth’s combined plasmid-but-not powers, it briefly scrabbles for purchase with its huge hands, and that strange man-machine face folds into an almost heartbreaking expression of panicked sadness. Then it falls, plummeting untold distances to the earth below. I genuinely feel bad for it.
Was that the thing that took you, Booker asks. No, replies Elizabeth. That is.
A winged horror appears, seemingly mechanical but, like the robot-thing, clearly aware and fast despite its bus-big size. I catch a glimpse of glowing multi-eyes, again evoking a Big Daddy’s silent helmet-mask, before the thing swoops towards the camera and black fades in. Farewell for now, Columbia.
No questions are allowed afterwards – instead there’s just a polite ushering out of this pleasant period room. I’m very much left wanting more.
I’m also left excited about a BioShock game again. Not merely curious – full-on excited. A developer has decided to take a huge risk and rescue their franchise – not milk it dry or let it rot. It could backfire, sure, but I can’t fail to be impressed by the open statement of “no, mine. Taking it back. Making it right.”
A bigger place, a different place, a more alive place. That’s exactly what I want.