Irrational Anthem: Their New Game, Unveiled

null

It’s rare as a games journalist that you find yourself sitting in a hall, knowing you’re there for an announcement, without a single clue what the game actually is. You’ve always got theories. And – yeah – I had some, but none that I’d dignify with a word like “theory”. “Guesses” would be as far as I’d go. So when the trailer rolls, it’s a surprise in all sorts of ways. And since there’s a chance this is the first place you’ve heard about the game, we’ll like to recreate the experience for you guys. So, head below for the video they unveiled the game with…

I’d imagine that your responses are complicated. I moved from a smile at the opening references mixed with a slight disappointment that it was going to be something so similar, before switching to excited bewilderment, thinking about how tired I am with steampunk before realising the visual style wasn’t actually steampunk at all, which all rapidly escalated into a cheery WTF?-ness. I scribbled Rainbow Islands vs Bioshock in my notes, later adding Lynch, The Wicker Man, Skies of Arcadia, Pre-War WWI American Triumpialism/Utopianism and all other sorts of fun stuff. The only real disappointment comes with the name: BioShock: Infinite.

Talking to Ken Levine later reveals that there’s a reason for the title, which will only become apparent with play, but it doesn’t seem to initially fit. At first, I thought it was a little like an attempt to do a Final Fantasy. As in, recreate the franchise to mean, “every game in Bioshock can have a totally different world”… but at the moment it’s deliberately foggy whether this is the same universe as Bioshock. I suspect yes, but buried. As such, it seems more like what Assassin’s Creed does. Presently, Bioshock means Rapture and its certain spread of mechanics. By doing this, they’re trying to make Bioshock an approach, with each game offering you some insanely baroque new world, perhaps with something connecting them all. So in the same way that the Assassin’s Creed games can move from Crusades-era Middle East to Renaissance Italy, Bioshock can move from the depths of Rapture to the sky-challenging glory of…

Okay, what the game should be called is Columbia, in the same way that Bioshock should have been called Rapture.

Nice 'tasche.

Columbia is the city of the future circa 1900, created as a sort of moving World’s Fair, travelling the world to show the sheer power and majesty of the rising newly technological America – the Moon Landing of its day. Levine argues that between 1880 and 1900 America transformed from this Agrarian backwater to a rising technological power that ended up claiming the 20th century as its own.

Inevitably, it goes wrong. The World’s Fair was secretly weaponized, covered in cannons which go and do what cannons are made for. It goes rogue, causes a terrible international incident and disappears into the clouds never to be seen again.

Skip forward a few years, where in a Chandlerian move, ex-Pinkerton, strikebreaker and general low-life Booker DeWitt is hired to find a woman. This Elizabeth is missing. DeWitt can handle this. It’s what he does. The only problem is that she’s apparently in Columbia… and the mysterious figure hiring you says he can get you there.

Arriving, you discover that she’s not exactly a pure victim. She’s enormously powerful, and she’s caught in the middle of the storm which is tearing apart Columbia. You have to escape, together, and combine your abilities to do so.

Obvious changes first. You aren’t the blank cipher. This time around, you’re playing a character with a distinct personality. Secondly, you aren’t alone. This isn’t the lonely isolation of System Shock 2. This is a game where much of the time you have an equal partner in surviving this crazed world. In fact, it’s not about lonely isolation full stop. The inhabitants of Columbia seem as wired and demented as the Splicers of Rapture, but it’s a different sort of dementia.

The actual walk-through demo of the game – highly choreographed, as they always are at this stage – shows sections which make it clear. A lot is about trying to create the idea of horror and tension in broad-day light. For example, there’s a section where you walk into a bar. Immediately, every eye in the packed place turns to you. The seconds stretch out. You get to move and interact a little – then an inhabitant pulls a gun, and it all kicks off. It escalates into an enormous mob, hunting you down and cornering you. And it really is a mob, with far more enemies converging on you than I saw in Bioshock. Electricity blast after electricity blast fells them, but it’s clearly not going to be enough as they move with measured pace towards you.

At which point the demo actually introduces Elizabeth, who summons a storm cloud above the gathered hordes’ head. Water lashes down… and since they’re wet, the whole crowd are electrocuted. The demo continues, with her making an enormous projectile out of all the bits of cutlery in a passing cart and ending with you taking a whole bloody bridge out between combining your powers. All the while, the characters talk to one another and do some lovely, relatively subtle storytelling. The take-away moment is when you realise that Elizabeth’s nose is bleeding after a particularly telekinetic display. These exertions aren’t easy for her.

Columbia is basically Britannia, but for yanks. In case you didn't know.

The second thing to catch the eye is – to use the true technical phrase – full on proper mentalisms which make Columbia unlike any game environment I’ve ever traversed. My favourite is an early moment where a robotic horse drags a carriage with no wheels along the floor, which is a fantastic sight gag on the horseless carriage. A woman, on the porch of a burning house, silently and solemnly sweeping up. The man covered in ravens. The odd collision-style of the whole world, as if it was made by the most over-literal architect in the world. Make a flying city you say? Well, take a normal building and stick a load of balloons on the side, yeah? The floating islands are connected by grandiose sweeping tracks you attach yourself to and fly along, in either direction – which, with the grand blue skies above you, did make me think of Sonic of all things.

And then the heavyweight creatures which are pursuing Elizabeth. You see a little of one in the trailer – the heart floating in the water chamber, a bearded head attached with wires. The one which ends the playthrough is far larger, a creature which looks like some kind of sadomasochistic take on a giant raven and a gargoyle. And the key element is the array of colour. When, near the conclusion before the arrival of the last creature, the winds pick up and the sky darkens, it’s actually a little disturbing and shows what you gain by using the full array of the palette. It’s not a game about sitting in a closet, covered in grime any more.

But it is a game about a lot of stuff. It’s a game people are going to end up spewing a grand torrent of exciting wank about. It’s got ideas.

The 1880-1900 gap is key. “This isn’t a game about history – but it is a game set in the context of history,” as Levine puts it. In 1880, the US was a country tired and broken by war, having experienced massive casualties. In 1900… it was having different sorts of urges. Levine talks about President McKinley questioning whether they should annex the Philippines, just freed from Spain. At which point Levine reads a full quote from McKinley on the issue, as he tossed and turned whether he should do this potentially horrible thing…

I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way – I don’t know how it was, but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain – that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France or Germany – our commercial rivals in the Orient – that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves – they were unfit for self-government – and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed and went to sleep and slept soundly.

That’s what Bioshock: Infinite is about.

It is VERY IMPORTANT to deliver crates to your FPS. This is how it's done.

When the demo finishes and Levine leaves the stage, and an enormous image appears on the background. A presidential figure with the bell of liberty in one hand, surrounded by crude stereotypes of immigrants of all stripes. The legend beneath it screams: “It is our holy duty to guard against the foreign hordes”. Repurposed period propaganda posters set the tone. “Her eyes.. so blue! Her skin… so white!” asks one poster “… or are they?” before warning about hidden genetic purity. They permeate the game – “FOR FAITH! FOR RACE! FOR FATHERLAND!” caught my eye along with warnings about the ever-elusive “they” taking your gun, wife and just about everything else.

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. It’s a game that feels set on the brink of disaster – there is some WWI propaganda starting to creep in, and quiet talk about “The Siege of Columbia”, but the whole mood of the game seems triumphal – the pre-WWI utopianism I was talking about earlier. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s a city in the skies. It’s worth remembering that the game has been teased as “Icarus”. Icarus would have been a little too on the nose, I suspect, but there’s no doubt that Columbia is going to come crashing down.

Let’s cut to the chase: at this point, it appears the game’s major themes are American Imperialism and fear of immigration. By its simple existence, it’s drawing lines between what happened at the start of the last century and the start of this one. It is, at least potentially, about as political as it gets.

With the game tentatively scheduled for a 2012 release, I can’t wait to see more.

Expect stupid linking to Guru Josh and/or the xx by the time the game comes out.

And come back tomorrow for us talking to Ken Levine. The only Bioshock: Infinite interview, I strongly suspect, to mention anarchist Emma Goldman.

256 Comments

  1. i saw dasein says:

    nativism, nationalism/fascism and fear of the “other’ are just as much political philosophies as is libertarianism or anarcho capitalism

  2. chesh says:

    THE FUCKING HALF-LIFE 2 BRIDGE.
    I recently replayed it (achievements!) and my girlfriend was wondering why I seemed to be having a panic attack. Of course it was the goddamn bridge. It might not be so bad if I had feet, I’m never quite sure where I’m standing in HL2.
    </offtopic&rt;

  3. chesh says:

    er, that comment was supposed to go elsewhere. bah.

  4. jalf says:

    Wait what’s Peter Molyneux got to do with this?

    Heh, I was thinking Tim Schafer actually… ;)

    Anyway, this looks intriguing. Am I allowed to say that without pissing off anyone or coming across as a dumb slobbering Bioshock fanboy? Bioshock really really didn’t live up to its potential, and perhaps this won’t either. But so far, the setting and the visual style has caught my interest.

    Of course, I said the exact same thing about Bioshock a couple of years ago. We’ll see how it turns out.

    But really, it’s hardly worth getting so angry over, is it? A game that might turn out to be good, or might not live up to its potential? And people hoping it will actually be good?

    Some people need to work out some anger issues, methinks. It’s just a game.

    • Hidden_7 says:

      Not to pick a fight with you in particular, but I find it odd in general when people negatively critique games as “not living up to their potential.”

      To my mind, games in the recent past that have lived up to their potential are the likes of the Modern Warfares. Because they had such little potential, so it was an easy mark to hit. Potential is, in my opinion, a product of ambition. Games are at a point right now where even a fairly common amount of ambition is hard to realize. Games with lots of ambition and potential then, very very rarely get even remotely close to meeting it all. Personally however, I’d rather play those games than ones that achieve their limited potential.

      All that being said, I’d much rather play a game that achieves an incredibly grand potential. Bioshock, though I think it was really a rather good game, has a lot of room to improve, and I’d absolutely love to see Infinite be the game that improves that.

  5. SwiftRanger says:

    While the trailer is intriguing this is yet another shooter from Irrational, I am starting to believe they just don’t want to make strategy games. Silly buggers.

  6. mihor_fego says:

    Pynchon’s “Against the day” as inspiration?

  7. Kris says:

    I like the setting, art style and the possible exploration of the concept of ‘manifest destiny’. Especially as I reeber studying how it was parralleled in Germany. Don’t feel it needed the Bioshock name, prehas just a subtitle stating ‘written by Ken Levine’ would convey the feel of the game. Though the skyanes and floating islands with steampunk reminds me of a world/level in Metroid Prime 3. Then again Bioshock felt like it owed a debt to Metroid games in general.

    • Kris says:

      Apologies for above typos – touchscreen dislikes calluses on fingers.

  8. R. Eden says:

    If Columbia is anything like the flying (and part-time raiding) party described in Adams’ “Life, the Universe, and Everything,” then count me in!

  9. Dagda says:

    Absolutely fantastic.

  10. Red Scharlach says:

    i liked this game better when it was called mario vs. airman

  11. manveruppd says:

    I thought the whole concept and setting is brilliant!

  12. perilisk says:

    I like the idea of treating Bioshock like Final Fantasy; the appeal of the first was about the ideas explored, the novelty, and the fact that it was a throwaway settings — bringing us back to Rapture for Bioshock 2 was disappointing, although understandable from a business perspective.

    It would be nice if the city wasn’t in the process of falling apart and was had a decent ratio of mostly non-violent folks to rampaging enemies, rather than being populated solely by fast zombies. At the very least, a stealthy character should be able to see the inhabitants under “normal” circumstances.

    Hopefully they’ll give us a fairly nuanced deconstruction of the ideologies of the time (imperialism, yes, but also futurism, technocracy, and socialism, and maybe (1890’s-era American) liberalism, anarchism, populism, and so on) , maybe hit on the assassination at the end of the real-world fair or ragtime music or (particularly) the Frontier Thesis. In fact, the Frontier Thesis might be a critical thematic component: maybe “Infinite” is a reference to an “infinite” frontier in the form of the sky (and perhaps eventually, space)?

  13. Feanor says:

    @K Marin are already working on the sequel:

    Bioshock Infinite +1

  14. vanarbulax says:

    I for one welcome this new influx of brightly coloured, highly saturated off-kilter dystopias. It brings my dream of a modern fully-fledged “The Prisoner” style game a step closer.

  15. Fata_Morgana says:

    That there are people already complaining about this game…

    I just…

    No really…

    How in the…

    What.

  16. drewski says:

    Don’t like the name. Love everything else.

  17. dayeight says:

    Well, Emma Goldman was an npc in that Ultima 6 spin off Martian Dreams….

  18. ManaTree says:

    I can’t believe most of you. What the fuck?!

    1) WE HAVEN’T PLAYED THE GAME. Judging the game now is idiotic. Exactly how many times does this have to go through your heads?

    2) Project Icarus was not anything more than a moniker. I don’t recall Irrational ever saying that it was explicitly a new IP. Or a rehash. I don’t recall anything. I actually thought it’d be a new IP, but frankly, this is awesome.

    3) OH HEY, DID YOU ALREADY FORGET THAT WE HAVEN’T PLAYED THE GAME? Because you might have. Poor fellows.

    4) Ken Levine feels that this is a proper sequel with respect to how BioShock feels, not the setting, not the story. In other words, BioShock is a bunch of immersive sims, pretty much. I’m generalizing it, but around that.

    5) Your old games are not gone.

    6) Leave your judgments of the game at the door, by the way.

    7) One trailer does not tell us everything. Didn’t we learn this from movies? A trailer does not suffice, much less in games than film. Games even need demos for any kind of proper human metric.

    8) Shame on you for getting suckered by hype.

    9) Did you forget to give the game a chance? No? Good!

    That should be a lot of them. Respond away. I suspect I’ll have started a flame war within the hour, but I think I’m being very reasonable with what I’m saying (my tone is a bit flamey, I’ll admit, but I am damn disappointed at the reaction).

    • AndrewC says:

      @Manatree: Oh. I hope I’m not offending the the previous two pages by not having read them yet, but does this post mean they are full of people being all negative about it, probably due to some rather tellingly angry issues they have wth Bioshock?

      That’s fairly sad, but it’s OK. We’ll live.

    • DK says:

      Here’s something for your 1) and 3):

      WE ALREADY KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING.
      They’ve done it in Bioshock. They’ve done it in Bioshock 2. They’ve done it in Deus Ex2. They’ve done it a hundred times before.

      There is no magical “unannounced feature” that you just have to “wait and see” and “don’t judge it yet”.
      The only thing you’re doing with that attitude is giving the Marketing Department an orgasm.

    • AndrewC says:

      @Manatree: we’re they allcaps-ing a lot too?

    • negativedge says:

      Personally, I only express my opinions as mathematically graphed functions after grand jury presentations. This way, I don’t commit the horrible sin of using my mind to react to a given set of information.

    • ManaTree says:

      @AndrewC

      Remember XCOM and X-COM? Not as many, but plenty of angry voices, nonetheless. Many irrationally so.

      @DK

      Oh please. That’s taking what I’m saying out of proportion. And an orgasm for a marketing department? Really? I say that I’m partially flaming and clearly that’s a GREAT marketing tool, eh?

      Get a grip on your head. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, though.

      It’s only fair to give anyone a chance. It doesn’t matter how many times they fuck up, these are game studios, not criminals or, God forbid, Bobby Kotick. By the way, I don’t know why you’d bring up BioShock 2 or Deus Ex 2. You mean as sequels? If that’s your argument, it doesn’t hold, I’m sorry. It doesn’t matter if it’s first game, the second game, the 50th game or the 1000th game. They can be good or bad, irregardless. And it’s not any studio we’re talking about; it’s Irrational. They stand a far better chance at making a good game than many studios.

    • Acosta says:

      It’s adorable seeing people feel so insecure of their opinion that they need to criticise others to feel better themselves.

      Get over it.

  19. MartinNr5 says:

    Excellent article Kieron – very well written.

    And I do want this game. If done right it can be awesome.

  20. theblazeuk says:

    I see your point an- LOOK ZOMBIES RUN!

  21. Okami says:

    It’s published by 2k, they’ll crush any vestige of political commentary out of it by the time they’re done with it.

  22. JohnS says:

    I don’t understand some of the more negative comments either. If it was about space marines or WWII I might sympathise with them.

    “Oh, another architectural marvel in a fantastical environment with sociopolitical commentary. Haven’t we had enough of those?”

  23. Dawngreeter says:

    I’m so unbelievably bored by this. Seriously, another anachronistic and weirdly conceived failed utopia with superpowered people where Big Daddies roam? Really? I can imagine the board meeting.

    Billy: We can make another Bioshock, exactly like the two we already made, but this time it’ll be… IN A VOLCANO!
    Jim: That’s so goddamn innovative, I’m getting goosebumps! But maybe we’re pushing it too far?
    Billy: Yeah, we might be. People’s heads will explode, the populace isn’t ready for such huge strides forward.
    Jim: Yeah. We’ll wait for the volcano idea a bit later. How about… in the sky?
    Billy: Awesome! Let’s mildly change the appearance of Big Daddies as well. I like it when we innovate the exact same things we already innovated twice.
    Jim: And they said we couldn’t become game designers with accounting degrees, hah!

    • AndrewC says:

      I’d suggest you being bored by such imaginative settings is that the standard near future/dystopia setting is so utterly endemic it doesn’t even feel like a cliche anymore.

    • Dawngreeter says:

      What imaginative settings? It’s an imaginative setting. Singular. The one we’ve already seen. If they want to tell stories about it, by all means, be my guest. This just feels, like someone already said in the comments, like a game of mad libs. It’s not underwater, it’s in the sky. Hoorah, another crop of fans hailing the innovation of substituting one weird environment for another.

      Also, it’s not an issue of cliches. A well-established setting allows stories to focus on more than just explaining their whys and wherefores. Mere fact that you can take a cyberpunkish near-future sprawl, a zombie apocalypse or anything like that and have 100% of your audience know exactly what’s going on allows you to commit the entirety of your narrative to specific characters, circumstances, etc. An establishing shot of a noir detective in a pouring rain tells you everything you need to know about the entire world the protagonist inhabits. That’s smart use of the language of any given medium.

      This ain’t it. This is “let’s pull another weird stunt from the hat because it seemed to work the last time around”. I don’t care if it’s in the sky. I don’t care what slightly different kind of superpower the people have. Not a single thing here tells us anything contained within this wacky impossible sky city is of importance. The sky city is the big sale. Feh. This is their huge change, substituting “underwater” for “airborne”, because it’s bigger than Bioshock 2’s change of “individualist” into “collectivist”. Even though it was the EXACT SAME STORY.

      I am fairly certain everyone reading this can already guess the majority of the narrative. And it won’t be political. As much as I admire Kieron’s ability to hope for the best after so much experience that really should have made him more of a cynic. But then, that’s why I love RPS.

    • AndrewC says:

      Oh. Well we disagree about how interesting narratives are expressed in games.

  24. SuperNashwan says:

    Interesting setting but if the combat’s as clunky as the other Bioshocks I’ll be giving this a miss as well.

  25. toni says:

    I’m sorry but I failed to see what “Ideas” the game got you talk about being exciting ?
    to me it sounds just like a BS sequel/expansion in a different setting with the same combat/powers and an excuse for a quicksave called Elika/aehm, Elizabeth. BS1 teaser was epic, this is very underwhelming. Waiting for the gameplay demo for next verdict.

  26. bill says:

    If it’s like bioshock, but a bit different (for variation) and with a bit more variation of actions. (talking to people!) then it’d rock.

    Bioshock was awesome, until you realised that there wasn’t much to do. After they cleverly pointed out it was an on-rails shooter, they should have switched styles and opened it up Deus-Ex style. Instead they continued as an on-rails shooter, and it slowly lost it’s appeal.

    Hopefully this Bioshock (terrible name, but good for marketing i guess) will have more Deus Ex / Bloodlines in it’s DNA. That’s all it’d take to make it awesome.

  27. FuzzyKitty says:

    This totally has me giddy for the same reason many people have mentioned – the environment. Any discussion I’ve ever had with friends on Bioshock always includes raves about the Plastic Surgeon and to a slightly lesser extent, the Musician. Those levels brought more raw emotion than I’ve seen in most games I’ve ever played and did an excellent job embodying the bleak atmosphere. Those are the memorable characters/levels that will always stick with me, alongside similar lunatics like Killer 7’s Ulmeyda or Clive Barker’s Undying’s Aaron (The character wasn’t totally memorable, but the setting he was in is frankly the only memory I have from that game. But what a memory it was).

    We can all be different types of gamers and have different expectations. I don’t expect much “gameplay innovation” or something revolutionary from the FPS genre. The core gameplay has not drastically changed for so many years. If we were to remove all theme and setting from shooters, would they really be that different? I don’t believe so.

    However, I, like I imagine most of you, crave, if not demand, something new from whatever new title I play. If I, going into a shooter title, already assume that there’s not going to be much fundamentally different from Doom, Turok, Deus Ex, Call of Duty, and even the forgettable titles like Soldier of Fortune (although who can forget how grotesque the body damage was in that?), where can I look for change or innovation? Atmospheric immerision. System Shock and Bioshock had me in stories I devoured. I look forward to sinking my teeth into a new world.

  28. Huggster says:

    Yes it looks great – but enough with the armoured suits already!
    And the sad string music!

    Anyway’s read the “Horror of the Heights” by A C Doyle
    link to gutenberg.org

  29. shinygerbil says:

    I am looking forward to this game. A spiritual successor to a spiritual successor, or something more closely tied?

    I am hoping there is as much emphasis on story/experience over gameplay/game mechanics as in Bioshock the First. I would love to wander in that city and feel like I was actually there.

    But they should have called it BIOGASM: ON THE MOON.

  30. BrutalSlayingIsAJoy says:

    I will keep it brief:
    Shitty shit shit shit seems shitty shit shit.

    But if the actualy gamePLAY is better than what everything else so far suggests (blood, gore, dismemberment, less pretend moral bollocks, something that is actually FUN, destructible everythings, infinite ways of doing something, being able to completely go about doing tomfoolery and take plot and peoples apart, etc, etc, i.e. all things that barely ever are either done at all or properly), then I’m all up for it.

    So yea, wow, like totally giddy about this one.
    Not.

  31. Chris says:

    If this wants to be super-predictable, Andrew Ryan’s a clone of the guy who made this city and the chick is the predecessor of the eve/adam users.

    • perilisk says:

      But Andrew Ryan was Russian IIRC, and the eve-adam users were ordinary people who injected themselves with stem cells grown from sea slugs.

      Maybe Elizabeth is an ancestor of Sophia and Eleanor Lamb, though. Could be she’s the end result of a eugenics program geared toward nurturing telepathic ability in humans, if eugenics is supposed to be a theme.

  32. Iucounu says:

    “Gyroshock.”

  33. Tanysha says:

    As always: The angry internet men leave their damp and moldy hideouts to rave at the sight of an original setting.

    I loved Bioshock 1.
    It helped, of course, that I hate playing shooters anyway and strolled happily through Rapture on the Easy-Setting, free to enjoy the marvelous design, the beautiful architecture, the stunning music and the fabulous thoughts about objectivist philosophy. And I think there was some fighting which I only vaguely recall because of the aforementioned wise decision to lower the shooty-part to easy.

    Reading some of the comments in this thread I am reminded why there are so few enjoyable settings these days:
    Why bother inventing something new, if most people cry havok if there are no Nazis, elves, dwarves, Jedi, space marines or emotionally crippled misogynists to be found?

    Looking forward to another weird and sad and pretty city to explore!

  34. Zack says:

    @sanguineangel

    resident evil 4
    any mario or zelda game
    shadow of the colossus
    kingdom hearts
    ico

    off the top of my head, im pretty sure all these games are based around rescuing a female character.