Friday, August 13, 2010

Icarus, Irrational and Infinite

So, Ken Levine's Irrational Games announced yesterday that their mysterious Project Icarus is, in fact, the next installment in the BioShock franchise, titled BioShock Infinite. Anyone who's read my posts probably realizes that I was pretty stoked about this. The teaser is all over the internet; if you haven't checked it out, do so. I'll wait.

(waits)

I KNOW RIGHT?! I'm not going to discuss the look or feel of the game, though, because there's admittedly little out there. (I do recommend checking out Totilo's surprisingly detailed gameplay preview at Kotaku - ed.) If you remember back to the preview cinematics of the original BioShock, there were some pretty major shifts and changes, and since Infinite isn't due out until 2012 we've got plenty of time for there to be dramatic alterations. Let's not forget that BioShock itself percolated for quite a long time - I remember reading an issue of PC Gamer that talked about the game being set in a Nazi bunker with half-mutated soldiers and that... didn't really come to pass.

I was struck by a few things I saw in an interview with designer Ken Levine in Computer and Video Games. In it, he discusses a couple of key shortcomings of the "Shock Approach" that I discussed in an earlier post.

First, he addressed all the dead bodies. That is to say, the fact that the entire Shock series consists of a great deal of dead or soon-to-be-dead bodies and a very few live people that you can interact with (as opposed to BioWare's approach of many live people you can then make dead). The Shock approach works fine because the titles have essentially been action/suspense/horror pieces, so all the cadavers and the limited interactive NPC's were logical, narratively speaking. I'm intrigued by the proposal that they're going to give more of the NPC's Big Daddy-style behavior, having most of the characters in the world leave you alone unless you bother them. It's a simple idea, and it's intriguing, though I'm concerned that in an action-heavy title I could wind up needlessly pissing off a lot of innocent bystanders with all my gunplay and power-usage.

Even more interesting to me, though, are some of the narrative conventions I'm seeing. I like that they're moving both backwards in time and into another world. I cringe a little bit that the BioShock name is still being used if the game is in a totally different world, but from a marketing perspective it's logical...and for all we know the game logically exists in the BioShock timeline, since we know next to nothing about the world outside of Rapture.

(Hi everyone - Kirk here. I'm going to take advantage of my magical editorial powers to butt in and second Sam's interest in NPCs who aren't automatically hostile, because as much as I liked Bioshocks 1 and 2, I missed that in both games. Also, I'm personally excited to see Levine and his crew tackle some new literary territory. The blaring patriotism of Columbia seems to suggest that the game will have a lot to say about American cultural imperialism and Bush-era jingoism, and the whole Chicago World's Fair vibe screams Pynchon to me. The thought of Levine, the guy who so totally skewered Rand, even tangentially taking on the likes of Thomas Pynchon makes me want to do a jig in the street. Also, there's just a hint of Crimson Permanent Assurance to the whole deal, which has absolutely never been a bad thing. I hope we get to see some gameplay soon, though, and that they can finally make the U3-engine characters not look like horrific wax sculptures come to life via a Barbara Walters camera-filter. Okay. That's all I got. Carry on, Sam.)

I'm also really excited to see that they're moving beyond the Tabula Rasa, silent-protagonist approach that was so prevalent in the earlier Shock titles. This new character, Booker DeWitt, is an ex-member of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, agents of whom played a major part in this year's Red Dead Redemption, and Levine makes a case that there will be a great deal of development of the player character. I'm curious to see how they're going to adapt the Shock model to this sort of a narrative, and I have confidence that Levine can pull it off.

Finally, I am heartened to see a major game developer talk so openly about the idea of trying to tell the story not with words, but with images. Levine is by no means the first designer to propose this, but it's nice to see industry leaders talking about the importance of visual design!

Of course all of this is pie-in-the-sky, since as I noted there's next to no concrete information about the game and it has at least 16 months of development left before release. Still, having heard the basics on Bioshock Infinite, what do you think it will be? What Bioshock favorites do you hope will be in the game, and what carryover features could you do without?
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