Avengers, assemble! Marc N. Kleinhenz has summoned several leading voices from different gaming publications to deconstruct and reconstitute the latest surprise from Ken Levine and his crack team over at Irrational Games: BioShock: Infinite, the (ostensibly) third title in the series that he himself started three years ago. Is it a cutting-edge interactive experience in the making or a refracted retread doomed to (critical) failure? And what the hell does it have to do with Bungie’s two last Halo games? Find out as Marc is joined by Sam Bishop, Rus McLaughlin, Ryan Green, our own Micah Seff, and the always enigmatic Sir Gordon Wheelmeier.
Did anyone see this coming?
Ryan Green, TotalPlayStation senior editor:
No, but then again, I didn't think the franchise would be dumb enough to go back to Rapture.
Was a good game, though. Didn't hold like the first :(
Marc N. Kleinhenz:
Yeah, but (a) this is being developed by Levine, not the interlopers, and (b) I never suspected he would go back to the BS mythos again; I figured he'd move on to greener pastures, as would be consistent with his studio's gameography.
Rus McLaughlin, IGN columnist:
Fuck. Ing. A.
This is how excited I felt about the first BioShock. Everything I've seen and read about this so far adds up big for me, and I've already mentally pre-ordered my copy. Swiping somebody's shotgun and firing it using only your telekinetic super-mind powers? Yes, please.
Also, rather relieved we won't be playing as Eleanor.
Sir Gordon Wheelmeier, gaming guru:
I can't help but think that this wasn't a BioShock game, and then 2K said "make a BioShock game,” and now it's called BioShock and has ties. I haven't watched interviews to see his excitement, so maybe I'm wrong and this is all Ken's call.
I can't wait for BioShock 3 and BioShock: Infinite 2.
Micah Seff, GameXplain editor-in-chief:
I'm gonna be the odd man out on this one and say that this seems fairly uninspired to me. I'm kind of a hater, so maybe that's why I'm not excited, but the first two BioShock games did absolutely nothing for me except anger me with their psuedo-intellectual, Randian blather. I'm a little more than surprised that you're all so excited, actually. To me, Infinite just looks like "BioShock in the Sky," and I thought the whole floating city thing was passé back in the '90s, so I'm not sure what the setting is going to offer that will feel original or even all that interesting. Also, did anyone else think it was weird when they showed these indescribably futuristic engines blowing fonts of hot air into... burlap sacks? I guess I just don't know what to make of this yet, but I can't say that I'm all that excited.
Marc N. Kleinhenz:
BioShock is, alongside Portal, the best-written game in the history of the medium, if only in its ability to use literally every facet of the gameplaying experience – cutscenes, production design, background audio, dialogue, level layouts. The subtlety and potency of such narrative handling is, I think, the future of the industry.
And this is one of the big reasons why I'm so excited to see Levine and team apply such principles to a completely different, if not the polar opposite, environment. Wide-open areas with 15 enemies simultaneously attacking? That's an amazingly different context, the likes of which is rarely seen; the last big switch-up of this magnitude and potentiality was, I think, last year's (quite well-done) Halo Wars.
So bring it on, Kenny. Impress me all over again.
I think that while much of BioShock's story and self-aware narrative was unique and very well done in that regard, the main storytelling mechanic failed for two big reasons.
First, in order to appreciate the tale and hear everything, you had to stop what you were doing and pay attention. You generally stop during all cutscenes, but at least you have something to see. Here, I constantly felt like I was trading time, time to do anything else, to sit still and listen to all those audio tapes.
Secondly, I am willing to bet that a relatively minor percentage of players actually took the time to listen to them because of what I said above, which means that much of the story went unexperienced. Without the tapes, the rest of the story was random nonsense.
Audio tapes should unveil extra details or side stories, not important context to your main surroundings.
Granted, many other avenues would have meant more needed production resources, but not all.
Marc N. Kleinhenz:
In my (arguably limited) experience, working as both a gaming journalist but also as a seven-year GameStop veteran, I've found that the vast, vast majority of gamers don't care about storytelling one way or the other. I think, to a very certain degree, this tends to undermine your argument. (Still, for that small majority that cared a little about the point and context of their actions, most of the audio diaries were easily attainable, and these in and of themselves were glue enough to bind together all of the other narrative components in a cohesive enough fashion.) And, furthermore, I think the developers did a good enough job of conveying the basic story and narrative pull outside of the diaries, much like how one can mute the Star Wars films but still have a fairly decent grasp of the goings-on.
Go ahead – fire away. :)
The bit about most players not paying attention to story is very true, which is why I think too much of BioShock's was left to the adventurous player to find. Maybe not; I went for as many audio tapes as I could the first time through, so it's hard to say just how confusing it would have been otherwise, but I think certain major story elements would have been without explanation. Sometimes you have to hit people over the head.
I would have liked to have seen something visual to go along with the diaries, animated or not. Written journals with photographs paperclipped to them could have extended personalities a bit by seeing the way the characters would have taken notes, kept their manuscripts tidy (or not), what sorts of sketches they might have left, and what kinds of odd photos they may have thought notable. The voiceovers would remain in that scenario, but they wouldn't be left to their own accord.
I loved the voice acting – stellar stuff to be sure. But I couldn't help but feel that simply having what was essentially a segmented audiobook tell the story in a videogame be an easy way out, or something that they couldn't expand upon due to time constraints. In other words, its limited and single-approach storytelling pulled me out of the experience because I couldn't help but wonder why they didn't do more.
Sam Bishop, TotalPlayStation editor-in-chief:
Honestly, Marc, you kinda nailed it when you said this is interactive entertainment, but this is a fledgling medium; we're essentially in the Talkies era of things – the basic ideas have been boiled down until the core mechanics are pretty solid and now we're exploring ways to actually play with the presentation style of things. I don't think it's wholly unfair to say that the last really major influential way of presenting things in a movie-like fashion was probably Half-Life in that it never took you out of witnessing things first-hand. We may have better cinematic direction now, and the level of detail in the stuff that goes on around you is getting better, but we're still on a bunch of glorified trams and watching resonance cascades in games.
But there are attempts at working on tugging at the edges of storytelling, and while audio logs have become rather interesting, I'm sure that format will change, too. What I do like is that players that want to dig deeper are rewarded with more context to the world; those that want to just shoot stuff in a pretty, new world can get their rocks off, too.
I guess what I'm saying is I'm excited in the same way I am about any world that seems well presented. There will no doubt be a few showpiece moments, but yeah, the specter of 2K seems to be looming a bit. It would have been a much more welcome exercise if done just a few years from now, but such is being owned by a mega-publisher, I suppose. They want more BioShock, they get something that doesn't really seem to match that name, but at least it's another BioShock!
See, to me, BioShock as a franchise shouldn't be about Rapture per se... it's more a clash of dueling philosophies (which 1 generally did well and 2 generally did poorly) set in an environment that accentuates those themes the game is playing with. The fact that these happen to be steampunk settings just adds a layer of coolness to the proceedings.
For 1, it was a former utopia, now crumbling under the greed and ambition of its inhabitants' Randian mono-mania. What was great about the first BioShock, aside from the fun gameplay, was that everything fed into the whole Objectivism/anti-Objectivism idea from the central mechanic of killing/saving/ignoring Little Sisters outward. Or you could just go fuck up dem Big Daddy sumbitches and not worry about it.
The audio logs added depth of atmosphere and context but generally weren't vital to playing the game... it'd be more accurate to say they were only important if you wanted to truly experience the game. I seem to recall there were a (very) few audio logs that gave hints to hidden areas, etc., but I'm hoping Irrational does add more of that, plus the branching quests Gordon suggested, for Infinity. I pretty much just listened to them in the background, while I was doing other things (sometimes even in combat).
Columbia doesn't look nearly as run-down as Rapture, and the trailer already gave us a few brief glimpses of the philosophies in play (I'm getting a "racial purity" vibe so far). The fact that our ex-Pinkerton (which I'll admit geeks me out even more, because I've always been into that aspect of that era) actually speaks indicates that Irrational is breaking from a few of its old tropes, so we'll have to see what they do with their other old standbys, like audio logs. Maybe it'll be the pictures/letters thing, as photographs and letter-writing was a huge part of life at that time. The gameplay tidbits I've heard so far from the demo definitely lead me to believe they're stepping things up there, too.
I am not, however, wild about the name. What's the game that comes after this? BioShock: Infinity Plus 1?
Marc N. Kleinhenz:
Just out of curiosity, particularly from you, Gordon: what did everyone think of Halo: ODST's mini-narratives that the player picked up all throughout New Mombasa?
I never played ODST. A copy came into the office for me, it was given to someone else with the promise that I'd get another, I never did and then didn't want to buy it because I should have had it for free. My limited free time didn't help, either.
I'm quite excited about Reach, though. More so than I was for 3 or ODST, certainly.
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