With our heads still spinning from the astounding (if heavily scripted) demo of Bioshock Infinite at GamesCom last week, we sat down with Irrational's Director of Product Development Timothy Gerritsen to see if we could squeeze any information out of him. What we got was a tantalising glimpse into the twisted world of Columbia.
GamingUnion.net: How much can you reveal about the story, as it stands?
Timothy Gerritsen: At this point we're not talking in terrible detail. I can discuss essentially the setting and the characters. Columbia is the setting, in 1912. It is a city that was designed as an airbourne World's Fair, intended to show off the American ideals of the time.
However, in reality it actually became a floating battleship that was exporting American idealism whether you wanted it or not. A Death Star, if you like. But then it disappeared completely...
The main character is Booker DeWhitt. He's not a cipher this time, he's an actual character. He's an ex Pinkerton agent. Pinkerton's were a combination of hired muscle and secret agents in the late nineteenth century. However, even by their standards DeWhitt was too much for them, so they kicked him out and now he's an itinerant muscle-for-hire, fixer-for-hire who does dirty jobs that others aren't willing to do.
You get hired to rescue a girl named Elizabeth who happens to be held against her will in Columbia. The man who hires you knows how to get you to Columbia, despite its mysterious disappearance.
Elizabeth herself is more than meets the eye. Actually, there's a reason that they have kept her captive on Columbia. When you arrive there you realise that she is at the centre of the war that is ripping Columbia apart.
GamingUnion.net: You alluded to one of the themes there, the sense that Bioshock 2 explores aggressive patriotic nationalism. It's something that arguably resonates in current affairs. Could you elaborate on what it means to the game itself?
Timothy Gerritsen: As with any Bioshock game one of the things that we like to explore is extremism. So what happens when you have an ideal and you are unfettered and you take that ideal to its extreme.
So in Columbia you have this group that have done just that and it's reflected in what's going on around you as you play the game. One of the reasons that we chose this period is that we are interested in the dark side of it.
So there were to themes to that period; the dark side and the light side. There was this optimism of this time, so it was pre-World War 1, there was this belief that machinery was going to save the world, that technology and science were ultimately harbingers of good. That they could do no wrong and that science would solve all societal ills.
But they didn't realise that machinery can also destroy and that World War 1 was just around the corner. We're exploring that side.
So one of the themes of that period was eugenics. In many countries eugenics was practiced, a scientific approach to racism. It was the belief that if you measured people - their cranium, their ear length, their nose width, their nose height, measuring these kind of things - just like you could breed a dog, you could breed a person. And you could weed out undesirable traits. They believed that through eugenics they could save the world by creating perfect people.
GamingUnion.net: A master race...
Timothy Gerritsen: Exactly, a master race. This theory was prevalent at the time. It's the dark underbelly to the notion that science was the saviour of the world. They took scientific approaches to popularise racism.
GamingUnion.net: It strikes me that Bioshock Infinite is one of the few shooters out there that could be read as left-leaning and liberal. I've just seen Spec Ops: The Line, for example, which could be considered one of a great many militaristic shooters that almost celebrate the aggressive destruction over other territories and races, or the fear associated with invasion from them. But Bioshock is different, why is that?
Timothy Gerritsen: Well, I wouldn't say we're necessarily left-leaning, because if you look at... [stops himself] you haven't seen all of the game yet. And for every extent on one side, there's an extent on the other. Y'know we're not talking about that yet.
Even in Bioshock 1, we didn't really pick sides. At the end of the day, was Andrew Ryan a villain? Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. We never picked sides. Instead we created a game where you could explore the extents of those extremes. You got to see both sides, and you were caught in the middle.
Likewise, in this game you'll find that we're not necessarily picking sides. You're caught in the middle between factions.
GamingUnion.net: So thematically Bioshock Infinite relates to the previous games, but what about the narrative. Does it tie-in at all? Is it the same universe?
Timothy Gerritsen: That's something that we're not really talking about at this stage. Obviously, it's a Bioshock game, we always intended it to be a Bioshock game. We don't necessarily believe that Bioshock was tied to any one particular location. There are ideas in Bioshock that are universal. And those were the themes we wanted to explore.
When we finished with Bioshock 1, we were done with Rapture. We told the story that, we felt, needed to be told. It was a completely contained story, there was nothing else to say there. But we thought that the themes we've already discussed, along with exploring the different ways you can combine powers and the combat with exploration that we did in the first game - we weren't down with that, just yet. But we were done with Rapture.
So really we said, 'we're gonna throw out all the rules.' There's not gonna be sacred cows. We're gonna boil down Bioshock to its basic tenets and move forward. We're not going to just bring things over just because they were in the previous game.
Is there a tie-in? It's something we'll explore as we move forward.
GamingUnion.net: It has already been revealed that meaning of the title 'Infinite' is revealed towards the end of the game...
Timothy Gerritsen: Yes, it is.
GamingUnion.net: ...and that it is then that the links to Bioshock will be more fully revealed...
Timothy Gerritsen: There's a specific reason we called it Bioshock Infinite. We didn't just pick that name out of the air because it sounded good. There is a reason for it and that's something we really want players to discover for themselves. If we told you now it would ruin the exploration itself.
GamingUnion.net: Ok, so while there are many recurrent themes from the original, in many ways it is also the complete opposite. So the setting is very public not hidden, it's in the air as opposed to beneath the sea, it's open as opposed to closed and claustrophobic...
Timothy Gerritsen: Yeah, Rapture was very much about that claustrophobic feeling, the weight of the ocean literally crushing down on you. That was a very interesting thing for us to explore with Bioshock 1. With Bioshock Infinite it kinda is the reverse. It wasn't necessarily intentional, it was just what happened.
But this really is the reverse. So instead of being oppressed by this ocean that is bearing down on you, now you are above everything and there is limitless possibilities. You feel like you're above the world, but at the same time, there's this sense of vertigo. You can fall to your death at any time.
So it's a different set of tensions than we had underwater. And that's one of the challenges we have with the game. It's a much brighter, much more daylit experience - obviously there will be different types of day and night, we explore storms in the demo and how that affects lighting - so there will be gloom in this game, but for the most part it is a day time, above the world setting.
So we're exploring how you make that creepy, how do you make that sense of impending doom and you can see hints of that in the demo. Those are the challenges we face.
GamingUnion.net: Speaking of the demo, there are a few moments where objects shimmered. It wasn't clear weather that was the result of the powers that the characters have, or there was some questioning of the reality of the environment...
Timothy Gerritsen: I think once we release that footage, you can kind of go back and do it frame by frame and it will be a little clearer. So you'll have to wait for that. It's not the only place where that happens.
GamingUnion.net: Yeah, I saw it in the painting too.
Timothy Gerritsen: Sure, and there's even more too. We're hoping that people will obsess over that and try to glean something from it. Because there are also things in there that... I'm sorry, I would love to tell you all, we are really excited because what we're showing here is just the tip of the iceberg of what this game is all about. There's so much more.
GamingUnion.net: During the demo I asked about how scripted it was, they said they had to squash it down a little.
It was difficult for us because we only have 10 minutes to show you all of the things we want to show you. There is so much other stuff we don't even get to in the GamesCom demo. We had to work out how to show it in a compact such a compact time frame. Some really exciting things just had to be left out.
GamingUnion.net: So the game was announced very early, two years from release. Why was that?
Timothy Gerritsen: A couple of reasons. One is that we've kept it secret so long and that was difficult enough, we knew it was going to leak. We really wanted to get out in front of it and reveal it in the way that we felt would have the most impact and in a way that we could get our story across.
If it just leaked people would have gone, 'Oh, they're working on Bioshock 3.' It would have leaked in a way that it wouldn't have had the same impact we wanted it to have.
Also, because it is so new and so different, we also wanted to get it out early, so we could make people away that it is not just the next chapter of Rapture, this is an entirely different Bioshock game. There's so many new themes, there's an entirely new nature to the game.
You're playing a character this time around - we wanted people to be aware of that and comfortable with that. And then finally, like I said there is so much more to this game that we wanted to have a staged release so we could say, "Here's what it's all about, here's what we're doing" and then at different stages along the way we could get into different aspects.
Because the scope of this game is massive. It's terrifying for us because we're building it and it's so massive that we didn't want to compress all of that into a six month time frame.
GamingUnion.net: And you've already been developing the game for 3 years? It's a five year cycle, right? That seems odd at this stage of this generation of platforms.
Timothy Gerritsen: We really started working late 2008. That was when we really actually began production of the game. The themes were explored before that. After Bioshock 1 we sat down and the company said, "What do you want to do?" There was no, 'You have to make the next Bioshock.' And once we decided that was what we wanted to do, there was no, 'Right, we've got to make the next Rapture.'
We decided that we loved Bioshock so much and there was so much we wanted to do with some of the ideas in that game, that if we have the time, the budget and the inclination, how do we do it? Bioshock Infinite is the result of that.