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Explore a decaying beacon of America in BioShock Infinite

1:01 PM on 08.12.2010 // Samit Sarkar

[See the reveal trailer here.]

At the turn of the 20th century, America was in the midst of asserting itself as a major power on the world stage. By that point, the national consensus had shifted from isolationism to imperialism: the United States had expanded outside the borders of the North American continent, and the nation’s business barons sought new markets for their industrial and agricultural exports.

Shortly before the new century, in 1893, Chicago held the World’s Columbian Exposition, an exhibition to celebrate Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World 400 years prior -- and how far America had come since then. Within the fairgrounds stood the White City, an opulent, brilliantly gleaming group of buildings; its architects, working in the Beaux Arts style, posited it as a paragon of civilization -- the ideal city. The title of the Chicago exposition comes from “Columbia,” a poetic name for America (and its feminine personification, where Uncle Sam is the male symbol for the nation).

In BioShock Infinite, developer Irrational Games has built a city floating in the clouds as their manifestation of Columbia; turn-of-the-century Americans envisioned the steampunk-dirigible metropolis as a traveling beacon of America, a symbol of the American way. “This is like the Apollo project of 1900, constructed as an example to the world of the success of American ingenuity and the [...] American democratic system,” explained Ken Levine, the studio’s creative director, during the game’s unveiling yesterday evening at the Plaza Hotel in New York.

But a “terrible, terrible international incident” befalls Columbia, which turns out to be “armed to the teeth.” The city vanishes into the sky, its whereabouts unknown. More than a decade later, in 1912, a man approaches you and asks you to rescue a woman from Columbia. How does he know where to find it? What is it like? What will you encounter there, besides the woman? Will you be able to accomplish your mission? Columbia harbors many secrets, and some will unfold below.

1[image credit: Smithsonian Institution]

BioShock Infinite (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
To be released: 2012

You play as Booker DeWitt, a “disgraced former Pinkerton agent” who’s now known as a fixer: you’re a man who gets things done... for the right price. In your “office” -- a dingy room above a bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side -- a mysterious man comes to you with a mission: rescue a young woman named Elizabeth. You have experience with this type of undertaking, but there’s a wrinkle this time: the woman is being held on Columbia. You scoff at the man; no one knows where Columbia is! But somehow, he does. He tasks you with extracting the woman, who has been imprisoned in the city for the past 15 years -- since her childhood.

Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems in the universe of BioShock. In fact, you don’t have too much trouble finding Elizabeth, or even breaking her out. What you come to discover is that Elizabeth possesses tremendous power -- notice, in the trailer, how she manipulates you and a garden’s worth of roses with her telekinetic abilities -- and that she’s at the heart of a conflict that threatens to destroy Columbia. If you’re going to make it out of there with her alive, the two of you will have to combine your powers -- oh yes, you have powers, too -- but the way in which that plays out is purely up to you.


The ten-minute demo that Irrational showed at last night’s event looked like, well, BioShock -- at least from a gameplay perspective. Infinite is a first-person shooter in which DeWitt is imbued with plasmid-like powers; if we’re talking in terms of the first two BioShock games, I saw abilities that looked like Electro Bolt and Telekinesis. So I asked Tim Gerritsen, Irrational’s director of product development, how the studio is differentiating the gameplay in Infinite from that of its predecessors. Elizabeth is the key, he explained, saying that she “creates so many new opportunities for you as a player.” She can be a part of your arsenal, but she isn’t a mere tool; the way powers work in this game ensures that. “She’s not just this drone who comes along and, you know, ‘Press A to use Elizabeth.’ That’s not what she’s about.”

A group of Columbians chased DeWitt down the street, firing at him; the person running the demo countered by alternately freezing his enemies with Electro Bolt and pumping them full of lead. It was at this point that DeWitt encountered Elizabeth, who used her power to darken the skies over Columbia by conjuring up storm clouds. Just as one hovered over the hostile denizens, she shouted at DeWitt: “Hit it! Hit it now!” And with one zap of lightning from his fingertips, a localized thunderstorm erupted, making quick work of the enemies. DeWitt and Elizabeth attempted to flee, but were pinned down behind some Columbia Freight transport cars by a large metal...thing (no, it wasn’t a Big Daddy, but it was walking upright).

This time, Elizabeth used her telekinetic power to break open the carts and pull pots and pans out of them. She then fused them into a massive ball that DeWitt sent hurtling toward the metal man; it took him out. DeWitt turned back to Elizabeth, who was clearly winded, coughing for air. “You don’t look so good,” he noted. Clearly, spectacular displays of power will drain the user physically. Gerritsen brought this up, pointing out that “it takes it out of her, and it takes it out of you, to use these powers.” As in BioShock, these are ordinary folks in an extraordinary tale. “This isn’t a game about superheroes,” he cautioned, “you know, this power-trip fantasy. There are consequences to all of the actions in the game.” For example, you have the option to not make use of Elizabeth’s abilities, and that choice will definitely affect your game.


Elizabeth is the catalyst for the power-infused gameplay, but you’ll certainly have your own weapons and weapons to mess around with. “We’re not just going to do the radial dial, where you have eight selections of this, and eight selections of that, and that’s it,” Gerritsen told me. He also explained that Irrational has designed Infinite in a way that forces you to constantly change up your tactics, since that wasn’t necessarily the case in the original BioShock. “You got to the point where there was this weapon, this plasmid, and you could just keep using them for the rest of the game once you got them,” he acknowledged. “We wanted to change that up and make a new game that’s much more about, ‘What am I dealing with right now? How do I get through it? The thing I was using before doesn’t work anymore, so now I have to change it up.’ ”

After DeWitt noticed Elizabeth’s exhaustion, she reassured him: “I’m okay. I just -- I just need a moment... a moment we don’t have!” Another hulking, steampunk brute appeared; DeWitt and Elizabeth ran from it toward a bridge, only to see the machine cut them off by leaping ahead of them. DeWitt tried to fling some objects at him with telekinesis, but his efforts were futile. Elizabeth pointed out, “That’s just making him angry,” to which DeWitt quipped, “He’s already angry!” At that point, he spied the top of the bridge tower, and asked Elizabeth if she could bring it down. She focused on it, and after a shot from DeWitt’s rifle, the tower came crashing down through the road. The steel enemy was hanging on with one hand, but a few more shots sent him to a free-falling death. “We got him! We got him! Elizabeth?” DeWitt had begun to celebrate before realizing his was a Pyrrhic victory: she was coughing worse than before, and now had a bloody nose. “Three cheers for us, eh?” she asked weakly.

Columbia is ostensibly the polar opposite of Rapture, the setting of BioShock and BioShock 2. Unlike Rapture, which Andrew Ryan hid from the world on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, Columbia was “constructed in broad daylight” at the turn of the century to fly around the globe, flaunting America’s prosperity and way of life to the rest of the world. But Levine noted that “the same way Rapture represented a certain spirit of America at the time, so does Columbia.” It not only embodies the values shared by all Americans -- ideals such as democracy and liberty -- but, as a product of its time, exudes imperialist yet xenophobic attitudes, some of which stemmed from the ideas behind Social Darwinism.


The gameplay demo began with DeWitt regaining consciousness in front of a framed mural featuring two banners: one at the top saying “For God and Country,” and the other at the bottom reading “It is our holy duty to guard against the foreign hordes.” DeWitt soon came upon a grassy area with a man and a flock of crows milling about in front of a gazebo. Inside the structure was a politician, Saltonstall, stumping for his imperialist agenda:

And if our guns thunder, then I say, ‘Let them thunder!’ The needs of our great city of Columbia must come before the needs of any foreigner, whether they be enemy or friend. For I have looked into the future, and one path is filled with amity and gold, and the other is fraught with the perils of a hostile and alien world.

DeWitt grabbed a rifle from the barrel of guns in Saltonstall’s gazebo, and at that point, the hatless Uncle Sam look-a-like rounded on him, demanding, “Who are you?!” Immediately afterward, he shouted, “Charles! Attack!” Charles, the other man in the courtyard, sicced the crows on DeWitt. He quickly shot at Charles, and eventually kicked him off a ledge. The gunplay looked tight; presumably, we can expect better weapon combat than in BioShock. Once Charles was dead, the crows left DeWitt alone, and Saltonstall made a getaway. DeWitt then looked down to Charles’ corpse, which was stuck on scaffolding below. He used telekinesis on the body, and picked up a bottle labeled “Murder of Crows” (which happens to be the proper term for a group of crows).

After DeWitt drank the fluid, a bloody crow flew to him and perched nearby. A cannon blast from below then hit the gazebo, so DeWitt followed his rifle’s sights down to Saltonstall, who was near the cannon. DeWitt killed the person manning the cannon, and then began a wild, twisting journey down toward Saltonstall on railings meant to transport carts. Upon landing, and barely avoiding a shot from Saltonstall, DeWitt headed into a building and ran into a saloon. The customers looked warily at him, but no one made a move... until suddenly, a shotgun blast came from the right side. Chaos broke out in the bar, with everyone firing their guns, before DeWitt called in his murder of crows to annoy the saloon patrons until he could get away. It’s these kinds of “I don’t know what’s going to happen here” moments that make BioShock exciting.


The ticked-off saloon-goers followed DeWitt outside, where Saltonstall and his cannon fired upon DeWitt again. This time, he was ready: he plucked the cannonball out of the air with telekinesis, and hurled it back from whence it came. After destroying the cannon, DeWitt ran away from the area, and eventually found Elizabeth. By the time they had conquered the second living machine a few minutes later, they were both winded and ready to rest. DeWitt, wanting to make sure they could take a breather, asked Elizabeth, “That was the boy who was chasing you, right?” “No, that wasn’t him. That wasn’t him.” And then she saw it: “THAT’S HIM!” A giant mechanical crow, perched on a building, stood out against the darkened sky. Then it pounced... and the screen cut to black.

Gerritsen assured me that what they showed last night was only the proverbial “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the gameplay variety in BioShock Infinite. What I saw looked very, very promising, especially the double-team combat with DeWitt and Elizabeth, but it remains to be seen just how much that dynamic will really affect the game. Either way, as someone who loves American history, I already find the story and setting highly intriguing. Columbia isn’t exactly inviting, but it’s immediately a much less oppressive place than Rapture was -- though no less foreboding. Still, I can’t wait to experience it for myself.

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