When it was released in the late summer of 2007, the original BioShock earned virtually universal accolades from both players and the press.
A dark and surprisingly philosophical adventure through a utopian city gone wrong, it delivered intense and terrifying action, stunningly rendered underwater environments that drew heavily from art deco styles, and, perhaps most importantly, a story that resonated on an emotional level with the millions of players who experienced it.
Now, 30 months later, a team of developers at California-based 2K Marin have just put the finishing touches on the sequel, which is set to release on February 9th.
Trying to imagine new narrative ideas and game concepts to follow up one of the most beloved games of recent years was no doubt a daunting task. However, Jordan Thomas, the game's creative director, seems confident that his team has done justice to the legacy left by the original.
In the following exclusive interview he sets up the premise for the new game, discusses some of the important differences between passive and interactive storytelling, and describes the game's innovative, story-driven multiplayer component, which plays as a prequel that explores the back-stories of several of the game's most memorable characters.
TGAM: How is BioShock 2 set to begin? Who is our protagonist, where will we be, and what will we be doing?
JT: BioShock 2 takes place roughly 10 years after the events of the original, in the remains of a failed ultra-capitalist utopia called Rapture. Andrew Ryan, the underwater city's founder, is now dead - and a former political rival of his named Dr. Sofia Lamb has seized control of the city. She's a visionary collectivist, and is now recruiting the surviving Splicers into a kind of unity cult called the Rapture Family - and her beliefs about the nature of utopia are transforming it.
You take the role of Subject Delta, the first Big Daddy (a kind of armored bodyguard in an antique diving suit) successfully paired with a single Little Sister. Your relationship to her is very much a kind of warped father-bond, and early in the story, a traumatic event separates you for almost a decade.
Now, in 1968, you awaken to hear that she needs your help, and that she needs to be rescued from Dr. Lamb. As the ultimate individual, you represent a very real threat to Lamb's base of power, and she brings the whole city to bear against you.
TGAM: Video game narrative is often compared, perhaps unfairly, to that of other media, including books and film. Yet BioShock managed to overcome this hurdle and earn nearly universal praise for its story, which made important, philosophical statements about society and morality. This leads me to wonder three things. First, how does video game storytelling differ from that of other media?
JT: That's a long conversation - but one principle which differs (with BioShock and BioShock 2) is in the treatment of the protagonist. In the best heroic fiction, the author can be quite sadistic, arbitrarily torturing the main character because in a passive medium, his or her ultimate triumph or catharsis is deterministic - guaranteed.
In games, however, there's a kind of axiom of 'fair play' at work - the real-life player should ideally be allowed to succeed or fail by personal skill rather than ideal dramatic timing, and they absolutely won't accept an arbitrary weakness foisted on them by the narrative - unless it's extremely well seeded. But a story where the hero just lays waste to his foes without nearing defeat at any point is typically very dull.
So, in BioShock-like stories (where the goal is to minimize any feelings of 'slippage' between the player and his or her character), the writer ends up needing to think like a game designer. Any surprise setbacks or sleight-of-hand twists need to feel fair to the player in hindsight. It's a lot harder than it sounds.
TGAM: Second, what was it about the original game's plot that set it apart from other interactive stories?
JT: Well the setting was derived in part from the philosophy of Ayn Rand - not as a direct critique per se, more as a kind of exploration of moral extremism. That led to a fairly rare tone, I think, the wild commercial neon and upbeat period tunes coupled with the walking nightmares that Rapture's citizens had become.
As for the plot itself, without spoiling it, perhaps it's that the story was in many ways focused around support of a single, unifying moment at its climax, and much of the rest of it was optional, supporting audio drama which you didn't strictly need to comprehend the core. That focus works tremendously well in the games space, when the player's attention comes at such a premium.
TGAM: Third, how do you go about living up to the narrative standard set by the first game in the second? Or is it a concern?
JT: Our main focus has been the balance between old and new - many veteran players are hungry for an experience as novel as the original, but others value the familiar just as fiercely. New players who haven't played the first game are still catching up and need to be eased into Rapture in a way that is compelling as a stand-alone story.
But we're determined to treat the name well, and that meant telling a different sort of narrative, a sort of more personal family conflict set against the backdrop of a war between idealists. And this time, your choices affect the way the story plays out in much more dramatic way than was possible in the original. Free will is very much your defining characteristic as Subject Delta, and instead of just choosing the fates of the Little Sisters - you now meet several morally ambiguous adult survivors of Rapture, and the way you treat them has a bearing on third act hijinks!
TGAM: The original game featured artistic design that was both memorable and unique in its retro, art deco-inspired styling. What sort of cultural and graphical inspirations have played a role in the visual design of the sequel?
JT: Well, the newest areas from aesthetic point of view are informed by the story of Sofia Lamb and the Rapture Family. BioShock 2 takes you on a tour of the secret history of Rapture - through the Hooverville-like slums that existed off the grid even in the Utopian years… and through makeshift cathedrals built for secret worship in a city that had outlawed religion.
Of course, the game's still chock full of deco idealism, but much of it's now been encrusted with bioluminescent sea life - we did a pretty thorough reference pull of deep-sea wreckage like the RMS Titanic, and of the truly alien look and feel of species that inhabit those depths.
TGAM: Can you tell us a bit about the new Big Sister character, how it fits into the existing Little Sister/Big Daddy family, and what it means to be able to now adopt a Little Sister?
JT: The Big Sisters are true apex predators - they're former Little Sisters, now in a kind of unstable adolescence. They're the most versatile AI in the game, able to track and battle the player anywhere in the game enviroment, using plasmids that allow them to unleash a telekinetic barrage, light the environment on fire, or even leap off a wall and land on the player, impaling him. They're so relentless and their tactics are so harrowing that it's almost like Rapture itself is out to get you.
They watch over the ADAM as it flows toward Sofia Lamb, and if anyone steps out of line and Harvests or Rescues a Little Sister after downing her Big Daddy, - the Big Sister hunts down the perpetrator on Lamb's behalf, and reclaims that lost ADAM directly from the vein. It's like a dynamically generated boss-fight in response to your behavior - but it lives right there in the simulation with you, it's not scripted in the traditional sense.
Adoption is similar, in that as a Big Daddy, you can partner up with a Little Sister and drain ADAM out of the casualties littering Rapture's streets. Nobody forces this, it's a choice - and as soon as she starts to Gather, the system creates a very intense 'siege' encounter which you have the opportunity to plan for, using all the traps and environmental opportunities you can muster.
TGAM: What role will EVE and ADAM play in the new game, and how have plasmids evolved?
JT: ADAM is still the genetic material which allows you to grow your character, through X-men style super-powers called Plasmids, and more passive upgrades to your body called Gene Tonics. EVE is just the bioactive agent which powers them, you use it very much like ammunition.
The Plasmid system has deepened in a pretty compelling way, we feel - now when you invest in the 2nd or 3rd tier of a favorite (like the old Electro Bolt, say), you're adding new tactical uses to the tool instead of just forcing it to do more damage, or increasing its duration like we had in the original game. So if you pour enough ADAM into it to get the 2nd version, you're throwing chain lightning around. The 3rd version allows you to hold down the trigger and fry a whole roomful of targets as long as you've got the EVE for it.
TGAM: What can players expect from the new multiplayer element? I've heard that it is plot-driven…
JT: The multiplayer component is called Fall of Rapture, and technically, it's a prequel. It takes place in the year of the civil war, between 1959 and 1960. The player can choose among several memorable personalities, each of whom has a detailed backstory which sheds light on why they came to Rapture, how they turned to splicing, and so forth. It begins with an FDR-style speech from Andrew Ryan (who was still alive at that point in the timeline) and a welcome message from this DIY clinical trial you're participating in to defend yourself against other Splicers. That program, run by Sinclair Solutions, is the frame-work for the whole Multiplayer reward structure.
You participate in matches to earn ADAM, which serves to increase your rank and to give you access to new weapons, Plasmids, and so on. Then in your next match, you can build those into a new loadout, continuing to customize your play-style as you go. And at major milestones, you unlock more of the backstory of the multiplayer cast, with audio diaries that appear in your apartment.
I'm biased, of course, but I think Digital Extremes did a great job translating the BioShock experience to multiplayer. They even worked a meaningfully fearsome playable Big Daddy into several of the modes - his health doesn't regenerate like that of regular Splicers, but you feel like a flippin' juggernaut.
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