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Why Irrational Games is taking BioShock in a new creative direction

One of the most anticipated games of the spring season has to be BioShock Infinite, not so much because it's the latest entry in a successful franchise, but more because it seemingly blows up everything established in the series so far.

The previous two BioShock games were set in Rapture, an underwater city built by business tycoon Andrew Ryan. The games were different than the average first-person shooters in that players had to make moral choices – should they save the orphaned girls hiding throughout or should they harvest them for energy? – amid a tale steeped in Ayn Rand-ian Objectivism. The games were considerably deeper than the dozens of simplistic anti-terrorist shooters out there.

The third installment leaves the familiar confines of Rapture and instead shoots players up into the clouds, to the floating city of Columbia. New setting, new characters, new plot, new abilities, new gameplay – just about everything is new and different this time around. In the sequel-centric world of console games, where more of the same is the general rule, that's a pretty big risk.

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Shawn Elliott, level designer at developer Irrational Games, recently discussed this creative departure with The Globe and Mail, as well as BioShock's overall reputation as the thinking-person's first-person shooter.

Why the dramatic change in setting, characters and everything?

Irrational's attitude after making the original BioShock was they felt they had said everything they needed to say with the original character of Andrew Ryan and they felt they had explored the city of Rapture to the extent that they wanted to. They were ready to challenge themselves with something new, to find something completely different. In this case, it really ended up being a matter of extremes, from the claustrophobic aspect of being beneath the sea to the wide-open spaces of being suspended in the air.

So what is similar in this one to the previous two games? Is there a central tenet on which the series is built?

Yes, absolutely. That was a good question for us: What makes a BioShock game a BioShock game, when they don't have characters that are recurring, when the location is constantly changing? For us, we found that it's about creating a space that feels as though it's informed by a vision, a Utopia, if you will, a space that when you're in it you feel as though – just by observing – you can start to understand something about the people who inhabit it, their thought processes, what their aspirations are. That was really the one main thing. There were very few sacred cows.

The other thing that is familiar is that we have Vigours instead of Plasmids this time, so instead of shooting you also have access to super powers.

When you think of previous games, you think of Big Daddys and Little Sisters. Is all of that gone?

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Yup, there are no Big Daddys or Little Sisters in this game. Other than the central DNA I described, the only things that are similar are the Vigours, although a great many are new and unique to this game. There really were no sacred cows. We decided we didn't need a Big Daddy to make a BioShock game, we didn't need Little Sisters, we didn't need Andrew Ryan, we didn't need Rapture.

Earlier in the development process, there were reports that this game would focus on American exceptionalism, or the idea that the United States is qualitatively different from other countries. Is that still the focus?

I don't know if focus is exactly the word, because a lot of people understandably look to the original BioShock to understand how we're dealing with thematic concerns. In that game, there was a singular vision that was formed by Objectivism, so people want to know what's the equivalent this time around.

It's a little different and broader this time around. We examine issues of race and class and labour, religion. To say "American exceptionalism," that adequately describes part of the umbrella that these attitudes fall under, the notion that America has a unique destiny in the world and is designed for a unique future. Just the fact that the city of Columbia exists is kind of a representation of that, it's this bold statement that no other countries have a city in the sky.

That's fair to say to some extent, but it's not the only philosophy or mode of thought that informs the thought of the inhabitants of Columbia.

BioShock is generally thought of as the thinking person's shooter. Do you feel any pressure to deliver that?

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Yeah, I think for everyone working on the game, just based on the reception that the original BioShock had, we all felt pressure to live up to its legacy. It's one of those things where there's nervousness and second-guessing yourself at times. It feels great where you get to that point where at least internally you can satisfactorally answer that question and affirm for yourself, 'I think we've done it. It doesn't feel like a knock-off.'

So is there any sort of thematic or plot link between this game and the previous ones?

That remains to be seen. We know people are going to be looking for connections and we invite them to play the game and see for themselves if that's the case.

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About the Author

Peter Nowak has been writing about technology for 15 years, with a focus on trends and how they affect the world. He worked at The Globe and Mail between 1997 and 2004 before moving to China and then New Zealand, where he won the award for best technology reporter at the New Zealand Herald. More

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