BioShock 2: The interview

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When 2K Marin’s BioShock first appeared on PC and Xbox 360 back in 2007 its Creative Director, Ken Levine, was able to create an experience praised as much for its discussion of philosophy as it was its non-linear action sequences.

Based in the claustrophobic underwater city of Rapture, Levine was able to pen a storyline which examined Objectivism, the philosophical stance popularised by Ayn Rand in her novel Atlas Shrugged.

Three years later and the mantle of creative director has passed to Jordan Thomas, veteran of the first BioShock. He’s just as keen to create a truly memorable and thoughtful experience, though this time from a different perspective, incorporating a new set of philosophies. Thomas comes across as a creative, confident and enthusiastic designer – exactly the sort of person who you might hope was given free reign to create BioShock’s sequel in the manner befitting the series.

So, as BioShock 2 prepares to hit shelves on 9 February, what’s changed in Rapture this time around? Jordan Thomas and Senior Producer, Melissa Miller, explain.

The lack of coverage of games by the mainstream media is surprising when the money generated by the industry is taken into account. Why do you think the national newspapers and TV shows are hesitant to cover gaming and the games industry?

Jordan Thomas: I think it comes in part from the fact that games have a significant barrier of entry. There’s an old linguistic concept called deep structures which suggested that the foundation of a language are formed very early within the brain. I think the same is true for games; many of us grew up playing games with a simple interface and as time has gone on that interface has complexified. Now playing a game like BioShock, – while we have made significant strides towards accessibility – is still something that would overwhelm my mum. Other mediums on the other hand require us to simply sit there and take it (laughs).

Those of us who got hold of games early are now in an advanced playgroup and are hungry. Within our industry, they are big business with huge gala unveilings and so forth, but the rest of the world can’t play. The rest of the world’s saying ‘They’re toys; you’re playing with guns!’ But I think that’s slowly changing; BioShock got a lot of non-enthusiast attention and we’re really happy about that. I think that came in part because Ken [Levine] and co were uncompromising about there being something to learn from playing BioShock.

One of things I admire about Ubisoft is their current positioning strategy is partly to do with education, they really like their games to teach something. I think BioShock is an example of a game that has some similar goals, though I would argue it actually asks questions rather than simply providing answers.

BioShock drew from a number of literary sources for its storyline, most notably Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. What can you say about the sequel’s plot and what material is providing the inspiration?

JT: Where to start? There’s still a line which revolves around Andrew Ryan from BioShock but now Ryan’s gone and into that power vacuum steps Dr Sophia Lamb. She is based on [Karl] Marx and [John Stuart] Mill, two altruistic philosophers who had a strong cause for the greater good to different extremes. Sophia Lamb has taken those and forced them to a level that most humans couldn’t keep up with. Her motto is ‘Make the world your family’ meaning force your mind into becoming loyal to the world in a way usually reserved for your child, and that’s intellectually daunting. She starts to make horrific choices between altruism and her own children and that’s where we see the mask beginning to slip.

From the fiction side we’re very interested in an author called Peter Watts and there are certainly some references there. This time there’s also a strong undertone of faith, specifically that the line between secular and religious altruism is blurry and always has been. Lamb has the same goals of Dr Jim Jones of Jonestown who wanted to promote communism and decided to infiltrate the church. Likewise Lamb has decided to build a very simple religion around her philosophy and appoints a leader as its mouthpiece.

A game covering as much philosophy and themes as BioShock 2 could be said to be aimed at more mature market than most games. How do you strike the balance between plot and simply having a fun action game that appeals to people who simply want to blast their way through?

JT: BioShock was an object lesson for me of how to build a simple story with basic emotional motives that do not force understanding of the back story in order the process them. But, beneath the surface, there is so much detail; if you want to go diving for pearls they’re all over the place. If you pick up the diaries [for example] your understanding of that world is increased tenfold and that really comes down to what kind of player you are. Similarly the multiplayer component has a model designed around (hesitates) ‘varying attention spans’ is probably the best way to put it.

In BioShock 2 the player character, a prototype Big Daddy, is a unique being a world governed by Sophia Lamb who clearly values the group over the individual. Is this theme of isolation and individual over the collective a recurring theme?

JT: The first game spoke through themes of the individual versus the collective but from the opposite angle, Ryan’s original stance was very heroic. He is a man apart from what he saw as forced duty; people telling you that you owe them. In the first game the player has questionable control over his destiny revealed over time, in the second game it’s where I’d have liked to go with the third act of the original. Your free will is granted to you early in a very important character moment, you’re like nothing else in Rapture, almost the ultimate individual. The Big Daddies were made way more powerful than any one person ever should be but they were also blocked; there was nothing they could do about it. Now we’ve got the ultimate individual in a city that is one mad family, Lamb sees you as an affirmer to her aims. She berates you with the opposite perspective than that of Ryan to make you do your duty.

This time around you have the extra responsibility of being Creative Director, how have you dealt with the added pressure?

JT: My perspective on this might be a little different that expected, when working on the first game I mostly just cared about treating it right, I came onboard because I was a fan of what I thought to be a brilliant vision. This time I want to offer both new players and old something that they can’t see coming, but I also want to maintain BioShock’s integrity. Part of my goal as Creative Director is to make sure everything you experience in BioShock 2 gets that very specific Rapture tone; believe me, one false move and you’re Fallout 3 or Doom 2.

2K Marin was seeded by only eight of us from 2K Boston but 2K Australia is now a partner working on BioShock 2 and all those guys are veterans of the first game. In Marin specifically we went through this very stringent recruitment process to get, well, the best and brightest frankly from the Bay area. A good example of that is the game’s lead designer, Zak McClendon, we pulled him out of a studio nearby and he’s had a transformative effect on BioShock 2. I made the decision early on to be the kind of creative director that could delegate the lead design but my standards are extremely high. Zak came along and has kicked ass, a lot of the improvements to the game as a shooter came from his dedication and his ingenuity.

I think the role of the creative director is a synthesis; you have to be willing to walk between worlds and work with disciplines that are polar. You have to pick what you want to achieve, you could do all sorts of things, but if you tried to do them all you would die, screaming (laughs). My job has been to find people who are much better than I am at some specific attribute of game making; I give them guidance when they ask for it but otherwise stay out of their way. Meanwhile I’m writing the script, the BioShock cast has to be carefully handled so I immerse myself in every little thing that’s done and said.

There are a ridiculous number of contexts; they [in game characters] know when the player has an adopted little sister, they know when you have used the hypnotise plasmid which you can use to recruit enemies in BioShock 2 for example; the script, for a shooter, is crazy.

Following the Leicester Square launch of Modern Warfare 2 can you imagine a time when a Big Daddy might make his way down the red carpet?

JT: (Laughs) You know what? I feel that he deserves it; he’s been through a lot! BioShock really walks an interesting line. On the one hand it is an original setting and some people find that daunting. On the other hand, I think people are starting to get hungry for variety and the momentum behind BioShock feels like it only could have happened when it did. In 2007 the people were feeling like it was time for something new and that gave BioShock a lot of steam. In the second game we just hope to broaden that further, to get more people into the world of Rapture.

Read the second part of the Michael Plant's Bioshock interview

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