5 Questions for BioShock 2's Jordan Thomas
BioShock 2 snuck up on me. Weird as it sounds, until recently I wasn't convinced it would happen. Sure, we had the official website launch back in March 2009, and the game was actually announced back in March 2008. And now here we are, less than a month from its official release on February 9.
But a prequel to spoil all the original's lovely mystery? A different development studio (in name anyway, i.e. 2K Marin)? BioShock's 'mastermind' Ken Levine unaffiliated?
Like anyone who played the original, I loved it, warts and all. It ended where it needed to (the disappointing final battle aside). Did it really need a second act?
I sent 2K Marin's Creative Director Jordan Thomas five questions to sort things out.
Game On: Can you outline BioShock 2's story as a prequel? How does it iterate from the original in a way that surprises, since we technically know how things end?
Jordant Thomas: Actually the Single Player component is a sequel. The player takes the role of Subject Delta, a prototype Big Daddy who awakens 10 years after the events of the first game, to find Rapture a much more dangerous place. Dr. Sofia Lamb (a staunch collectivist and former political rival of Andrew Ryan’s) has taken the city and begun to induct the splicers into a unity cult called the “Rapture Family.”
The player, having mysteriously regained his freedom of will, is contacted by his former Little Sister (who he was bonded exclusively to protect, when she was a child). He attempts to cross the city to find her in hopes of escape – but of course, Lamb has other plans.
Both Lamb’s altruistic philosophy and the wild patterns of underwater decay and regrowth have changed the place a great deal – we’re fairly confident it has a lot of surprises to offer. As we discussed before, your ability to shape the conclusion of the game deviates significantly from the formula of the original.
The multiplayer component, however, is indeed a prequel – it takes place during the Fall of Rapture, the year between the bombing of New Year’s Eve 1959, and 1960 (when the player arrived in the first game.)
All those potent combinatorial tricks you pick up in Single Player take on a whole new degree of challenge when there are human-controlled splicers ambushing you left and right, each as clever and versatile as you are.
GO: One complaint about BioShock was the weird way you'd be receiving all this philosophically sophisticated meta-narrative while at the same time dispassionately unloading whatever weapon you had to hand. You'd get all this high concept theory while simultaneously raging through the world like a Contra-style Nintendo character with your own personal arsenal of doom. Have you done anything to frame that incongruity differently in BioShock 2?
JT: I think we’ve afforded the player far greater opportunity for meaningful self-expression in BioShock 2’s story (rather than solely in the mechanics of character growth) – and in so doing, we’ve helped to bridge that gap between … well, mind and muscle.
This time around, your choices alter the narrative in a way that really wasn’t possible in the first game. For example, in BioShock 2, instead of dealing exclusively with Little Sisters in the ethical space, you’ll encounter a number of morally grey adult citizens of Rapture (some of whom are sane, unspliced survivors) and we use your treatment of these characters as a kind of personality test to reflect and pay off those decisions.
Whether you plot those personal decision points closer to the intellectual end of the spectrum or the instinctive one… well, that’s up to you. In a lot of ways, the BioShock brand is sort of only ‘as pointy-headed as you are’ – you decide the level of depth you’re invested in, and Rapture provides. It stands up very well as a high-action shooter if you’re just not a story hound.
GO: Supplemental to its commentary on ideological extremes, BioShock explored aspects of philosophical determinism and free will. Is that still one of the central tenets in BioShock 2? Are there notable others?
JT: It’s more of a founding axiom of BioShock 2. Because the first game tied a ribbon on the player’s relative lack of free will in First Person Shooters, we have chosen with the sequel to celebrate your freedom of choice. You have significantly more granular choices in BioShock 2 – both narratively and mechanically, and your status as the central figure in this Single Player world is definitely something we explore in the themes.
One such way is the broad theme of Family which is pervasive throughout BioShock 2. As a Big Daddy, the Little Sisters (particularly your bonded Sister from the past) trust you unconditionally, bestowing a father love on you which can be alarming in its gravity – as you are now able to Adopt them and partner up with them, gathering ADAM to further grow your character before deciding their fates.
Lamb, the antagonist, sees the ideal Family as a pure utilitarian calculus, a kind of evenly-spread global loyalty which is polluted by the selfish genetic impulses which teach us only to sacrifice on behalf of ourselves, and our blood relatives. In pursuit of that lofty goal, she has become kind of a walking nanny state in horn-rim spectacles. The player, as the ultimate individual, is a kind of ideological cancer to her.
GO: When I spoke with Ken in March 2006, he talked about the transformation the main character would undergo by using the game's genetically mutative substances. One design goal in particular that didn't make the end product was to have others in the world react to your genetic choices to provide a very intimate sense of accumulating horror. Any chance we'll see something like that in BioShock 2?
JT: Heh, well, perhaps in a minor way. While Adopted and riding around on your shoulders, a Little Sister will comment on which Plasmids you choose to use – through her own mad filter. So if you ignite a splicer, she’ll happily burble “Oooh, Marshmallows!” et cetera.
But our primary focus has been, instead, to feed back on your story decisions as opposed to which character growth options you’ve selected – because we feel they’re more likely to be noticed and satisfying. Playing a Big Daddy, you’re already a test subject who has been subjected to untold physical atrocities – this story is more about saving the man within the monster, as opposed to wringing our hands as you slowly Hyde up Dr. Jekyll.
GO: BioShock's ending was arguably its most troublesome aspect, both because the final confrontation was so conventional (a straightforward boss battle) and the choice you made seemed to arbitrary (whether you'd saved the Little Sisters or harvested them). Have those issues been addressed in the prequel? Do you expect players to come away from the different endings feeling satisfied with their distinctions?
JT: We’ve definitely learned from our mistakes; BioShock wasn’t really about boss fights, and so a big scripted throwdown with a certain thick-necked jerk was perhaps a little out of place. Instead we’ve focused on climactic encounters embedded within normal play – deriving from the success of the consensual Big Daddy encounters in the original BioShock.
The Big Sisters, for example, are an all-new enemy for BioShock 2, kind of an unstable Plasmid-wielding savant. They’re ultra-agile and will leap into the air, rebound off of a wall, and land on your face – and they hunt you down based on your interactions with the Little Sisters … hit a certain threshhold of Sisters Rescued or Harvested, and you’ve dynamically generated this boss-like encounter anywhere in the game. She lives within the simulation and preys off of splicers, etc.
Beyond that, as mentioned above – we’ve invested very heavily in taking your character-centric story choices and spinning them into distinct, compelling outcomes which (we hope) will give you a surprising sense of personal ownership over the story within the Shooter genre. I’ll let you be the judge of our success – but the players I’ve observed completing the game have seemed to respond well to the results, whether or not they’re consciously aware of how much narrative agency they were bringing to bear in any given scene.
GO: Thanks Jordan!
Connect with me on Twitter @game_on