This wasn't a normal video game press event. First, and perhaps most obviously, the security was thick. While an allegedly corrupt politician celebrated his birthday upstairs – an endless procession of well-dressed upper crusters made their way into the historic Plaza Hotel while protesters held court outside – another high-profile event was being held on the second floor. And while there was no police presence like outside, the black-pants, black v-neck crew that Irrational Games brought with them had things on lockdown. "Does that computer have a camera on it?" one of them asked me. "You'll need to check it." I went back into the hallway and got back in line. The same line I already stood in to check my cellphone. Security was thick.
But that's been the Boston-area developer's modus operandi since work began on its new title nearly three years ago. It's exceedingly rare in our industry to have a high-profile developer like Irrational keep something so completely under wraps for so long. And now, a room full of gaming press were assembled to see what Ken Levine and Co. have been working on. With an embargo less than 24 hours away and the promise that no outlet would be getting an early exclusive, Irrational wasn't about to let up on security now. After an introduction by a PR representative, again pleading with us to keep things quiet until today, Irrational Games' founder Ken Levine took the stage. "It's a long way to come for a trailer, a demo, and a little conversation," he admitted. "We also appreciate the patience you've had with us. It's been three years and we've said nothing about what we're doing," but it was finally time to see what was beneath the curtain. Cue the trailer.
The City of Columbia
"I can't talk about this game without talking about the city of Columbia," Levine begins. Much like System Shock 2's Von Braun ship or BioShock's underwater city of Rapture, BioShock Infinite's Columbia, a fantastical city-in-the-sky, is front and center.
"This is like the Apollo project of 1900," he says. Like the 1960's space program, Columbia is a testament to American ingenuity, technology, ideals and, yes, strength. Levine points out that the America of the 1880s was an agrarian society, still reeling from the devastating effects of the Civil War. Just 20 years later, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, the national landscape was fundamentally changed. "You go from people with cows and outhouses and growing wheat in fields, to having radios and cars and movie stars, and all these incredible things," Levine later told Joystiq. "It's almost as if they felt a city was suddenly floating in the sky. That's how much the world had changed." And so they build a city floating in the sky, a literal metaphor for the country's rapid ascent on the world stage. But it's not as well-intentioned as it may seem. "Columbia is a Death Star."
The Black Ships
In 1854, American Commodore Matthew Perry brought four gunships into the waters just off Japan. The presentation of American naval might and technological superiority was instrumental in opening Japan up to American trade. I bring up that example from history because the story of Columbia, and the context that Levine places it in, is very much about gunboat diplomacy.
"This isn't a game about history. This is a game set in the context of history," Levine said. Though turn-of-the-century America was transformed into a manufacturing powerhouse, there was one thing it couldn't manufacture more of. "We needed markets," he said. And like Perry's Black Ships, Columbia can be seen as both a vehicle for trade but also a means of gunboat diplomacy. Trade ... or else. To give us an example of that "context of history," Levine read the following passage from President William McKinley discussing the annexation of the Phillippines:
I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way-I don't know how it was, but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain-that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany-our commercial rivals in the Orient-that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves-they were unfit for self-government-and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain's was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep.
Fin de siècle first-person shooter
While context and setting have everything to do with BioShock Infinite's elaborate setting, and like Levine we couldn't talk about the game without first giving Columbia its due, there was more to last night's presentation than context. Actually, there's a lot more. "The notion of American exceptionalism [in the game], that didn't even exist until six or eight months ago," Levine told us after the demonstration. Like BioShock before it, the philosophical underpinnings of Infinite haven't been static over the last three years. But what has: It's a first-person shooter, very much in the vein of other "shock" titles.
In BioShock Infinite, "you're not an unknown cipher. You're Booker DeWitt, a disgraced Pinkerton agent" and your office, if you can call it that, is in a room above a bar. You're a fixer given a job: Find a woman named Elizabeth. Here's the catch: Finding Elizabeth isn't the problem, she's in Columbia ... but "nobody knows where Columbia is," Levine says. It went missing a decade ago. When our gameplay demo starts, the hero is on a cobblestone street. A poster with George Washington reads "It is our holy duty to guard against the foreign hordes." A horse-drawn carriage comes down the street, the wheel missing on one side, its axle sparking against the stone. A stream of (presumably foul) water runs along the edge of the street. As DeWitt passes the cart, you can see it's plastered in pamphlets. The message: This is a place of great political and ideological rhetoric.
As you enter into an open square of sorts, you can see things are a little ... off. A woman sweeps her stoop while the house behind her burns. An enormous statue looms over you, holding an American flag. There's a dead horse on the ground. While things look pretty bleak, Levine tells us "this is not a city that's as devolved as Rapture." It's not all Splicers everywhere, itching to attack anything without a bunny mask on.
As DeWitt turns towards a pavilion, you see the vista of other floating buildings. This is Columbia. There's a man on the ground feeding crows. There are sounds of prosetlyzation coming from loudspeakers, and you read four signs: They'll take your gun; They'll take your wife; They'll take your business; They'll take your life. Mixed in are signs for one Mr. Saltonstall, a political candidate, and ostensibly the same man in the pavilion. As you approach, there's a barrel full of guns with a sign above it reading "Patriots, arm thyself!" Well, don't mind if we do ... this scoped sniper rifle oughta do nicely.
As you take the gun, which now satisfies the familiar first-person framework in the lower right corner, Saltonstall turns to you, his eyes glowing. He commands Charles – evidently the man with the birds – to attack. Charles, and his feathered friends, are only too happy to oblige. A swarm of crows flies towards the screen. While Saltonstall hooks onto a winding track connecting various floating sections of Columbia, zipping away, DeWitt takes down Charles, sending him over the edge. Looking over, he's dead on a platform below. Using some telekinetic powers, DeWitt pulls a bottle shaped like a crow towards him and he does what any good video game character would do with a strange bottle found on a dead man on a floating city that's gone missing: he drinks it. Unsurprisingly, that leads to a vision of a bloody crow.
You hear the charge in the distance and, as the buildings move and float all around you, you can just make out a cannon before seeing the arc of fire coming from it. Using the scope on the sniper rifle, you can see Saltonstall directing men to fire upon you. Another massive fireball heads in your direction. Using the same hook device that Saltonstall did, DeWitt engages the zipline and makes his way across the open sky to the other section of the city. An enemy climbs on and heads in your direction and you've got a joust, happening far above the ground, traveling at 60mph. A well placed hit from a wrench and the enemy goes flying.
Upon landing, DeWitt evades some cannon fire and enters a bar to take cover. The patrons turn to look and, for a second, things seem to be quiet. A painting on the wall appears to shimmer and then you're hit. A splatter of blood strikes the edge of the screen. Turning around, one of the bartenders is holding a shotgun. DeWitt grabs it using that handy telekinesis, turns it around in midair, and remotely pulls the trigger. Then he uses his "murder of crows" ability – thanks mysterious bottle – to enable his escape. Exiting the bar, the cannon turns, fires a shot, only to have the shell plucked out of the air – shotgun-style – turned against it. Fleeing on foot, DeWitt uses an electricity attack to take care of a large group of attackers – Levine tells us later you "can fight fifteen enemies at once" as opposed to BioShock's "one or two guys in a corridor."
Luckily, Elizabeth makes her appearance here ... did we mention she's "incredibly powerful" before? Well, she is and she uses one of those powers now to make a raincloud. Do you see where this is going. DeWitt uses his lightning attack and – zap! – the lot of them are electrocuted. You take cover behind a pile of scrap metal while another group attacks. Elizabeth uses her power to assemble a giant metal ball of scrap before commanding DeWitt to grab it. One telekinetic throw later and another batch of baddies have been dispatched. But now, whatever that thing with the giant hands and the floating heart that we saw in the trailer is – which Levine told us wasn't what we thought it was – is back. You can see it has a face – complete with old-timey hair parted right down the middle. It lands, conveniently, on a bridge which Elizabeth immediately gets to work on dismantling. Again, working together DeWitt telekinetically fires an explosive at the structural component she's been working on and the giant monster falls. DeWitt asks, "That's the one that was chasing you, right?" "No, that wasn't him. That wasn't him," she answers just as a massive bird lands on (and summarily trashes) a building behind them. "That's him!"
The Stage Show
At this point, the demo is over, Ken thanks us for coming, and a series of releases are triggered dropping the black curtain lining the room we're in. The large arches on the surrounding walls have been filled with images of the floating city, the screen in front of us is filled with more political paraphernalia and, thanks to an awkward failure to launch, the rear curtain remained in place. Behind it were old-timey hot dogs (Ken later tells us he's low-rent when it comes to food) and carnival midway games, with stuffed animal prizes. We leave to prepare for our interview and wrap our heads around everything we just saw. After all, it's not every day you find the ideas of Imperialism, American exceptionalism, and lengthy quotes from 19th century Presidents in your video game press events. We gather our confiscated electronics, and are whisked through the Plaza Hotel – a luxurious monument to American exceptionalism, built in 1907 right against New York City's Central Park. It's not floating in the sky but – especially with the air of political corruption and mystery, thanks to the party and the protesters – it's a suitable stand-in for Columbia.