Saturday, August 14, 2010

Columbian Shift

It has been four years since we last heard from Irrational Games, and while their name may have changed twice since then, their ability to capture an audience and design games that get people thinking certainly has not: BioShock Infinite was announced on Thursday and immediately afterwards gaming websites and places like Twitter went into overdrive, going crazy over the news. And for good reason, too: on name alone there’s reason to be excited, as the BioShock franchise has established itself as one to watch and one that explores some really intriguing, incredible themes, but beyond that it’s a new game from Irrational, creators of the original BioShock and many other great games -- whatever they’re working on next is something to keep an eye on. But with BioShock Infinite, there’s more to contemplate than the obvious pedigree of what has come before. Here are just some of the thoughts that went through my mind after the announcement.

First and foremost: the new city. At first glance, Columbia -- a city in the sky -- looks amazing, delivering a completely different vibe to the murky depths and neon-flavour of Rapture, and exhibiting a vibrant display of colour that is punctuated by the American flag, its colours and indeed, the stars and stripes. Clearly then, this new city has an American flavor that Rapture did not, and on that merit alone it’s interesting to ponder just what that might mean for this new game. Even its name is rife with implication. Beyond that, the notion that there’s a floating city in the sky, above the land of real world locations that were only ever briefly mentioned in the depths of Rapture, is an enticing prospect. As soon as I saw it my mind was doing two things: sitting there in awe at what I was seeing, and then racing in a multitude of directions about what it means for its design -- and thus, the design of the game’s levels -- and also for its gameplay. By not showing any actual game footage, it’s unclear just what we will be doing in this new game and while it’d be easy to assume that the mechanics and dynamics will be similar to those in Rapture, we don’t know for sure until we learn more. Even if they are similar, how will they fit in with this new floating metropolis? The trailer shows sections of the city moving about to new areas, meaning that buildings will be connecting and disconnecting at will, completely changing the layout and presumably our ability to traverse between them. There’s also a rail network of some sort that connects the city, so it’ll be interesting to see how that works as well.

It might be easy to look at Columbia and be skeptical about its originality -- a city in the sky is not a new concept, after all -- but the trailer certainly did a remarkable job of highlighting why Irrational chose to go in this direction, and it demonstrates that once again, their creative talent is full of imagination. The concept may not be original, much like an underwater city wasn’t way back in 2007, but their overall design, aesthetic presentation and perhaps most importantly, personality, certainly is -- an exciting prospect to be sure.

As a fan(boy?) of the BioShock franchise, however, I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t set in Rapture. Back when discussing the reception BioShock 2 received, I suggested that Rapture is BioShock, and that to set it anywhere else would be a disservice to both the city under the sea and the series as a whole. I still maintain that Rapture is BioShock, but in the same way that the Assassin’s Creed series is able to redefine itself with new locations and settings, I’m open to the idea that Columbia -- and any other potential future city -- can also be the definition of the franchise. I mean, why shouldn’t it? Based on what was shown in the trailer alone Columbia already looks more amazing and unique than most videogame locations or settings, and knowing the ability of Irrational to inject personality and poignant, if not subtle, themes into their game spaces means that it has every chance of sitting alongside Rapture as one of gaming’s greatest settings. But even so, I am a little disheartened to see Rapture cast aside, especially when I know that its potential as a game space and setting hasn’t been fully tapped yet (more on this soon). Here’s hoping Andrew Ryan’s decaying dream is just having a break.

Another reason I’m excited for BioShock Infinite is because I can’t wait to actually go and be in Columbia. It’s no secret that I’ve developed an interest and passion for videogame spaces over the past few years, and despite my imagination running wild with possibilities I simply can’t fathom just what to expect when this new game finally releases. A city in the sky featuring the BioShock name -- just what does that mean, exactly? -- and set around 1912? Yes. Please. Furthermore, a byproduct of my newfound interest is the realisation that games allow us to inhabit their spaces, as players and as tourists, and what that means for the medium and each individual game has been on my mind a lot lately. Somewhat ironically, I came to the realisation while watching TV show The Sopranos. Midway through the show’s second season, I noticed that literally nothing else was on my mind other than what was happening with its characters, and that my desire to continue on and see more was stronger than anything else. Pondering it some more, I realised videogames achieve similar results and I find that process to be fascinating. When my entertainment connects with me for whatever reason, I inhabit it mentally and don’t stop until I’ve explored and exhausted every possible train of thought. Ranging from discovery to reflection, this process completely takes over and can be incredibly draining. But it is also very rewarding, and as it continues to happen and I learn to take advantage of it, the benefits I will gain are going to really help me understand the entertainment that I consume.

BioShock Infinite should be no different, then, as I immerse myself into the new location and let Irrational’s ideas, design and culture overtake my thought process. I’m looking forward to inhabiting Columbia, but even if, for whatever reason, this new game doesn’t grab me like the original and Rapture did, I can still take something away from a unique setting such as this. That’s one of gaming’s best assets in my opinion, their ability to take us to wherever we may want to go and (more importantly) to places we didn’t know we wanted to see, exploring fascinating themes and content along the way. It may have been done before or it may just be getting discovered, but to allow us to be in these places (as opposed to just having them shown to us) is a trait that games should be proud of. Red Dead Redemption took us to the Wild West; Mass Effect took us all over the universe. Batman: Arkham Asylum allowed us to be Batman, placing us smack bang in the middle of Gotham City as a result; and Columbia? Well, the sky’s the limit, is it not?

Trust a BioShock game to reinvigorate my passion for writing.

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