When it was released in the late summer of 2007, the original BioShock earned virtually universal accolades from both players and the press.
A dark and surprisingly philosophical adventure through a utopian city gone wrong, it delivered intense and terrifying action, stunningly rendered underwater environments that drew heavily from art deco styles, and, perhaps most importantly, a story that resonated on an emotional level with the millions of players who experienced it.
Now, 30 months later, a team of developers at California-based 2K Marin have just put the finishing touches on the sequel, which is set to release on February 9th.
Trying to imagine new narrative ideas and game concepts to follow up one of the most beloved games of recent years was no doubt a daunting task. However, Jordan Thomas, the game's creative director, seems confident that his team has done justice to the legacy left by the original.
In the following exclusive interview he sets up the premise for the new game, discusses some of the important differences between passive and interactive storytelling, and describes the game's innovative, story-driven multiplayer component, which plays as a prequel that explores the back-stories of several of the game's most memorable characters.
TGAM: How is BioShock 2 set to begin? Who is our protagonist, where will we be, and what will we be doing?
JT: BioShock 2 takes place roughly 10 years after the events of the original, in the remains of a failed ultra-capitalist utopia called Rapture. Andrew Ryan, the underwater city's founder, is now dead - and a former political rival of his named Dr. Sofia Lamb has seized control of the city. She's a visionary collectivist, and is now recruiting the surviving Splicers into a kind of unity cult called the Rapture Family - and her beliefs about the nature of utopia are transforming it.
You take the role of Subject Delta, the first Big Daddy (a kind of armored bodyguard in an antique diving suit) successfully paired with a single Little Sister. Your relationship to her is very much a kind of warped father-bond, and early in the story, a traumatic event separates you for almost a decade.
Now, in 1968, you awaken to hear that she needs your help, and that she needs to be rescued from Dr. Lamb. As the ultimate individual, you represent a very real threat to Lamb's base of power, and she brings the whole city to bear against you.
TGAM: Video game narrative is often compared, perhaps unfairly, to that of other media, including books and film. Yet BioShock managed to overcome this hurdle and earn nearly universal praise for its story, which made important, philosophical statements about society and morality. This leads me to wonder three things. First, how does video game storytelling differ from that of other media?
JT: That's a long conversation - but one principle which differs (with BioShock and BioShock 2) is in the treatment of the protagonist. In the best heroic fiction, the author can be quite sadistic, arbitrarily torturing the main character because in a passive medium, his or her ultimate triumph or catharsis is deterministic - guaranteed.
In games, however, there's a kind of axiom of 'fair play' at work - the real-life player should ideally be allowed to succeed or fail by personal skill rather than ideal dramatic timing, and they absolutely won't accept an arbitrary weakness foisted on them by the narrative - unless it's extremely well seeded. But a story where the hero just lays waste to his foes without nearing defeat at any point is typically very dull.
So, in BioShock-like stories (where the goal is to minimize any feelings of 'slippage' between the player and his or her character), the writer ends up needing to think like a game designer. Any surprise setbacks or sleight-of-hand twists need to feel fair to the player in hindsight. It's a lot harder than it sounds.
TGAM: Second, what was it about the original game's plot that set it apart from other interactive stories?