Friday, February 05, 2010

"What we do often feels more like zookeeping than film-making": Jordan Thomas on BioShock 2

The raw text of my email interview with BioShock 2 creative director Jordan Thomas, in support of a piece for the Toronto Star.

Jordan Thomas, Creative Director, 2K Marin

Q: Well, how about I jump right into the heavy angle? BioShock -- it hit hard. It made people think, not just about the game but about games themselves. People fell all over themselves finding ways to praise it, it's paraded on the shoulders of gamers as "the [insert famous film here; Citizen Kane, etc.] of Games". A tough act to follow. Can you give me some insight into you mindset, your approach as you entered into the task of making a sequel to a game with that kind of profile?

I felt honored and humbled. My job is, in part, to treat the creative offspring of my former co-workers with respect – but also to avoid boring them with an excess of safety.

Without falling prey to hyperbole and overstating the challenge, in many ways calling any single, physical game BioShock 2 is to invite a parade of dissent. Because everyone seems to have sieved out different subjective rewards from the original, trying to please them all equally would have led to madness, as you suggest.

Fortunately, the artistic standards of my colleagues at 2K Marin and 2K Australia are unbelievably high, and I never saw them flinch. So it was more a question of picking our constants (returning to Rapture was a big one, we felt it had more to say) and making the game we personally wanted to play, knowing that a lot of smart people would queue with picket signs in the aftermath.

Q: Actually, that makes me think of a related question: What do you think of the sometimes hyperbolic laurels heaped on BioShock... was it, to your professional eye (and ear, and hand) the revolution/revelation it's made out to be?

I’m a little too close to it to comment meaningfully on long-term resonance, but I’ll try not to dodge your question completely, how’s that?

Certainly the depth of the story and the originality of the setting attracted me to work on the original as a level designer. And it was cathartic, in that Ken and the guys at Irrational had finally managed to bring this creative legacy of highly immersive, expressive niche games we all grew up on to a much wider audience.

I’m also interested in game scripts that play to the strengths of the medium, and I think the original BioShock did so in a way that was largely unprecedented. The BioShock 2 team have worked hard not to let that layered quality slip – hopefully fans will derive their own meaning from the sequel in a way that both inherits from (and yet departs from) the original.

Q: What would you say were the "keywords" that guided you (and your team) as you were conceiving the game's various aspects.

Well, one was ‘Expressivity’, and by that I mean that we want players to own the experience, to craft a play style which is all their own from a very broad array of tactical options.

Rapture is a living simulation which connects a diverse set of enemy behaviors to the game environment, and then supports hundreds of responses to the player’s dozens of weapons, tools, and other forms of input.

It’s especially rare in shooters, because, frankly, it hurts to get it right. With all that wild unpredictable player behavior to account for, what we do often feels more like zookeeping than, say, film-making. But the player’s feeling of self-expression is worth it.

The other is ‘Immediacy’, which distinguishes BioShock and BioShock 2 from some of their forebears. There’s a heavy emphasis on a punchy, readably concrete result to the use of any player tool. That helps you build a hypothesis, which becomes a strategy – even if you’re not a hardcore gamer.

If you zap a puddle of water in BioShock, highly visible electricity will crackle throughout the entire pool, making it clear that you’ve changed its state. Fire will cause an enemy to flee towards water. The player ‘does the math’ there, and feels clever for having worked it out.

Q: Like Rapture itself, BioShock felt very self-contained... when you started work on BioShock 2 (or even before that), what was the first angle you thought of in which to expand that hermetic world?

I was interested in a child’s eye view of Rapture … growing up in an insular, ultimately failed undersea utopia would be unlike anything our cultural norms could offer – the beauty and the horror of it.

That quickly became a much more zoomed-in, intimate story of a dysfunctional Father-Daughter relationship, opposed by a kind of ‘un-mother’ figure in the form of our antagonist. The first game was all about the setting. This one is more about a specific small group of people, each of whom gazed upon paradise and were consumed by it.

Q: "Player choice" and the discussion surround it -- what it means, how to implement it, whether it's even meaningfully possible -- is one of games' big topics. Within its linear flow, BioShock offered players some freedom (in upgrades, tactics, harvest/rescue) and then made a huge statement on the illusory nature of that freedom. What's your (and BioShock 2's) take on that? How are you running with /elaborating/repudiating that "Would you kindly..." philosophy?

Well, we’re taking it seriously – and it’s probably our biggest area of risk. Unlike the original protagonist, your freedom of will is precisely what distinguishes you in BioShock 2. And as you close in on your former Little Sister (the girl you were bonded to, way back in the city’s past) you continually make decisions about the fate of key characters – not just Little Sisters this time.

I can’t say much more about any intended subtext without spoiling the reward, but suffice it to say that these choices dramatically shape the story, particularly in the final act. That, too, we feel – is rare in the shooter space. So we’re proud of the power over the BioShock 2 narrative that the player has, this time around.

Q: Andrew Ryan's Objectivist Rapture verusus Dr. Lamb's Altruist Rapture... Big Brothers versus Big Sisters... a sealed place (mostly) lost to the outside versus a known (to some) place in which outside parties have an active interest... from what I know of BioShock 2 it feels very Mirror Universe. Am I feeling that right? To what degree is 2 a reflection, and how is that reflection distorted?

You’re absolutely right that because Ryan’s (following from Ayn Rand’s) philosophy of rational self interest was so extreme, his political rivals such as Dr. Sofia Lamb had to be similarly larger than life to pose any real threat to him. Lamb is indeed an altruist, based in part on John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx … but whose strategy was to couch her secular thinking in a kind of unity cult called the Rapture Family. Lamb’s organization, once suppressed, has now seized control of the city. And the player – an overwhelmingly powerful individual, no longer enslaved to the city – constitutes a very direct threat to that utopian vision.

The variable, I would say, is Eleanor Lamb – the former Little Sister who is caught between them. She adds a dimension that wasn’t really present in the conflicts between the player and the original game’s villains – someone to care about, other than yourself and your many toys. But knowing the elder Lamb, some players will ask themselves if Eleanor can be trusted.

Q: Nuts n' bolts: multiplayer. To what degree will (are) the BioShock philosophy (-ies) animate and inform the multplayer experience?

Well, the Multiplayer component takes place in a different time period than the single player story. The year between 1959 and 1960, which precedes the original game. Rapture was wracked by a civil war that was the direct result of ‘utopian’ self-interest leading to an inability to agree on a set of rules.

Corruption and addiction followed the discovery of ADAM (the precious genetic substance that allows for all the wild genetic powers the player wields). So because it’s directly integrated in the story, it is directly informed by much of the Rand-inspired philosophical exploration that the first game was based on.

And competitive MP allows you to earn ADAM and, indeed, grow your character to increase your odds of survival. Along the way you unlock unique audio diaries that describe how each of the MP playable characters fell from grace in the pursuit of their own aims.

The economy of multiplayer is about as laissez-faire as you can get. So it’s a pretty effective meditation on the fleeting, mercurial nature of satisfaction, if you take a step back and smile.

Q: On the personal (and maybe a little softball) side, what are you most proud of in BioShock 2? What was cut that you regret having to leave behind?

I’m probably the most proud of the aforementioned narrative ‘reflection’ that the game offers, I think it’s an example of taking our theme (which has to do with family) and turning it meaningfully interactive in both the broad strokes and the finer ones.

But I’m also proud of the improvements to the game as a shooter – the enemies are much more environment aware, using cover, leaping off of walls, picking up objects, etc. The Big Sister in particular is in many ways a dynamically-generated boss fight in response to your actions – she has to be able to fight anywhere you can, which distinguishes her from more scripted confrontations in other games.

Ironically, I regret having to leave behind the backtracking feature! Almost nobody actually did it in the original despite huge amounts of work to support it, and there were massive gains in trade for its removal in BioShock 2. But for a small, hardcore group of people, it’s a loss.

Q: Personal, again. What in your own professional experience most helped/informed you through the making of BioShock 2? I'm thinking here (as I often am) of Thief: Deadly Shadows, a game I loved almost beyond reason.

Well, it warms the heart to know that anyone actually played the poor thing! Certainly there’s a level I threw my heart into on Thief:DS, guided by Randy Smith, that formed the foundation of my game narrative ‘philosophy’. The same principles were applied to Fort Frolic in the original BioShock (the level I worked on), and any cogent guidance I’ve offered our design team on BioShock 2 has come from the same principles.

To sum it up quickly, I’m a big fan of embracing the subjective – that is to say, offering some compelling knowns, but holding back on a lot of the connective tissue for people to speculate and fill in with their own theories. Meaning in games is malleable – very participatory. You can guide it, but to force it is to betray its very nature.

Q: Meta time. Games like BioShock 2 -- and almost all AAA games -- are huge undertakings, and hugely expensive in consequence. The risk/reward terrifies accountants. Not to put too fine a point on it, but is the current model of development, with its attendant financial risks and its hard use of talent, viable? What do you see in the future of development at the AAA level. What would you *like* to see?

Well, with digital distribution, you’ll see a flexibility of format and price point. That is to say that games like Portal may end up being financially viable stand-alone works, even on console, only meant to provide a few solid hours of play for a lower cost – but hopefully bearing replayability in a way that is unique to games. Imagine physically participating in an episode of something like LOST, learning more each time you play through it, and seeing all the ways it can turn out? Sort of the ‘short-but-deep’ model.

Beyond that, I’d like to see us break down the barrier to entry. Learning to use a modern game controller is, for many people, like being dropped into a foreign country without a word of the local tongue. It’s just too much – passive mediums like film and TV allow them to just sit back and take it. There’s no progress gating. Look at something like the iphone, the Wii, or Natal. By and large, the interface is your body. I hope to see us evolve beyond the traditional forms of input and models of ‘challenge’ – then my Mom and I can co-op through Pride and Prejudice And Zombies, y’know?