The first half of BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea launches on PC on November 12th. The watery expansion has been split into two neat episodes, chronicling a whole new sub-aquatic adventure in Rapture about god only knows. Booker is now a grizzled private investigator, Elizabeth is a smoking film noir dame with legs up to her eyes, and they’re both searching for a missing person in an underwater utopia not yet ruined by excessive New Year’s celebrations.
But returning to Rapture is not a journey Irrational are making lightly. I sat down with Burial at Sea’s producer Don Roy to talk about how BioShock Infinite’s wettest DLC plans to reframe gaming’s most remarkable city in an entirely new light.
PCGamesN: What made you want to return to Rapture as the setting for Infinite’s DLC? What is it about that world that resonates with players?
Don Roy: When we finally finished work on BioShock Infinite and we knew were about to take on DLC we had a lot of discussions about where we should go with it and what we wanted to do. In Rapture we found the most compelling story that we knew we wanted to tell. There were two challenges really, one was: can we find an interesting and meaningful way for these two worlds BioShock 1 and BioShock Infinite to touch one another? And also, how cool would it be to see if we could take our learnings from Infinite and apply them to the living, breathing world of Rapture, to really show people what it was like before the fall?
So we set off to do that and it led us down this road. It was so exciting to watch it come to life. I wasn’t at the studio during the BioShock 1 days, I came in for Infinite, so being able to play around in that sandbox, well, I’m not going to lie, it’s been quite a dream! The first day that the Big Daddy model came to life, watching him stomp around, that was pretty great.
PCGN: Would you say this is almost like a second take for Rapture, a chance to show things you couldn’t the first time around?
Don Roy:Absolutely. It’s interesting here because the realities of Rapture still exist, and we’re beholden to those because we’re recreating that world. So Ryan’s philosophies still exist, and the characters are all residents, so it’s more about showing what people’s day to day lives were like in that place and in that culture. I mean, it’s different, taking objectivism and then living that to it’s nth degree in an isolated utopia before it becomes a dystopia, and then showing players what it’s like to walk through it all. I still enjoy walking through the first five to ten minutes of this DLC and seeing that, seeing the world where people are living that life, and have been living that life.
That’s always going to be interesting to us, fleshing out these worlds so that when you as a player character walks through this world, it feels like people have been living in it. That was the big lesson we were able to take from Infinite, things like Columbia’s town centre and going through the fair, we’re bringing Rapture back to life in much the same way.
PCGN:The combat and the narrative in BioShock have always been kept very separate, and that’s even more apparent in the split between Clash in the Clouds, which is combat focused, and now Burial at Sea, which is story-led. Does it feel like you’re juggling two different games?
Don Roy: I can see how it appears that way, but I don’t think functionally we think of it that way. Clash in the Clouds was interesting for us to delve into because we had created really interesting gameplay systems in Infinite, but there were narrative and technical limitations to what we were able to do. So what Clash in the Clouds offered us was the ability to really push it to eleven, to put multiple Handymen into combat, have Sirens resurrect Handymen and motorised patriots and different things, and create new and interesting environments that harken to the game but twist them a little and add more depth.
We get a lot of feedback from players, some who’d love if there was never any combat and it was just entirely narrative, but then we also have players who love combining vigors and plasmids with gameplay systems. So we felt like [this DLC setup] was a good way to do this, knowing full well that we were going to have a two part narrative story to tell [in Burial at Sea] that would fully flesh out this world. It’s honestly just about balancing.
PCGN: From a storytelling standpoint, was it difficult to re-explain all of Rapture’s themes in such a short space of time, or do you make an assumption that the player knows what’s up?
Don Roy: I don’t think it was difficult. I think it was interesting to take Ryan’s philosophies and display them in a living world. Knowing that that’s the core of the world and then layering in Booker and Elizabeth and their experiences just makes it an interesting story to tell. You come into that world with player knowledge, but you’re starved of some crucial knowledge that Booker is also lacking. So I like that synergy between the player and Booker here. Obviously you know some things about the world that Booker doesn’t, and I think that makes it really interesting from a player standpoint.
PCGN:Booker and Elizabeth are pretty much starting from square one again, meeting one another in Rapture as strangers. Was it a challenge to go from nought to sixty with their relationship, to bring it back up to speed?
Don Roy: I think it’s an interesting set of challenges, but I think the noir storytelling really lends itself to that. I think that was a really great fit for the story we’re trying to tell. As soon as Liz comes sashaying through that door, it sets you up with an immediately understanding of their relationship to one another. There’s a layer of mystery between you and Elizabeth too, there’s something different about her. She brings all the growth she had in Infinite. She started out in the tower, when everything was new and fresh, but by the end of Infinite she was a very different person, she had been affected by the world around her. In Burial at Sea she is that person, she comes coloured with all that knowledge and information. So when she comes into your office with a purpose, she now knows how to do something with that purpose.
PCGN: I was surprised by how much the pace of the game is affect by the scarcity of ammo, was this a conscious design choice?
Don Roy: Yeah it was absolutely intentional. We tried to find an interesting balance of respecting BioShock 1’s gameplay, but also taking the systems from Infinite and finding a way for them to work together. It took a lot of reworking and exploration because with Infinite we’d learned so much about open, large-scale combat, and bringing that back into Rapture was challenging. But it was a fun challenge, and as we started getting closer to it we started getting more sense memories: things like the feeling of stealth and sneaking up on a splicer from behind. The plasmids all have extra functions now too, so being able to really utilise setting up combat spaces and turning environments against enemies, it was really fun to be able to bring that back into the game.
PCGN: There are only a handful of plasmids too, why is this?
Don Roy: We found that it’s more important to give players good balance choices rather than an enormous wealth of options. It’s fun. When we finally get to the right balance of resource starvation, man did I start having a lot of fun playing. There’s something visceral and amazing when you really have to think hard about the decisions that you’re going to make, and have to run and scramble to find resources. We love benefitting the archaeologists who play our games, and that model serves them so well, because it drives exploration and searching and looting.
PCGN: How did you pick and choose which elements and characters from Rapture to revive?
Don Roy: It’s really been organic. We know the story we’re trying to tell, so from there we can naturally pull elements of BioShock 1 into that story. That’s how we come to it, which I now think was a really, really great way for that to happen, rather than come into it with a list of 15 people we thought had to be in there somewhere. That wouldn’t have been as good a story. This is Booker and Elizabeth’s journey, and as we fleshed out that journey there was a very natural selection of returning friends and foes and makes sense. But the first time I heard an Andrew Ryan PSA playing in the world was a pretty great day. There are a lot of great red letter moments like that.
PCGN:Did you pull any assets from the original BioShock? Did Andrew Ryan’s voice actor return to record lines?
Don Roy: The voice actor is recording new content for us, yeah. This is a rebuild from the ground up, it’s been extensively redone. The original BioShock 1 assets are very old now. They don’t hold up or serve the same purpose that we need them to. We’ve used references but we’ve had to start again from scratch. I think it shows!
PCGN: Well in my memory BioShock 1 still looks incredible, so in Burial at Sea it matches this idea of what Rapture is supposed to look like in my head.
Don Roy: Yeah, it’s remarkable how well BioShock 1 holds up, but when you come to working with those assets, there are so many technological learnings that we’ve had and techniques that have changed since then. We can build the worlds bigger and more robust now, so for instance, when you look out of the windows, those vistas are 3D models now, there’s a world out there and you could potentially see something that you’re going to go to. That’s just something that wasn’t possible back in BioShock 1, so all of those things meant that we had to just build the entire thing again, there was no shortcut around it.
PCGN: Can you talk about what’s still to come, Elizabeth becoming a playable character?
Don Roy: That was one of those decisions where we thought, we absolutely have to do this, before realising how hard that was going to be. But it was great, it was hugely rewarding being able to do that because I think players want to see the world through Liz’s eyes. We did a great job on Infinite in creating a character that people cared about and could connect with, so the natural progression from that is: what is it like to be Elizabeth?
PCGN: What is it like to be Elizabeth?
Don Roy:I can’t say specifically now, other than that she will be very different from Booker. It will be a very different player experience.
PCGN: Does she run faster and jump higher?
Don Roy: Can’t say yet [laughs], but she is different, there’s no question!