BioShock made such an impact after its release in 2007, but you were not directly involved in the follow up, BioShock 2, which was handled by 2K Marin. So, why have you returned to the series?
"It took us about six months to figure out where to go next. We didn't want to do another game in Rapture, as we didn't think that was the right thing for the studio. We played around with a few prototypes, but nothing seemed quite right. We were just sitting around with a few of the senior guys one day, saying 'what do we want to do?' We always came back to that we wanted to do another BioShock game, but then there was the thing that we didn't want to do a game in Rapture. Then someone, I think it was [senior effects artist] Stephen Alexander, said, 'Well why don't we move it to another setting?' And all the senior guys just instantly liked it. And that never happens at Irrational, people disagree, often violently. So that was really a positive experience and we just started brainstorming from there, and that was when we knew what we wanted to do."
"Well, the new location is again all about fear, it's fear of heights, vertigo, and fear of falling down. It's just another fear that we can all relate to. We can also play around with that verticality, because there was no gameplay features using the undersea setting in BioShock 1. Even in BioShock 2 when it came, there was no combat or anything. So we really wanted to make sure that we made the most of the new setting and made it pay off. We really wanted to make you feel like you were in the sky and that was part of the gameplay."
You have the 'skyline' rail network that snakes around Columbia - how will that fit into the gameplay and story?
"It's all about the pacing. We will use the rails a number of times in the game, but it's also about the underlying experience that makes this city feel believable. I realise that is a bit odd because it's a city floating in the sky in 1912, but you are still really constructing this space with the user in mind. For instance, if you had 20 skyline battles and they were all in the same level, you have a pacing problem. Or if you have 20,000 sky-line problems, you have a content problem as it's just not fun anymore.
"So you have to think about pacing and you have to think about the content, and then you have to get all the elements right. It's also about being at the limit of control. That is very powerful. It's not about being in control, it's not about being out of control, it's about being on the very limit. That is a very hard line to draw. That is your goal, you may not always hit your goal, but you try. If it gets too boring or too hard, that is when people put the controller down. Your goal is to make the game somewhere in between. It's about making it fun and challenging but not overwhelming. "
"There are a lot of thematic connections. People have certainly seen the thematic connection between Elisabeth and the Songbird [a giant mechanical bird that terrorises Columbia], and the Little Sister and the Big Daddy. But the big difference is that Elisabeth is a full grown adult and she wants to express her will, whereas a Little Sister just doesn't. They have a perverse relationship, and I don't mean a sexually perverse relationship - the Little Sister and the Big Daddy, it's more an emotionally perverse relationship in that she has been exploited.
"With Elisabeth, she has been trapped all this time waiting for someone to rescue her, and her only companion has been this creature (the Songbird), she is connected to him yet also needs to get away from him. If you think back to your own childhood, you have these figures that you eventually have to get away from, and some people can and some people can't. Equally, some parents can let go, and others can't. Sometimes people can be in co-dependent relationships where it would be better for everyone if they just moved on. But sometimes you can't."
"On an esoteric level, the game is about Elizabeth and the tears, you know when you see the movie theatre and it's about what that means. It says Revenge of the Jedi, which was the original title, but George Lucas felt that Jedis wouldn't want revenge. That is certainly directing you towards what is going on with her powers. And it's about her and Booker's understanding of what the world is and how changeable that can be. There are also a lot of implications of that, and pragmatic implications of that. I am not going to go too deep into that as it will reveal too much.
"The most important thing was that we wanted to unite what she is doing in the story with what she is doing in the gameplay. Those had to be the same thing and we were really excited when we were able to bring those things together. We struggled on that for some time, not because it was overly difficult but because we wanted to get it right. We always knew that she was going to be powerful, but we didn't know how. With the Revenge of the Jedi, I wanted to get across what her powers were. We first had that moment of opening up a street scene but we really wanted to hammer home that it wasn't just time travel story. I relied on that not everyone will understand the reference but everyone would have a friend who would be able to explain the reference."
The relationship between the state and the people also seems a key theme - was that among the things that you really wanted to cover in BioShock Infinite?
"On a rounded level, it's about different people looking at the same political documents and coming away with completely different interpretations. I think that is a really interesting thing. There would be no-one in America who would disown Thomas Jefferson, but upon reading the same documents that he wrote, or any of the founding documents, there are people who have different opinions on his achievements. It's also interesting about what people consider to be American.
"Some people say, oh well, that is un-American [to question Jefferson's legacy]. That is interesting to me, because there is a diverse range of activity that could be termed American, so it's probably best not to throw that term around. But I think on a basic level this game is a struggle between the haves and the have-nots, and also the natives versus the foreigners. That has happened so many times in history, from the scenes in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York to the present day Occupy Wall Street movement. It's not that we can see into the future to know these things, it's because we are such students of the past."
"Well, it's all about the verticality and making sure that paid off with the rails and aerial gameplay. We also wanted to make sure that Elizabeth's powers could change the environment and combat, using the tears for the combat (to create cover, exits or ammo dumps). We also wanted to expand the pool of weapons and make the plasmids even bigger in this game, so we have a lot more of both. We wanted to make all the plasmids from the first game available here, but also introduce new tactics.
"So we have vigors (the new power-ups) that have different 'charges', dictating the amount of times you can use them. You can only take a certain number of vigors into battle, so you have to choose carefully. A more powerful vigor could be useful, but it will have less chances to use it. But also, the first game did not have permanent character growth. If you did not like something with the plasmids, you could just swap it out. But now we have Nostrums, which are permanent changes to the player character. They come in stable and unstable varieties, with the unstable ones costing less due to the potluck factor. You get to choose one Nostrum, but you are stuck with it. So in your permanent character you are making these microcosmic choices in a more role playing game-based system. It's more personal, in that you made the choice and you have to live with that specialisation."
BioShock 2 had the multiplayer element handled by 2K Marin's development partner Digital Extremes; will some kind of competitive or co-operative online game return in BioShock Infinite?
"We have always said that same message. We do a lot of behind the scenes thinking about a lot of things, but it always comes back to, 'Is this the right thing for the game?' Basically, we are showing what we have showed and we'll leave it at that. I hate to be evasive, but I have several masters to serve in this universe and one of those is that we must talk about things when they are ready to be talked about."
So what stage are you at with the development?
"The cement hasn't quite hardened yet, if that is how to put it. We are getting there, and I think people understand what the game is, the blueprints are there, and the frame is up. We are not quite at the stage of choosing the door knob colours yet, but we are nearly there."
BioShock Infinite will be released on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC sometime in 2012.
More BioShock Infinite coverage:
> BioShock Infinite videos reveal factions, skylines
> BioShock Infinite to feature Move support
> BioShock Infinite wins E3 Best of Show award
> Preview: BioShock Infinite
Watch BioShock Infinite's 15-minute gameplay demonstration below: