In the thick of a long, nasty political season, it's easy to think the gulf between the left and right in America is wider and more irreconcilable than ever. Except that it isn't. Irrational Games' creative director and self-described "history nerd," Ken Levine, knows this.
"There have been many things like the Tea Party before the Tea Party," he explains. "Both religious, nationalist movements as well as labor-oriented, left-wing movements. Even in 1912, those groups often came into conflict."
It's this heady, pre-WWI period that Levine and Irrational decided would be the perfect setting for the company's next first-person action title, BioShock Infinite, due in October. A risky move, perhaps, considering such unfamiliar, bygone territory, but after the huge success of the original BioShock, it's nothing the company felt they couldn't navigate.
The franchise's 2007 progenitor was a modern classic set in a failed, decaying utopia at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Equal parts Cold War paranoia, The Shining, and Atlas Shrugged, it went on to sell more than four million copies, earning a well-received sequel in 2010 (not developed by Irrational), as well as the hungry gaze of Hollywood. (A big-budget adaptation, originally to be helmed by Pirates of the Caribbean's Gore Verbinski, has been in development hell for almost five years.)
BioShock starred a silent protagonist who navigates the submerged city amid gene-spliced lunatics in 1950s party garb, and demands that the player choose between mercy and murder for the greater good. It's a sharp tale of retro-futuristic claustrophobia and Ayn Rand objectivism. Infinite, however, counteracts the original's bleak, damp aesthetic by going in the opposite direction: up.
"Before the turn of the 20th century, no one had electricity," says Levine. "There were no cars. No airplanes. Twenty years later, that all existed. People's heads were spinning. So if you asked someone, 'Do you think we'll be living in a city in the sky?' they'd shrug and say, 'Sure, why not?'"
Infinite's Columbia, a floating metropolis, serves not only as bright, steampunk contrast to the original's dark depths, but as a heavily armed monument to the American spirit of the time, often used to flex military muscle around the globe. As in the real world, this is obviously not without its consequences, serving to set up a battle of wills between the xenophobic "faith, flag, and family" ideals of a group known as the "Founders" and an international workers' sect called "Vox Populi." Sound familiar?
"When we started the game, there was no Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street," Levine says. "But it's always the same pressures that push at society. It happens, then it happens again. It's our job to make it relatable."
Both sides of the conflict have their violent fanatics, not to mention the clockwork guardians who patrol the city, including a corroded George Washington–style automaton known as the "Motorized Patriot," who also happens to carry a Gatling gun. While fantastical, Infinite emphasizes story detail as much as relative historical accuracy, which in turn speaks loudly toward the climate of 2012. Infinite aims to be compelling for both gamers and those simply interested in an experience more relevant than, say, aliens and space Marines.
"It's a mixture of these science-fiction elements, but we also want to ground people in the time, because that's what makes history interesting," Levine says of Irrational's m.o. "It's all the little details, like clothes or advertising — if you don't get those right, you might as well stay here in 2012."
When pressed further about Irrational's approach to storytelling and design, Levine isn't shy about his team's commitment to big ideas. "Our games tend to be a Rorschach," he says. "Our goal isn't to stake out a political position; it's to throw questions out there and let the players wrestle with those questions themselves."