Among its numerous twists and revelations, the narrative nuke dropped during the finale of BioShock Infinite was the realization that the “Infinite” in the game's title was meant quite literally. And once you've finished a game that ends pretty much, well, everywhere, you'd naturally wonder where Irrational would take the game next. The answer arrived yesterday at a presentation in Boston where Irrational revealed details of the three separate DLC packs that will be released throughout the year, beginning with Clash in the Clouds - a series of increasingly difficult and chaotic challenges that take place in four aerial arenas, as well as two episodic adventures set in the luminous undersea chambers of pre-apocalyptic Rapture (from the original BioShock). And the best part for PC gamers is that Clash of the Clouds will be available today at noon on Steam for $5.
If you just need the word about Clash in the Clouds, the word is given: you want it. Go ahead, start downloading it now, and read on for trailers and screenshots of both Clash in the Clouds and Burial at Sea: Episode One, interviews with Ken Levine and Lead Level Designer Forrest Dowling, as well as a glimpse of the third DLC pack that turns Elizabeth and her freaky hand-magic into a playable character.
One of the oddities of BioShock Infinite's design was the contrast between a gritty narrative that depicted the violent uprising of the Vox Populi against Columbia's racist, nativist Founders (with its parallels with some of the darkest moments in American history) and the spectacular fireworks of the game's unabashedly violent action. It made for a disquieting experience at times, and some players felt that Booker DeWitt coolly dispatching hundreds upon hundreds of enemies made no sense in a story about a man who's ostensibly seeking redemption for his sins.
Clash in the Clouds has no such dissonance: it detaches completely from Infinite's lore by tossing you into four lofty arenas to battle through fifteen "waves" of enemies in different and increasingly unreasonable combinations. And the result is a wild, uninhibited, and constantly accelerating frenzy of combat. (Check out my hands-on with Clash in the Clouds here (opens in new tab) .)
"We were looking at what people were responding to, and one thing that people really liked was 1999 mode," explained Forrest Dowling, Lead Level Designer on both BioShock Infinite and Clash in the Clouds. "They really liked the idea of having a more challenging gameplay experience. So with that in mind we gathered up the people [from the BioShock Infinite team] that specialized in combat. We essentially told them, the gloves are off, make whatever you want. Ignore the constraints that we normally have making the narrative game. It doesn't matter if these enemies wouldn't make sense together: if they're fun to play together, go for it."
Because they didn't have to hew to a narrative plan or nudge the player through any particular path, the designers were free to hand players the entire Infinite arsenal of imaginative weapons and Vigors, as well as to exploit the most brilliant of Infinite's inventions - the rollercoaster-like pairs of Sky-Lines that turn the sky itself into a whirling, traversible theater of war.
"I wanted to make something that encourages that kind of kinetic motion," Dowling told PC Gamer. "I think of good combat in BioShock Infinite as being combat where you have to 'strike and fade,' where you're carrying out your plan but then needing to high-tail it out of there really quickly. I actually have the most fun fighting the Handyman for that reason. It's the constant pressure combined with a need to use everything at your disposal. Empty one gun, switch to the next, and look for something to swap the first one for while you're trying to pull him into a tear. One of the reasons I wanted to make Clash was because of that challenge. You're forced to do the most, and be the most inventive with the tools that you've got. And I think that only happens when the challenge gets pretty high. So we started thinking about things we could do that would encourage that kind of variety for the player."
To that end, the developers built two systems to encourage players to more actively explore all the tools of destruction at their disposal. The first are cash bonuses for stylish and creative kills, such as taking out enemies with Vigor combos or particularly stylish assassinations pulled off while hurling down a Sky-Line. The second are Blue Ribbon Challenges, specific goals preceding each wave of enemies that range from the mundane - take out all foes using only your pistol - to the more exotic, such as "Force 3 Firemen to self-destruct using Shock Jockey and Undertow." The Blue Ribbon challenges can be insanely difficult, but success results in a bigger stack of cash to spend in between waves on weapon and Vigor upgrades.
"It was freeing," Dowling continued - and he was beaming at this point. "Just being able to remove a bunch of constraints and say, 'We think its cool, so we're doing it.'"
Although specific release dates haven't yet been announced, the next two DLC packs are an noirish adventure in two episodes called Burial at Sea. They're introduced by a trailer that depicts a man with Booker's voice slinking up to a shadowy figure and lighting her cigarette with a flame that ignites with a snap of his fingertips. The woman's name is Elizabeth, and she's leaning up against the transparent dome of one of Rapture's spectacular undersea promenades.
(If you haven't played BioShock Infinite and are wondering what Booker and Elizabeth are doing in BioShock's Rapture, there's no need to agonize over spoilers - it's a fairly simple extension of the same principles in the game that explain what a barbershop quarter is doing singing Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" in turn-of-the-century Columbia.)
Chaos and horror haven't yet descended on Rapture, but it's unlikely that things will stay that way for long: Booker's narration in the trailer says darkly, "We were all buried at sea - we just didn't know it yet." Along with a shiny, pre-apocalyptic Rapture, Irrational says Burial at Sea gameplay "has been modified to give the player an original BioShock combat experience that merges the best parts of BioShock and BioShock Infinite: new weapons, new Plasmids/Vigors, Tears, Sky-Lines, and Big Daddies."
As he builds a new story that will contribute to what we know about Booker and Elizabeth, Irrational's Creative Director Ken Levine is well aware of how some people responded to the disconnect they felt between the gameplay and story in BioShock Infinite. "The challenge here is that we keep pushing on the narrative side. The relationship between Booker and Elizabeth, we try to dig in and make something really true and emotional and connective. And you're seeing more and more of that, such as in the Walking Dead game. And the problem is that gamplay, that sort of thrilling visceral experience, it's completely unrealistic! It's gameplay. I like gameplay, I'm a person who likes games. The problem is that we've gotten good enough at making these believable characters that there's a bit of tension there. And I don't think it's the level of violence, I think it's the level of characterization that's the problem. In a way, you're challenged by your own success. And it's something I'm thinking about."
"It's a dark, violent world," adds Dowling. "It's a violent story. At the same time I appreciate the criticisms. I was honestly so glad that there were so many people having strong opinions about something that we made. I'm so glad that people cared enough to really be upset about it one way or another. That's a good thing about creative works: there are lots of diffrernt interpretations. Ultimately we made a game where we wanted people to respond. And we knew it wasn't necessarily going to be positive across the board. It wasn't, and that's awesome, rather than hearing "Who cares?"
Levine isn't saying yet how much that feedback might affect Booker and Elizabeth's trajectory in the Burial at Sea episodes, though at one point he does drop some hints about Episode Two, in which we'll be able to play as Elizabeth herself. "We listened to the fans and we know how they feel about Elizabeth. And we wanted to shift things around a bit. And the gameplay's quite a bit different. If we do our job right, it's coming at exactly the right time, and it will become necessary at that point, necessary from a narrative standpoint." Levine shifts around a bit, obviously trying to explain her role while navigating around any possible spoilers. "All I mean is that what happens to her, all she can do is what she does in the [second episode]."
"One thing that's beautiful about art is that narrative can be a participatory process. My favorite thing about BioShock Infinite, besides the realization of the character of Elizabeth - her story and her gameplay - is the fact that people were debating it at the end. People were writing page after page of analysis. That we said we're not going to spell it out for you; that we trusted the gamers, and the gamers came through."
Clash in the Clouds is available today on Steam for $5. Burial at Sea: Episode One and Burial at Sea: Episode Two will be released later this year for $15 each. All three DLC packs can be purchased on Steam via the BioShock Infinite DLC Season Pass for $20.
Read my hands-on impressions of today's Clash in the Clouds DLC here.