BioShock Infinite preview: Tears in the Sky-line

"Booker! Booker! Gold!," Elizabeth cries out, holding up what appears to be a valuable figurine of George Washington, found amidst the various red, white and blue offerings at Notion's Sundries and Novelties. "That's gold like I'm the king of England," former Pinkerton agent, and player character, Booker Dewitt responds. It's a charming back-and-forth, and the beginning of a lengthy pre-E3 demo for Bioshock Infinite, Irrational's city-in-the-sky followup to BioShock. The first thing you may notice is obvious: Booker speaks. "You're a character in this game unlike the previous BioShock games," Irrational Creative Director Ken Levine tells an audience of game writers. The "level" we're seeing is about a third of the way through the game and "it's still pretty early in that relationship, how you two interact with each other," Levine says.

Of course, by this point Booker has rescued Elizabeth from her imprisonment, and they're being chased by "Songbird" (previously referred to simply as Him). "He's her jailer," Levine says. "Her only friend. He's got one job in the world once you bust Elizabeth out: to find her and bring her back to her tower." So, for Elizabeth, everything in Columbia is as marvelous as it is to us, and then some. "She's a bit de novo. She was basically Rapunzel sitting in her tower with her books and the Songbird. All she wants when she gets out of her tower, it's a very Roman Holiday moment," Levine says, citing the 1953 Audrey Hepburn classic. "She wants to explore and see this incredible world and she learns very quickly it's not that simple. All she wants is to control her destiny." But before she can do that, she'll need to learn to control her powers.

While exploring Notion's for supplies – Booker picks up some Bucking Bronco tonic and some cash while Elizabeth finds the aforementioned George Washington statue and a novelty Lincoln mask – you encounter signs of trouble: the mattress on the floor, the pronounced lack of customers. While grabbing cash from the register, you hear a screech outside and Elizabeth begins to sob in the front of the store. "No, no," she whimpers. Directly outside the window is Songbird, represented here by a massive glowing eye peering in the window, cycling through various states of alertness – red, yellow, green – the way an eye examination cycles through corrective lenses. After Booker joins Elizabeth behind cover, Songbird loses interest and flies off, his screeches slowly fading away.

"Promise me," Elizabeth says.

"I will stop him."

"That is an oath you cannot keep. Promise me that if it comes to it," she says, wrapping Booker's hands across her throat, "you will not let him take me back."

"It won't come to that, alright?"

The Tears

After leaving the store and looking around, finding your destination -- "There it is ... Comstock House" -- Elizabeth wanders off. You spot her walking into a yard and, when you catch up, find her on the ground singing a lullaby to an injured horse. "He's in pain," she pleas. "Not for long," Booker says, aiming his gun at the horse. "Wait, wait, wait – there's a tear!" she exclaims. "I can control it this time." Despite Booker's protestations, Elizabeth asserts, "I wasn't asking for permission" and, with that, she opens the tear.

"We really want Elizabeth to be an important part of your combat strategy," Levine says. "This system we evolved, you come into a combat space, there's a bunch of opportunities to open a tear or close a tear." In this non-combat example, we see the narrative potential for tears as well. Elizabeth is able to pull objects from other dimensions into her own; in this case, she's trying to pull in a live counterpart of this horse. As the tear expands, you see a healthy horse laying on a field of grass, then it collapses. Again. You see more of the horse and, like before, the tear collapses. Again. The tear flies open and Booker and Elizabeth find themselves on a city street, surrounded by lights. A theater sign reads "Revenge of the Jedi," the almost-name of Return of the Jedi, famously changed at the last minute ... but not in this dimension. A siren approaches as Booker yells, "Close it! Close it now!" The instant before the oncoming firetruck would have flattened Elizabeth, they find themselves back in Columbia, standing over the dying horse. "You were right," Elizabeth says. "I can't control it. It's impossible."

"After what just happened, do you really want to take bets on what's possible?" Booker responds. "Let's go find Comstock."


The War

Z.H. Comstock is the leader of the Founders, one of two extremist groups vying for control of Columbia. The Founders, whom we first met in the game's reveal, are a "sort of ultra-patriotic nativist, America-first people," focused on "faith, family, fatherland." The Vox Populi are "an internationalist sort of Karl Marxian group that's formed in this city as a response to the excesses of the Founders." As it happens, both groups have pushed each other to the far fringes of radicalism. Unlike Rapture, which had already torn itself apart by the time your nameless hero arrived, Columbia is in the middle of an all-out war. "I think what we want to do with Infinite is really give you guys a taste of being in a city that's actually in the process of tearing itself apart," Levine says. "And the fact that you're a big part of why it's tearing itself apart, the reason you're there is a bit of a catalyst." The Founders want Elizabeth locked back up in her tower prison while the Vox Populi want her dead and Columbia destroyed.

Booker and Elizabeth stroll through a Vox Populi-held portion of Columbia, avoiding trouble, trying not to draw attention. A man is thrown through a window; another is being beaten. They go through some kind of checkpoint and Booker points his gun at a guard and tells him, "Listen friend, we're not looking for any trouble." The guard walks away, laughing. They reach a fork in the path and Elizabeth offers you a choice: "Might be more supplies this way, or straight to Comstock. Whaddya think?" It's more supplies, as we go further into Vox Populi-held territory. Propaganda messages fill the air and, around another corner, a mob gathers in front of a platform, as a confession is projected. "I confess that I am an agent and provacateur of the Comstock regime. I was responsible for the 1904 Emporium bombing. I was the mastermind ...," the message trails off as Booker speaks out. "Hey, he's just a postman. He didn't hurt anybody!" We're later told this is one way to handle this scene: non-violently. Other options include ignoring the plight of the postman altogether, or keeping your mouth shut and letting your gun do the talking. Regardless, the Vox Populi turn and someone identifies you.

"We're always loathe to have good guys and bad guys," Levine says. "There's a great movie I watched called The Baader Meinhof Complex. Baader Meinhof started as a student protest group that essentially became a terrorist group." Levine explained how this happened and why that transformation resonated with him. "To me, that's the story of the Vox Populi [and the Founders]: They started wanting good things and they push on each other and they push on each other and they push on each other and they say, 'Well, this is for the cause and whatever the price is, it's for the cause.'"

Combat

Having decided to interrupt the mob's trial, and expose yourself in the process, an army of Vox Populi radicals are now gunning for you and Elizabeth. A man in the distance is trying to activate what appears to be a siren before Booker shoots him and then you find yourself surrounded by the faint impression of three images: a stagecoach, a barrel of fireworks, and a door. "Up there, I think I can help! Just tell me which one you want!" Liz says. Booker picks the stagecoach and Elizabeth works her "magic." Instant cover. Booker uses the Bucking Bronco vigor to pull two enemies into the air, away from their cover. Booker and Elizabeth make their way up to a landing as a dirigible appears in the sky. Booker tries to take it down with an old-fashioned rocket launcher (really) but laments that it's taking too long. A tear reveals a rocket turret but Elizabeth says, "It's too soon. I won't be able to control it."

"If you go into a combat situation and see three or four tears, you can only choose one," Levine says. "Maybe later in the game, you'll see four or five tears and you'll be able to choose two, as Elizabeth gets more and more control of her powers." He calls her powers "very Bioshock-y" because they're "just another option the player has in his toolset along with weapons, along with vigors, and along with passive powers." Combining narrative elements with gameplay elements was a hallmark of the original Bioshock and, with Elizabeth, Irrational is intent on returning to that well.


Sky-lines

Another example of this pursuit is Columbia's roller-coaster-inspired Sky-lines. "The Sky-lines are not a 'travel from here to here' tool," Levine says. "They really are a combat tool." And to prove this point, Booker takes to the Sky-lines to try and get closer to the dirigible. Narratively justified as a means of freight travel in a floating, vertical city, the Sky-lines can be used by Booker, by the enemies, and even by Elizabeth. A small circle indicates where you can land, be it on the ground or on another Sky-line. While whizzing around Columbia, you'll have to not only keep track of where you're going – the lines are a web, criss-crossing the city – but also shoot other Sky-line riding enemies and enemies on the ground; in order to be effective, you'll need to pick the best weapon for the job. That can even include Elizabeth, who's able to bring in a Sky-line or even close a tear and remove a Sky-line, sending enemies plummeting to their deaths.

Eventually, after several minutes of what can only be described as a chaotic, sandbox battle spanning massive chunks of the city, and taking part on and off, and back on, the Sky-line, Booker makes his way up to the dirigible. He lands on the wing, goes inside, and destroys the ship, making his way back to the Sky-line, and back on the ground to Elizabeth, just in time. "That was amazing," she says. "Good, because I don't think I can do it again." Something tells us he'll be doing it plenty more because, while they may be right near Comstock House, their goal, things are about to take a turn for the worse.

Songbird

All that ruckus apparently garnered the attention of Songbird, whose arrival on the scene is preceded by his terrible screech. He throws Booker through the air, crashing through a window at the top of a building. Seconds later, he's tearing through the wall, standing over Booker, ready to drive his spiked knuckles into him when Elizabeth arrives and jumps in front of him. "Stop! Stop it! Don't hurt him!" she says. The massive bird creature pauses, obviously able to understand her.

"Elizabeth and he have known each other since she was five years old," Levine says. "He doesn't speak, per se, but she can understand his mood. He is sentient." And she knows exactly what he wants: an apology. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry, I never should have left. I never should have left. Take me back. Take me home. Please."

And he does. As Songbird grabs Elizabeth, a teardrop running down her face, he punches a hole through the wall and flies off, back to the tower. Booker gets to his feet, runs after them, and jumps out the window, her would-be knight. "She has very weird, complicated feelings about Songbird," Levine explains. "And I think you can tell, he's a bit of a jealous, abusive ex-husband. He's programmed to take her leaving very personally; that's part of his conditioning."


For many gamers, Bioshock Infinite may seem so unrelated to the original game that they question that title. Is it just marketing? For Levine and his team at Irrational, it's another study in the corruption of ideals. "I think the most interesting things in life are the things that are on the knife's edge between success and failure," Levine told me during an interview following the demo, "between beautiful and ugly. That first bite of food and you're so hungry and you realize the food is rotten, after you take that first bite. That feeling you get in your gut as that realization comes up. I've always been really attracted to that from a creative standpoint. I alway loved the part in the original Dracula when Jonathan Harker is seduced by the three succubi and the combination of horror and beauty, sex and death that they have. That is BioShock. Rapture is the most beautiful corpse you've ever seen in your life. The city's completely dead but it's still beautiful. That's always held a fascination for me, having both of those things at the same time. That's part of life. That's the Uncanny Valley, that thing that's so close to beautiful but it's that closeness is what makes it awful. That's always been more interesting than a plain old monster."

It's like that gold statue of Washington, as potent a symbol of America as any there ever was, that Elizabeth picked up in the shop: It may look like pure gold but it's only skin deep.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.