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Interview: 2K Marin creative director Jordan Thomas on BioShock 2

Justin McElroy

We doubt you'll find a less forgiving job in video games than the team who has to take the reins from the driving force behind one of the most beloved titles of the last decade and try to make something of their own. As the creative director of 2K Marin, the studio behind BioShock 2, Jordan Thomas is all too familiar with the challenge. With development now behind him, Thomas took a few moments to tell us how the team kept from soiling themselves, and how they hope to make you do just that, except with excitement.

Joystiq: When you first learned what you'd be tackling, what was the immediate reaction?

Jordan Thomas: It wasn't a big spit-take or anything, I just felt humbled. On the original game, I was a level designer – and believe me, the guys at Irrational hold themselves to such a high creative standard that I can't do it honor in text without sounding like I want to kiss them on the mouth. Some of their games were formative for me, so I was overjoyed to have been involved with BioShock – even in a production role.

2K Marin barely existed at that point, but I told myself that if we were going to carry that legacy with BioShock 2, we'd treat their work with the proper respect. I still find myself thinking, "Gosh, I hope they all have fun" like some addled debutante.

Gallery: BioShock 2 | 21 Photos

Did you have a guiding principle in those early days, a certain feeling or direction you knew you wanted to pursue with a sequel?

Well, broadly, I also wanted to give the player a chance to shape the narrative with their decisions this time around – to extend the argument about free will suggested by the original – and we've invested very heavily in that, which is rare within the shooter genre.

Narratively, I was interested in a smaller, more intimate story in Rapture – one that focused on humanizing the tragic 'family' relationship implied by the Big Daddy / Little Sister pair.

Our antagonist, Dr. Lamb, is a kind of fallen idealist with a pretty broad philosophical endgame, but her conflict with the player is a thing of the gut.

For several of our characters, love is a monster. Hope that's not too vague for you – I'm hesitant to go all open-heart on this project until people have played it and decided the meaning for themselves.

BioShock and multiplayer isn't the most obvious combination. Why was it so important to add?

We heard a pretty vocal demand from fans of the original who wanted to extend their BioShock experience beyond single player replayability. It's absolutely true that those sentiments don't apply to everyone, but we brought on Digital Extremes specifically so that neither component would suffer.

I'm also excited by the idea of multiplayer taking place in a different time period – particularly because the Rapture civil war (between '59 and '60, the year that really tore the city apart) can best be described as a bunch of ambitious human predators competing over a precious resource in constant, violent skirmishes ... all in the name of self-interest. Now what sort of gameplay could possibly translate those events honestly?

That said, multiplayer was solely your baby, so do you feel more connected to or proud of that component?

Well, we felt like there was an opportunity to offer something that the single-player component doesn't for design reasons – we support dozens of tactical combinations between weapons, Plasmids, passive tonics, and various environmental affordances (turrets, sources of water, etc.).

But strictly speaking, you aren't forced to employ them in single player. That's the price of offering legitimate choices in a simulated game; players can happily ignore them and just marry their favorite gun if they're not looking to be as efficient or stylistic as their combo-friendly pals.

In multiplayer, past a certain level of skill, mastering the combinatorial mechanics becomes a survival imperative. There are lots of ways to gather ADAM and not all of them are about direct showdowns, but tactical agility is a pressure that other players sort of naturally encourage.

With direct competition from heavy hitters like Modern Warfare 2, what do you envision is going to keep people coming back to BioShock 2's multiplayer?

BioShock is just different. I feel like the multiplayer component offers much of the draw that differentiates it from other shooters – a detailed environment rich with opportunity to turn on your enemies. A detailed character-growth model which forces you to hand-craft your own style of play and master it to keep yourself alive.

And its own integrated narrative – each of the characters you can play is unique to multiplayer, and has all the humor and pathos of any of our singleplayer splicers. As you gain ranks by earning ADAM, you unlock new weapons and tools – but you also gain access to new audio diaries which detail each individual's fall from grace.

The original game was so driven by the exploration -- the story revealed itself through the experience. How can you replicate that feeling in the sequel when we've already been to Rapture and we already know what it is?

You can't.

For players of the original, the setting of Rapture will never be as novel. Introducing the player to that setting was a key focus of BioShock. Your first kiss will always stand alone. And while we've taken measures to bring brand new players up to speed with the sequel, our focus instead was on new surprises; taking the familiar and slowly subverting it. Alien and Aliens are both worthwhile films, to me – and in many ways, it's because the latter never tries to ape the former one to one.

BioShock 2 is its own animal – it takes you to a lot of completely fresh locations within Rapture, each of which helps to tell a very different story about Subject Delta, Sofia Lamb, and the girl caught between them. And this time, your choices change that story. We want to give you all-new feelings, all the more rich if you're building on what is known about the city.

I'll leave it up to you to judge our success, but lots of good stuff can follow kissin', or so I'm told. They don't let me out much.

What was the reason for reworking the hacking minigame? What are the advantages of the new one?

The focus in BioShock 2 is very much to keep the player in the live-fire simulation; the old mini-game was a solid design in its own right, but the bulk of the feedback we received suggested that even its biggest fans felt that it broke the suspension of disbelief to pause the world mid-fight.

Beyond that, it became fatiguing over the course of the game, given how long it took to play and the sheer number of hackable devices our players felt almost compelled to seize control of. Keeping the mini-game brief and real time (and allowing the player to initiate it from a distance with a limited resource) makes it very much a strategic decision – and increasing the opportunity for strategic thinking in BioShock 2 was among our central goals.

Does 2 close off the story? Rapture seems like a very specific type of tale. Have you started thinking about where the story goes from here?

It's got a self-contained arc for all of our key characters, but I won't spoil any broader implications for the mythos. And at the moment, we're mostly thinking about BioShock 2. The creative future of 2K Marin and 2K Australia is something we'll tackle when we can walk into a store and buy a copy for our collective Moms.

One of the biggest issues people had with BioShock was the ending. How have you approached boss fights and the inevitable "final boss?"

Well, again, I've got to avoid turning into the spoiler machine for the sake of hype – suffice it to say, we're aware that we don't do classic scripted bosses well at all. The Big Sister represents an earnest attempt to play to our strengths. She's overwhelmingly powerful and highly versatile, using the environment against you like a player would. But she lives entirely within the simulation, and can hunt you down wherever you might run. And she's deployed due to your behavior, on average, far more often than she shows up for story reasons.

Are there plans to expand the BioShock world beyond Rapture in future games?

Really nothing interesting to say yet about post-BioShock 2 stuff, it'd be pure speculation run wild even from me right now, and for that, I'd rather ask the Internet!

Do you think Ken Levine will like your sequel? Is that even a thought somewhere in the back of your head while you're working?

Of course it does. I've said publicly a number of times, working with Ken taught me more about game narrative than all of my previous gigs combined, and it's his script I pored over obsessively to prepare myself to extend the Rapture story in any kind of coherent way.

Hell, I won't speak for the man, but I hope the idea of stepping into Rapture circa '68 as a stranger might give him some kind of weird tickle.

Speaking of sequels, can you make us a game where we just walk around judging people and asking if we're not entitled to the sweat of our own brow?

You and me, pal – it's time to LARP it out. I'm drawing chain-tattoos on my wrists right now in ballpoint. Don't be alarmed if you wake up tomorrow wearing a natty brown suit and a small, fetching moustache.

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