The cover art for BioShock Infinite (seen on the right) caused a bit of a stir among hardcore fans following its release earlier this month. Protagonist Booker DeWitt gets front-and-center billing, holding a somewhat generic “burdened hero-man” sort of pose. A burning American flag dangles limply behind him and a game logo rests just above his head. Elizabeth, Infinite‘s female lead and the driving emotional force in the story, is nowhere to be seen. It’s an unexpectedly crowd-appeasing choice from a developer known for challenging the notion of what video game storytelling is capable of.
It was the first question on my mind when I sat down with Irrational Games’ writer Drew Holmes to chat about BioShock Infinite after the hands-on demo. Booker is a much more vocal protagonist than Jack, his BioShock predecessor, was and his interactions throughout the game with Elizabeth are as central to the story as the constant stream of “Would you kindly?” requests from the first game. Still, with Columbia’s dazzling cityscape-in-the-sky and memorable character design for beings like Songbird and the Boys of Silence, the last thing that one would expect to see on Infinite‘s cover is DeWitt, all alone, stuck in a pose that wouldn’t be out of place on an Uncharted game cover.
“In BioShock, with Jack, the silent protagonist was integral to the plot. The whole ‘Would you kindly?’ moment revolved around being this nameless, faceless dude who just did what he was told. This time around, that’s not the case,” Holmes explained. “We’re telling the story of Booker and Liz, so it’s important that Booker be a character [with] opinions and a history that plays a part in the world as you go through it. So I think because [BioShock Infinite] is a first-person shooter and you have so few opportunities to make sure that the players understand what he looks like, who he is, the cover is one of the few opportunities to show that this is the guy who you’re going to play, who you’re going to inhabit for the duration of the game.”
Holmes makes a valid point here. It’s much easier to identify with a human face than it is with the tip of a loaded gun, which is the only point of reference that players really have in a first-person shooter. Still, it’s just Booker on that cover. Other than the front half of an airship that is visible in the top-left corner, there’s really nothing that points to the game’s journey through the city of Columbia or the vital role that Elizabeth plays in the story. Given all of this, it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that Irrational creative director Ken Levine was ready for the backlash.
“This was the company’s decision, and Ken’s decision, to run with that cover,” Holmes said. “No marketing budget is ever going to dictate what Irrational Games does. We knew people, certainly the hardcore BioShock fans, weren’t necessarily going to be happy with the cover. But at the end of the day, that cover isn’t for the hardcore BioShock fans. Ken has been clear on several occasions talking about this in particular: the people who want to know more about the game, more about the philosophies and the characters, are going to be the people who are reading the gaming websites. They’re gonna read the previews, they’re gonna see the gameplay videos. For a game like this to be successful, you have to reach as broad an audience as possible, and that cover is one of the few ways to let people know what type of game it is.”
The important thing that Holmes, and everyone at Irrational, wants to get across is that while the cover art is informed by the content, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the full picture. Infinite is a BioShock game “through and through,” Holmes said. I can certainly agree that, after four hours of play, no punches seem to be pulled. The beating heart of the original game is still very much in evidence. It’s been tweaked and improved in many ways, large and small, but it’s immediately familiar. Your foes still use unconventional tactics against you and your environmental sandbox, while fundamentally changed, is still marked by a sense of open-endedness.
The cover’s appeal, then, is aimed at the dudebros of the world. Is it effective? It’s hard to say. The pose is certainly reminiscent of Nathan Drake’s pose on the cover of the first Uncharted game, a third-person action/platformer that bears little resemblance to BioShock. Then again, if you look at the covers for other story-driven action games like Halo, Mass Effect, and Gears of War (to name a few), you’ll generally see the male hero highlighted in a similar fashion. That’s where the generic flavor comes in, and where the appeal to the mainstream is focused.
Irrational hasn’t forgotten about the fans of the series, however. A backlash was expected when the cover art was first released, but plans are in the making to appease the core BioShock lovers. Holmes isn’t fully clear on the specifics — likely because they’re still being mapped out — but Irrational is working on offering an alternative to those who have been turned off by the art. “I think in terms of the cover and the hardcore fanbase, we’re going to be having a thing on the company website where we’ll have fans vote on covers that they like, and then you’ll be able to download and print out the cover that you want to see,” he said. “We’re not going to leave them out in the cold.”
As far as the game itself goes, Infinite does introduce a new challenge that wasn’t an issue in the first game. As Holmes already mentioned, the silent protagonist in BioShock was a necessary tool of the story. That isn’t the case anymore in Infinite, with Booker being presented as a fully fleshed out character. The problem is, the style of presentation in a first-person shooter — particularly in a BioShock game, which always locks the action to your first-person perspective — is much more friendly to stories that present the main character as a blank slate. It’s hard for players to identify with a character whom they can’t see outside of a weapon-wielding hand or two.
“I think Liz is certainly a huge help [in terms of identification],” Holmes explained. “In some ways players may end up identifying more with her because that’s sort of why she’s there, to engage Booker and to tell this story between the two of them. Stepping back to making sure players have a sense of Booker, that’s why he talks. He has a history that is relevant to what is happening in the game. He was at [the real-life battle of] Wounded Knee and he saw some things that changed him, which led him to drinking, and led him to gambling, and led him to this massive debt that then leads him to Columbia. It’s about getting Elizabeth and getting rid of this debt that really haunts him.”
“I think making sure that Booker and Elizabeth have a relationship that builds over the course of the game helps the player feel like they have point of identification that is more than just the gun in your hand. Liz is talking to you and having a conversation with you. By the time everything is over, if we’ve done our jobs right people will be emotionally invested in these characters.”