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IGN: And so it sounds like it's a little bit like a class system where you have to make a decision up front about what you want to be powerful with. Is that accurate?
Ken Levine: Yeah, because you make certain commitments. I think that was something that a lot of our old school fans were disappointed [with] in BioShock 1. You never had to commit to any character path. While we do ask you to do that in regular BioShock Infinite -- your nostrums are permanent choices -- it's not the mutually exclusive angle that we're pursuing here. You don't think of builds in BioShock, you know? We really want to have this mode really demand that you make a build.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun:
RPS: You keep mentioning that you don’t want to oversell 1999 mode – how much is that a reaction to perhaps getting a bit burned with the BioShock 1 ‘spiritual successor to System Shock’ hype?G4:
Ken Levine: Something I’ve learned is that I shouldn’t let my enthusiasm for something overwhelm me when I talk about it. When Irrational makes a game, I’m absolutely convinced that we’re doing the thing that we want to make and everyone’s going to be really excited about it. It’s very easy to get excited about what you’re doing; the thing with making BioShock is you often have to step back, look at it and be careful about what you’re saying, because either you might be speaking in a way that will be misinterpreted or is unintentionally confusing, muddies the water a bit. So I’m really trying to step back when I talk about Infinite, as often as I can, and say “how can I speak about this as objectively as I possibly can?” And it’s a challenge, because you obviously have a lot of emotion tied up in what you’re doing. It’s very hard to talk about our baby objectively.
But I think that I feel a responsibility to speak as objectively about the game as I can – which is a weird thing for a guy who is out to sell something. I mean, that’s why I’m having these kinds of conversations, trying to get people excited about the game. But I’m trying not to set expectations that are going to end up being confusing or people are going to be disappointed. This [1999 mode] specifically, because the audience is specifically a group of people who are extremely discriminating, and will read every word very carefully, and say ‘okay – I want to understand what I’m getting.’
So I want to make sure that those people get a very specific understanding of what’s on offer here. I’m not speaking to a general audience, I’m speaking to a very specific audience that is going to take a real deep dive in thinking about this. It’s an audience that thinks very carefully about their purchasing decisions, and I don’t want that audience to ever open up one of our games and think ‘this isn’t what I thought it was going to be.’
So this mode especially, I want to be careful about how we talk about it: because this audience is so attuned to thinking about games on such a deep level, I feel like I can talk to that audience in a way that you can’t really talk to a more general audience. I can use a certain kind of lingo, I can use design concepts that I can’t use for a general audience.
G4TV: Could you talk a little more about what Nostrums are and how they function?
Gardner: Nostrums are analagous to the Gene Tonics in BioShock. However, I should just say for the sake of clarity: Nostrums are different, fundamentally, than Gene Tonics across all modes. So with Nostrums, there are permanent upgrade choices you make through every mode. With Gene Tonics in BioShock, you could pick whatever Gene Tonics you wanted and you could swap them in and out, and there was really no commitment there. By the end, you could essentially collect them all.
That's not the case with Nostrums in BioShock Infinite. You're exposed to a smaller portion of them throughout the entire campaign and, again, they're permanent. The big difference in 1999 Mode, as you're choosing one or the other, the upgrade you didn't choose means that you're leaving other tools behind, forcing a specialization.
Adding 1999 mode to BioShock Infinite so late in the game was a bit of a challenge. The game wasn't designed to demand specialization from the player. The way resources were doled out had to be tweaked. The mode required extensive balancing to ensure the enhanced difficulty didn't cross the line from tough to cheap. "I really had to get back into the brain I had in the 90's," Levine explained. "It's that old-school feeling of 'If I fail, I deserved to fail' instead of 'the game made me fail'".
Thirteen years after the release of System Shock 2 failure has become something of a dividing line between the hardcore and non-hardcore gamer. "Failure can be fun," Levine said. "That's an old-school notion. The average gamer stops playing when they fail. The hardcore gamer says 'That's it, I'm gonna show this game who's boss'".