I recently rearranged my life so I could see two important video games: BioShock Infinite and Skyrim. They are two games for which you should rearrange your life—or at least your Thursday in early June.
They were the games people were buzzing about last week's E3, their titles the words people said when I asked them what they'd seen that wowed them.
In a two hour span, in the nick of time before E3 2011 entered the history books, I cajoled and elbowed my way into demonstrations of both of those games. One won me over much faster than the other; one had me worried for a minute that it wasn't as good as advertised. By the end, though, I was amazed by both.
I think of BioShock and Skyrim as more of a tandem than most people do. Circumstances have linked the two despite how distinct they are.
One game puts an armed man on a floating art deco American city of an unreal 1912, zipping over its sidewalks via a weave of suspended roller-coaster-like tracks while the airborne metropolis below is spoiled by the pain and bullets of industrial-age human conflict. This game's hero wants to rescue a woman.
The other is an olden tale of man versus dragons, giants and unkind wretches set upon and under a vast landscape of tundra, mountains and caves. Its hero absorbs the souls of dragons so as to "speak" the spells of their might.
BioShock Infinite is the blue of the sky and the blood-red of revolution. It's a game in the air. Skyrim is the grey of mysterious dungeons and the green of mysterious forests. It's a game in the dirt.
The lead creators of these epics are Ken Levine, leading Irrational Games on BioShock Infinite and Todd Howard, leading Bethesda on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Two years ago, when I had no idea what their next games were going to be, Levine and Howard agreed to travel to New York from Massachusetts and Maryland, respectively, to chat on a New York Comic-Con panel with me and then-Newsweek reporter N'Gai Croal. They were a proper duo, N'Gai and I thought, two men of creative ambition behind some of the most acclaimed games of this generation, BioShock for Levine and Oblivion and Fallout 3 for Howard.
Two years and a few months later it made sense, as odd as it was, to find out that I'd be watching the E3-Monday Xbox 360 press briefing with Ken and Todd. Just the three of us, and some public relations folks, sitting in a green room in a complex partially rented out by Spike TV. We were all queued up to talk to Spike host Geoff Keighley, me right after the Xbox briefing to provide some analysis (I would give Microsoft a "B") and Ken and Todd to quickly talk through short demos of their games. But during the Microsoft briefing, we just hung out watching the telecast in the green room, enthusing about an underwater part of the Modern Warfare 3 demo, chatting about the cool camera work of the new Tomb Raider and, aside from whatever e-mails they were having to bat around with important people, enjoying ourselves. I told them both I didn't have appointments to see their games—other people at Kotaku did. They told me they could probably squeeze me in.
I failed, in that green room, to convince Ken and Todd to switch roles, to go on Geoff Keighley's airwaves and present each other's games. Part of what we couldn't decide was whether it would be funnier for them to present the other guy's game accurately or to just make stuff up. Ken wound up presenting his BioShock Infinite; Todd his own Skyrim. Ken had left before Todd got going but I think he forgot something in the green room because he was back in there watching Todd's presentation on a monitor. It was obvious he didn't want to leave.
For the next three days, I heard so much buzz about both games. Their E3 demos, people said, were magnificent. The quantity of praise was matched by the quality of praise—and the quality of people queuing up. Mid-show, for example, I was standing in the booth for Take Two, publishers of BioShock, and there were Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, co-founders of Mass Effect and Dragon Age studio BioWare (owned by Take Two rival EA) chatting with Ken Levine about getting a look at BioShock. As far as I could tell, it wasn't business that brought the BioWare guys toward the BioShock area; it was good taste.
By Thursday, however, I hadn't found time to see the games. I was booked for other games: Trion's Defiance and Sega's Anarchy Reigns. When the former was over and the latter was still to come, I had two hours left. Toward Skyrim, I charged. And, speaking of quality of praise, there was, in the packed Skyrim demo theatre famed gamer and actress Felicia Day telling Todd Howard how much of a priority she'd made to get his game in before E3 was over.
The Skyrim demo worried me at first, because Skyrim isn't immediately flashy and even looks a little stiff. It's a much prettier game than its predecessor, Oblivion which you can see in the live demo Todd gave of the game during E3 to outlets like G4. But it's a game, I thought at first, that felt like a road I'd trod enough before and moved without the visual elegance of, say, BioShock.
Todd described Skyrim to me and a packed audience of about 100 people that this was game was supposed to feel like a vast fantasy adventure, that it'd let us live a dream of being a battle mage or some other heroic role in an age and land of dragons. That pitch is generic enough to be worrisome, but, as the demo progressed, my worry dissipated, for two reasons:
The first thing that warmed me greatly about Skyrim is that it is math, wonderful video game math. It's 300 hours long, if you want it to be. It's a game that lets its player-character be customised by more than 280 perks and sets him or her against more than 150 "hand-crafted" dragons. It's a game of spells and unseen calculations, of the uncountable variety of statistical tweaks, built with a storytelling system that will invisibly swap quest items and locations to, Todd Howard promised, not only vary the game's quests but ensure that the player is sent to do new and interesting things. Been to a certain cave already? Then the next big side-quest will secretly reconfigure itself and send you to a different one. Characters absorb souls from dragons to learn the dragon's "shouts" and then use that language to shout back; they will fight dragons who behave with their own beastly, unpredictable artificial intelligence. Math leads to artistry, in this game's case, it seems to me. It leads to beauty customised per player, something represented just right with the constellations that are formed in the game's heavens based on how the player customises their character's traits.
There was a second thing that thrilled me about Skyrim, I should note. It had nothing to do with math. It had to do with this moment, captured here from G4's presentation and that took the breath out of me when I saw it in the game's demo theatre. We're on a tundra. Mammoths approach. A giant walks by. And we can talk to him. Yes, I believe that is what I want from a video game.
The BioShock Infinite demo thrilled me too, though that's the one that was invaded by doubt near the end. I got myself into the final BioShock demo of the show, back at the Take Two booth where even a guy from Capcom was trying to pull his Capcom card to get a look (he succeeded). A few dozen of us packed a room to watch a stunning display of Infinite's bright violence, much of which has been subsequently shown in some developer diary videos for the game.
BioShock: Infinite makes other games look so bad, because it seems so right. It merges the unabashedly bright colour schemes of Mario and Star Wars adventures that may have thrilled us as kids with what appears to be an exceptionally advanced and interesting bit of shooting and getting around. You are, as previously advertised, a man swinging by one arm from a glorified rollercoaster-commuter-rail called the Skyline while shooting bad guys—and blimps!—with the gun in your free hand. You're also a guy who escorts a lady who can, with great strain, rip holes in time in order to revive a dead horse or—what's this?—open a portal from the 1912 of the game to a year when I was alive?
My biggest concern about Infinite was that its E3 demo looked too perfect, too packed with action and airships and story and violence to possibly play out this well for the full length of a game. And…. more worrisome, could it play out like this and still offer the variety of player options BioShock games are expected to deliver? Levine wasn't at my BioShock demo, but he has said that it will. He's said that players will be able to use a varied arsenal and that even all this skyline-traveling involves the player's decisions about which rails to latch onto, swing off of and so on. Should the game be as varied as promised then all will be oh-so-well. So long, in other words, as its artistry still includes at least a fraction of its predecessor's— and Skyrim's—math, then worries begone.
At the 11th hour, I made BioShock: Infinite and Skyrim priorities for me at E3 last week. I rode small rollercoasters while checking them out, but leveled off at the same lofty heights. These were my two favourite games of the show, Todd's game a top contender for 2011 greatness; Ken's for 2012.
Now if only I can get them to show off each other's games. Ken Levine presents Skyrim. Todd Howard shows BioShock: Infinite. I'd rearrange a day for that.