When you first spin up BioShock Infinite later this year don’t expect to see the recently-announced retro-difficult 1999 mode on the main menu. That’s because it’s so tough Ken Levine doesn’t want “the non old-school, hardcore gamer” stumbling into it.
I spoke to Irrational Games creative director Ken Levine recently about 1999 mode, an enhanced difficulty level named for the year the studio released its challenging action role-playing game System Shock 2 (or perhaps the Prince album).
BioShock Infinite‘s standard modes are crafted with today’s more relaxed game in mind. Health and ammo are relatively easy to find, resurrection is a regular occurrence, and selecting one skill over the other won’t necessarily cripple you in other areas.
In 1999 mode the player picks a specialisation and sticks with it, and his or her actions will be ruled by that choice. Ammo will be hard to come by. Every small sliver of health will be precious, and if you die you’d better have the resources needed to revive, or it’s game over.
For the hardcore gamer, 1999 mode could be the best thing that’s ever happened. And for the non-hardcore gamers?
“They’re gonna hate this mode,” said Levine. “That’s OK — it’s not for them.”
Who exactly is 1999 mode for? For one, it’s for the student that approached the creative director and co-founder of Irrational Games after a speaking engagement at Levine’s old college to tell him he had a bone to pick with him. His complaint? That none of the choices in BioShock seemed to have any real permanence.
“There’s a lot of things people can tell you about your game, positive and negative, and you can either agree or disagree,” Levine told me. In this case he agreed. While there were permanent decisions in the game, none of the choices the player could make felt as if they changed the way the game was played irreversibly. “That would have been really cool.”
Levine loved the idea so much he decided to “go down that road” with BioShock Infinite, but not before making sure it was something the fans wanted. The developer held an informal poll to feel out their audience. Would being required to make permanent decisions enhance their gameplay experience? When 57 per cent responded in the affirmative, 1999 mode was born.
Adding 1999 mode to BioShock Infinite so late in the game was a bit of a challenge. The game wasn’t designed to demand specialisation 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 ’90s,” 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'”.
That’s exactly the attitude the hardcore gamer is going to need going into 1999 mode. It’s going to try to break them using their own decisions.
For example, Levine outlined how the game might play out for a player that decided to specialise in pistols. They’ll be an amazing shot with a revolver, but the decision will severely affect their ability to use other weapons. When their back is to the wall and they’ve only got one bullet left, they might regret their decision, but it’s up to them to make it work.
And if they should die, they’d better have the right components to facilitate resurrection. “Players have gotten so used to dying and getting rezzed that they’ll use it as a strategy, running in taking out a few enemies, dying, and coming right back,” Levine said. “In 1999 mode if you keep charging your resources to come back, be prepared to load a save game.”
Levine likened the atmosphere created by these limited resources to a key mechanic in successful survival horror titles. “It’s not just that it’s scary,” he explained. “It’s also that your resources are so limited it creates tension.”
Rather than tipping his hat to Resident Evil, Silent Hill, or other survival horror staples, Levine used to Ubisoft’s tactical shooter Rainbow Six as an example. “In Rainbow Six you died so quickly — just one bullet could kill you. There was an incredible tension to it, making me so nervous about rounding every corner.”
1999 mode creates this same sort of tension, while ensuring that the player is always in the pilot seat. The decisions, good or bad, are the player’s to make. It’s a mode that makes them think differently about how they play the game.
And again, it’s really there for the hardcore.
“We’re going to hide (1999 mode) in the menu, probably with some sort of code. To the non-hardcore gamer we’re not going to even reveal that it exists,” Levine told me. “The mode will be very unfamiliar to the non-core gamer.”
To the more hardcore among us, Levine thinks the new mode will be a welcome return, demanding and challenging. “This mode is not going to feel like BioShock”, he warned. There will be rage quits. Controllers will be thrown, even among the hardcore.
So the big question now is which type of gamer is Ken Levine?
“People want to say you’re this kind of gamer or that,” he said. “Core gamers have a much broader range.” He told me of a recent sleepless night where he found himself first playing a few hours of action RPG Deus Ex: Human Revolution before winding down with an hour of casual puzzler Bejeweled.
“As a gamer it all depends on the day, hour, or how I’m feeling. I’ll play both hardcore and casual games. BioShock Infinite‘s 1999 mode is tough and frustrating. You’ll move forward a few feet, die, and load a save game. I love that on some days. Other days I don’t want to deal with it.”
Ultimately the choice to play BioShock Infinite in normal or 1999 mode is up to you, the player. If you try the more difficult setting and can’t get the hang of it, then fall back on the regular game. Or alternate as your mood for a challenge comes and goes.
But if you’re the kind of game that bails at the first sign of failure you may want to keep your distance. As Ken Levine said, “This is not for you. Don’t worry about it.
“This is for the hardcore. They’re the only ones that will understand why it’s cool.“