BioShock’s Jordan Thomas Discusses the Acclaimed Trilogy
An essential member of the teams behind 'BioShock' and its sequels, Thomas tells us about aiming for 'Aliens' but producing 'Pitch Black.'
All screenshots from ‘BioShock: The Collection’ courtesy of 2K
The BioShock series takes place across different cities, different periods, and even different dimensions. But the three games are united by one thematic constant: change. In the original BioShock, Rapture changes from an underwater utopia into a nightmarish battlefield. In BioShock 2, mostly set eight years later, the city has fallen into absolute ruin; Eleanor Lamb, once a little girl, ultimately becomes a terrifying "Big Sister." Most drastically, BioShock Infinite's flying city state of Columbia is constantly in flux, with different elements, places, and people either materializing or vanishing from reality itself, depending which timeline protagonist Booker DeWitt—himself changed by life in the army—finds himself inside.
Even the title, "BioShock," implies significant, violent change. Variously in these games, it is characters' very biology that is rewritten. The first time the player-controlled Jack, in BioShock, picks up a Plasmid, wretches, and screams, we know he has been painfully, irretrievably changed.
Games, too, have been changed by BioShock. Since the original's release in 2007, questions about how stories might best be told, and how players may or may not interfere with plot, characterization and consistency have been predominant in the minds of critics and game-makers. Its philosophies may be basic, its violence and action gratuitous, but undeniably, for anyone working or with an interest in video games, the BioShock series is pivotal.
Of that, perhaps nobody is more acutely aware than Jordan Thomas. Originally a level designer on the first BioShock, Thomas was later promoted to creative director on BioShock 2. After that, he returned to Infinite as an advisor, and the BioShock Wiki lists him as a senior writer on the third game.
Alongside Dishonored's Kain Shin and two fellow BioShock alumni, Stephen Alexander and Michael Kelly, Thomas, in 2013, founded an independent studio named Question. Now, with the launch of BioShock: The Collection, featuring remasters of all three games, Thomas considers how working on the transformative game series, specifically, changed him.
"Right up until BioShock 2, I really wanted to be that classical auteur," Thomas explains. "Afterward, I had so many questions about, firstly, whether that was right for me, secondly, whether that was a good way to build a video game. I was very happy with the game we finished, but in terms of my own contributions, I will always be hyper-critical."
'BioShock: The Collection,' launch trailer
Thomas's first major design credit was on the tie-in game for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, back in 2001. Afterward he moved to Ion Storm, where he co-created the famed haunted house level, named Shalebridge Cradle, for Thief: Deadly Shadows and made design briefs for the eventually cancelled Deus Ex 3.
Subsequently transferring to what was then called 2K Boston, Thomas was assigned to the original BioShock's "design pit." His biggest contribution was Fort Frolic, a level he co-designed, wherein players encountered psychopathic artist Sander Cohen.
"My original pitch for BioShock 2 was that you'd play a former Little Sister, in an underpowered return to Rapture. Very Silent Hill."—Jordan Thomas
"The pit on BioShock was a very special room," Thomas says. "I liked what I was learning from that constellation of minds, and I had the incredible good fortune to be with good people but also left to my own devices at times. Fort Frolic was a loose skeleton when I arrived. But then the script was written, word for word, by (director) Ken Levine, and (artist) Scott Sinclair, (designers) Nate Wells and Stephen Alexander helped flesh out the narrative scenes. Still, I had it in my head, at that time, to beat the Shalebridge Cradle. I wanted to make it as much my own as I could, and I nearly damaged myself building it—I worked on Fort Frolic until 3 AM every night.
"I've asked myself so many times why I was picked to direct BioShock 2, but the reality is, while I was working on that first game I was sat next to Alyssa Finley. She became executive producer at BioShock 2's developer, 2K Marin, and she was the one who had watched me stay late every night—it was Alyssa who got in touch and asked me to come to California to work on the sequel."
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Level designer to creative director: It was a huge jump. And alongside Thomas's professional ascent, the original BioShock, by now a year old, was establishing itself as the benchmark for smarter, more sophisticated triple-A video games. Reviews were unanimous, sales were huge, essays were everywhere—using BioShock as his example, in 2007, game designer Clint Hocking coined the term "ludonarrative dissonance," destined to become one of the longest surviving phrases in popular game criticism.
In short, Thomas had his work cut out. Not only was he taking on the fresh responsibilities of a director, he was doing it on one of the most anticipated game projects in the world.
"What I should have done is two things," he explains. "First, commit to making a stripped-down horror game. My original pitch was that you'd play a former Little Sister, in an underpowered return to Rapture, full of fertile trauma that would be uncovered as you went. Very Silent Hill. But I was told—I don't even remember by who, it could have just been Marketing Person X—'We think BioShock can be a big-shooter franchise like Gears of War or Call of Duty.' And I thought, Good Lord... Why did you hire me? So the second thing I should have done is learn to say no. Going from a level designer to a creative director is dizzying. I wasn't ready to say no. And that is just the worst. If you don't know how to say no, especially to yourself, you are, at best, a rookie director.
"But this was a life-changing moment—somehow, someone had identified me for this job. So in order to say yes, I had to create a Mr. Hyde who was willing to also say, out loud, 'Absolutely. This is going to be a 2.0, and we're going to improve on the original.' But who knows what the other guy, the version of me which had existed just minutes prior to being offered that job, would have said about the necessity of sequels at all."
Far removed from the belt-and-braces work of level design, Thomas found directing BioShock 2 involved, mostly, attending meetings and holding discussions. Like the game itself, a cautionary tale regarding collectivist philosophy, wherein one character, Gilbert Alexander, tries to inject himself with the feelings and memories of everybody in Rapture and is driven insane as a result, the creation of BioShock 2, by Thomas's account, was egalitarian "to a fault."
"Looking back, I think the second game has a greater range of sympathetic characters than the original, and also more women that matter."—Jordan Thomas
"When BioShock 2 was finally real and we were all officially attached to the project I doubt I was alone in feeling, 'This is bigger than you, and unless you start sprinting from the word go, you will fall into the sky.' So, it came over like college sometimes. And I was responsible for that a lot—I was a bit of a hippy and wanted everyone's voices to matter."
Some aspects of the game were totally out of Thomas's control. Originally set in a new city with new characters and a new story, due to its relatively short production schedule—two years—BioShock 2 had to return to Rapture. Responsible for the game's script, Thomas tried to make the best of what he'd been given.
"Looking back, I think that game has a greater range of sympathetic characters than the original, and also more women that matter," he says. "Its handling of morality is more fuzzy-edged and gray, too. Now, moral choices in games are fraught—I'm not saying we solved it, with a trademark symbol. But I do enjoy hearing why people chose to do what they did, because their lines of reasoning are so textured.
"Still, I was constantly fighting the idea that people had seen and done it with Rapture. That's what we heard a lot: 'Yeah, it's just that underwater place again.' The first half of the story is the weakest because it's rehashing. And I don't think the writing reaches a crescendo like the original."
"I wanted Aliens. I think I ended up with a solid Pitch Black." – Jordan Thomas
When BioShock 2 launched in 2010 it was a critical and commercial success. Within a limited production schedule and under tremendous pressure, 2K Marin had created a game arguably better than the ground-breaking predecessor. Nevertheless, Thomas, even now, is still trying to make peace with his own contributions.
"I try to think of it as Aliens to BioShock's Alien," he explains. "But Alien is still the one I truly love, and if you're going to ask me to direct something it's probably not going to be the one with more guns.
"We didn't kill the franchise, and BioShock 2 found some real merit in the direction it did go. But I wanted my very first game as a director to be as good as one by a legendary developer who'd been working for ten plus years longer than me—all I can see, in every single frame, is a series of decisions and compromises we made."
"BioShock 2 made money," Thomas continues. "No one said to us, 'You guys failed.' But I think everyone was hoping to relive Obama's original election. I wanted Aliens. I think I ended up with a solid Pitch Black."
Almost immediately after shipping BioShock 2, Thomas went to work on another 2K project, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. It wasn't long, however, before a meeting with the head of 2K and a phone call from Ken Levine carried him back to BioShock, for what would become Infinite.
"There wasn't much detail available at the time," Thomas explains, "but I felt like I owed 2K Boston—now Irrational—whatever it might need, so I said yes.
"People who have spoken to me recently have referred to Infinite as the 'Citizen Kane of games'," he continues. "Things must have gotten scrambled, because that's also what they were calling the first one. Whenever we heard that we'd smile to ourselves. It seemed overblown even back then—it's a short cut for people who desperately want something to say."
BioShock is about change. After working on the entire series, imagining and destroying idealistic cities, devising ways for players to alter themselves, and creating countless mutated enemies, all the while observing—helping to catalyze, in fact—an evolution in the conversations around video games, Thomas, himself, was transformed. The decision to co-found Question came partly because a certain kind of game-making had permanently altered Thomas' perspectives.
"After BioShock 2, my world view had been utterly shaken," he says. "My career and sense of self were altered forever by working on it. I wasn't soured on triple-A immediately after, but I had a blasted hellscape in my wake in regards to my personal life. I barely recognize the memory of the guy I was when that game was finished. The fairly smart, put together person I was at the start of the project had become half crazed by the end. My parents remember that time. In my dangerous, do-not-try-this-at-home level of sleep deprivation they could see my eyes rolling. I was becoming like a Splicer."
Question is now working on its second, as-yet-unannounced video game. Working alongside Shin, Alexander and Kelly is, Thomas says, "as good as it gets."
Meanwhile, not only in the form of its remastered Collection, but the innumerable games that have learned from or imitated it, in various large and small ways, BioShock lives on. Only this year, Firewatch, Adr1ft, and The Witness have all, in their individual, permuted ways, propagated the BioShock style of telling story using environment; Far Cry Primal, Quantum Break, and the reboot of DOOM are all shooters which combine guns and "magical" abilities. The change has come. And on both video games and Jordan Thomas, BioShock has left an undeniable mark.
"I wonder if I'm the right person for video games," he concludes. "I wonder if this is the form of play to which my attitudes most closely align—there is that voice, always. But I started at 19. I wouldn't know the first thing about switching industries and developing a new set of skills. Games are in my DNA now. And I never lose sight of the incredible luxury experienced by a paid game developer."
BioShock: The Collection is out now for Xbox One, PC, and PlayStation 4.
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