Ken Levine: “We had to kiss a lot of frogs before we found our prince”

The creative director of <em>Bioshock Infinite</em> talks to Bulent Yusuf about the new game, storytelling and unintended consequences.

Viewed with hindsight, the constituent parts of BioShock were as disparate as they were bizarre. A game set inside a deep-sea dystopia, called Rapture, combining elements of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining with genetically-engineered supermen and the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. And yet it proved a heady brew upon release in 2007 – intoxicating even – leaving both players and critics united in their praise.

Amongst other things, BioShock was hailed as a watershed for the medium, a breakthrough in games design and storytelling, and a genuine work of Art. The BAFTA for Game of the Year was merely the gold-plated cherry atop a mountain of accolades.

Attention now turns to the next project from Irrational Games and its Creative Director, Ken Levine. There was a rudimentary sequel, BioShock 2, but that was farmed out to a different games studio. After more than half-a-decade, expectations have grown for a real, honest-to-goodness follow-up. Why has it taken so long?

“We had to kiss a lot of frogs”, shrugs Levine, “before we found our prince”.

“We were trying to figure out what we were going to do next, and it took us awhile”, he continues. “The problem was that, as a studio, we felt that we’d said what we’d wanted to say about the world of Rapture. One of the great things about that game was exploring this new place, having this sense of wonder, and once you’d been there it doesn’t have that anymore. So we decided to go to a very different place”.

This new specimen of amphibian royalty is BioShock Infinite. Set in the United States in 1912, former Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt is sent to the floating air-city of Columbia. His task (and by extension the player’s), is to find a young woman, Elizabeth, who’s been held captive in a tower for the last twelve years.

Though Booker rescues Elizabeth, the pair are swept up in a conflict between the city's warring factions; the ultra-nationalist Founders, who want to keep Columbia for “pure Americans”, and the Vox Populi, a guerilla movement representing her underclass. Booker realises that Elizabeth is pivotal to this struggle, because of her strange powers which can manipulate rifts in the time-space continuum.

It’s an ambitious tale, drawing upon fairy-tale archetypes and bombastic jingoism, and one that Levine and his team have worked hard to craft into shape. Coincidentally, however, it also seems to have parallels with modern day political movements like the Tea Party and Occupy.

“The conflict between nationalist and internationalist movements is very right for the period [where BioShock Infinite is set], but you’re also seeing reflections of it happening in the real world”. But Levine is adamant that the game’s politics were developed long before they were echoed by headlines in the news. Was it just a happy accident, then?

“I don’t know if I’d call it happy, because those movements are indicative of a lot of problems in the world. Something that was funny when we first announced the game was that a lot of people said ‘Oh, you’re just talking about current political events’. But we came up with concepts like the Founders long before the Tea Party existed, and I was trying to say ‘No, no, we’re not, we’re talking about history’”.

“Those people didn’t have the perspective to understand that history tends to be cyclical. And in times of economic crisis, you tend to see these things happen, and we were just trying to reflect that. Seeing things like Occupy Wall Street come around, which is so much like the Vox Populi, that’s not because we predicted that, it’s because those kinds of movements have happened so many times in the course of history”.

Intriguingly, this isn’t the first instance of the BioShock series anticipating real-world events. “In the first game, we’re talking about a world of complete economic deregulation, about the good parts of that and the bad parts of that. Then you saw the financial meltdown, and you had guys like Alan Greenspan, who was the chairman of the Fed in the US during the time – and he was a disciple of Ayn Rand, he was actually in her inner circle – and here was this guy testifying before Congress in 2008 and saying something to the effect of ‘y’know, I’ve been re-examining my ideology lately’. To see this guy actually acknowledge that sometimes the real world trumps your ideology, I think we were already exploring those issues”.

“People develop these convictions about how the world should be, whether that’s the extreme right or the extreme left, and they can get quite blind to what’s actually happening around them. We tried to reflect that in the games, and not by accident, because we’re such students of history. We see the things we think about happening, because they happen a lot”.

Levine also promises that players of BioShock Infinite will experience the events of the game in quite a different manner to its predecessor. “Unlike the first game, we’re really trying to tell a story about two people who are caught in the middle of these tumultuous events. Also unlike the first game, where you sort of arrive after the party, you’re an archaeologist figure trying to figure out what happened, the characters of Booker and Elizabeth are more of a catalyst for what takes place, and you’re watching it unfold in real-time”.

“When you first arrive there, the conflict in this city between the Founders and the Vox Populi is very much in its infancy. The player has never have been there before. Elizabeth doesn’t know the city because she’s been locked in this tower her whole life. Booker breaks her out of that tower, but he doesn’t know the city either. So players have to figure this place out, but they’re also changing it as they move through it. The actions you take as Booker, and the actions taken by Elizabeth, they really propels things along, and we wanted to play with that, to make you much more central to the plot”.

The most significant thing about the first BioShock, and perhaps its most credible claim to being a work of art, was the unique way it chose to present a particular philosophy, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, and then comprehensively dismantle it. “In the first game we were talking about genetic manipulation and objectivism tied together”, explains Levine. “You might think that’s a strange combination, but we tried to thematically connect them in the sense that it’s about people being these sort of supermen, looking at themselves as supermen, and then actually changing their bodies to reflect that, the intellectual superhuman-ness they had in their head.”

Can we look forward to similar ideas in BioShock Infinite? “In this game... the heart of it, it’s hard to say too much about because I don’t want to ruin anything about the story. This game is more about thinking you know what’s going to happen, and how the future can be quite different to what you think it will be. You see a small reflection of that with Elizabeth’s powers, but I can’t really talk too deeply about that without spoiling a lot of the surprises”.

A clue was revealed in an early demo, where Elizabeth stops to heal a wounded horse and accidentally opens a rift into the future. This future looks like a typical American small town in the 1980s, except for one peculiar detail; the marquee of the local fleapit is showing a film called “Revenge of the Jedi”... In geek folklore, this was the original title of the finale in George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy, before changing it at the last moment to Return of the Jedi.

Messageboards began speculating about the game’s potential use of time-travel, alternate histories and butterfly effects. “It was a nice way to hint at what was going on, to speak to our audience directly about the things they’d be familiar with, and not saying it too obliquely. I think people walked away understanding what we were trying to get at”.

There may also be potential controversy when BioShock Infinite is released, but it has more to do with a personal conflict than the political canvas. Elizabeth’s backstory isn’t just that she’s been trapped in a tower, like a steampunk Rapunzel, but that her jailor is a monstrous winged creature called Songbird, which relentlessly pursues her over the course of the game. In interviews elsewhere, Levine has characterised their relationship as abusive. Isn’t this dangerous terrain for a video game?

“I don’t think that anything is dangerous terrain for a videogame, versus any other form of media. The responsibility of the game developer is to trust their audience. We’re making an mature-rated game, and that allows us to speak to the audience as adults, and treat them as adults, and treat them with respect. We’re not going to shy away from any particular theme if a story leads us there”.

Levine continues on the subject: “I once knew a woman who was in an abusive relationship, and it’s a very complicated thing... I remember her telling me this story about this guy that made her kneel in glass one time, and another where he knocked her down a flight of stairs. I remember thinking the whole time, ‘she’s going to go back to this guy’. And she did, and I can’t explain why, but it’s a dynamic that happens”.

And how is this dynamic expressed between the characters of Elizabeth and Songbird? “Elizabeth has been trapped in this tower, and all she wants to do is get out of that tower and learn to control her own destiny. After she escapes with Booker, going back to this life of nothing, of confinement, is a fate worse than death. The Songbird is emblematic of her past and something she feels a connection to, since it was the only thing she knew for most of her life, but also something that she wants to get away from. Elizabeth is becoming an adult, trying to express her will, but the Songbird is not having it, and that puts them in a very tough spot. It makes things very complicated”.

Over the course of his answer, Levine touched upon the subject of other media, and indeed no discussion about BioShock would be complete without taking in the cinematic references. Which films have influenced the look and feel of BioShock Infinite?

“With Bioshock, in terms of unnerving people, we definitely had this dark-and-stormy night kind of feel. The colour palette of darkness gives you a easier way to unnerve people and scare them”, Levine says. “In this game, to do any of that, we had to work with a different palette of sun-bleached colours. So I looked again to directors like Kubrick and David Lynch.”

“When I think of The Shining, I think of the scariest moment in any movie I’ve ever seen, with those little girls in the hallway. And how was that lit? It was lit in bright fluorescent. It wasn’t a haunted house lighting. I also think of the opening of Blue Velvet, with that ear in the grass on that beautiful summer’s day”.

Ridley Scott gets a mention, too. “I think of that moment in the original Alien where John Hurt dies, and it’s such a domestic scene. Again, it’s lit fluorescently, and they’re just enjoying their dinner, and what’s so disturbing about it is how normal it is. The world isn’t saying, ‘Okay it’s scary down here’. The world is saying, ‘Hey, it’s dinner’. And the worst part is when he starts getting really sick and the people around him don’t realise and they’re laughing and joking, and how it happens is just awful, because it’s so normal”.

Listening to him speak about these esteemed filmmakers, it’s clear that Levine is as passionate about films as he is about games. Does he have any desire to work in a different medium? “I started as a screenwriter, so I did a fair amount of that. What I like about games is that we don’t really know how to make them fully yet. It’s not an art-form that’s fully evolved the way movies are, so we’re figuring this stuff out as we go along, and that’s both scary but it’s also an opportunity”.

“We don’t have the equivalent of the Coen Brothers or the Kubricks in this world yet, and I don’t mean copying their work [over to video games], but in terms of people who mastered the craft in the same way. We’re still learning everyday, still learning from each other, and I feel that that’s exciting for me.”

Ultimately, it’s also about spinning a good yarn. “We like telling stories. There’s lots of ways to tell stories, and you just try to tell an honest story as best as you can. What it always comes down to is character; is this an honest character, does this character have believeable hopes and dreams, and you focus on those things”.

“Our goal with Booker and Elizabeth is to build an empathic relationship between the two characters, and by extension with the player. It’s a tough goal, it’s very challenging, and we started by thinking about what brings about empathy. It’s tricky because it’s not something that’s done very successfully in games a lot. There are short-cuts to creating empathy, and you need those because in real-life it takes a very long time for a relationship to form. We had to find out how to make that happen very quickly”.

Finally, it’s obvious that both BioShock games have a preoccupation with utopian concepts, and how they can fall apart at the seams. It’s tempting to apply the same analogy to Ken Levine and his team of developers; will their beguiling vision for BioShock Infinite be truly realised in the finished product, or have they over-extended themselves?

“One of our core themes is unintended consequences. All the characters in Bioshock Infinite are trying to do these big gestures that are going to change the world in a positive way. And the trouble is, when you make that soup, you never know what it’s going to taste like”.

“The challenge for Booker and Elizabeth is to approach these things with humility, and understand they have a limited capacity to understand the effects of their actions. We have the same challenge making a game; you go into it thinking you know how it’s going to work, but you have to have a lot of humility about the curveballs the world’s going to throw at you. We’ll only know the day the game comes out, or perhaps even later than that, how successful we were”.

BioShock Infinite is released in the UK on 26 March

A still from "Bioshock Infinite".
Love Actually stills.
Show Hide image

Cute or creepy? How romcoms romanticise stalker-like and controlling behaviour

I present to you: a history of Hollywood romance, unromanticised.

This week, a new study was published with findings that suggest romcoms can encourage women to be more tolerant of stalker-like behaviour. I Did It Because I Never Stopped Loving You, a report Julia R Lippman, a professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan specialising in gender and media, studied women’s responses to “stalking myths” after watching a series of films of different genres.

Women who watched There’s Something About Mary and Management were more likely to be accepting aggressive romantic pursuit than those who watched films featuring “a scary depiction of persistent pursuit” like Sleeping With the Enemy and Enough – or benign nature documentaries such as March of the Penguins and Winged Migration.

Are we really that surprised? The male-dominated film industry has a long tradition of neutralising and romanticising controlling or harassing behaviour from men, from its beginnings to today. I present to you: a history of Hollywood romance, unromanticised.

It Happened One Night (1934)

Often credited with the birth of the romcom, the story is as follows: a newspaper reporter blackmails a celebrity on the run from her family into speaking to him for a story, threatening to turn her in to her father for reward money if she doesn’t comply with his wishes. After dangling this threat over her head over days, he hunts her down on her wedding day, and accepts slightly less than the agreed reward money from her father, arguing that he did what he did for love, not money. On hearing of this noble deed, our heroine swoons, cancels her wedding, and runs off with the reporter instead.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

A group of brothers kidnap six attractive women by causing a life-threatening avalanche that keeps them imprisoned all winter. The women play pranks on the men in revenge, and, in a shocking case of Stockholm syndrome, everyone has an all-round jolly time. They pair off and are all married by summer.  

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Two men disguise themselves as women to trick a young woman into trusting them. One continues his attempts to seduce her by disguising himself as a billionaire and faking severe psychological traumas to gain her sympathy. They eventually sail into the sunset together.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

A man becomes enamoured by a pretty young woman, but is angered by her repeated attempts to marry richer men. He investigates her past relationships, without her permission. When she is abandoned by her fiancé, the man follows the pretty young woman to a New York library, insisting she confess her love for him, telling her, “I love you. You belong to me.” When she tells him “people don’t belong to people” he becomes enraged, lecturing and patronising her. They kiss in the rain.

My Fair Lady (1964)

Two men attempt to assert their control over a pretty young woman: one by promising her the career of her dreams if she promises to change her entire personality according to his strict preferences, one by stalking her, lurking constantly on the street where she lives. She almost marries one, and falls for the other.

The Graduate (1967)

A young man intentionally upsets his ex’s daughter by taking her on a date, where he is horrible to her, and forces her to go to a strip club. He hides his affair with her mother from her, and, when she discovers it and rejects him, follows her across America, spends days on end harassing her, and ruins her wedding. They elope, via the world’s most awkward bus journey.

Back to the Future (1985)

A teenager goes back in time to aid his creepy, peeping Tom father achieve his dream of marrying the woman he watches undress from a tree outside her house.

Say Anything (1989)

A young man wins back the heart of his ex-girlfriend by turning up uninvited at her family’s home and intentionally disturbing them all by holding a boombox aloft, humiliating her by blasting out the song she lost her virginity to.

Pretty Woman (1990)

A man manipulates a sex worker to overhaul her entire personality in order to conform to his idea of womanhood.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

An outcast becomes obsessed with a popular young woman after staring at her childhood pictures in her family home, watches her from a distance, carves an enormous, angelic statue of her, then murders her boyfriend. They kiss, feet from the boyfriend’s lifeless corpse.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

A man who knows a young woman is not attracted to him kidnaps her father as a way to lure her into his home. He imprisons her and uses his legion of servants and magical home to manipulate her into falling for her captor, all so he can get a sexy makeover. In a shocking case of Stockholm syndrome, she falls for him.

Something About Mary (1998)

Thirteen years after his advances were first rejected, a man travels all the way from Rhode Island to Florida and pays a private investigator to stalk his childhood crush. He lies to her and everyone who knows her in order to win her affections. When she becomes aware of his deceit, she shrugs it off, as everyone else she knows has been stalking her, too. His excuse? “I did it because I never stopped thinking about you. And if I didn’t find you, I knew that my life would never ever be good again.”

American Beauty (1999)

A young man follows an attractive young woman to her house and videos her getting undressed. She gives in to his advances.

High Fidelity (2000)

A man tracks down every one of his ex-girlfriends to harass them over why they left him. He stalks his most recent ex’s boyfriend, standing outside his house in the pouring rain. She goes back to him.

50 First Dates (2004)

A man discovers an attractive woman’s amnesia leaves her vulnerable, so spends every day trying to manipulate her condition to his advantage. After studying her every move, he engineers “chance meetings”, essentially kidnapping her without her consent by the film’s end.

The Notebook (2004)

A woman falls for a man after he writes several hundred letters to her without receiving any replies, stalks her hometown, and restores an entire house based on the fact they had sex there once.

Love Actually (2004)

A man of enormous privilege and power falls for his secretary, comments on her physical appearance to colleagues, has her fired, turns up on her family doorstep on Christmas Eve, and bundles her into his car. She kisses him.

Also, a sullen young man resents his best friend’s wife for being good-looking, is horrible to her, films her obsessively on her wedding day, then arrives on her doorstep on Christmas eve, threateningly brandishing a picture of what he imagines her decaying corpse will one day look like. She kisses him.

Time Traveller’s Wife (2009)

A man uses his time-travelling powers to groom a pre-teen version of the adult woman he loves into falling for him.

Twilight (2008)

A centuries-old man disguised as a teenager infiltrates a school and becomes obsessed with a teenager, stalking her and watching her sleep, all the while making clear to her that he is “dangerous”. She gives in to his advances.

Also, a violent man pursues a teenage woman long after she has rejected him, usually in a state of semi-nudity.

Management (2008)

A man develops an obsession with a married woman when she checks into the motel where he works. She does not return his affections, so he follows her around the country: first to Maryland, then to Washington State, where she is engaged to a man whose baby she is carrying; then back to Maryland. She eventually gives in to his advances.

Crazy Stupid Love (2011)

A teenage boy stalks his female classmate, sneaking into her room at night to watch her sleep.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

A billionaire uses his money and power to hunt down a student journalist who interviewed him at her place of work. He kidnaps her when she is drunk, and blames her for drinking. He manipulates her with gifts and encourages her to sign away her independence. When she tries to leave him, he follows her 3,000 miles to her mother’s home. She gives in to his advances and he assaults her. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.