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".
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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.