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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Annie (1982): a bizarre, patriotic portrait of capitalist white America

Featuring bizarre asides about Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, Bolshevism, taxes, the Great Depression, and the commercialisation of radio. 

Thirty-five years ago this summer, the movie Annie was released. Thirty-five years later, it still makes absolutely no fucking sense. It is a bizarre, patriotic portrait of capitalist white America with bizarre asides about Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, Bolshevism, taxes, the Great Depression, and the commercialisation of radio. Are you ready, children? Then we’ll begin.

We open at Hudson St Home for Girls. We know this because there is a sign that says Hudson St Home for Girls.

Annie is leaning out of the window, singing sadly and sweetly about her imaginary parents. Her childish ideas of what adults like – “Bet they collect things like ashtrays and art” – is actually very touching. A strong open for Annie.

We do, however need to urgently talk about her hair – a strange combination of Pippi Longstocking, Bowie’s Starman-era mullet and Tom Jones curls.

Despite this misfortune, Annie seems to have absolutely bags of confidence – first singing loudly about her living parents as the only non-orphan in the home while all the other bereaved children try to peacefully cry themselves to sleep, then threatening another child three times the size of her with tiny, angry fists and cocky walk. Look at her, swanning around like Billiam Big Balls.

Annie gives no fucks. Until Dahlesque villain Miss Hannigan enters with a comedy-sized bottle of gin and a frankly iconic silk robe. She immediately threatens to outright murder all the children, and also does that high-pitched Stop copying me! mimicking voice, so there’s really nowhere more villainous for this character to go. She’s peaked.

Now for the cleaning montage: where every child reveals themselves to be a secret Olympic-level athlete.

This girl is cleaning the staircase with every single limb.

Everywhere in this orphanage is dirty, falling apart and miserable. Seemingly hundreds of girls are under the care of a single, drunk abusive guardian and get all their sustenance from a meal called “mush” (served hot and cold!). You might be thinking, Wow, seems like what this children’s home needs is some good ol’ fashioned taxpayer funding increased state intervention and government regulation! But apparently you’d be wrong!

At the end of their cleaning montage, Annie sneaks out of the home in a laundry thanks to Mr Bundles of Bundles French Style Chinese Hand Laundry. A man so aligned with his small laundry business that he seems to have been predestined for it in a striking incident of nominative determinism. Mr Bundles of Bundles French Style Chinese Hand Laundry is a stand-up guy who protects the orphans by sending them out into New York City, alone.

Annie spies her enemy: men.

But as soon as Annie is out in the world she runs into the ultimate evil: the meddling state. She just manages to escape a stern looking policeman, in order to beat up six scrawny boys with her tiny, powerful fists – a touching feminist scene. Just look at those Why I Oughta fisticuffs!

Don’t mess with the bad bitch.

After she has joyfully hurt the boys, she barely befriends a cheerful dog before the New York City Pound tries to rip it from her warm embrace. Then the stern-looking policeman is back, and Annie is frog-marched back to the home. And she would have got away with it too if it weren’t for you meddling government agents! Just look at these badge-wearing wankers.

But who is this classy broad?

Another meddling state official? The New York Board of Orphans sent her? Miss Hannigan goes into a tizzy – but never fear! The woman, Grace, insists, “I am the private secretary of Oliver Warbucks.” Yep, you heard it here, kids. Johnny Big Dollar! Geoffrey Moneybags! Hilary Capitalism-Is-The-Only-Equaliser! She’s his secretary. And private secretary at that – none of these public secretaries for millionaires.

She wants an orphan, for one week, to make Mr Warbucks look good. Annie persuades Grace to pick her, and Grace persuades Miss Hannigan to let her go. So Grace runs off with Annie to the Warbucks mansion. Oh, boy! It’s beautiful!

Pause for the awkward Inexplicably Magical Ethnic Minority stereotype. His name is “Punjab”. He doesn’t speak, but does often spontaneously dance, and can seemingly make inanimate objects levitate, control animals and fix injured body parts. This is a truly and deeply racist portrayal.

Annie is asked what she wants to do first – and thanks to years of trauma and abuse she assumes they mean which thing she should clean first. The staff chuckle warmly at these symptoms of a horrific and exploited childhood. Then they all sing about how nice this luxury mansion is and how Annie will never have to lift a finger in this house, the most soothing musical number I think I’ve ever heard. This is my safe space. Wait on me, Drake!!!

It’s also in this scene that Annie reveals she used to sleep “in a tomb”, which is pretty fucking dark for a cheerful movie musical.

Daddy Warbucks arrives and Grace runs him through his messages. “President Roosevelt called three times, sir, this morning, he said it was very urgent.” “Everything’s urgent to a Democrat!” he spits back because THIS MAN IS CLEARLY A REPUBLICAN. We get it, Daddy.

This is also the scene in which Annie asks Daddy Warbucks to “hang me in the bathroom”, which is pretty fucking weird for a cheerful movie musical.

Cut to Miss Hannigan drinking water from a vase and making out with a radio, which is pretty fucking weird for a cheerful movie musical. She launches into an amazing, three-and-a-half-minute song about how horny she is. Cool. Normal. Fine.

Her brother Rooster turns up, and maybe I’ve just been watching too much Game of Thrones, but I get extremely strong incest vibes from the pair of them. I’m convinced this film can’t get much stranger.

In the ensuing five minutes, back at the Warbucks mansion Punjab disposes of a bomb, left by a “Bolshevik” singing The Internationale. Warbucks “is living proof that the American system really works,” Grace explains to the audience Annie, “and the Bolsheviks don’t want anybody to know about that!” I love capitalism!!

Next up is a scene taking directly from my subconscious: Annie takes her dog to the movies, gets overexcited, falls asleep & is carried home by a billionaire. Everyone sings about how great it is to go to the movies with your dog and your billionaire. Suck it, La La Land.

Deep depression / What do we care? / Movies are there! The dancers sing, which is also my personal life philosophy.

Anyway, they go to see Camille (1936) which has a MESSAGE about LOVE and MONEY or something. The next morning, Grace suggests Warbucks adopt Annie. “I’m a businessman. I love money, I love power, I love capitalism, I do not now nor never will love children!” “You know, they’re never going to love you back,” says Grace. Warbucks has a sudden awakening and decides, actually, he loves Annie more than he loves money. (But he still really, really loves money.)

In one of the weirder moments of the film, Grace celebrates Annie’s adoption by singing She makes you relax / Like a big tax / Rebate! Did you even see the orphanage, Grace?! Maybe a little less rebates would mean a little more basic provisions for orphaned children!

Warbucks goes to formally adopt Annie and Miss Hannigan sings another three-minute song about how bloody horny she is. Gotta respect that level of horn. It does include lyrics about her “very wet soufflé”, but she doesn’t call him Daddy even once.

We learn Daddy Warbucks was born very poor in Liverpool but “decided” to be rich when his brother died of pneumonia as a child. By 21, he was a millionaire. The American dream works! USA! USA! USA! He says that not having someone to share his life might almost be as bad as being poor. Luckily for him he has bought the affections of a ten-year-old, so one has really led to the other. USA! USA! USA!

Annie says she’d rather find her real parents than be adopted. The hunt begins!

But first, a totally arbitrary diversion to watch the recording of a toothpaste advert. Obviously. It’s cute though.

Once that’s over, it’s obviously time to go to Washington (?!?!) to see the President (?!!). Warbucks and President Roosevelt debate 1930s New Deal Programs to create jobs for the unemployed. The President asks a ten-year-old to help him devise this social welfare programme. She responds by singing a song because, hey, she doesn’t understand the Civilian Conservation Corps, she’s ten!

Everyone sings and thinks about how great and progressive America, and centrism, are around a big oil painting of George Washington.

Meanwhile, Miss Hannigan and her brother are flirting outrageously about concocting a plan to impersonate Annie’s parents (dead, we learn) for the reward money.

Annie’s parents (Rooster and his girlfriend) turn up, collect their reward money, and take her away. Miss Hannigan gets in the car too and Annie catches on. The ragtag bunch of orphans run and tell Daddy Warbucks what’s up. Meanwhile Annie escapes from the car and we’re in that classic movie trope: car chasing orphan on railway drawbridge. Miss Hannigan suddenly seems to care for Annie’s wellbeing when Rooster starts trying to kill her, and Rooster suddenly hits his sister and knocks her out, which is pretty fucking dark for a children’s movie musical. Annie and Rooster climb extraordinarily high on the raised drawbridge.

Deeply uncomfortably, the climax of the action comes when Punjab rescues Annie from a helicopter by unwrapping his turban and using it as a rope to swing down and grab her.

With all that behind them, Annie and Daddy come together to sing about how amazing their rich lives together are. Warbucks has gone on an amazing journey of discovery to learn that money isn’t the most important thing. (The most important thing is actually money AND orphans.) I don’t need anything but you – and the enormous private circus hosted in the garden of my stupendous mansion with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in attendance! I’m rich as a Midas! Warbucks sings happily.

God Bless America!!!!

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