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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How Roger Moore made James Bond immortal

Roger Moore, James Bond actor, has died at the age of 89. 

Unlike every other actor to play James Bond, Roger Moore was already a star when he came to the role. Not a star of motion pictures admittedly, although he had topped the bill in some minor films, but a star in television. The lead of the adventure series Ivanhoe (1958-59) and The Saint (1962-69), the latter of which brought him international fame and reportedly made him the highest paid actor on television.

It was a far cry from his beginnings. Although he lived much of his life abroad (it has been said, for tax reasons, something the actor himself denied) and was regarded by many as the archetypal English gentleman, Moore began life as a working-class Londoner.  Born in Stockwell in 1927, the son of a policeman and his wife, he grew up in a rented three room, third floor flat in SW8, and attended Battersea Grammar School. There, he later insisted "looking as though I was listening", was the only subject at which he excelled. Battersea Grammar was, despite the name, then an overcrowded local school boxed in by the buildings and sidings of Clapham Junction Station and made dark and noisy by the still expanding railways.

As both Moore and his friend and fellow film star Michael Caine have observed, their backgrounds in urban South London are almost identical, something that has never fitted with public perception of either of them. The difference was, as again both noted, that when it came to National Service Moore, unlike Caine, was picked out as officer material and trained accordingly, in the process acquiring the accent he would carry for the rest of his life.

The common, near universal, ignorance of Moore’s origins (although he himself was never shy of them, writing about his family in his various books and discussing them in interviews) says something significant about Roger Moore the public figure. Despite being a household name for decades, an international film star and latterly a knight of the realm, he was, if not misunderstood by his audience, then never really quite what they assumed him to be.

This extends, of course, into his work as an actor. Moore was often mocked by the unimaginative, who saw him as a wooden actor, or one lacking in versatility. Often, he was somehow self-deprecating enough to play along. And yet, the camera loved him, really loved him and his timing - particularly but not exclusively comic - was extraordinary. To see Moore work in close up is to see someone in absolute control of his craft. His raised eyebrow, often mocked, was a precision instrument, exactly as funny or exactly as surprising as he wanted it to be.

It is more accurate, as well as fairer, to say that Moore was typecast, rather than limited, and he made no secret of the fact that he played his two most famous roles, Simon Templar in The Saint and James Bond 007 as essentially the same person. But he would have been a fool not to. Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R "Cubby" Broccoli’s EON productions wanted Templar nearly as much as they wanted Moore.

They had thought of the actor for the part of 007 as early as 1961, before casting Sean Connery and before Moore had played The Saint, so it was not just his success as Templar that made him suitable. Yet both producers knew that audiences in both Britain and America loved the way Moore played Templar, and that if that affection could be translated into ticket sales, their series would be on to a winner.

It was a gamble for all involved. George Lazenby had already tried, and as far many were concerned, failed to replace Connery as James Bond. When it came to 1971’s outing in the series, Diamonds Are Forever, David Picker, head of United Artists, which distributed Bond films, insisted that Connery be brought back for an encore before EON tried a third actor in the role, re-hiring Connery at a then record $1.25m and paying off actor John Gavin, whom EON had already cast. That’s how high the stakes were for both the Bond series and Moore’s reputation when he stepped into the role for 1973’s Live and Let Die. The film was a huge success, so much so that EON rushed out its sequel, The Man With The Golden Gun the next year, rather than after two years as it had planned.

The reason for that success, although the film has many other good qualities, is that Moore is brilliant in it. His whip-thin, gently ironic and oddly egalitarian adventurer, capable of laughing at himself as well as others, is a far cry from Connery’s violently snobbish "joke superman". It’s been said that Connery’s Bond was a working-class boy’s fantasy of what it would be like to be an English gentleman, while Moore’s was essentially the fantasy of a slightly effete middle-class boy who dreams of one day winning a fight. It’s a comprehensive reinvention of the part.

That’s not something that can be achieved by accident. One shouldn’t, however, over-accentuate the lightness of the performance. Moore’s Bond is exactly as capable of rage and even sadism as his predecessor. The whimsy he brings to the part is an addition to, not a subtraction from, the character’s range.

Moore expanded Bond’s emotional palette in other ways too. His best onscreen performance is in For Your Eyes Only (1981), in which the then 53-year-old Moore gets to play a Bond seen grieving at his wife’s grave, lecturing allies on the futility of revenge ("When setting out for revenge, first dig two graves") and brightly turn down a much younger woman’s offer of sex with the phrase "Put your clothes on and I’ll buy you an ice cream". None of which are scenes you can begin to imagine Connery’s Bond pulling off.

Moore was not just a huge success as Bond, he remains, adjusted for inflation, the most financially successful lead actor the series has ever had. He was also successful in a way that guaranteed he would have successors. What he gave to the part by not imitating Connery, by not even hinting at Connery in his performance, was a licence to those who followed him to find their own way in the role. This, along with his continued popularity over twelve years in the role, probably the only reason the series managed to survive the 1970s and the EON’s finally running of Ian Fleming novels to adapt to the screen.

Actors have received knighthoods for their craft for centuries, but when Moore was knighted in 2003, there was some push back. Moore was understandably seen as not being in the same category as an Alec Guinness or a Ralph Richardson. But the citations for Moore's knighthood indicated that it was for his decades of charity work with Unicef that he was being honoured. It’s yet another of the misconceptions, large and small, that aggregated around him.

Moore himself was always clear that it was the profile playing James Bond had given him that made his role with Unicef possible, let alone successful. When asked about pride in his charity work, he always responded that instead he felt frustration. Frustration because as with, for example, the UN’s iodine deficiency programme or Unicef’s work with children with landmine injuries, there was always so much more work to be done than could be done.

It was an answer that, along with his energetic campaigning, at the age of 88, to ban the use of wild animals in zoos, pointed to the biggest misunderstanding of all. Moore was known for playing frivolous characters in over the top entertainments and this led to him being perceived by many, even by those he enjoyed his work, as essentially trivial. Ironically, such an assumption reveals only the superficiality of their own reading. The jovial, wry interviewee Sir Roger Moore was, beneath that raised eyebrow, a profoundly serious man.

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