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".
FRANCESCO ZIZOLA/NOOR/EYEVINE
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The refugee crisis proves that Fortress Europe is a fantasy

In 2015, more people landed in Greece in a single month than the whole EU has agreed to share over the next two years – and it's a tide that can't be turned.

On a stormy night in September 2002 a wooden fishing boat carrying 150 Liberian asylum-seekers broke up on a reef near the long, sandy beach at Realmonte, on Sicily’s southern coast. Tourists were dancing at a café nearby, but such was the noise of the freak hailstorm on the plastic roof that it was some time before they heard the cries for help coming from the water. Of the 35 Liberians who drowned, one was a 15-year-old girl. Most of the dead had no names; their graves, high in the walls of the cemetery at Canicatti, are marked only by a single letter of the alphabet, in bold black type, to distinguish one from another.

The reaction of the tourists and the local people, once they had recovered from the horror, was one of surprise. Who were these strange Africans, washing up on their shore? But the survivors were welcomed, fed and looked after; one of the women, who was pregnant, was given nappies and baby clothes. There was little press coverage of the event.

That was 14 years ago. Today, when the weather in the Mediterranean is fine, boats bring over a thousand people each day to the Greek island of Lesbos alone. Others ­arrive in Europe through Malta, Lampedusa and southern Italy and by the land route through the Balkans. About 42,500 people are said to be leaving their homes every day to seek protection. These people come from Afghanistan and Eritrea, from Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and Tunisia, and from Syria, which on its own contributes 52 per cent of all the new arrivals. Well over four million Syrians are now refugees in 107 countries. There are young men and women, whole families, children on their own, and many of their sea journeys have been preceded by terrifying land crossings, negotiating deserts, bandits and traffickers. As the numbers keep growing, so the figures rather than the people become the story: so many on a single day in April, so many through Serbia, so many others into Italy. It is in order to turn these numbers back into people, each with an identity, past, character, fears and hopes, that three journalists have written new books about what Angela Merkel has described as the defining hum­anitarian issue of our age.

Wolfgang Bauer is a reporter for Die Zeit. In April 2014, taking with him a photographer and posing as an English teacher from the Caucasus, Bauer joined a Syrian friend planning to cross the sea from Egypt to Italy. He grew a beard and bought a false ID, but even so it was a perilous undertaking, because people-smugglers have little time for reporters who might expose their lucrative rackets. Most of the sea journeys are nightmares, involving leaking and capsizing boats and gangs of violent smugglers, often drugged, but Bauer experienced one of the worst. Even before his group left Egypt, they were kidnapped by a rival gang on to whose territory his smugglers were said to have strayed. What followed were days in squalid, unfurnished rooms while the gangs brokered a deal. Bauer excellently re-creates the predatory, tense world of these shadowy men, whom he likens to travel agents, constantly on the phone, bribing, threatening, changing plans. The man who negotiated his trip confided that he had sent 250 boats across the Mediterranean in 2013, each carrying about 200 people.

Once the deal was made, the group was moved to a beach – another dangerous moment, for here, as dusk falls, bandits arrive and smugglers try to extort more money. Here, too, families get separated and children disappear. Bauer never made it across the Mediterranean: dumped by his smugglers on an island and arrested by coastguards, he was eventually rescued by being able to show a European passport. His fellow travellers were not so lucky.

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson is a former deputy foreign editor of the ­Independent. Dividing her inquiry between the five years since the start of the Arab spring and chronicling the most significant moments in that period, she follows in the footsteps of a cast of travellers. One of these is Majib, an 18-year-old working in Libya when Gaddafi began to round up migrant workers. The son of a prosperous doctor and philanthropist, Majib had seen his father killed by a mob during fighting between Christians and Muslims. Subsequently the young man was kidnapped, smuggled and enslaved. Then there are Sina and Dami, an Eritrean husband and wife, both engineers, whose lives have been made impossible by President Isaias Afewerki’s repressive policies, which have driven over 320,000 of his countrymen abroad. McDonald-Gibson keenly evokes the hell of their voyages: water lapping over the sides of boats, nothing to eat or drink, failing engines, bodies thrown overboard. To read these vivid stories is to understand not just the enormity of what is taking place, but the courage and desperation of those who embark on them.

In March 2015, the Guardian appointed Patrick Kingsley as its first migration correspondent; he set out to visit 17 countries and write about people as they fled across deserts and seas. Of the three books under review, The New Odyssey is the most analytical, consistently trying to make sense of information and pin down the facts. Kingsley has gone further than the others in trying to explore the economics of the smugglers and their accomplices. He writes at fascinating length about the “second sea”, the Sahara, which most people from the Horn of Africa have to cross and where many die even before they reach the Mediterranean. In Agadez, he discovers about 50 compounds where smugglers gather their customers before despatching them in overcrowded Land Cruisers across the sands to waiting boats, with the connivance of the Nigérien military and police. Interviewing smugglers, he spells out the profits: with each of a group of 100 paying $1,000 or more, and the only costs involved the buying of old boats and bribery of coastguards, the profits are immense. Middle-class professionals from Syria face extortionate demands. It is a world of blackmail and thuggery against vulnerable, frantic people.

Once Libya had slid into civil war, its borders made porous by lawlessness, the Syrians found their route to Europe. What is striking is how appalling their lives had become before they were driven from their homes; how much they lost; how they were exploited, menaced, terrorised along the way; and how dismally and ungenerously they were treated on arrival. Some encountered kindness but this kind of treatment was the exception. How far they fled and the means of travel depended on how much money they could raise. All but a few arrived in Europe destitute, having lost houses, cars, jobs. As a mirror to modern life, all three books make for bleak reading.

It was only in October 2013, when 368 people drowned within sight of the Italian coast, that notice began to be taken of the mounting numbers of deaths at sea. The then president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, vowed that such a tragedy would not be allowed to happen again. In its wake came talks, guidelines and promises. “As things stand,” Malta’s prime minister said, “we are building a cemetery within the Mediterranean Sea.” Pope Francis inveighed against the “globalisation of indifference”. That the deaths have not only continued but the volumes grown – 700 reported in 2013, 3,500 in 2014 and 3,771 in 2015, with the true figures certainly considerably higher – says much about the intractability of the problem, something all three writers try to address. As Bauer optimistically puts it, “We need to stop the wars in the Middle East from robbing Europe of its concept of humanity.”

All offer the same eminently sensible ideas: a need to improve lives in Syria’s neighbouring countries; the importance of identifying the dead; greater investment in Africa; more aid for Lebanon and Jordan, both home to vast refugee camps; more support for Italy and Greece, which bear the brunt of the arrivals. Yet these suggestions have been made many times, and there is little will to help realise them.

Rightly, Kingsley offers scathing criticism of the myth that European leaders like to milk – that the smugglers are the problem, and that once you do away with them, the frenzy of migration will cease. As the interceptions at sea, crackdowns on traffickers and strengthened monitoring of borders close one route, so another route opens. When the crossings to Lampedusa were reduced by more interceptions at sea, so those to Lesbos grew. When three fences with motion sensors tipped with razor wire – the trenches in between them filled with more razor wire – were put up at Ceutá, the Spanish territory on North Africa’s coast, a new route was found. In camps across Europe, in disused factories, tented cities and crumbling buildings, under dripping tarpaulins or clearly visible out in the open, the population of displaced and unwanted is growing steadily. If they were a nation, they would be the 24th-largest country in the world. In refugee circles, the vocabulary is all about growth: more child refugees, more migrants in detention, more people in more camps, more asylum applications.

As nationalist parties make electoral gains by delivering xenophobic speeches, and as political leaders squabble and temporise, with Merkel one of the few to consider the moral implications of the present crisis, so European countries prefer to erect more barriers, pay for more security measures and bicker over commitments, rather than attempt to reach humane and practical agreements. In the summer of 2015, the UN High Commission for Refugees was $2bn short of what it needed to keep its camps functioning in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. As Kingsley notes, more people landed in Greece in a single month in 2015 than the whole of the European Union has undertaken to share between its members over the next two years. The wealthy states, as Jeremy Harding wrote in the London Review of Books in 2000, “have learned to think of generosity as a vice”. At the peak of the landings on Lampedusa, Silvio Berlusconi spoke of the “grave danger” that refugees posed to Europe’s stability. The right-wing Lega Nord put it more succinctly: the party’s leader told migrants to “piss off”.

The future, in this context, does not look promising. Global warming threatens to send people displaced by flooding – the so-called environmental refugees – to join the flight to safety. Half the population of Bangladesh lives less than five metres above sea level. Given continuing conflict across the Middle East, the rise of murderous fundamentalism, the enduring powers of military dictatorships, and the extreme poverty and lawlessness in which so many parts of the world live, it is perfectly possible that up to three million more refugees could reach the shores and borders of Europe within the next three years. One of the things that makes the subject so confusing is the way it shifts: Egypt, once considered a safe haven in the Middle East, ceased to be one when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the military took power and turned against the Syrians who had found shelter there.

Whether those who flee are “good” refugees (in the sense of falling under the 1951 Refugee Convention, facing a justifiable “fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality” if they return home) or “bad” (so labelled because they are seeking work and a better life) has become largely meaningless in the world today. No one, ever, anywhere, wants to be a refugee, but for many there is no alternative. A Syrian man told Kingsley, in words that are repeated, in different forms, by many of the people interviewed for these three books, that whatever steps Europe takes to keep migrants out, even if they include bombing their boats, they will make no difference, because if he stayed home he was “dead already . . . a destroyed human being”.

There are precedents for the absorption of migrants, whose presence in Europe can in any case be hugely beneficial to ageing populations. At the end of the Second World War, not long before the Refugee Convention was drafted, about 12 to 14 million people made stateless by the fighting and the shifting borders were resettled throughout Europe. So were 1.3 million people after the war in Vietnam. In comparison to the numbers of refugees settling in countries bordering on those in conflict – there are 1.2 million Syrians living in Lebanon alone, and 85 per cent of the world’s refugees remain in their own regions – those who survive the journey to Europe are relatively few. It is the global South, not the prosperous North, that lies in the eye of the storm.

There is a crisis in migration but, as Kingsley insists, it is largely of our making, caused less by the flow of arrivals than the chaos of how we have received them. As right-wing parties make gains, governments respond with varying degrees of panic; scenes of rioting at borders, at train stations and at ports lead to more barbed wire, more attacks on refugees and more fodder for populist politicians. Yet sealing off Fortress Europe is not a viable proposition; fences and walls are nothing more than symbols, illusions for domestic audiences, promoting the fallacy that what is happening is a temporary phenomenon. And the more difficult it is made for refugees to reach Europe, the more refugees will die. Barriers, leaking boats, deserts and people traffickers are doing nothing to halt the flow. So, what will? There are 60 million people now on the move, half of them children. The choice that faces the West today seems to lie between an orderly system of mass migration – and chaos.

Caroline Moorehead’s book “Human Cargo: a Journey Among Refugees” has recently been reissued by Vintage

Crossing the Sea: With Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer is published by And Other Stories (144pp, £15)

Cast Away: Stories of Survival from Europe's Refugee Crisis is published by Charlotte McDonald-Gibson (272pp, £14.99)

The New Odyssey: the Story of Europe's Refugee Crisis by Patrick Kinglsey is published by Guardian Faber (336pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster