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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.

A still from "Bioshock Infinite".

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