Ken Levine: The Conversation, Part One

By Alec Meer on January 18th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

Some interviews with prominent figures, as in Polygon’s widely-circulated one with BioShock: Infinite lead designer Ken Levine, are held on top of skyscraping Californian hotels. While it’s not something I’ve experienced myself, I can entirely appreciate why this often leads their eventual write-ups to be somewhat defined by awe, be it overt or subtle: a famous figure is encountered in a dramatic setting, the trappings of aspirational luxury around them. Thus, they are inevitably presupposed to be superhumans of a sort, with achievements and a lifestyle far beyond those of mere mortals such as the humble interviewer. This is the tale. Notoriously, this week also saw the outermost extreme of this, in Esquire’s absurd interview with/clearly lovelorn ode to the attractive but otherwise apparently unexceptional actor Megan Fox.

I can’t ever imagine going as far as Esquire, and I’d hope someone would throw me into the nearest sea if I did, but I do understand why it can happen. The scene is set in such a way that the interviewer is encountering, if not a god, then at least royalty. Even on a more moderate level, I have never conducted an interview in a Californian luxury hotel’s roofgarden, and my own interview with Ken Levine last month was no different, but I am nonetheless left thinking about the narrative created in that half hour. What tale could I now tell from just a talk with a guy in a room? Initially, I thought it impossible, or at least redundant, to spin a story out of a short, slightly awkward conversation in a dark little room somewhere in London: this is why Q&As are the standard interview format here. Let’s try, though. I want to tell you about what happened in that interview, and how it felt to me, as well as sharing Ken Levine’s comments about BioShock: Infinite’s characters, pacing and mysteries with you.

When I meet Ken Levine, as has been the case when I have met almost every other developer I’ve interviewed, it’s in a dark little room somewhere in London, faces blue-tinged from strip-lighting, a gaggle of other journalists from across Europe waiting outside for their turn, publisher representatives apologetically popping in to order ‘one last question’ as my half-hour expires. There’s always a cardboard standee somewhere, a two-dimensional monument to a fictional character frozen in perpetual heroic motion, and the only real sign that the interview subject is Someone, not anyone.

Ken Levine wears a serious expression, speaks softly, and silently, probably unconsciously, conveys the entirely understandable resignation of anyone who’s spending a day sat in a dark little room somewhere in London being asked uninspiring questions by a parade of scruffy strangers who are probably less intelligent than he. He is impeccably polite throughout, and while there may be an edge to some of his replies he certainly could not be described as unfriendly. He quietly eats green grapes as we talk. I spend the half hour fighting a confusing urge to reach into the bowl and grab a couple myself, though I am not even faintly hungry. I just feel… wrong. I am tired, cold-ridden, self-conscious about my appearance, my intelligence and the sniffling noises I keep having to make with my nose, and I am discombobulated by having been ripped right out of the middle of a critical narrative sequence in BioShock: Infinite in order to conduct this interview.

I’ve written down very few questions today, believing it better to freestyle based on the time I’d spent playing the game, but the abrupt shift from play to conversation has brought about a rabbit in the headlights effect, a childish nervousness which does not reflect my general determination to not feel awe in the presence of a Someone.

But there’s no time to pull myself together. No time for pleasantries, no amazing 30th-flight view of Beverly Hills to make me – or, for all I know, Ken Levine – feel relaxed and happy. The clock is ticking. A man from France, I think, must replace me in exactly half an hour. Straight to business.

Already, I’m thinking too much about this situation and not the reason for it, my hands-on time with the third BioShock game (and the second lead by Ken Levine). My first question, uttered awkwardly and too quickly, before I have offered any pleasantries beyond ‘hello’ or any compliments upon a game I have most certainly been enjoying, thus revolves around whether he finds it strange to suddenly have all these people playing his game and offering their opinions on it, after several years of it and most knowledge about it being carefully locked behind 2K’s doors.

Ken Levine: Oh yeah. We’ve been putting people in front of it for a while, internally, friends and family, people like that. So you have to be very open to people’s feedback, because the game’s evolved a lot since we started that process in, I dunno, February. And it was in rough shape back then, so you got some very frank opinions.

Any time you make a change to a sequence, you have to do a fair amount of guesswork, because it takes so long to make some of the changes. You change a bunch of stuff, especially if it’s a narrative scene. You have to re-write it, re-record it, re-motion capture it, re-integrate it, review it… It’s not like ‘hey, let’s just shoot this scene differently!’ It’s very time-consuming.

I relax, just a little. A talking point is established, Ken Levine does not seem dismayed by my appearance, question or sniffle, and his response has sparked a memory and, I think, a better question from me.

I recall a trailer for the game in which we saw BioShock: Infinite’s AI-controlled companion character, Elizabeth, use her mysterious space-time powers to open a rift – a ‘Tear’ -to an alternate 1980s, where we saw a cinema hoarding advertising ‘Revenge of the Jedi’, an earlier, discarded title for the 1983 movie eventually called Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. This scene had appeared in the section of the game I’d just played, but rather than occuring during a desperate flight through the airborne city of Columbia, as seen in that earlier trailer, Elizabeth had opened the Tear by herself, while in captivity, in a different context entirely. Had this scene, that 1980s cinema, been salvaged and recycled from an unrevealed change in order not to waste the work done on it?

Ken Levine: I don’t want to go too Inside Baseball here, but we had that scene with her opening that Tear, but for various reasons we had to remove it, it just didn’t make sense there anymore. But I really missed it, I really thought it was an important scene because it got across what her powers were very clearly. So she opened this Tear to Paris and it was very cool, but then she just couldn’t keep it open. So I said, ‘why don’t we bring that back?’ because it brings across the challenges and the danger attached to [Tears].

We already had the ambulance and the cinema sign, so… We had to re-do it in French obviously, but it wasn’t a huge amount of savings really. Trust me, we’re not afraid to throw stuff out if we have to. I more missed the idea of the scene.

I recall writing a news a story about this apparent time-travel in Bioshock: Infinite, and seeing similar headlines on a number of other game sites. Unwise to waste that promotion too, perhaps?

Ken Levine: That’s right, that’s right.

Agreement, but with the shortness and the sudden ending that most every interviewer fears. He doesn’t want to say anything more about this: his prerogative entirely, and quite frankly it was not a terribly interesting question on my part. Is there anything to be gained from pressing for more, or should I change tack entirely? I choose the latter, which immediately makes me feel awkward because it necessarily transforms this from a conversation into a more formalised question and answer session, and risks making me appear to read from a script rather than be able to adapt to what’s said.

I move on to a theory I’d come up with mere moments before beginning this interview, that perhaps the relationship between this Elizabeth and the game’s equally mysterious player character, Booker DeWitt, might be slightly unhealthy. My/Booker’s first encounter with Elizabeth is as a captive, in a grim facility filled with warnings about ‘the specimen’ and its deadly powers, only to discover that it’s an apparently innocent, harmless young woman. I/he walks through corridors walled by one-way glass, watching Elizabeth go about the routines of a captive: flitting between activities, evidencing both sadness and happiness, opening ‘Tears’ that she cannot maintain for more than a few seconds, and completely unaware of her mute observer. Was this done to unsettle the player?

Or – ah, a cardinal sin of interviewing, the listing of possible answers, the clear suggestion of what the reply should be, rather than an open invitation to say anything – was it to force a trigger-happy player there for the gunplay to slow down and pay attention?

Ken Levine: No, I think it’s actually a combination of the two. Not that they’re together, but it’s to demonstrate what was happening to her. She was a specimen to them, but also it’s revelatory to you, so you understand who she is. We started saying ‘how are we going to introduce you to Elizabeth?’ You want to know stuff about her, right. And we as the storytellers wanted you to know stuff. I didn’t want her to just stand there and have to say ‘oh, I’m Elizabeth and this who I am, this is what I can do.’ You want to do these things visually and naturally, so we came up with the idea that she was being observed, because that was a very convenient way to have you observe her as well.

When we had that idea, that made our lives easier in a sense, in that we had a context for an introduction to her, but at the same time I suppose how they treated her. Also give you a sense that you’ve also observed her, and that it is a little weird. I think it makes you feel a little more protective towards her, because you feel that maybe you are a part of that.

This encounter was not the only enforced slowdown I’d experience in the game, so I ask how regularly such things occurs, and are they there to prevent pure-action gamers from rushing through? Not for the last time in this interview, Ken Levine seems to hear a slightly different question. I don’t know if it’s because I expressed it poorly (I did, all ums and ahs) or because he is media-trained enough to hear certain words or phrases and offer certain reactions to them. Or both. I get an interesting answer regardless.

Ken Levine: Pacing is an interesting thing. There’s not just sex, there’s romance, right? You have to build up to things sometimes. You look at a film like Jaws, it’s not just the shark attack. In fact the shark attacks very rarely. There’s the scene where they’re comparing scars and he’s telling stories, that scene is funny and charming and then Quint tells that story about the sinking of the Indianapolis.

It becomes horrifying and scary, and setting up what they’re all in for. They’re all laughing and joking, then somebody hears something and it builds and it builds. There’s this growing horror and realisation, and that’s pacing, right?

Spielberg understands that great, he did it in Jurassic Park with that T-Rex scene, he understands how to build tension very well. Certainly we watch a lot of his films, but a lot of directors do this very well. Building up to tension is very important.

I observe that this thinking is inverted in the Elizabeth encounter, in that we see signs warning of the specimen’s terrible danger only for the outcome to be a pretty young woman who’s afraid of the player. He agrees, but again the answer stops there. Stick or twist? Twist, move to a new question, about whether Elizabeth has always been so central to the game or if her role grew as they realised they were onto something during development?

Ken Levine: Well, in terms of ‘always’, not when I was 14 years old, she didn’t exist, but during the course of development of the game, relatively early we decided to have this character you’re with. Who she was evolved over time, and her story evolved a little bit. Well, a lot. We always knew what her arc was going to be, but the details of it were filled in.

I’m alarmed by the ‘not when I was 14 years old’ comment – was that meant to be gently rude about my lazy language, or was it just a joke? I hope I didn’t betray any embarrassment as he continued.

Ken Levine: I think that, certainly once you hire an actor, and you get her look right, and you build a relationship… The actor brings something to it as well, if I had a different actor in there Elizabeth may have ended up somewhat different, because I write for the voice after a while. Fortunately the recording was so strong that she was very easy to write for, and she always gets it right practically first time, which is not always easy to do.

I rack my brains to try and recall who voiced Elizabeth. Should I ask, or is it something I, as a games journalist, should already know full-well? Discretion is the better part of valour, perhaps. Twist. Is Elizabeth always in the princess role, or will there come a point where she’s not primarily there to be rescued?

Ken Levine: I’m not gonna… I don’t wanna… Elizabeth… evolves as a character, that’s all I’ll say.

Slight annoyance has crept into his voice, and entirely understandably so. I’ve committed another cardinal interviewing sin: essentially, I’ve asked him to tell me a spoiler. I didn’t mean to, I was more interested in this character’s role and the design motivations for her, but of course there’s no way to discuss it without revealing what happens to her. I laugh nervously, in a way that makes me wince when I listen to it back while transcribing this interview, and move on again. Elizabeth’s appearance has appeared to change between trailers, and once again for this playable code. Honestly, I don’t know what I was trying to ask there, I think I was just trying to dig myself out of the spoiler-request hole, but it brings about a critical misunderstanding and makes it appear as though I’ve asked a question I very deliberately did not want to ask.

He thinks I’m asking about her breasts.

Many of our readers, and presumably other sites’ too, have commented that Elizabeth’s most-seen outfit reveals a heaving cleavage, and in this more diversity-sensitive age of gaming it’s caused some to vocally worry that the character is being overly sexualised. Ken Levine, I have no doubt, has heard this accusation many times, and he thinks he’s hearing it again now, because I muttered “You’ve been tweaking her appearance too…” That slight suggestion of irritation rises, though he remains polite and professional.

Ken Levine: Well, that’s not a new… that’s just earlier in the game. She still has the blue dress, and people thought we decided to change her outfit again.

I try to undo the damage and muse that her haircut has also changed, from a bob to a ponytail. He makes a gesture with his arms, which I believe is meant to denote something cryptic. A small lightbulb goes off, too late – so she’s changing her appearance throughout the game rather than she’s being redesigned again?

Ken Levine: She changes her appearance throughout the course of the game. It happens for reasons. Uh. That’s all I’ll say.

Oh God, he thinks I’m digging for spoilers again. I try to explain: gamers and journalists alike are often fed so little information during the course of a game’s pre-release promotion that we may try to extract clues that may or may not be there from the small amount on offer. We run wild with theories, because we want more, because we’re excited. Alas, the misinterpretation (or, more likely, my miscommunication) remains. He still thinks I’m asking about why Elizabeth’s cleavage seems to have changed.

Ken Levine: Look, it’s a gamer’s right to be cynical, to be distrusting if that’s what they want to be. I think they think there’s a lot more going on than there actually is. ‘Did they change it because…?’ But this earlier in her growth, she’ll end up in the outfit you’re familiar with.

It’s interesting listening back to the interview, in that apart from the initial mention that her appearance seemed different in the playable build, I’ve said nothing that could possibly refer to her cleavage. I wonder to myself how many times he’s been asked about it, how many times he’s had to defend himself from some little punk trying to get him to say something about tits, and I feel rising embarrassment that he might think I’m one of them. I try to bring things back to my last point, that we’re in an age where people do shot-by-shot trailer breakdowns in the hope of extracting any extra clues.

He still thinks I’m talking about breasts, that I’m accusing him of changing Elizabeth’s outfit to try and end the online concern. He sighs, heavily.

Ken Levine: I mean, look, Alec…

Uh-oh. He used my forename as a point of emphasis. That’s never a good thing.

Ken Levine: …a long time ago I sort of stopped… You can’t let every reaction of something on the internet…. [Sighs] The natural process when making a game now is this. You show something, people get excited, then they say ‘but wait a minute, I bet that there’s this problem.’ Then you show the next thing, which addresses that thing. And they say ‘that’s great, that’s great… I bet there’s this this problem…’

I laugh, sympathising with his frustration, all too familiar with it myself from the perpetually-suspicious, perpetually-disappointed commenters on my own site who seem so determined that every game and every game-maker is guilty until proven innocent. That laugh helps so much. I can hear, on the recording, that his voice softens, warmth creeps in again and even now, several weeks after the event, I feel relief again. We understand each other again. We have a shared horror at how unpleasant the internet can be.

Ken Levine: Y’know? [Laughs softly.] And for the first year we were pretty much silent because it’s not something that I’m particularly interested in chasing, because at the end of the day, after all the speculation about the game, we have the event today, I just want to give people the controller and they’ll tell me the state that’s the game in. Because why believe me? I am obviously biased. At the very least.

Even say ‘Ken is the most honest man who ever lived, he can only speak 100 percent the truth’, I’m still biased because I love the game, I’m close to it, it’s my baby, my company’s baby. I’d just rather give you guys the controller. That’s why I waited, that’s why I didn’t do anything last year because I was tired of just sort of promoting it. So I said “in a year or whatever, just give them the controller and they’ll tell me.”

Relieved, I observe that nobody asks someone about their newborn child expecting them to say something like ‘I don’t like its big nose.’ In a sudden panic, I look at Levine’s nose at this point, fearing I’ve just said something offensive. But his nose is a fine, normal nose. We’re still OK. For now.

In part 2: The mystery of the Beach Boys, how the game treats race, a important request and a mutual acknowledgment of the interview’s awkwardness.

Photos in this piece by Dan Griliopoulos. See his collection of game dev portraits here.

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