Ken Levine: The Conversation, Part Two

By Alec Meer on January 23rd, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

“This is like your nightmare interview here, huh?”

Nah. This might not be going too well, but I’ve had worse. Much worse. (The most terrible was probably with an executive at one of the industry’s biggest PC game developers a couple of years back, where I had the distinct impression I was interviewing a robot who’d much rather murder me than talk to me).

This half hour with the lead designer of BioShock: Infinite would definitely win a place in my Top 40 Botched Interviews, but it’s not up there in shotgun-to-the-head territory yet. The mutual acknowledgement that it’s been a misfire does wonders too. Eventually.

While I’ve felt acutely uncomfortable for the interview’s duration, really my overriding concern is just how I can make a useful article out of it. So far, it’s been all misunderstandings and awkwardness, and I sincerely doubt my bumbling questions have extracted any comments of much value to anyone seeking more information about the next BioShock game. I’ve jumped ahead of myself, however – Ken Levine’s admission that things have been going badly will arrive shortly. Where are we now?

Ah yes. Ken Levine: softly-spoken, polite but not effusive, relaxed in body language but occasionally irritated of tone. Alpha, and then some.

Me: sniffle-nosed, tired, fretting, not speaking as clearly as I should, far too affected by the awkwardness of this encounter. ‘Beta’ would be pushing it, frankly. I should note I am not always like this: the majority of my interviews go just fine (though I must confess that I too rarely play hardball), and I tend to strive for some conversational rapport with my subject rather than simply firing questions at them (leading or otherwise). When that doesn’t work out – well, that’s when my nerve fails me and something like this happens. Right now, the interview has returned to a more even keel, but what next?

Another abrupt change of subject and an admission of poor research on my part, that’s what. “I should have looked this up on Wikipedia”, I pre-emptively apologise at the same time as revealing how routine my investigational skills are, “but I can’t remember what time period the game is set in.” Dammit, I meant ‘year’, but I said ‘time period’, thus suggesting total ignorance on my part. “And I heard that scene where the barbershop quartet sing a Beach Boys song, and I thought that was a little too late if we’re…”

Ken Levine: The game’s 1912.

He sounds a little severe again. I should have known that. ‘A little too late?’ Try half a century, Meer. Honestly, I thought the game was set in the 20s, but even so. I compound my ignorance by becoming wildly presumptuous. “So this game is absolutely nothing to do with our world? Like, Rapture could have, at a pinch, existed, but if we’ve got a Beach Boys song being sung by a barbershop quartet in 1912, it’s a completely different timeline entirely, presumably.”

Note there isn’t a question mark after that ‘presumably.’ I can’t hear one on my recording of this interview, either. I spoke a statement, not a question. I told this man I knew something about his game, when I quite simply did not. I don’t know whether his reply – once again with that subtle but alarming edge to it – reflects that, or is simply designed to be cryptic, but it does its work and destabilises me anew.

Ken Levine: You tell me.

A punch to the gut: short, sharp, savage. “O-okay,” I reply. It’s not a stammer, but I do feel wretched when I listen back to the clear pliancy in my voice. Thrown, more by the brevity of his response than the content of it, I glance down at my by-now frighteningly short list of notes to see if I can come up with another question on the spot. For whatever reason, though if I had to speculate it would be because he knows as well as I do that such an answer is of little use in a videogame preview, Ken Levine decides more should be said after all. What’s more, he suddenly speaks with more volume and speed than at any point in this interview previously. Is he, too, trying to get this mild mess back into some sort of order? He shouldn’t have to, that should be on me and me alone, but hell, I’ll take it.

Ken Levine: You’re gonna get… I mean… I definitely… I try to avoid sort of analysing the work for people, because the fun is… what you think it is. Put it this way, it’s not just us being cute. We’re not winking.

Now, more or less, begins the second major stage of the interview, and the second major problem. The first was that misunderstanding regarding Elizabeth’s appearance, and the second is that I try to be clever. When playing BioShock: Interview, I spotted and noted down a number of unusual things, which I could not help but analyse for what they might imply about the game’s (apparently) alternate-history world. It’s the same part of my brain that can’t, say, watch an episode of The Killing without scanning every scene for clues, forming a mental map of which characters were where when, why such and such a fellow couldn’t possibly be the murderer and why another one could.

I’m often surprisingly accurate in these deductions, but while it fills me with hollow pride my jabbered theories are simply irritating for whoever I’m with at the time. Can’t they just watch the show, please? It’s not only about the answers, after all.

I’m doing that here, but even worse, I’m asking this mystery’s creator to validate my wild theories. I’m asking for spoilers, I’m asking for a pat on the head, and it’s not going to be of any use for the resultant write-up of this interview. I try to steer off the path I’ve put us on.

“Er, even aside from secrets, which I wasn’t digging for there, I was wondering whether a game has to be tied to a recognisable reality or if it’s okay to depart into pure fantasy. Just thinking of Dishonored, for a time I was looking for ways to rationalise it in the world I knew, then eventually I go ‘no, it’s a completely different universe’ and you have to be OK with that even though it’s got recognisable, almost historical things in.”

What the fuck. What the fuck I am trying to ask there? There’s no asking at all, even – I just ramble. In my defence, at least I pulled a design theory conversation topic out of nowhere (I hadn’t planned to say anything like that), but I’ve expressed it like a pompous middle-aged audience member at an author talk, a babbling statement that seems far more about the asker than the asked. Ken Levine would be entirely justified in saying “just get out” at this point, but to his eternal credit he tries for an answer to my un-question.

Ken Levine: It is… Obviously, you can tell because, y’know, in BioShock 1, Ryan speaks of the New Deal and things, so this isn’t a pure… How far did you get?

Just after I’ve met Elizabeth for the first time, I tell him. I start to elaborate, but he’s still in full-flow.

Ken Levine: I won’t spoil things for you, but you’ll encounter references to – very specific references to – historical events down the road in your playthrough tonight.

(It’s mid-afternoon, but never mind, his brain’s probably still in another timezone).

Ken Levine: It definitely has, at the very least, [a small laugh] incredibly strong similarities to the world that we live in.

A pause. Another “Okay” from me, but more confident. I can hear myself preparing to ask a related follow-up, because I’m particularly intrigued by this subject, but I’m afraid I can’t remember what it would have been. Regardless, Ken Levine has more to say anyway – he sounds more relaxed, even enthusiastic now.

Ken Levine: In the same way that, Rapture, there probably wasn’t actually a city at the bottom of the ocean, but obviously he [Andrew Ryan, I think] comes from a very, very similar world to ours in most other ways.

I persist with my theory that Infinite’s is a more overtly alternate world. “It just seemed like the city in the sky, and everyone knew about its secession from America, suggested a grander departure from reality than Rapture…”

Ken Levine: Yes, yes. Grander.

Oh good, just as we reach some accord I decide to change the subject again and espouse yet another theory. “This game seems very, very reverent towards the first game”, I wonder aloud – and it’s true, Infinite’s introduction is crammed with scenes from BioShock’s introduction, but in a different setting, with different music and different people. Whatever I might think of BioShock’s second half, I maintain that it has one of the most fabulous introductions in videogames’ history and I know it well – so I was fascinated to see so much evoked and recreated here. “The initial stuff seems almost short-for-shot remake of the intro of BioShock 1,” I claim, madly. It’s not shot for shot at all – scene for scene, maybe, but come on. I sigh, realising my error. “How closely did you compare the two? Is it actually shot-for-shot or just the major beats?”

Ken Levine: Oh, I don’t know, I don’t think we… Look, I think you’re sensing that there’s [a long pause] echoes. I mean, there clearly are, I’m not going to dance around that. The question is whether there’s more to it than that: that’s up to you guys to figure out. But, y’know, we never… I mean obviously the lighthouse looks different, one’s in the ocean, one’s on a sort of rocky outcropping, so there are differences that there’s also similarities.

Another misunderstanding has developed, and while I lay some blame for this on my garbled, strained questions I think some of it is because someone like Ken Levine surely has to regularly face people who are trying to extract the game’s secrets from him. My point, such as it was, was intended to revolve around how unusual it is for a game to so carefully reference another in a purely visual way. It’s common in cinema and television, but less so in games. Unfortunately, he thinks I’m digging for whether the visual references to BioShock 1 imply a link to Rapture, which is something that has been asked about and hinted at since Infinite’s first reveal.

I try to stick with my original point, just how close are these two introductions to each other? “I wanted to have a way to play both side-by-side”, I say, and we both laugh at the slightly preposterous image, “and see if it’s like the Gus Van Sant Psycho thing where they’ve actually gone over each shot. Which would be lovely if you did.” No question, again.

Ken Levine: The more important aspect is the emotional resonance of it, rather than the sort of pixel resonance.

Okay. Now we get to that “this is like your nightmare interview here” – but I’m afraid can’t tell what you prompted that statement. I’d asked another question, based on another strange, possibly important thing I’d noticed in my time with the game, and initially Ken Levine had begun another polite but steely evasion. Then, he laughed, and visibly relaxed.

Ken Levine: This is like your nightmare interview here, huh?

He laughs again. I laugh with him. Twenty minutes into a half hour interview, the tension finally alleviates. We both realise, I think, that it’s been a little bit ridiculous. I tell him, “It’s more that I’m really trying to not do the ‘hey, tell me about the spoilers!’ questions, but they all seem to be landing on that by mistake.”

Ken Levine: Right, because… Trust me, my team, for the longest time I drove them insane, because they would say ‘when are you going to tell us the story?” And I said ‘I can’t tell you the story, because the story doesn’t exist outside of the experience of playing.’

My confidence somewhat restored, I at this point offer a BBC Culture Show-style “mmm.” I am quite sure I also rested my chin on my hand and nodded studiously. Comical.

Ken Levine: So even if I, like, wanted to, it wouldn’t be the actual story. I couldn’t just describe the opening to you, it wouldn’t be the same thing. It may be a fine story on its own, but it’s now that story.

I’m still keen to save face, so rather than taking up his point I try to apologise again for apparently asking so many spoiler questions. I am apologising to this man because I’m not helping him to promote his videogame in the best possible way: I am so very British. Having assured him of my intentions, I then rephrase the question that led to this, but there is a reason I cannot tell you what that question was. In response to it, I get a reply that, probably deliberately, makes me feel slightly good about myself, rather than simply embarrassed.

Ken Levine: You very cleverly seem to always tune to things that would lead to spoilers.

He then offers a hearty laugh. It’s a proper, from the diaphragm, highly infectious, good ole’ boy chuckle even while heard, out of context, from a dictaphone’s tinny speaker. Privately, tiny fireworks of pride are going off, but I adopt a tone of mock resignation and reply, “Oh, oh dear. I see.” We’re both laughing now – for me, from titanic relief, of the sort someone diagnosed with a fatal illness perhaps might feel when the doctor gives them the all-clear; for him, perhaps he’s just glad to speak a little more freely at last. Perhaps.

Ken Levine: It’s like you seem to have a sixth sense that… I don’t want to… Can you leave [my question and his attempted answer] out?

I feel flushed with pride, like a child who’s just won a sackrace. The clever man called me clever! But he’s just made a big ask of someone who (sometimes) calls themselves a journalist. I have little hesitation in agreeing. I don’t see any value in gazumping someone’s story, both for the sake of its teller and its audience. Perhaps I am shirking my journalistic integrity (or, at least, my commercial, hit-chasing integrity), but I’d rather that than be a prick. I rumbled something about the game’s plot: maybe a big thing, maybe a small thing, but it is only right that players discover it for themselves, just a couple of months from now. I agree, and we say in eerie tandem, “I don’t want to spoil the game for people.”

Ken Levine: I don’t want to spoil the game for people. Yeah. I just don’t want you to think I’m just fucking you around.

We both laugh, again. I’m grinning as I transcribe, too. The relief, oh sweet Jesus the relief. At the time, I’m still worried about whether I can even use this interview, what my colleagues, what 2K and what Levine will think if I elect to spike the whole thing, but at least I’m no longer praying for the reprieve of a phonecall telling me my house is on fire or my cat is dead or Britain is collapsing into the sea.

On the tape, I hear myself typing frantically on my little laptop, which I’d brought into this small, dark room with me because it had my notes on. In garbled capital letters, my note to myself reads *DONT REFECNCE THAT [redacted].*

Ken Levine: I’ll be as transparent about anything as I can, expect for plot spoilers.

With only a few minutes left to go, it’s probably too late now, but at least we’re now on the same page – or at least in the same chapter.

I move on to the game’s music – “it seemed to be a lot more ever-present than in the first game”, I theorise, “like I really noticed silences, when the music from the sideshows or the gramophone stopped. How much was that planned?”

Ken Levine: Well, the music director Jim Bonney and I spent a lot of time together, and there’s a combination of licensed pieces, pieces that are older songs that we re-recorded, like the version of Will The Circle Be Unbroken? in the church at the beginning. We did it, we had a lot of musicians that we hired, but we also licensed a lot of music and we also had a score composed. So there’s a lot of music in the game and it’s very important to the game.

Obviously there’s some odd stuff going on with some of the music too, but I think I learned on BioShock 1 how powerful music can be. Imagine going to that lighthouse at the beginning of BioShock 1 without the Django Reinhardt piece, and here there’s that song, Old Time Religion. I think that recording is from the 1800s, maybe early 1900s, it’s a really old recording, super-old. It has that great feel, puts you in the time period in a way that a lot of things can’t. For instance, the visual of the lighthouse probably doesn’t change that much, but a song like that on the radio, yeah. It’s put you there in a way that a lighthouse can’t.

Interesting, and a welcome reminder that so often a successful game uses more than graphics, plot and acting to make an impression. It was an answer to a different question though, so I rephrase mine. “It sort of seemed in BioShock 1 that when a song started, that really implied something was about to happen, whereas here it’s sort of constant, and when the music stops that’s when something big is gonna happen.”

Ken Levine: Well… Different music directors have different approaches.

I keep pushing. I’m not really sure why, it’s hardly a major point. To be honest, I’d quite like to get out of here before things get awkward again, and so I can play more of the game on the PC just outside this room, so maybe I’m sticking to a safe topic while the clock runs down. “I just wondered if maybe it was a deliberate inversion, because Rapture was gloomy and quiet whereas Columbia is big and bright and open and noisy.” I don’t often talk like I write, but I did then. It sounds okay, actually.

Ken Levine: Certainly, the environment is both very different and very similar to Rapture. That’s all very intentional, the similarities and the differences.

A short answer, an audible full-stop again. I think I’ve accidentally stumbled, yet again, onto the thorny, apparently spoiler-strewn issue of ‘is there any link to BioShock 1 in BioShock: Infinite?”, and therefore we have to move on. Hard switch to another subject: “I know it’s not a stealth game but it seemed like I could avoid some conflicts. Is there any strategy for that or…?”

(In any interview I conduct, even the ones which go really well, at least 50% of my ‘questions’ will end in ‘or…?’ Another 10-20% will end in “…so…”)

Ken Levine: I wouldn’t say that…. I mean, you can avoid some, but I wouldn’t call it a stealth game, by an stretch of the imagination. It’s probably on a par, roughly, with BioShock 1 in terms of stealth, which I call very light stealth components. But we do arrange a lot of the combat so… More important to me than the stealth is the fact that you have the drop on the enemy, so you can choose the terms of engagement. That happens a lot in the game, that’s really important.

Like, when I worked on Thief, I knew that you had to have tools to be actively stealthy, so you had things like the moss arrow and the water arrow, otherwise you’re just avoiding people. And unless you really invest in this stuff, really invest in stealth, it’s gonna come up short, I think.

“Go large or go home,” I say. The saying is, in fact, ‘go big or go home’, and what I’ve said sounds more like I’m going to storm out of a MacDonald’s if they don’t upgrade my fries. If he thinks that too, he doesn’t show it. The tense atmosphere really is gone by this point – I can’t speak for Ken Levine, but I’m starting to enjoy myself now.

Ken Levine: Yeah, exactly. So we really wanted to make the game support very, very light stealth, but more importantly, uh, you start the engagement a lot of the time. That gives you the opportunity to go ‘I might go here, I might go there, I might set a little trap there, I might do this, I might do that, which weapon should I ready, what Vigors should I have in my quickslots’, all that stuff. ‘What Tear should Liz open…’

Huh. He called Elizabeth ‘Liz.’ I didn’t pick up on that at the time. Instead, I try to explain why I had felt inclined to stealth through what I’d played so far. “There’s a much stronger sense that these people are innocent, especially when you start off and it’s all bright and everyone’s happy. There were a quite a few times where I want to leave them all alone…

Ken Levine: Leave them all alone.

(I can almost hear him smiling, even nodding, on the recording, lest that sound as though he’s repeating my words back to me in disbelief. )

“…because they all seem to be having such a nice time.”

Ken Levine: Well, you’ll come across that later on, where you could be there and no-one will be bothering you. You can bust out if you want, with your guns, that’s going to be up to you.

“Is there,” I ask, “any element of tracking… Not trying to get spoiler stuff, but is there any element of tracking when you’ve chosen to attack someone, when you get…” I know, already, that he’s going to think I’m asking the Little Sisters question: is the game going to judge me good or bad, in a rather absolute way, as BioShock 1 did? Many have already asked him that. I’ve already asked him that. Boring. What I meant was whether the ongoing game would shift and shape in response to my actions, in the way Dishonored’s Dunwall did. Unfortunately, I didn’t say that. I said ‘tracking.’ Idiot.

Ken Levine: No, no, no, we don’t run any sort of moral, like, tracking system in the game. The choices that you do have are specific choices – like, you got to the baseball scene?

It’s the most important and shocking moment in what I’ve played of the game so far – which is why I don’t wish to describe what it was to you. You can find it in other sites’ Infinite previews if you like.

Ken Levine: There are some small pay-offs for that, but the most important part of that is making sure you’re not just an observer at that moment. You can’t just sit back in that scene, you have to imprint your choice in that moment. It’s not a Mass Effect thing, I don’t want to sell it like that. There’s not a ton of things like that, but we chose them very carefully based upon just certain principles.

I try, for a third time, to state my question in a comprehensible way. “I just wondered if things like that, and how you treat people generally, will get referenced later or not.”

Ken Levine: Lots of things get referenced, that scene gets referenced, but there’s no sort of larger… Not on those things [I think, but don't know for sure, that he means your general behaviour around Columbia's civilians], but there are some things you do later that are referenced later in one way or another.

My last question, foolishly not realising that my time in this interview was about to end, was a deliberately off-record one about an in-game event, to satisfy my own curiosity. Unfortunately, asking it meant I didn’t get to ask about something I really should have done, which is the game’s treatment of race, and 1912-era America’s racism.

I try to say something about it as I’m ushered politely out the door by a 2K rep, but it’s too late. Hasty goodbyes are made, and I head back to the PC for two more hours of this fascinating game. I’m glad an initially trying and embarassing half-hour is over, but its latter minutes had seen real recovery, the first vestiges of an interview I could use and a conversation I was enjoying. Oh, for another 15 minutes. I made my poorly-communicated bed, and I have to lie in it. My thoughts pinball between simple embarrassment and professional regret at having bungled what should have been an important interview for my site. Minutes later, I forget all this: I’m back in Columbia, and I don’t want to leave. BioShock: Infinite is, in my three-hour experience of it, an excellent videogame.

As I leave the interview room, another journalist, another scruffy, clearly self-conscious man, enters. French, I think. I see hands outstretched, I hear a nervous, muttered ‘hello’, I see Ken Levine reach for a green grape and I hear him say, in a confident, bright, voice, “Hi, [journalist's name]!”

He knows all our names.

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98 Comments »

  1. Premium User Badge

    welverin says:

    That took a while, I was wondering what happened to part two.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Arren says:

    Gonzo game journalism, with English self-effacement substituting for bluster.

    This is indeed a strange piece: awkward, and bravely unvarnished. I like it.

  3. realkruste says:

    “I can’t tell you the story, because the story doesn’t exist outside of the experience of playing.” That’s cool.

    • LintMan says:

      This actually worried me a bit. It has a Molyneux-esque echo to it that reminds me of failed promises.

      • luukdeman111 says:

        It is very true though, if you’d watch a movie that follows spec ops plot you wouldn’t feel so unsettled, if someone told you the complete the walking dead story you wouldn’t cry and if you’d read a book tells the same story as bioshock you wouldn’t be nearly as interested in the world or the characters…

        Video games are incredibly strong narrative devices and it’s sad that nobody outside the core gaming community realizes that…

        • LintMan says:

          Yes, I can see your point. I’d also say that 4X-type grand strategy games have a story crafted by your game experience. Levine is probably skillful enough to pull it off. I guess that’s why I said “a bit worried”. If it was actually a Molyneux statement, I would have said “gravely worried” :D

        • GepardenK says:

          Well I agree with you. But I have to say that, while many plot points differ, Apocalypse Now is equally if not more disturbing as a film than Spec Ops as a videogame.

    • elmo.dudd says:

      It would be, but I don’t really believe him. All of their own footage seemed to be locking you in a room while dialog was played, then unlocking the room for you to shoot in a gallery before locking you in another room for more dialog to be played. STALKER was a game where my playing was the story, the playing in this seems to be what happens when they want the story to take longer.

      • realkruste says:

        doesn’t sound too much like the DayZ kind of storytelling i was hoping for ;)

  4. dontnormally says:

    Alpha, but I bet he’s a bottom.

    • Sam says:

      “Not that I’m trying for a spoiler, but I wonder what can you tell me about..” my voice trails off as Ken returns a grape to the bowl and reaches over towards me. His fingers at once delicate yet firm and assured as they touch on my pale skin.

      “I want to talk to you about American exceptionalism and its role in religion during the early 20th century.”

      My voice catches in my throat. I stutter, and then “O-Okay.” I hear the creak of his chair on the recording as he rises and remember the certainty in those deep eyes as he moved closer.

      The fan fiction writes itself.

  5. Ross Angus says:

    Alec, don’t beat yourself up. You’re an alchemist.

  6. Snargelfargen says:

    Now I really want to hear Ken’s write-up of the interview.

    • Premium User Badge

      welverin says:

      As would I, I’d really love to see Ken’s answers to what Alec meant to ask.

  7. SuperNashwanPower says:

    I like this because it is basically a line-by-line account of how I go through every day with everyone. Alec, I hope this only happens in interviews with people you are in awe of, because otherwise if you are anything like me you have a very large therapy bill heading your way.

    HUG YOUR HORACE PLUSHIE :3

    • The Random One says:

      I feel like I should say something in relation to social anxiety, but now I can’t stop thinking how a Horace plushie would work. My idea is that it would be kept in a box and the plushie part would seamlessly end in a large felt tube the same size and material, which would be rolled up inside the box. So if you started to take out Horace it would look like more and more Horace would come out of the box infinitely.

  8. Michael Fogg says:

    Disquieting amount of hero worship. Perpeturation of the ‘rockstar game developer’ culture.

    • Alec Meer says:

      Could you give me some examples of what caused you to say that?

      • Wreckdum says:

        He probably just skimmed the article and only looked at the pictures. Seeing as there are a lot of photos of Ken’s face. lol

      • Michael Fogg says:

        ‘Alpha, and then some.’

        • Alec Meer says:

          I’m afraid you’ve not understood that, which may be the cause of your initial wild exaggeration. I’m sorry you didn’t like the article though.

    • SuperNashwanPower says:

      EDIT: Ninja’d by alec

      We all do it. Its just that most of us can sit in happy denial of it because our everyday lives do not typically see us facing people who, deep down and slightly out of conscious awareness, we see as echelons above us. Its safe to sit and read the internet and go “he ain’t all that” and slag off a scene of a movie, or a bit of a game. Its that nice safe sense of superiority that the internet grants us all. But being face to face with it, seeing the way others react to status, and realising who this person is, I guarantee it would bring out something of what’s written above in most of us. Its just built in there, and our culture in particular has it written so deeply into our psyche.

      It has its place, its an important part of being human, perhaps even evolutionary. To dismiss it too easily risks not acknowledging its existence in yourself. OK this is a poncey, overwrought reply, but “The unexamined life…” and all that. I also think Alec is very pointedly displaying his own awareness of what is going on for him too. .

      Alec did far better than I would have. Writing out a panic attack would not make good reading.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      Indeed. Truly “rockstar developer culture” is the defining issue of our times. Its stranglehold on society reaches across political aisles and racial, cultural and economic boundaries to cheapen the lives of all good folk. It casts a shadow on our collective conscience the likes of which we have never seen before. I pity our grandchildren who will have to live in a world where such a thing exists, and pray that they can come together and find a way to eradicate such a nefarious foe.

  9. Tiguh says:

    Absolutely loved both parts of this interview. One of the best things I’ve read on RPS. Thanks Alec. Thalec.

  10. BoozeHound59 says:

    It’s true what they say about PC gamers being awkward it seems.

  11. DK says:

    Journalist scared to ask actual tough questions because the Dev being interviewed has been so idolized you wouldn’t DARE offend him.

    The State of Gaming Journalism

    • SuperNashwanPower says:

      People being anonymous dicks

      State of the Internet

    • iucounu says:

      Please to suggest the actual tough questions?

      • elmo.dudd says:

        “As video games are renowned for their interactivity, what are you doing to facilitate player choice beyond dialog prompts?”

        “Do you ever feel you risk the chance of disseminating misinformation through your stylized takes on historical settings?”

        Also not so much tough but interesting questions like,
        “What games not of your own do you feel contributed to the mechanics of Infinite?”
        “Do you have any regrets with Bioshock that you feel are being rectified in Infinite?”
        “How was your game design, and world design, influenced by the hardware limitations inherent in supporting consoles?”

        • Runs With Foxes says:

          You probably won’t get those questions because most game journalists seem to think Bioshock is a really good game for some reason.

        • rockman29 says:

          I like those questions.

        • Premium User Badge

          yoggesothothe says:

          I don’t mean to _attack_ your position, or to cause offense, but I would like to express my disagreement with it (perhaps a bit strongly).

          What is this, a job interview? Such boilerplate questions, not to mention leading ones (every one of those begs the question, implies a specific answer within the question itself, or states a debatable position as a given from which to ask the question).

          I actually gathered quite a lot of information from this interview, including that Mr. Levine has been answering exactly these types of questions for so long that there’s essentially no way we were going to get anything but boilerplate answers to them. You can see that (or at least I did, maybe I’m just reading into things) from just how protective and prone to specific interpretations of Mr. Meer’s questions he was for almost the entire interview.

          If a mistake was made, it was that Mr. Meer was being too aware of avoiding exactly this kind of thing and taking anticipatory pains to avoid it–he doesn’t ask those questions because he already knows they’re not going to be answered, as the whole of this interview painfully indicates. Maybe that’s bad interviewing, maybe that’s just trying to make the most of an incredibly short period of time with which to work.

          Moreover, it seems apparent from the direction and omission of Mr. Meer’s questions that there’s a strong narrative connection between BioShock 1 and Infinite; maybe Ryan was originally from Columbia, maybe none of his technology was his own, that type of thing. Anyway, he’s teased out just enough in between the lines that we probably got a lot more than is immediately apparent–it’s just that we won’t be able to tell until we play the game.

          At least for me, this was an interesting read that actually did provide some insight into Mr. Levine’s psychology, and that’s really all you can ask from an interview.

      • Premium User Badge

        Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

        Well to start, Alec should have kicked open the door and put Ken in a headlock. I could’ve done that, but then, I know karate and jujitsu and Shanghai Municipal Police Basic Self Defence. Also I carry a knife in my pocket and a gun in my teeth and my forehead has to be registered with the local authorities wherever I go because I once killed a man with it. True story.

        Once you’ve got the interview off to that great start, you go straight for the important questions, like Elizabeth’s breasts. Why aren’t they bigger? Why are they so covered up? Is this a game for homos? That last question is important, because you don’t want to be playing no homo game.

        At this point I expect security will have been called, so you might have to lay down some righteous smack on a few faces, just to lighten the monotony. You can’t make an interview without breaking a few eggs, right? Once you’ve warmed up on the hired help, you can get back to the questions.

        How many dudes do I kill in the game? And can I dominate them once I’ve killed them? Or maybe I could dominate them before I kill them, because I’m, you know, so leet. Has he considered giving the player a sniper rifle? One that shoots guns that shoot bullets as they fly towards the bad guy and he’s like “whoa that’s so cool” just before he dies? Why doesn’t the player have armour like Halo dude? Halo dude is cool. They should change the player to be Halo dude except about 20% cooler.

        Right about now the real heavy hitters should be entering the room. This is where I show off my wicked cool moves in slow-motion, a few kicks to the head, and there’s probably some blood. I might get my shirt ripped to show off my pecs (which are epic btw but no homo). I’d be totally Bruce Lee on their asses. Then I’d knock Ken out with one surprise punch, and say “later, noobs” before I jump out the window like Batman catching the plane in the Batman with the Joker in it. That was such a cool movie. The player should be like Batman too.

    • elmo.dudd says:

      Smingleigh’s comment and the responses it garners is a good testament of the state of RPS comments. While also continuing to dodge the implications found in your initial comment.

      • KillahMate says:

        Maybe we just liked Smingleigh’s comment because it was funny?

      • Premium User Badge

        xao says:

        Smingleigh’s comment doesn’t dodge DK’s implications at all. It calls them out and mocks them through hyperbole. We just enjoyed a rather obnoxiously pretentious post getting the response it deserved.

      • Shooop says:

        Must we cover the definition of hyperbole?

  12. MOKKA says:

    I wonder how many Interviews end up like this one.

    EDIT: Since there seems to be a suprisingly high amount of negativity here, let me clarify: I really like the article and wonder how often Interviewers get stuck in such helpless situation as Mr. Meer did.

  13. LintMan says:

    Man, I’ve had job interviews that have gone awry in this same sort of way. Just painful miscommunication and misunderstanding.

    I’m glad you were able to salvage the interview, Alec.

    • Sleepymatt says:

      I got my current job by emailing my employer the following day and essentially saying “This was like my nightmare interview here, huh?”, while then explaining what I actually had wanted to say. Given at least 50% of my work time is spent communicating with the public, I am still surprised this worked!

      I really enjoyed the write-up Alec, and I think it’s a very clever way of salvaging a great article from a potentially disastrous day. Nice one!

  14. JRay says:

    Just wanted to say that I really appreciated how sensitive you were to spoilers (awesome write-up besides). Even little things like a scene that you could have written about but chose not to for our sake. I HATE IT when previews/interviews just describe the events of the demo frame for frame/shot for shot rather than trying to communicate the look and/or feel of the game and how it plays. It’s why I normally avoid previews on game’s I’m looking forward to. So, again, thanks.

  15. iucounu says:

    I suddenly noticed how much he looks like he might be Fox Mulder’s brother and now I can’t see anything else when I see a picture of Ken Levine.

    • Premium User Badge

      Arren says:

      Half Mulder, half Charlie Day from It’s Always Sunny…

      • MultiVaC says:

        Wow, I had the exact same thought when I was reading the first part of the interview. I was immediately thinking “Ken Levine looks like Fox Mulder and Charlie Kelly combined”

    • HerrKohlrabi says:

      Duchovny-face?

  16. Cloudiest Nights says:

    The single best interview I’ve ever seen from any gaming related site. VERY happy to have read this.

  17. The Smilingknight says:

    God dammnit Meer!

    What the hell are you people doing!?

    Your job is not to indulge, pander and please developers!
    To cuddle them and to be terrified of asking god damn questions!
    -edited-

    This was bloody painful to read.

    You job is to ambush them! Attack!
    Your questions must be machine gun fire! Then throw a few grenades in!
    Flashbangs! Incendiaries! Then charge in with bloody swords and stab! Stab! Slice! Cut! Impale! Sever heads, hands, legs!
    Blood must gush all over! Screams must be heard! Pleads for help!

    Then go melee! Into the intestines! Kick em in the balls!
    Elbows! Eyes! Then start biting! And headbutting!

    Who cares if youre interviewing Fox Mulder!?!?!

    So What!?

    Nobody even remembers X-files anymore! or that California…something.
    A guy turned to video games – so what!?

    Why the fuck Elizabeth has that overblown cleavage Mulder!? What the fuck?
    Is she supposed to be cheap or is that just a consequence of her being imprisoned so long!?
    Stockholme syndrome or mass market pandering of the lowest order? Is it aliens maybe!?
    Too much looking into other times through her tears? Eh? EEH?
    Answer the question goddamnit!

    Is it alternate history? Of course its bloody alternate history!

    There are consequences to our actions! Wow!
    How, why, where? Does the story branch, areas change, open, close?

    etc, etc, etc.

    godamnit!

    • Runs With Foxes says:

      I’d really like a journalist to ask him how old Elizabeth is supposed to be, and if the answer is not ’14′, the follow-up question should be ‘Then why the fuck does she look like it?’ Given all the hand-wringing about Sexism In Games lately, there’s a hilarious silence about this game.

      • The Smilingknight says:

        She doesnt look 14 dont be bloody obnoxiously stupid.
        Thats just asking for confirmation to your own stupid bias. And unsubstantiated insinuated strawman.

        The actual question goes “How old is Elizabeth?”
        And then you follow up depending on the answer – instead of claiming something different.

        Personally i dont care about the cleavage itself. But if there is some reason for the question to be asked then you bloody ask it – right in the gonads!

        • Runs With Foxes says:

          Yeah in that piece of concept art used in the article (image #14) she looks more like 7. So. The image below that actually looks like an adult woman, but the game model looks more like the 7 year old.

          Either way it’s really creepy, and if it were anyone’s game but Ken Levine’s people would be all over it.

          I just like pointing out the blatant hypocrisy, inconsistency, and fanboyism displayed by the self-declared Nice Guys who task themselves with policing female representations in games.

          • Premium User Badge

            maninahat says:

            I guess the purpose is that, being a damsel trapped in the high tower, they have to make her a combination of sexy, cute and childlike to trigger an innate desire to protect her.

            If she was a hard faced, tough as nails, 40 year old, the (totally male, totally hetero) gamer would not only feel inadequate, but also start asking obvious questions like “if she’s such a badass, why hasn’t she escaped already? Why can’t she be the protagonist?”

      • Premium User Badge

        Cross says:

        Because being an arsehole to the creative mind behind a game is the best way to get honest answers. This is an interview, not an interrogation, Jack Bauer-style.

        • ResonanceCascade says:

          It is kind of cute how some people compare interviewing a game developer with hard-hitting political journalism though. I’d like to take a trip to that reality some time, but I’m not sure I can afford the drugs.

          • Runs With Foxes says:

            If you’re happy with game journalism being free advertising for publishers, there’s plenty of uncritical horseshit out there to satisfy you.

          • Premium User Badge

            drewski says:

            Because half an hour of Ken Levine saying “I’m not going to talk about that” would have made *riveting* reading.

          • ResonanceCascade says:

            No, Runs With Foxes. I want commenters on this site who have the common sense to be able to sort out the difference between what Geoff Keighley does and what a normal, perfectly appropriate interview is (even if it doesn’t dig deep into the “hard hitting questions” — whatever the fuck those are in a video game context). Also, I’d like the idealistic and oh-so-serious hive mind here to keep in perspective exactly what it is we’re talking about here.

        • The Smilingknight says:

          Its not about being an arsehole – but being honest and straight about what you want to know.

          Instead of getting into situation of mutual paranoia which leads to misunderstanding and further paranoias. (which is something we all are subjected to in all aspects of normal life more and more, in fact it reached insanity levels already).

          Its not a problem if a dev says he wont talk about something because it is a spoiler.
          Thats just a point to another direction of questions.

          Its not like there is just one single question and angle to every specific feature.
          For example – if he says no to a question about the story itself – then you ask him about how that specific approach they took is handled.

          And im quite sure devs themselves would respond better to such more honest and direct questions then ones loaded with implications where both parties are forced to second guess each other and try o defend from possible wrong assumptions.
          Mu…- Kevin Levine especially.

          As long as the journalist in question is honest and upfront about it.

          Thats how you get the facts. Thats journalism. Or that should be journalism – which is something that disappeared even from the normal journalism, the moment they started adjusting what they report based on predictions about ratings and popularity.

          - Thats how you get to be a journalist – instead of a promoter.

      • Premium User Badge

        Surlywombat says:

        This could be a spoiler, but since its a guess it doesn’t count.

        I think she ages as the game progresses. My current theory is that when she goes through one of these “rifts” and comes back she has experienced more time away then we do on our side. In essence she seems to age faster.

        This seemed to be hinted at in some of the answers.

    • KenTWOu says:

      +1 for “being honest and straight about what you want to know”.

    • Alec Meer says:

      Were I motivated by the same kind of fury and contempt evident in thesmilingknight’s comment, perhaps I too would take the position that the interviewee and their game are necessarily bad and thus ask a different manner of question. As it though, even in an interview which I feel I have more control of, I simply have no interest in being the avatar of internet dudes’ suspicion.

      I do tend to avoid calling myself ‘journalist’ as it’s not in my nature to be a digger, but ‘conversationalist about videogames’ is a funny thing to write on a CV.

      • cuchufluru says:

        Hi there Alec, maybe thesmilingknight went a bit too far.. but i think part of what he implied is interesting. I too perceived a bit of insecurity, which by the way, you managed to capture and share with your readers, in a really unique article.

        In my opinion, it is precisely your talent what should make the insecurity fade. And you RPS guys know you’re talented.

        Cheers!

  18. F3ck says:

    I imagine Meer’s mannerisms are like that of a less masculine C3-P0…

    …on another note; is it March yet?

  19. shitflap says:

    Loved this, and I hope that he himself gets linked this, as it’s just so beautifully, painfully honest.
    The perfect way to “salvage” what you got from the interview. Great stuff.
    Also, I’m sure it would be quite uncouth, but I’d love to know who the murder-robot was as well…

  20. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    Alec, these two articles have been a fantastic read — thank you. The first was interesting and entertaining from a journalism/experience point of view, but this second part actually got me more excited about the game. And that was even before you apologized for “not helping him to probote his videogame in the best possible way”. From some of the earlier answers in this article, I got the feeling this game is being directed with great care, something I wasn’t really concious of before (since I didn’t know who Ken was and have avoided most coverage of the game since the initial reveal). Then, the points of the conversation once you got on a roll (the music, the pacing of the gameplay, …) got me even more excited. So, from my perspective anyway, you’ve done an excellent job promoting the game, and in a much more engaging way than most interview transcriptions one typically sees. I wouldn’t want to see them in this form all the time, but it was very enjoyable.

    Also, thank you so much for avoiding major spoilers. I’m typically much more interested to hear how the makers of the game are making their game, especially when the game is supposed to depend so heavily on the experience of playing, as Ken claimed for this one.

    But yes, that was quite the awkward interview. Not quite The Office, but…glad I wasn’t in your shoes!

    • The Smilingknight says:

      – you’ve done an excellent job promoting the game,—

      uhh…ohh… ooouuhhhh….

      • Premium User Badge

        particlese says:

        O_o
        Oh, wow. Yup, waltzed right into Sam’s fan fiction without knocking. No more night-posting for me…

  21. Puppy says:

    I hate and love this interview.

  22. Cunzy1 1 says:

    I don’t particularly like this format of interview that is a staple profile puff piece you see in G2 all the time.

    What I don’t like about them is that they seem disingenuous. Alec did you go into the interview knowing you were going to write it up like this or was it ‘a normal interview’ that was later embellished for dramatic effect?

    Plenty of other people seem to like it so I’m trying to work out whether it’s a format issue or just a change in what I’m used to in Vidjo games writing.

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      Well, I was a little put off by this interview too. I took seriously — and agreed — with Alec ‘s admission this wasn’t his fine moment. It wasn’t.

      But you do raise an interesting question. What I do I wonder is how much of the obvious and exaggerated embellishment that went into the redaction of this interview was an appeal of sympathy to Alec’s plight and, why not, put it in an acceptable publishing format.

      In any case, we all make mistakes and I guess one of the most common is trying to over analyze games. Especially when they are prone to analysis. In an interview to a man like Ken Levine, I’d rather learn more about him, the company and their game development processes than a specific game. Much less getting into detail about a game that hasn’t even been launched yet.

      And that’s perhaps why FarCry 3 interview was such a great moment of RPS and this one wasn’t.

      • Premium User Badge

        maninahat says:

        The alternative is just as interesting: How many interviews are there where the Q and As are plonked onto the page, with no reference whatsoever to the mood of the interview, or any weakness on the part of the interviewer/interviewee? I imagine Meer could have easily manufactured himself as a cool, tough interviewer in the write up. The advantage of writing answers verbatim is that you can easily reinterpret the awkward pauses and “ers” into whatever shape you like. Want to make him sound like he’s at Meer’s mercy? Easy:

        …Here, Levine quietly mumbled: “ou’re gonna get… I mean… I definitely… I try to avoid sort of analysing the work for people, because the fun is… what you think it is”. I acknowledged him with a sympathetic nod…

        NB I genuinely like this interview. Interviews tell you surprisingly little about the interview process, and a write up that only describes the interviewee is missing half the story. Somehow, I learnt a lot more about Levine by learning about both.

  23. Darthus says:

    It really just seemed like instead of asking the creator of a game questions about his process or open ended questions, Alec kept asking about little nerdy minute details he noticed. It’s like seeing Prometheus and asking Ridley Scott about small details about the statues. What is he supposed to say? Yes, that was there? Good job for noticing it? I don’t think he thought you were asking about Elizabeth’s breasts, he just felt like you we’re pointing out random small details to him that he could only answer by spoiling the plot. I think it’s just the nerds quandary, of being attracted to minutiae and systems. I say this as a nerd myself. Oh well, thanks for the interesting walk inside your head Alec. I would just recommend in the future that you focus on being curious about the person in front of you when you’re interviewing, not asking for verification of things you noticed.

  24. Premium User Badge

    drewski says:

    I can only express relief that I’ve never been quite this awkward in a professional situation…

  25. DickSocrates says:

    Ken Levine + Bioshock Infinite = portrait of Alec Meer.

  26. Ayam says:

    I’m not particularly lamenting the lack of potential eye-opening answers that may have been squeezed out of Levine because this write-up was fantastic. As a massive fan of awkwardness, this article has put Alec on the same fun-read level as Nathan for me. Thanks Alec.

  27. The Smilingknight says:

    To be fair… there is a ballsy element to this – if at least in posting this honestly.

    So, balls+1 on that account.

  28. guygodbois00 says:

    Mr. Meer, you’ll spoil us over here.