The Bioshock Infinite Ken Levine Interview

Okay - guys. Who's taken my car?

It’s late at night after the unveiling of Bioshock Infinite by the time I sit down with Ken Levine to talk about the city of Columbia. What follows is a discussion which takes in how the themes of the game resonate between 1900 and today, how Irrational think they took the binary Little-sister choice as far as they were interested in already, dances elegantly around the question of whether this shares a universe with Bioshock 1 or not and expresses sadness that people aren’t going to totally get the name until they’ve finished the game…

RPS: My initial question upon seeing the demo is… well, is this actually the same universe as Bioshock?

Ken Levine: I’m not going to answer that question. But will say… you’ve just seen the demo once. There’s stuff going on which isn’t immediately apparent. That’s all I’ll say.

RPS: I was thinking it could abstractly go either way. It could be something like Assassin’s Creed where there’s a plot device which allows you to go to hugely different worlds and still be in a shared universe… or it could be more like the Final Fantasy model where the worlds are all new, and all that it shares are the mechanics and the sort of design vision.

Ken Levine: To answer the question on the meta-level… for us, we want to be very free. Our first role – and I’ve said this a couple of times tonight so if it’s getting a little market-y just forgive me – we started by saying there were no sacred cows about Bioshock. Anything and everything is up for re-examination, based on what we were trying to do. We just knew we done with Rapture. We loved that world. We created that world. But we’d said what we wanted to say… so we built out from there. We thought about the time-period… what did people think about when they thought about the future? They thought about the sky. In 1900 it was a time of incredible optimism, to see how the technology was changing. That was the first thing. In 1880 there were farms. In 1900 there were movie-theatres. If you went back and said to people “In five years, we’ll be living in the sky” they’d have said “…Okay. Yeah, that makes sense to me. That’s the pace things are going at”. Incredible optimism.

RPS: That comes across. I scrawled the phrase “Pre-WW1 utopianism” a couple of times as I was watching . And I was very excited to see the colour blue.

Ken Levine: You don’t see it much in our games. Which is another thing – we’ve been so reliant on a particular colour palette in our previous games. So when we were trying to scare people or be tense it’s something we allowed ourselves to fall back on. I admire what Kubrick did with the Shining. That’s a haunted house story in a sterile florescent-lit environment. I’ve done a ton of games with darkness and murkiness and that’s easy to be scary in. At this point in my career, I don’t want to take the easy path, because I’ve done it before because then you turn into one of those old rock stars who don’t do anything interesting any more. You’re just making the same thing again. And you can fail. You can make mistakes. It’s much easier to say “We’ll do another Bioshock in Rapture” game. That’s the easy path for us. So we took a harder path for ourselves.

People ask me why it’s a Bioshock game. And that’s a reasonable question. Two things about Bioshock that are core. One is that you’re in a world that’s amazing and new and fantastical and surprising and sort of “What the Fuck”…but it also feels like it makes sense. You feel like you understand how this world functions. And the other thing is we have a gameplay challenge where the player drives how he solves the problem and he has a huge set of tools to drive the solution. And to make a game which has those things in it – and we have more to say about those things – but wasn’t a Bioshock game… I felt would have been dishonest.

RPS: I want to come back to Horror During Daylight, but to dwell on the title a little more my peers and I were reverse engineering the title description. You may think “Bioshock: Columbia” or “Bioshock: Icarus” would make more sense… but then you realise that makes it just sound like an expansion pack.

Ken Levine: There was never a discussion that it’d be “Bioshock colon Something” because that always says expansion. And I think “Columbia”… well, we had a lot of conversations about the name. And it wasn’t a Bioshock 3 because it wasn’t a follow up the previous Bioshocks. We struggled with the name for a long, long time and then one day we were at lunch and I said “What if it was this”. And everyone said that it’s the right name for it. There’s things going on which I won’t talk about, but you won’t understand until you’ve actually played the game through and it’ll make even more sense when you know that stuff. It’s frustrating for us, as no-one can know what the title means until they’ve finished playing the game.

RPS: Spoilers! Okay – back to horror in daylight. When you say that, I think of The Wicker Man, which is one of my iconic films.

Ken Levine: Not the re-make?

RPS: The re-make’s my favourite in a very different way. The thing it shows is that in Daylight, you have to approach everything different to get similar effects. How did you actually start approaching the whole game?

Ken Levine: When we started – and this is similar to Bioshock 1 – but we had the city in the sky, but we didn’t have the notion of American Exceptionalism until 3 months ago. It occurred to me when watching a documentary about America in 1900 … “Oh my god! Everything’s here!”. The McKinley speech, everything, all came out at once from that documentary. And I came in to my guys and said “July 4th, 1900, idealised vision of America’s past. What is the memory people have of that time? That’s what this game looks like”. And everyone said “Ding!”. And before the artists and I were fighting about what it looked like, back and forth… but as soon as I said that, they said “Okay… I get it. Let’s go do it.” And that’s like all ideas. As soon as you have an idea you can explain to everyone, it becomes falling off a bridge at that point.

Seriously, guys, who has my car?

RPS: Weaponizing a World Fair is a wonderful perverse idea. It caused me to start thinking about the period from different angles… 1908, I think, was the Futurist manifesto [It was 1909 – Ed]. And Anarchism as an enemy turned up in a lot of posters, which makes me think that Emma Goldman was that period too. How much was that influences there?

Ken Levine: This is much more central to European culture, because the world was approaching a catastrophe. And that catastrophe was really about the monarchies coming to an end. We’re still feeling the repercussions from that. Everything politically comes out of that. Everything in the world, from WW2 to the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Taliban comes out of that stuff. But also at that time you had movements like internationalism. The notion that you had more in common with the factory worker in that country than you do with the rich guy in your own. And think how challenging that was to the powers that be at that time. But you also have these strong nationalistic movements at this time. And I think there’s some themes today which you see around the world… it’s not as if nationalism is anything new. It’s a very effective form of thought.

RPS: This segues to what I’m sure will be what you’ll be talking about for the next two years, at least. From what you’ve shown so far, the major themes are American imperialism and fear of immigration. Both are themes which are, to say the least, discussed heavily today.

Ken Levine: But they were discussed back then at length too.

RPS: Is that what you’re interested in? The line between then and now? That they’re perennial debates? What made these questions interesting to you?

Ken Levine: I’m always interested in the question of history. If you look at Bioshock 1 or System Shock 2 or any of our games. System Shock 2 was about individualism versus Collectivism. Bioshock was about objectivism versus… however you would define Fontaine. Non-objectivism. But both are set in the different periods – one in the future, one sixty years in the past… but they’re both relevant today. And the reason they still drive people. These are the debates people have. And if you look at Columbia and say what they’re talking about in that world isn’t relevant today you really aren’t looking very hard.

RPS: The other thing I like about the game on a conceptual level is that it’s a game which seems to be about the American Century, set right at the start of the american century. The very pure idea before it was tarnished by WW1… which is interesting in that you’re foreshadowing a disaster. There’s propaganda posters talking about the Siege, re-appropriating some WW1 propaganda. So the breaking down from the ideal to the effect of the war will be a theme of the game as well?

Ken Levine: We always appropriate stuff. When you look at a lot of the art on the wall for the original bioshock, that’s appropriated art from the period, just re-purposed. That’s what we’ve always done because A) It’s beautiful art work and B) It’s not a game about history, but it /is/ set in the context of history. One of the posters particularly I think you’re looking at is a British WW1 poster… “Daddy: What did you do during the great war”. And I thought that was so powerful. What a message to send to somebody. That’s an incredibly nationalistic poster… but also an incredibly effective poster. And it made me think a lot about it being a challenge we don’t have to face. What if your country is in an existential struggle potentially? We have a choice now. We don’t have drafts. And it was a poster which always drilled me to my core. I’ve known about that poster for years, and when I thought of this game, I thought of that poster.

RPS: This reminds me of my dad, who used to serve in the Navy, resigning up for the Navy circa the Falklands war. I remember him telling me as really a small kid that I may think him an idiot for this, but it’s something he had to do. And… yeah, this line of thought isn’t leading anywhere, especially not a question.

Ken Levine: I think it’s kind of an alien thought to some people in our generation… that you couldn’t not enlist back then. You couldn’t socially not enlist. And I think there’s a connection to a country that’s fascinating to me… that I think a lot of people still have, but people back then definitely had.

RPS: Bioshock was highly noted for the binary moral system of either killing or saving the little sisters. Are you exploring anything like this area here?

Ken Levine: It’s clear that the notion of morality in videogames is a narrative theme that’s very interesting to us. Obviously you can see themes of morality – not preaching morality – but moral themes in this universe and they’re larger themes than “This is the good guy/this is the bad guy”. The particular mechanistic approach we did in Bioshock and they followed in 2… I think we’ve explored that mechanic. And we’re not interested in taking that particular mechanic any further. We’ve said what we need to say about that. And so anything about any kind of mechanic would… well, be something that we’re not talking about now.

RPS: Shock 2 and Bioshock were games which were all about isolation. This seems to have the idea of a relationship right at its core. Why have you gone in this direction?

Ken Levine: We wanted you to feel a connection with a particular character. We thought there were areas to explore which hadn’t really been explored. The moment to me which is most interesting is when you’re on the bridge and you turn to Elizabeth and blood’s coming out of her nose. And you realise… that’s because of you. She’s not some superhero. There’s a cost to what she does. Can you build a relationship with somebody and then having that relationship, when those seeds have been planted, what can I do from a narrative standpoint? Rather than just having some plucky side-kick. She’s got stakes in it. She’s a woman who’s been imprisoned from 15 years, since she was 5 years old and she has no idea why. Helping her figure out why – and what that means for you and for her – is something which really interested me.

You’ll also notice that when you come into the bar, there’s a bunch of characters who don’t immediately attack you. One thing I think we started in Bioshock was characters like the Big Daddy who didn’t immediately aggro on you. And it occurred to me… where in the world do you walk into a room and everyone aggros on you? Even in the Wild West there’s this feeling of everyone having their hands on the gun. It allows us to tell stories like the Baby Carriage in Bioshock. As soon as she saw you, she comes after you. But what if we extend those stories out so you see those sort of moments go on longer. What if you don’t know if they’re an enemy? What if you’re sitting there for a long time? You asked how you could increase tension and drama. Well, that’s one of the routes you’re taking.

RPS: One of the images of the demo stuck with me. The woman calmly sweeping on her porch, with the whole building ablaze. Genuinely an uncanny lingering image…

Ken Levine: When we talk about Daylight, I think David Lynch is someone I thin of a lot. Think of the opening of Blue Velvet. That’s a movie about Daylight in a lot of ways. I think that moment was very much inspired by David Lynch.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Bioshock Infinite is due for some time in 2012. You can read our impressions of the game so far here.


  1. circadianwolf says:

    “Bioshock was about objectivism versus… however you would define Fontaine.”

    I find it amusing that even Levine doesn’t know what to say about Fontaine. (He famously said “nihilism” in another interview, which makes sense after you hear it but isn’t something you would get from the game itself.)


    • chesh says:

      Nihilism works for Fontaine, but I’d put him as a less idealistic version of objectivism — nothing rational about his self-interest, no aversion to violence or any other mean of coercion, even in principle. He’s just a very cunning, selfish thug.

    • ReV_VAdAUL says:

      Yeah, Fontaine is simply the natural outcome of objectivism.

    • Nick says:


    • perilisk says:

      I’d say that, to the extent that objectivism puts forth a set of virtues and a social ideal, Fontaine exhibited the antithesis of those virtues and deliberately subverted or destroyed the social ideal. Fontaine didn’t have a different ideology (or any ideology — ideology was a tool he used to manipulate people) so much as he was the objectivist devil — still a part of the religion, but representing their concept of evil rather than good.

    • chesh says:

      That seems like a fair assessment, yeah. Not that I want to give some impression that objectivists are all noble truth seekers or generally good people, but if you take away what few rules it has you get something even worse, like Fontaine.

      I really wish we had some objectivist wingnut in here to rage about your comparison of it to religion, that would be good for a laugh.

    • Muzman says:

      That was definitely my take when he said that (in the interview): Bioshock was Objectivism vs Objectivism.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      The fact that he doesn’t know exactly what to label Fontaine as makes me like him and BioShock more than absolutely everything I’ve seen of his work since after SWAT 4.

    • Adventurous Putty says:

      One interesting thing he’s mentioned in interviews in the past is that, while Bioshock serves as a deconstruction of Objectivism specifically, more broadly it was meant to satirize such a strict adherence to any particular dogma and philosophy that it becomes self-destructive. So another contrast between Andrew Ryan and Fontaine is that, while Ryan is the arch-ideologue who operates on such a strict moral code that he would rather kill himself than be a “slave”, Fontaine’s morality is so thin that it can change on a whim so long as it serves his self-interest.

      Side note on the same subject: having not played Bioshock 2 (and not really having much intention of doing so), is it true that one of the characters there is kind of an embodiment of socialism or collectivism, in the same way Ryan stood in for Objectivism and capitalism? If so, how did that play out?

    • Muzman says:

      Puttster: It’s self destructive also because it is self contradictory. Ryan wanted to believe in no higher authority beyond the individual and create something where this could take place as he saw it. But his unwavering on this basically allowed Fontaine to be, and then once that genie was out of the bottle he betrayed most of his own principles in order to try and stop him. The elephant in the room was that in order for there to be no gods or kings to believe in or subject yourself to, you still had to believe in Rapture. Ryan then puts himself before the last thing he has any faith in: free will. He will be killed by his own “child” as the ultimate demonstration of the failure of his whole philosophy.

    • hitnrun says:

      I also find it funny he doesn’t know what to call Fontaine, though I always had a feeling the Bioshock writers didn’t exactly grasp the real philosophical contribution they made with the character.

      Most rebuttals of Objectivism center around how mean and horrible it is (or can be), which really just plays into the Objectivist’s hands, since the thesis of the whole philosophy is that “mean and horrible” is not a rebuttal to anything, and certainly not relevant to “true” or “effective.”

      Fontaine is rather wonderful in that regard. The real philosophical relevation of Bioshock is that Andrew Ryan ISN’T responsible for the horrors of Rapture. The wages of self-interest and the cold caricatures of individualism, presented in so sinister a fashion throughout the game, end up NOT being the cause of the carnage. The city was proceeding just fine* as far Ryan and his citizens were concerned, but for Fontaine.

      Which is exactly the point: there is no way to remove Fontaine from the equation. There is always a Fontaine. If you promote (or in this case, segregate) the ambitious and amoral, someone will always have much to gain by playing the losers of the game against the winners – and no reason not to do it. Cynicism and guile always triumph over blind idealism. (This isn’t even theoretical, when you think about the way legislators amass money and power, but that’s a whole different rant.)

      *We’re ignoring the ill-conceived sequel story for obvious reasons.

    • perilisk says:

      “Side note on the same subject: having not played Bioshock 2 (and not really having much intention of doing so), is it true that one of the characters there is kind of an embodiment of socialism or collectivism, in the same way Ryan stood in for Objectivism and capitalism? If so, how did that play out?”

      (Spoilers ahead!)

      The main antagonist is an anti-individualist and anti-objectivist (to the extent of believing in consensus reality and that self-awareness was synonymous with tyranny). She plans to use her daughter, a former little sister with latent telepathic ability, to store the memories and personalities of Rapture’s citizens as a sort of gestalt entity in one powerful body (in the story, the ADAM collected from bodies by little sisters also captures “genetic memory” — her plan is to use Little Sisters to collect ADAM from the dead and feed it all to her daughter).

      Her daughter isn’t an ideologue of any sort, but a normal rebellious teenager (barring her prior little sister programming), so that plan doesn’t go over very well. She gets other little sisters to use the Vita Chambers to reanimate her long-deceased Big Daddy guardian (the protagonist, whom she views as a real father figure) tor rescue her. It’s actually a little like a ultra-collectivist variant of the Morrigan/Flemeth subplot from Dragon Age, I suppose.

  2. PhiIl Cameron says:

    I miss his staring eyes.

  3. PacifismFailed says:

    holy shit, games journalism

    • Malcolm says:

      An exemplary interview – I actually feel more informed after reading it. Compare and contrast with this workmanlike effort “How many endings will it have” “Is it as big as Fallout 3”. A different game, but still. My RPS subscription is certainly safe.

    • Sonic Goo says:

      Also, compare the comments here to the ones on the previous post on this game.

  4. kupocake says:

    I’ve slept on it, and ‘Infinite‘ is still an awful, awful name. Can’t believe I’m going to have to wait two years (and the rest, let’s be honest) to find out what on earth possessed them.

    That and the fact that everything else about it looks amazing. Maybe it’s the bright colours and sunlight, but I haven’t felt this ready to jump headfirst into a game-world since seeing Mirror’s Edge for the first time. Let’s just pray there are no talking dogs in bi-planes in this sky.

    • circadianwolf says:

      I don’t know, a Peanuts crossover would be pretty sweet. Plus, Americans’ idealizations of their past and all that.

    • Duck says:

      Oh come on, even though I didn’t like the art style of Up, I still thought it was a great movie. Less about the sappy environmentalism, more about the undying relationship of a husband and wife. The fact that a kid’s movie today can be carried by an “old man” protagonist blew me away. And what an amazing graphical achievement with all of those balloons…

      Oh wait, you were talking about Snoopy from Peanuts. Never mind.

    • kupocake says:

      Nope, talking about Up. I love that film for precisely the reasons you mention. And then it had talking dogs in bi-planes. Not even Dreamworks would touch that.

      But Up is ten minutes ago. Someone on Eurogamer just pointed out the Laputa similarities and I’m quite taken with that!

      Snoopy? Good Grief.

    • Freud says:

      It doesn’t really make any sense to name a game something that “you won’t understand until you’ve actually played the game through and it’ll make even more sense when you know that stuff.”. At least not at the expense of having people not having bought the game yet thinking it is a very shitty name.

    • Duck says:

      “Nope, talking about Up. I love that film for precisely the reasons you mention. And then it had talking dogs in bi-planes. Not even Dreamworks would touch that.”

      Dreamworks not only touched that line, they crossed it, went around the world in the same direction to cross it again, and then shared two beers with it and watched the football game.

      You can’t blame Pixar for putting a mind-bogglingly immature and just plain stupid segment into a very mature and touching movie when it’s supposed to be for kids who grew up on…Dreamworks! The fact that Dreamworks can put out five “Madagascars” for every “Wall-E” means that kids are growing more and more accustomed to the mindless, attention-span-shortening cartoons that are Dreamworks movies.

      Pixar can’t live off the Parental Bonus for an entire movie anymore. link to

    • Sam C. says:

      I’m guessing that’s a jab at Up?

    • Jason Moyer says:

      I’m sure you guys have seen this, but it’s hilarious nonetheless:

      link to

  5. Jim Rossignol says:

    I will never tire of that Best Scenes From “The Wicker Man” clip.

  6. Cooper says:

    I honestly have some hopes up for this one. Here’s hoping the promising narrative GOES SOMEWHERE. Bioshock 1: I’m looking at you.

    I get the feeling that Mr Levine seems to take historical, political, social and philosophical concepts and issues like they are diferent toys in a big box of toys to be taken out, played with, put away again. Not that they shouldn’t be treated like that, mind you.

    The imaginative play he’s created with these toys have been great fun, sure. Yet his exploratory play with these concepts have nudged ever so painfully close to insightful. But shies away from it so often.

    No, this does not mean that the narratives have to “say something.” Ambiguity, especially when playing with the toys Levine choses, is the right way to go about it. But the toys, and the end of the play, just get put back in the box: I had fun playing with Rand’s philosophies, but my engagement, at the end, had not changed. The toys remained the same as when they were taken out of the box.

    They’re the same toys at the end as those he got out to play with. Truly great exploration with these toys should change them for the player. Same toys, but never to be approached in the same way again.

    Which is why his use of the term “appropriation” is so apt. Painfully apt.

    Levine has been appropriating these social and philosophical concepts. And has done so in a very entertaining and fun way. But, please, go one step further? I’m sure he’s capable of that. Do more than appropriate, more than ape and draw from.

    Good appropriation, good exploration, should lead to illumination, or a differing engagement with the source material than existed previously. It is this last step which has been missing so far, which is such a shame, because he has nudged ever so close…

    • RagingLion says:

      That is a really brilliant wording of something that is very important. You’ve just described something that I personally hold very dearly but haven’t been able to bring that amount of clarity to before.

      I also look for things to say something rather than just bringing them forth for examination. That’s the easy way out and ultimately is fairly unfulfilling, although at least by illuminating whatever these toys are and spending time with them you have the chance to discover something about them by yourself. It is very hard to say something really meaningful that holds up of course – otherwise why hasn’t everyone else said it before and agreed with it. But if you’re capable of it then that’s definitely what I want to see from artistic creators.

      Also: great interview; it helped clarify things a lot.

    • blil says:

      Maybe. But it opened up the topic to a wide range of people who’ve never heard of it. That’s illumination right?

      Personally, though I consider myself reasonably well educated, I’d managed to totally miss Ayn Rand and Objectivism. Bioshock pretty clearly explained the ideas, and gave an insight into its pros and cons. And it did this through a good story and a good game. That’s a reasonably big achievement imho.

      I finished reading Atlas Shrugged 3 days ago – something I’d never have done without bioshock. (awesome first half – dragged out 500 pages too long ;-) ). I was a little surprised by how much had been lifted from it, but i don’t hold that against bioshock.

      There’s probably a lot of kids on the xbox who played bioshock purely for the shooty bangs, but maybe even some of them passively took onboard a few of the ideas. That’s also a reasonably big achievement.

      I think you have a lofty goal for video games, but i think right now Ken Levine is probably a long way ahead of all other video games, and that seems a big enough achievement to me.

  7. DethDonald says:

    They should have named it something completely different. You know, so when the inevitable link to Bioshock appears it would absolutely blow your mind. The same way the links between Portal and Half-life work.

  8. Duck says:

    RPS: Well, is this actually the same universe as Bioshock?

    Ken Levine: I’m not going to answer that question.

    Oh wait Ken, you already did because you named your effing game “BIOSHOCK: Infinite”.

    • PhiIl Cameron says:

      Except, as Kieron outlines directly after that, the Final Fantasy games share a name, but don’t share a universe. So no, he hasn’t answered that.


    • Duck says:

      Yeah, but isn’t the milking of a franchise name the kind of games development philosophy that someone like Ken Levine would be strongly against?

    • ReV_VAdAUL says:

      Mr Levine has shown great skill in fucking with his audience (in a good way) up to now, so there is a possibility he’ll pull off something special with all this “you’ll understand once you’ve played the game” stuff.

    • circadianwolf says:

      I would more think that “I’m not going to answer that” is the reason the answer is yes. I mean, if it was just another universe sharing the name, why not say that? The only reason to conceal the answer is if there is some genuine connection.

      Which is unfortunate, ’cause it makes Rapture seem like a late-comer to the capitalist utopian city with super powered people. (Unless it is, in fact, a miniature world in Andrew Ryan’s ear canal. I could do with that.)

    • Duck says:

      I really don’t want to get into the Bioshock philosophy-politics argument again, but Rapture is not, in any sense of the word, a capitalist society. I don’t care what you say about objectivism, but capitalism is an economic idea first. Besides, Fontaine was way more of a capitalist than Ryan ever dreamed of being.

      And now, because of Ken Levine again, I have to argue with people’s misconceptions of 1900’s American/English worldviews, but I will not start that argument here.

    • kupocake says:

      Whether it’s strictly in the same universe or not, the idea that the Bioshock franchise is now loosely about cities makes the old quotes about the Bioshock series mimicking the development cycles of the Grand Theft Auto games seem intriguing.

      Harping on against Infinite, Bioshock Columbia sounds appropriate enough to me, and not ‘like an expansion pack’ simply because we’ve had San Andreas et al. Isn’t the forthcoming novel of the first game even called Bioshock Rapture?

    • ReV_VAdAUL says:

      @ Duck but Rand stated the only way for objectivism to work was in the context of laissez faire capitalism, so either Rapture wasn’t actually an objectivist society or they were capitalist?

    • perilisk says:

      I think his point was that while Objectivism might prefer laissez faire capitalism, there were several other significant characteristics of the ideology (which came through in the game) — artistic integrity, technological progress, and a hatred for “irrationality”, particularly including religion. Focusing on the economy alone is fairly myopic, although understandable if one has strong anti- or pro- capitalistic urges.

    • ReV_VAdAUL says:

      Prefer is putting it too lightly, laissez faire is the only way to go as far as objectivism is concerned. Plus he wasn’t accusing people of myopia, he said that rapture was in no way shape or form capitalist, which would mean it wasn’t objectivist. Unless he was arguing it had lapsed into corporatism which would be a perfectly valid assessment.

    • Duck says:

      “Unless he was arguing it had lapsed into corporatism which would be a perfectly valid assessment.”

      Exactly. More like “Ryanism” as a form of corporatism when applied to the game world. Less specifically, perhaps, just plain elitism. The entire concept of Earth’s elite coming into an underground world to force a “we know what’s best” utopia, and in order to continue it must make sure that they only breed elite offspring doesn’t exactly scream free-market economics, if you catch my drift.

      Besides that, there’s a difference between objectivism as Rand put it on paper and objectivism as it is in the real world, and that goes for any idea, which I thought could’ve been touched on a little bit more in the game.

    • Michael says:

      One word, Ken: multiverse.

    • circadianwolf says:

      “The entire concept of Earth’s elite coming into an underground world to force a ‘we know what’s best’ utopia”

      It’s all too much like that anti-objectivist novel Atlas Shrugged, is what you’re saying ?

      Anyway, Bioshock is late stage capitalism, which you are correct in stating doesn’t really look like capitalism as popularly understood, but is nonetheless its inevitable conclusion (or at least the inevitable conclusion of objectivism’s laissez-faire capitalism).

    • Urthman says:

      I really don’t want to get into the Bioshock philosophy-politics argument again, but Rapture is not, in any sense of the word, a capitalist society.

      That’s one of my favorite parts about Bioshock. Rapture is an Objectivist Utopia in almost exactly the same sense that the Soviet Union was a Communist Utopia.

      It is one of the most realistic, effective rebuttals to Objectivism possible. Pointing out that even if Objectivists could get a bunch of people to try a society based on their principles, it would (like pretty much every attempt at a Communist or other Utopia we’ve seen) inevitably wind up controlled by rich, powerful people spouting Objectivist slogans while implementing policies benefiting themselves and retaining as much power for themselves as possible.

  9. dspair says:

    What an icredible interview. Kieron has done it for the 385766767th time.

  10. J_Ore says:

    Time to re-read Gulliver’s Travels, I guess.

    Also, Ken Levine and Jordan Thomas are two very different game designers, both with large amounts of money and upper-management faith in them. I feel very optimistic about both Bioshock 1 alumni and their projects.

  11. Huggster says:

    Resident Evil 4 did horror in daylight, complete with villagers wandering around burning corpses etc., and it was done very well. Hence why it is still one of my all time favourites. Then you have Dark corners of the Earth ….. not in daylight but similar thematically.
    The scary thing about the Wicker Man is that they were normal people – and normal looking people (under the masks!). Same with RE4 – not too zombie looking.
    You don’t need rotten / ragged features for horror in daylight – just the intent for malice from the local populace for example – the main plot device always being that the protagonist is stranded by whatever means.

    • Jad says:

      Yeah on horror in daylight: basically the thing that horror games/moves/etc. play on is the fear of being helpless. Being helpless in the face of danger is terrifying. Darkness works to bring about that sensation because humans’ strongest sense is sight and we have poor night vision. But you can be thoroughly helpless in broad daylight too: introduce danger and then 1) limit a person’s ability to fight back (no weapons or little ammo), 2) limit their ability to flee (closed in places, or open area with danger in ever direction), and 3) limit their ability to get help (isolation, no allies).

      One of the most frightening movies I ever saw was not a horror movie and had no real intention of scaring it’s viewers: Hotel Rwanda. You don’t need darkness or ghosts or jump cuts to be scary. Just put your characters in a hotel surrounded by people who want to kill them, give the characters a very limited ability to stop the killing from occurring, constantly change the rules of who lives and dies, and you have edge-of-your seat panic.

    • Spacewalk says:

      There’s also Ecstatica which doesn’t get mentioned enough in discussions about horror games.

  12. Anthony says:

    I like how Levine and his crew explore these sorts of things in their games. You could point to the thematic inspirations and say they’re not subtle or simplify matters, but regardless at least someone is trying to play around with this.

    I mean, in Bioshock you had this very stark divide between how Ryan envisioned his world and how it eventually turned out. It wasn’t so much as statement on the failure of an Objectivist society as it was a treatise on how despite any ideological motivation we’re all still human beings with very human failings. Ryan ended up damning himself by becoming that which he despised and originally tried to escape from, and that’s not something we see very often in games. It’s tackling stuff like this that drives the evolution of games as narratives rather than just another corridor in which to shoot people.

    Of course, Bioshock had a lot of corridors in which to shoot people, and hopefully we see a greater emphasis on more ranged engagements in this new one.

    I also really like the themes here – the start of the 20th Century is such an interesting period of time that seems under-represented in games. I like the themes of Art Nouveau everywhere, jingoism and the death of Empire. It’s such a unique time period where that rampant optimism eventually faced the dark horrors of massive warfare using technological progress to kill as much as save.

  13. DrEvilbones says:

    Cooper: I’m with you 100% on this. Well, maybe 95%. I think maybe “ambiguity” isn’t quite the right word, because I think that implies confusion and a lack of communication. Maybe “non-conclusive” would be better; that is, I think it is important to “say something” but that something doesn’t need to be a math equation (and, er, probably shouldn’t try to be). It shouldn’t be “nihilism +y >= objectivism + x” or some kind of actual value equation, but instead, like you’re saying, there needs to be some sort of dialog going on, some sort of insightful connections somewhere. Otherwise all you really did was make a “mix tape” of philosophy and then pretending you’re Fatboy Sartre. (I’m mixing metaphors like I was baking some kind of metaphor cake of words)

  14. Jason Moyer says:

    Helping her figure out why – and what that means for you and for her – is something which really interested me.

    She’s totally the reason the city is flying isn’t she. Please tell me that’s not going to be the crux of the game’s plot.

  15. Oak says:

    We struggled with the name for a long, long time and then one day we were at lunch and I said “What if it was this”. And everyone said that it’s the right name for it.

    There’s a lesson to be learned here: don’t drink at lunch.

  16. Dave L. says:

    It’s much easier to say “We’ll do another Bioshock in Rapture” game. That’s the easy path for us. So we took a harder path for ourselves.

    I love how he frames ‘Let’s do another Bioshock, but somewhere other than Rapture’ as if it’s some huge creative challenge.

    • AndrewC says:

      This is true. I create entire counter-factual societies with complete histories and technologies that are not only coherent in themselves but tie in to and comment upon real-world ethical issues AND the mechanics of a complex computer game in my lunchbreak. Every lunchbreak.

      Don’t you?

    • Dave L. says:

      If they weren’t copy-pasting the majority of the game mechanics from Bioshock, I might agree. As it is, it’s practically a reskin. Which is a challenge for the art department, but an overall game design challenge? No.

    • Ozzie says:

      For the life of me, I can’t figure out how you all know that it’s just a reskin.

      The trailer certainly wasn’t that insightful and I came to a different conclusion from all that I read.

    • Dave L. says:

      I’ve got this great idea for a game. It’s called: ‘Gears of War Steamboat.’ It uses the same exaggerated character designs, the same combat mechanics (cover system, shooting, QTE melee and whatnot), the same variety of brain dead enemies, and the same super-macho over the top writing as Gears of War. But it’s ON A STEAMBOAT, so, you know, bright colours and water physics and shit. Maye there can be some stuff about the monsters representing the oppression of African Americans in the post-Civil War South. ’40 acres and a mule’ and all that jazz (no pun intended. But we should totally have a ragtime soundtrack!). Shit writes itself.

      Totally way more creatively challenging than Gears of War 3: More Brown Ruined Cities and Underground Stuff.

      Wait, what? You want a COMPLETELY new game/ip? Nobody would buy that!

    • Thants says:

      I think if you waited until we had any information at all about the gameplay your comment would have more of an effect.

    • Thants says:

      And yes, every game made should be entirely unlike any other game. That’s perfectly reasonable.

    • Dave L. says:

      It’s got plasmids, big daddy equivalents, and a partially ruined city populated by super powered kill crazy psychos (who will now wait a few seconds before attacking you instead of attacking you on sight. OOH, TENSION.). The only ‘new’ thing mechanics-wise is Elizabeth, and 5 dollars says she’s going to essentially be Elika, and resurrect you every time you die, or levitate you back to the ground every time you fall off the city (as shown in the trailer), and have scripted moments where she helps you out in combat.

      And heaven forfend that a guy who the mainstream games press has taken to hailing as one of the most brilliant and original games designers currently working should actually DESIGN ORIGINAL GAMES.

    • DD says:

      I don’t agree with you at all.

  17. Lars Westergren says:

    I finally have time to log in a comment:

    A) I totally fell for that “So Irrational’s next game is a platformer with a sassy squirrel? Hm” tweet the night before the announcement bomb fell. Damnit. I need my British humor detector adjusted. Or a brain upgrade maybe.

    B) I LOVE IRRATIONAL! That they make plots that raise questions, that are worth discussing. Their games are unquestionably art, and are still extremely fun to play. So there, Carmack, Epic and Ebert.

    C) If this game turns out to have these production values and the great plot and characters hinted at – and if it also has some RPG elements in it – for instance, you can sell stuff you can find, and buy new or upgrade armor, weapons, or skills…. it would pretty much be my dream game. I would pay $500 for that game. Without blinking.

    D) If there is one thing that could make the next Irrational game even cooler, it would be if it were set in a fantastic environment outside the US. There are other times and countries that have interesting art, and have political/philosophical transition periods that could be mined for interesting themes. Like say, a occult/supernatural thriller in the courts of Renaissance or Enlightenment France, deadly political intrigues in and around the Byzantine or Ottoman Empires, or a Buddhist spiritual quest set around India, China or Tibet 500 BC where Gods and demons are real and walk the earth. (Or as I’ve said many times before, I wish some company make games in the worlds created by Gaiman, Mieville or similar)

  18. Tei says:

    And now, I want to watch a america 1900 documentary :-D

  19. Mad Doc MacRae says:

    There were a few points in the interview that I bristled at a bit or just didn’t understand.

    “There was never a discussion that it’d be “Bioshock colon Something” because that always says expansion.”
    Well you did it anyway, so I’m quite sure why you said that…

    One thing I think we started in Bioshock was characters like the Big Daddy who didn’t immediately aggro on you.
    “Started”? I hope he means started within the Bioshock franchise because I’m pretty sure Bioshock wasn’t the first game to not have hostile NPCs. And Bioshock didn’t have very many non-hostile NPCs anyway, so it seems a little silly to brag about it.

    Maybe I’m being overly picky, and at least the second bit seems like they’ll be doing more non-hostile NPCs, which could be very good, but something rubbed me wrong about those two points in particular (and a few others that I had to re-read to make sure I understood).

    • Tei says:

      It occurs to me than wen you “get” the infinite reference, then the colon make the whole thing stop looking like a expansion.

      And I don’t look like a expansion to me. Since expansion reuse props, and this seems exact oposite.

    • Taillefer says:

      But did Irrational put the colon there, or did RPS?

      Their website seems to refer to it as “Bioshock Infinite”.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      The colon was me fucking up.

      The “we started doing” I took about them. As in, they didn’t do opponents which didn’t aggro. Shock 2 certainly didn’t, and Bioshock took the “Eventual Enemy doing something for a long time with no need for a fight to kick off” to an interesting place with the Big Daddies – as in, it’s a little more than the plain naturalistic Deus Ex “You are in a street, and they’re only going to shoot you if you shoot them” stuff.

      But no, I didn’t get the sense when he was saying it he meant it in an arrogant way.


  20. Seamus says:

    This makes me slightly more optimistic, although I do wish they would start speaking about the gameplay instead of the damned narrative.

    • Urthman says:

      I think that the Bioshock developers are basically making games the way Cyan made Myst games with shooting mechanics instead of puzzle mechanics.

      Cyan worked hard to make great puzzles and to attempt integrating them with the story and the location, but the games were always first and foremost about creating a unique, fascinating world for you to explore.

      I’m happy with that as a focus. Good combat gameplay can be fun, but I rarely find it as engaging and rewarding as a fascinating new world to explore. Ideally both aspects would be great, but I’m happy for them to focus on making sure the world building is fantastic.

  21. DeepSleeper says:

    “And the other thing is we have a gameplay challenge where the player drives how he solves the problem and he has a huge set of tools to drive the solution. ”

    Right. You’ve got some ice, you’ve got some fire, you’ve got some electricity, some water, and you’ve got a wrench.


    • Mad Doc MacRae says:

      That was the other thing that bothered me about the interview!

  22. Barnz says:

    Irrational haven’t made anything good since System Shock II. Come on Ken, show some love for PC, we don’t want your casual console shooters.

    • Dave L. says:

      Freedom Force says hello.

    • Seamus says:

      Am I the only one who actually thought Tribes Vengeance was actually pretty good?

    • Barnz says:

      Sorry, I forgot those. Yeah, Tribes 3’s single player was good. Freedom Force, haven’t tried that out, but I have heard good things about it – but still, these two don’t make a System Shock game. I want a true sequel to System Shock, not a console shooter.

    • PhiIl Cameron says:

      Swat 4 was incredible, too.

    • Rinox says:

      Calling the original Bioshock a ‘casual console shooter’ is much too harsh anyway. It’s certainly miles away from the CoD and Halo of this world.

  23. Hecktar says:

    Got to agree with ReV_VAdAUL, I always saw him as the realistic objectivist. He is literally the Man who climbs from nothing to riches by the strength of his individual will. While all the others are sort of ivory tower objectivists who have been powerful, successful or rich outside, Fountain is the objectivist Rapture builds. There was a need for bibles, he sold bibles. There were a legion of poor and underachievers, he forged them into an industry (through his slums project) and finally into an army. For me at lest, that’s one of the main weakness of Rand’s philosophy, it forgets the downtrodden. Her vision sees the man who climbs from manual labor to mega-management, and it forgets that for every Taggart, there are a legion who would never climb that ladder. Because it’s a ladder, there’s not much room for many to climb, to stretch the metaphor. And Fountain is the man who really climbed, so high that he threatens Ryan with his power. And suddenly free competition is going out the window. Ryan sacrifices Rapture’s ideals to protect Rapture, which supposed to be the manifestation of these ideas. And the whole city buckles under the pressure. The pressure of reality on the ideal.

  24. Beerio says:

    Is this the same universe as Bioshock?

    Well, if it isn’t, then what on earth is a toy Big Daddy doing in the game?
    Given that this apparently predates the previous game (is that right?) it rather makes a mockery of the tale of how Big Daddies came to be as outlined in 1 and 2…. no?

    SNAP! (Captcha win!)

    • Anthony says:

      I’d be careful about reading to much into that. To me it felt more like a shout out to the previous titles in the context of a teaser trailer rather than anything story-related.

    • Taillefer says:

      It turns out that in the first Bioshock, you were actually controlling somebody in the Bioshock Infinite world who was playing a computer game called Bioshock. He ordered the collector’s edition and put the figurine in his fish tank, as you can see. It’s all meta and stuff.

    • Urthman says:

      That could be a Big Daddy, or it could just be a figurine of a dude in an old-fashioned diving suit holding a big drill:

      link to

  25. Bumholio the Wise says:

    Excellent stuff. This is why I come to RPS.

    I’ve a soft spot for anything Bioshock.

    Genuinely wtf? material.

  26. Rii says:

    “RPS: Shock 2 and Bioshock were games which were all about isolation. This seems to have the idea of a relationship right at its core.”

    Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who played Bioshock 2 with the sound on. It would explain a lot.

    • Jamesworkshop says:

      I know what you mean Delta and Elanor sold Bioshock 2 to me as i felt the story was much less about clever socio-politcial commentry coupled with a cynical take on human nature
      Noble ideals destroyed by personal biases that the original had but went in the opposite direction with an optimistic take on forging a new identity through the nature of parenting, plenty of games use morality but I’ve yet to see any define the nature of another character with Elanor mirroring your morals.

      But in fairness Bioshock 2 was not a tale by Ken but by Jordan thomas and so he was only really talking about Bioshock 1 which was heavily disconnected and isolated your effective parents Fontaine and Tenebaum never really cared for you even the name jack implied that your name was just an afterthough

      To anyone called Jack your parents didn’t love you

    • Sonic Goo says:

      I think that’s why he says ‘Shock 2 and Bioshock’. ;)

  27. R. Mansfield says:

    I wonder what the documentary was. I’d be interested in watching it, too,

  28. JackShandy says:

    Ok, everyone, take your bets. What are the odds that:

    – You will be ordered around through some sort of com unit for most of the game.
    – Your support character will betray you.
    – Everyone on columbia will have a pathological desire to speak rambling diary entries, then leave them around at random.
    – You will have to kill the man who created Columbia. (Extra guess: It’s Moustache-Man from the screenshot).
    – The game will be repeatedly mentioned as an example of Games-R-Art

    • Lars Westergren says:


      I’m actually willing to bet you are wrong on several of those accounts.

      >You will be ordered around through some sort of com unit for most of the game.

      Yes. Builds a relation with characters, easy to build a mood, keeps the gameflow running so you don’t need to backtrack to talk to ppl and find out what you will do next all the time.

      >Your support character will betray you.


      >Everyone on columbia will have a pathological desire to speak rambling diary entries, then leave them around at random.

      Possible, but this has been copied in several other games, and several people have remarked that it is a bit silly (Zero Punctuation, RPS’es own contract with game devs for instance) it so it may be toned down. Especially since it sounds like there will be non-hostile NPCs in this game. They can ramble straight at you in person now.

      >You will have to kill the man who created Columbia. (Extra guess: It’s Moustache-Man from the screenshot).

      Possible, but I hope not since this would be such an obvious 1-to-1 to the Bioshock 1 plot. I think they are more creative than that.

      >The game will be repeatedly mentioned as an example of Games-R-Art

      Of course. Their games are. I said it myself in an earlier post.

    • blil says:

      You mean it’s going to be System Shock again??? Jeez….

  29. JackShandy says:

    Ok, everyone, take your bets. What are the odds that:

    – You will be ordered around through some sort of com unit for most of the game.
    – Your support character will betray you.
    – Everyone on columbia will have a pathological desire to speak rambling diary entries, then leave them around at random.
    – You will have to kill the man who created Columbia. (Extra guess: It’s Moustache-Man from the screenshot).
    – The game will be repeatedly mentioned as an example of Games-R-Art.

  30. MultiVaC says:

    BioShock: Forever

  31. Thiefsie says:

    infinity rolls off my tongue easier…


  32. sebmojo says:

    This is a really fantastic comments thread (and interview, of course).

    Thanks RPS – too often the comments here make me want to gnaw my own nostrils off. Which isn’t possible, so that only makes me madder.

  33. Treymoney says:

    So pretty much every game Irrational has made after System Shock 2 has been good.

  34. manveruppd says:

    Really good interview, thanks!

  35. Sharkticon says:

    Blah blah narrative blah blah setting blah blah universe…

    I’m just waiting to see whether or not the gameplay is better than the turd that was Bioshock. Never has a shooter bored me more.

    • Chorltonwheelie says:

      Yep. The clunky philosophy is recognised and dealt with in half an hour and then your left with a dull shooter.

    • tomwaitsfornoman says:

      Sir! I agree with you!

      Good day!

    • Gregg B says:

      I thought I was the only one doing that all the way through the interview. Bioshock was a step forwards for games intellectually but mechanically it was a strange step backwards from System Shock 2. The Bioshock design document showed that they wanted to push the gameplay in really interesting ways but for whatever reasons that aspect of the game was seriously watered down (no pun intended).

      In fact, let’s be honest, aside from all the philosophy and ‘blah blah setting blah blah universe’ the game was essentially System Shock 2 repackaged to be a more viable commercial product. The incidental stuff flourished while the meat of the game just squandered and defaulted to Irrational’s seminal classic, which isn’t a bad thing it’s just not the revelation we were expecting.

      I loved Bioshock and I’m excited about Infinite but reading this interview (and on watching the original Bioshock developer walkthrough from years back) made me realise why I don’t subscribe to pre-release hype: because it could all be hot air. And yeah, no pun intended there either.

  36. Anton says:

    This setting sounds a hell lot like Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.
    (anarchic balloon adventures over uberpowered America around 1900, with bits of SF)
    I wonder if those guys read it…

  37. Craig Stern says:

    Great interview. My immediate thought after reading “Columbia” was the World’s Columbian Exposition. I’ll be surprised if that isn’t the reference he was shooting for.

  38. Sumantra Lahiri says:

    That was a great interview. The idea of having a 1900 futuristic backdrop is brilliant. The setting as well as the overall idea of this game reminds me of Julia Keller’s book “Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It”. It’s a great book about that time in American history where many people were very hopeful of the future. I would definitely recommend the book to anyone who wants to understand the backdrop of BioShock: Infinity better.

  39. CaptObviouso says:

    Bioshock: Anti-Tea Party propaganda to the masses before the 2012 elections.

  40. PaulOHara says:

    I feel bad that I have owned Bioshock 1 ever since it came out, and I haven’t beaten it. I have however beaten Bioshock 2 on the 360 and will be buying this for PC, since I’m fixing to upgrade the video cards in my current machine from a GTX260 to two GTX480s running in SLI mode.

  41. 3Suns says:

    Great interview, which is to say intelligent, interesting, and relevant questions posed to one of the top designers in the industry.

    Love this site!

    Gotta dust off BioShock.

  42. noclip says:

    Sounds about right to me. At the end of the game the player forced to choose between saving the girl thereby killing everyone else in the city and saving the city at the cost of the girl’s freedom/life. It’s their take on utilitarianism.

  43. Dawngreeter says:

    Is it just me being cynical, or does he come across as someone who isn’t overly aware that historical themes can be used as a form of (contemporary) social commentary?

    RPS: From what you’ve shown so far, the major themes are American imperialism and fear of immigration. Both are themes which are, to say the least, discussed heavily today.

    Ken Levine: But they were discussed back then at length too.

    I imagine him standing there, confused, point of the question flying right past him. “Huh? Nah man, we’re not using CNN as a theme for our game. They done talked ’bout that shit back then too.”

  44. FAIL says:

    I’m curious if the negative and obvious propaganda aimed at Conservative issues was the idea of the creators, or was requested by the corporation to further their own Socialist spread in America.

    Turning the issue of unchecked immigration and its effects on economics, crime, and the value of citizenship into nothing more the paltry racism, or trying to make those who cherish their 2nd Amendment rights seem to be paranoid fools is expected in the movies and television created on the Left Coast. I suppose it was only a matter of time before this garbage was wormed into games by those who cannot win the debate with honesty.

    Also, the characters are cartoonish, the voice acting is terrible, and the girl is ugly.