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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.

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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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