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Ken Levine: The Conversation, Part Two

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“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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