Ken Levine is the kind of creative force that an industry needs in order to thrive, in many ways it’s reassuring to know that he’s content to tell his stories of meteoric clashes of philosophy through games rather than, as might ordinarily be expected, the medium of film.
His latest creation, BioShock Infinite, explores the ideals of American exceptionalism, the idea which some hold that America is the first ‘new’ nation – albeit with a predictably unpredictable BioShock twist. For instead of returning to the underwater city of Rapture, Infinite’s action takes place in the floating city of Columbia, a steam-punk inspired world dripping in American vitriol. Why this new setting? How will it play? Are gamers ready for such deeply philosophic storylines? Read on to find out…
Games Catalyst: Before we head to the quite literally dizzying heights of Columbia, I’d like to briefly head back to Rapture and BioShock. In hindsight how do you see those first BioShock steps, what did you want to improve upon in BioShock Infinite?
Ken Levine: The biggest strength of the first game was the world we created, that we created a place that felt complete, felt like a unique space that you’d had never been to before but with a life of its own. It’s been a frustration to me in so many games that, you know, I’m in a jungle, or factory, or somewhere alien that I really have no connection to and doesn’t feel real.
For me, the most important thing to me is to make something different, but also something that feels connected and real. Like maybe people actually lived here, grew up, had families, even had their hearts broken; all within the context of a first-person shooter.
We [Irrational Games] like creating worlds which are picturesque but also believable, that’s what we do and is something we carry over [into BioShock Infinite]. The other thing we carry over is the technique of making the player play through the combat experiences with a lot of improvisation and expression within the context of this really amazing place [Columbia].
GC: OK, so let’s turn our attention to BioShock Infinite now, obviously it’s still a BioShock game but do you see it as taking place in the same universe as Rapture or is it more about carrying over the series’ key fundamentals?
KL: Our viewpoint was, or I think that, the gaming industry has got a little bit lazy when it comes to sequels, we tend to say “Hey people, here are a few new levels, some new monsters, give us your $50″. That seems to be the exchange we’re asking for but I’m not sure how fair that is.
GC: I know what you mean, take Call of Duty to pull one franchise randomly out of the air, the games tend to involve similar hero and villain characters, scenarios can tend to be reminiscent of each other, yet a new entry appears year after year…
KL: Well if you’re looking at ways of making money then you can do that, but I don’t know that in the long run you’re taking the excitement away from the industry as a whole. I mean Call of Duty is an event because it is Call of Duty, but is it really an ‘event’? Does it feel new and fresh? We’re lucky to have the time and resources to step away from any kind of cycle and try to innovate and come up with something different within the context of the franchise.
GC: One of the underlying aspects of BioShock has always been about examining various philosophies. The original explored objectivism, the second tackled altruism and, though correct me if I’m wrong, Infinite examines American exceptionalism, the idea that America represents the first ‘new’ nation; what’s the thinking there?
KL: Well one thing that people didn’t see in the content released already is that there are actually a couple of major philosophies at play in the city of Columbia. In the first demo we highlighted the political faction who call themselves the Founders, not just the founders of the city but in their mind modelled after the founders of the United States.
Then there’s another group who go by the name of the Vox Populi (voice of the people if you don’t do Latin – ed.) who are an internationalist group who are very much in opposition to the Founders – you’ll see them in the next demo. We want to look at how people take the same set of philosophies, the founding documents of the United States in this case, and walk away with completely different interpretations of what those documents mean.
GC: The visual aspect of the BioShock games has also been striking too, especially the art deco influences throughout Rapture. From what we’ve seen so far Columbia is dripping in corrupted Stars & Stripes, crosses and other propaganda, what can we expect of the game as a whole?
KL: It’s based upon a vision of a world that’s not really real, that never really came to pass, but it’s the ideal of what people might see when they close their eyes. If Ayn Rand was to close her eyes I think she’d see something kind of like Rapture, if there was a nationalist populist group in America I think they’d see this town square at the turn of the century July 4th celebration, that’s their ideal and that’s what we wanted to present with Columbia.
GC: Playing the original games really made me want to go out and read the likes of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and find out more about Jonestown for example. In a way, though still a FPS at its core, BioShock represents a more mature approach to gaming, how do you strike the balance between maturity and FPS core values?
KL: I think that if you look at the last few years, games like BioShock, Red Dead Redemption or Portal, they’re pushing on themes that are not what people traditionally expect of games. I can’t speak for Rockstar and Valve, but my thought was that I really don’t give a shit, if you’ll excuse my French, if what I create is appropriate for gamers. The team is making a product that they’re interested in and then we hope; you can’t make a game like BioShock and then pander to a specific audience, it doesn’t work – let’s pander to the objectivism crowd! (Laughs).
Rand’s books are huge best-sellers but they aren’t traditionally associated with a gaming audience, it’s not like making a Star Wars game where there’s already a golden audience. With a game which thematically revolves around issues of American exceptionalism you have to make something honest, something that’s genuine and you hope is innovative and entrust in the audience – that’s what we did with BioShock and the audience turned up.
GC: Do you feel at all limited when storytelling in games, are there times when you wish you were writing for a non-interactive medium such as film, rather than one that demands a level of exploration by the player?
KL: Yeah, I mean it’s the yin and the yang, it’s so much harder to tell a traditional story but, if you can pull it off and draw people in, you have this opportunity to put storytellers in the world and that’s something you don’t have as much in movies.
Some movies I love such as District 9 and Children of Men do an incredible amount of storytelling in their worlds and have such a huge amount of data about what’s going on in that world, you can take those notions and really push on them in games. If you’re focussed on trying to replicate what another medium does, rather than try to innovate on what your medium does well, you’re playing against your strengths and you have a real challenge.
If you step and back and say “Are games becoming more interactive and less presentational or less interactive and more presentational?” You have to answer that question, we think they’re getting more interactive and that’s where they should go, that what we’re pushing on and that’s the advantage we have. From a screen writing background I want to tell the story so how am I going to do it? Sometimes you have to say “I’m not going to do it, I’m going to do something different”, so how do we tell the story so it’s a gamers story not our story?
You have to make content that the player may or may not see, if they find it then it’s all the more rewarding for them. In a movie everyone sees the same thing, you have to give up on that or else put everything under the player’s nose so they can’t avoid seeing it.
GC: To get back to the actual action of the game, we know to expect very open and varied combat, but how does exploration of the environment work, will be see alternative ways to reach the same destination for example?
KL: The goal is to make it similar in structure to what I see as the best BioShock level, the medical level, a hub area where you could off and do different things, so you don’t have to go down a single corridor, winding through an experience like you often find in the Call of Duty games for example. Where there’s no where to go other than precisely where you’re expected to go.
Not that I’m saying this is an open-world game like a Red Dead Redemption, our goal is to give you custom moments and lots of crafted experinces very similar to BioShock. I would say the one big difference are the ‘skylines’ [the rollercoater rails which connect Columbia], something we’ll be featuring in the next demo. Those are not designed as a linear transport sequence, they’re designed as an open-ended combat experience, and we’re going to be showing extensively what that’s like in the next demo. How it might feel to fall from and travel on that, it’s not just about going from here, to there.
GC: Infinite’s engine is looking much more sophisticated than those used in the previous BioShock’s, the demo shows the amazing depth, player’s able to see into the distance, what else can it throw at us?
KL: It can do what we call preferred lighting where you can change the light from day to night if we want. Not that we necessarily have a day to night cycle but we can suit the mood of the moment you’re in, for example when Elizabeth comes in and creates that storm and the light changes in the demo.
We’ve also got this floating worlds technology, giant pieces of geometry floating around; we’re really pushing on that. Then, something else on show in the next demo, is how the AIs interact with you or, equally, how they interact with each other. Something really striking in BioShock was the interactions between the Big Daddy and Little Sisters, and again we’re really pushing on that.
GC: Just to expand on that AI a little, how is the player perceived by NPCs? Will that relationship change if we help or hinder them in a similar way to Fallout 3 for example?
KL: I think what I’m comfortable in saying right now, and it’s something we show in the demo when the player heads into the bar, is that unlike most shooters enemies don’t just automatically attack you, there’s this feeling in BioShock Infinite of seeing people going through… well I wouldn’t call it their daily lives because they don’t really have what we might think of as daily lives, obviously their situation is much more extreme than what we encounter, more like a warzone. A lot of the time you have to figure out their agenda, what they want, is there something I might do which could provoke them?
In a heightened situation I think that’s a very real-feeling experience, rather than them pulling their guns out at shooting at you all the time. That will certainly happen in certain, heightened situations, sometimes you won’t know what might motivate people or set them off.
GC: Let’s talk about Elizabeth and her interactions in the story, is she a character that will be at your side through the whole experience, or is she more in reserve for those showcase encounters such as we see in the demo?
KL: Elizabeth is with you for a lot of the game, there will be times when she isn’t which will be driven during the course of the storyline but Elizabeth is in many ways the heart of this game. Her understanding what happened to her, and you trying to understand what happened to her will drive a lot of the experience; she is the centre of this conflict and she doesn’t know why and you don’t know why. She’s the one that everybody wants a piece of and she just wants to understand why? What happened? What has she done? That’s what you have to figure out.
GC: One of the big difference over BioShock and its sequel was the introduction of multiplayer, is that something we should expect from Infinite?
KL: We were known, after BioShock, as the company which made a FPS with no multiplayer, so we aren’t just going to make multiplayer to have that ticked on the box. That’s not fair to the fans, it’s not fair to us, it’s not fair to the product; but we are always experimenting, sometimes very seriously. If we have something that we think is worthy, something a gamer would want out of the experience, then that’s something we’ll consider but we’d never have a marketing person take that decision.
BioShock didn’t have multiplayer and that was the right decision, you can put all this resource into something but then how are you going to react if you see only maybe three people playing it? That’s crazy. So you have to have a level of certainty that this is something your audience is really going to want as part of the product.
GC: To wrap up I wanted to finish with something more general about the industry as a whole. You’ve already stated that Infinite is three years into development, are you tempted to release a iPhone app say, something similar to what iD have done with Rage, perhaps get into the revenue stream which the likes of Angry Birds has done so successfully?
KL: I don’t want to get involved in making anything which doesn’t hit a certain level of quality, that’s always the bar for us, what can we deliver to that same quality? I think the average for all our games is 88%, 89% and that’s why people look to our games, if I was to make an iPhone game I’d want it to be of that same level as our other games. That’s never easy; don’t underestimate what it takes to make an Angry Birds, that level of quality on a smaller scale product. You can’t just churn something out, it has to be a quality product and making something quality is always difficult.
GC: In a way the industry is almost dividing into those developers that make shorter games, apps or party games say, and those creating the more involved narrative experiences such as BioShock Infinite; there are almost two industries in one right now.
KL: You know, that’s not honestly that new; remember when the Deer Stalker games came out? They weren’t necessarily of a high quality but they were speaking to a real experience that people wanted to have. Social games and iPhone games are always going to be a different type of game, Wii games too, and that’s great. I want to make sure that whatever area I go into, if I go make an iPhone game, it’s going to be an awesome iPhone game. There are a million crappy iPhone games out there but there are only a few great ones and I really respect those. I think that Hollywood looks at videogames and are like “Oh, that’s just junior movie-making.” I don’t think that iPhone games are junior videogame making, I think it’s super challenging, I respect that challenge and would take it really seriously.
GC: Ken, it’s been a pleasure to speak to you, thanks again for taking the time out and we’ll be looking forward to seeing the next demo of BioShock Infinite.
KL: Great, it was nice to chat to you and have a great day.