Bioshock Infinite’s Ken Levine on creating compelling narrative, believable companions & what makes a game memorable
[Update: watch the new Bioshock Infinite False Shepherd here.]
We chat to Ken Levine about all things relating to Bioshock Infinite. Out interview covers everything from the outbreak of development gossip to the religious nature of the game, making Elizabeth believable and why first person is the best way to tell a story.
OPM The game’s opening is incredibly striking. What were you aiming for when you created it?
Ken Levine It’s hard for me to talk about it, because the thematic elements evolve across the game. I think a lot of people first saw it and thought it was a game about the Tea Party in America – now people are going to think it’s a game about religion. It is about all those things – it’s about patriotism – but I think we keep larger meanings a little closer to our chest. Baptism is a powerful experience. It’s literally rebirth – it’s such an incredibly powerful notion. I’m not a religious person, but I understand that desire people have when they get to [certain] places. Certainly I can see that’s how I can end up in a situation, even though I’m not a religious person, I feel like you can’t go on as who you are. I get that, and it’s very important for me to understand a certain aspect of the religiosity of the world. And that’s where I tune in to as a non-religious person. In the same way, I’m not an Objectivist, but it was very important for me to understand the appeal of it.
OPM Are you anticipating any negative reactions to how you approach religion in Bioshock Infinite?
KL It’s forced me and the other people on the team who aren’t religious to dig into it, and there are a lot of religious people on the team, as well. In fact, I had some very valuable conversations. One of the characters in the game was highly altered based upon some very interesting conversations I had with people on the team who came from a very religious background, and I was able to understand [why] they were kind of upset about something. What I said to them was, “I’m not going to change anything to get your approval, but I think I understand what you’re saying and I think I can do something that’s going to make the story better based on what you said.” So I did that, and I’m grateful for them bringing in their perspective. The last thing I wanted to do was change something because it offends somebody – but the thing they pointed out was making it a lesser story.
One character was highly altered based on conversations I had with people on the team from a religious background
OPM Do you think first-person is the easiest way to tell a story in a game?
KL The thing games let you do better than any other media is they let you explore a space. They let you put this insane amount of detail into a space. For me, that works best in first-person, because you can get right up close to things, discover things, look at the books on a shelf – it’s really hard to do that in third-person. We have complete control of the camera. That’s sort of where we’ve put ourselves, and it makes things challenging. For instance, you inhabit Booker in a way you don’t inhabit Lara Croft, because it’s not that person, it’s you. So Booker has this character – he has something to say as well. If he was in third-person you wouldn’t have to think about that problem. Is the player comfortable in these shoes? Do they think that they’re not so disparate from Booker that it pushes them away? There are advantages and disadvantages to first-person, but I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages for the kinds of games we do.
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OPM There’s been a lot of back and forth speculation about multiplayer, which isn’t going to be included in the game. Was that a difficult decision to make?
KL We were very careful never to say there was multiplayer in the game. It was a little frustrating for us to say multiplayer has been cut when we never announced it in the first place. The reason we did that… there’s always an advantage, and now it’s going to [be discussed] because it got attention. We didn’t want to talk about anything regarding that because we weren’t sure about it, in the same way we weren’t sure about a million things. When you see the art book when it comes out, you’ll see a million characters that were cut, a million levels that were changed, ideas for weapons were thrown out. It’s just part of the process, and we’re fortunate as a company to be able to do that kind of stuff. We aren’t going to put something in the box we don’t feel is at the quality level of the rest of the game. We never got to that point, and it was hard. We all knew going in that at Irrational, everything you work on, if the rest of the team don’t feel it’s going to work as part of a package then it’s not going to make it.
OPM What do you think separates the games that go down historically as great from those that are merely appreciated at the time but then fade away?
KL I don’t know. This will probably surprise people, but Xcom and Civilization are very powerful games for me, because the narrative is so implicit in the game system. That’s probably odd for someone like me, because I tend to write very detailed narratives. So those games tend to be meaningful to me because I can play them over and over again. I guess one of the problems is that there aren’t a lot of people making games like this. You have the Deus Ex guys, the Dishonored guys and us, really, making these kinds of games. I love playing those kinds of games because I get to explore the world, but they’re so rare it’s tough. They don’t really exist as a genre because there are so few of them.
One of the problems is there aren’t a lot of people making games like this. You have the Deus Ex guys, the Dishonored guys, and us
OPM This time the game’s society falls apart around you, rather than before you get there. Do you think this helps forge a stronger connection between player and character?
KL To me, the moment it starts to either work on you or doesn’t is the moment when you walk out of the garden and see that street. The buildings floating, the music playing and people talking among themselves. It’s an idealised street scene but in a city in the sky, 1912, turn of the century Americana. We could never have had something like that in Rapture or System Shock 2, because it’s so alive. There’s that feeling of life and energy, enthusiasm, and optimism. That was an interesting place. That’s not how the game starts exactly, but to work from that feeling – that scene embodies the feeling of Columbia at its best. Seeing what happens from there, the player’s experience… it’s something, to me, we couldn’t do with the other games, because we didn’t start from that place. We spent a lot of time getting that feeling going. That whole opening sequence probably has more animations, more characters than the whole of Bioshock 1. We have to sell that city as a living place.
OPM How do you create a co-op NPC who isn’t annoying to always have at your side?
KL We had several principles we went with. One is that you have to connect to her narratively as a character. The second was that we didn’t want her to replicate your skillset – we didn’t want her to steal kills from you. Because then why aren’t you just doing that? We want her doing different things [to you]. Then applying a whole different level, she can expand the gameplay experience, not just parallel it. If she was parallel then why was she there? We wanted her to be engaging in the environment, in the way that she was a stranger to that place as well. All those elements were really critical. But having her be your partner was the most important thing. You don’t need help shooting people – [you’re] really good at it. You don’t need help riding the Skylines. She does her own things: picking locks, cracking codes and all these things that are helpful to you. Noticing and calling out enemies that you literally can’t see, [that are] behind you or something. We really focused on making her something quite different from you.
Things happen, somebody leaving or joining the company – it’s not particularly interesting
OPM What’s your perspective on the extent to which people have worried themselves about the staff departures?
KL I’ve said from when people first asked me about this: the proof is in the pudding. That’s what we want people to hear when they’re playing the game. It’s far less dramatic and interesting, things that happen, somebody leaving the company or somebody joining the company. I’m sure your business has people leaving – it’s not particularly interesting. I think because we didn’t have any news for so long and we sort of went quiet because we figured we had showed people at E3 what the game was, and now it was just time to let people play it. That led to a lot of time for speculation. What can you do at that point except say, ‘The proof is in the pudding: play the game’? That can tell you better than I ever can about the state of the game.