Ken Levine: The imagination behind ‘BioShock Infinite’

March 08, 2013 | 1:09 p.m.
A screenshot from "Bioshock: Infinite." Credit: 2k Games

A screenshot from “Bioshock: Infinite.” Credit: 2k Games

The long-awaited debut of “BioShock Infinite” comes March 26. As anticipation builds for the spiritual successor to 2007’s wildly successful “BioShock,” Hero Complex talked to the game’s creative director, Ken Levine, about the upcoming game, his sources of inspiration and the challenges and successes of the game’s pivotal character, Elizabeth.

As for the game itself, check out our pre-release preview of “Infinite‘s” introductory hour.

“BioShock” and heated subject matter

“This is a city run by a charismatic religious fundamentalist – there’s a highly sort of racially intolerant and xenophobic element,” Levine said, “quite in contrast to what the space looks like visually.”

Just poking around the radiant outdoor environments of the game, one can see this dichotomy at work. Children innocently playing games on the sidewalks utter racial slurs. A couple attending a fair remark on the primacy of whites. A massive statue portrays town leader Zachary Hale Comstock wrestling with a dual-headed serpent, the heads alternatively foul Jewish and Asian caricatures.

With such explicit imagery, “Infinite” is primed to spark controversy, something Levine expects and has already noticed in the form of “hand-wringing in the gaming press” over the game’s inclusion of religious elements. He claimed there was nothing cut from the game due to concerns over offending players.

It’s not about offending people, Levine said.  As with the previous BioShock, controversial elements serve to tell a story — one that explores the failures of utopian dreams.

All story elements and possible player actions were put to a simple test, Levine said: “Is this telling the story, or is it not telling the story?”

And to tell his story, he didn’t pull punches.

“Once you start pulling punches, you start compromising.”

Levine said the racist, xenophobic aspects of the city “leap out to you” because visually the setting is “idyllic – almost like an Eden.”

“It’s this amazing, wonderful vision of America that I think a lot of politicians have in their head of what the good old days were like,” he added. “And there never was that good old day, but it’s sort of what people remember America to be like at the turn of the century” — or what they think America was like at the turn of the century.

What is “BioShock” anyway?

It remains to be seen if there will be a concrete connection between “BioShock” and “BioShock Infinite” beyond the similarities in gameplay and notion of utopias that ultimately fail to attain perfection. Levine has in the past spoken of a “core loop” of gameplay and environmental elements that “BioShock” games are built upon. If anything, the “BioShock” label can stand for a game that explores the tarnished, cracked underbelly that hides beneath every well-polished utopian dream.

For Levine, the first “BioShock” was ultimately about choices.

“What degree of agency do we have in our own lives – and, by extension, video games?” he said.

The backdrop to those choices (and choices made for the player) was a utopia gone horribly wrong – the underwater city of Rapture, whose Objectivist society had collapsed into self-destructive civil war. By the time the player arrives, the war is all but over, the city already ruined.

And in “Infinite,” the player arrives as the utopian dream is in full swing. The buoyancy of the airborne city is mirrored by the confidence of its people, which is on full display as citizens discuss the politics of the day as the player initially explores Columbia.

Led by Zachary Hale Comstock, who Levine said was inspired by but not directly representative of such individuals as Joseph Smith and William Keith Kellogg, the people of Columbia look down upon the “Sodom below,” and treat three of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, with devoted veneration.

Levine reached back to the religious revivals and the establishment of company towns to give life to Columbia, to look back at an era where there was “very much a sense that there was a potential for a sort of utopia.”

But there are cracks in the city’s armor. Along with the ubiquitous intolerance and racism, there are hushed whispers of the “Vox Populi” (Latin for “voice of the people”), an insurgent populist movement inspired heavily by the terror caused by anarchists around the turn of the 19th century, as well as the leftist Red Army faction in Germany, which started as a student revolt and became increasingly violent as it clashed with the state.

The challenge of Elizabeth

The biggest hurdle for the team ended up being Elizabeth, the so-called “Lamb of Columbia,” whom the player is tasked by unknown forces with seizing her from the city. Levine’s goal with Elizabeth was to create a character as yet unseen in games, a nuanced individual who dynamically reacts to the game’s events.

“When you’re walking through the world with her,” Levine said, “we want her to be believable.”

The unknown element in the process of creating her was ultimately the players – who will skip entire optional environments or run away from Elizabeth while she’s in a heavily scripted moment.

“We have no idea what they’re going to do,” Levine said, and accounting for that was a massive undertaking. “It took a village to make this person, this visual actor.”

This undertaking included turning environments into playgrounds littered with objects and scenes Elizabeth can interact with (a feature on full display here). There’s also the promise that Elizabeth will react to the player’s action, and that reaction will build over the course of the game.

Killing enemies – the unavoidable central gameplay mechanic of “Infinite,” will have a role in this.

“In most first-person shooters you don’t have to deal with that – you don’t have to deal with people having a reaction to the violence,” Levine said, pledging that Elizabeth is “horrified” by some actions the player will perform.

“Stories are about change, and quite often video game stories aren’t” about change, Levine said.

It seems that “Infinite” will break from tradition and place change at the heart of the story, something that at the end of the day could prove to be the game’s long-lasting legacy.

— Morgan Little



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One Response to Ken Levine: The imagination behind ‘BioShock Infinite’

  1. Jack says:

    shut up and take my money!
    Sincerely, Delta

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