Ken Levine Interview: Taking BioShock From Rapture To Columbia
BioShock is one of the most surprising games of this generation. First of all, it isn’t inspired a real-life conflict, a film or another game series, but a moderately successful novel called Atlus Shrugged by Ayn Rand, which put forward a philosophy called Objectivism, or ‘rational selfishness’.
BioShock’s writer and Creative Director, Ken Levine, and his team are now working on BioShock Infinite, a departure from the dark, dystopian corridors of Rapture into the bright skies of Columbia, a floating city named after the female personification of the United States of America. I recently had the chance to sit down with Ken to talk about the philosophies that underpinned the original BioShock and how, if at all, these are being applied to BioShock Infinite.
What’s more important to you: surprising the player or making existing fans feel familiar?
When you look at BioShock Infinite, you can’t deny that it’s a BioShock game. However, and this might seem counter-intuitive, Rapture was a surprise to the player; you wanted to see what was around each corner because it was so strange. If we were to take you back to Rapture then that surprise element would no longer be there. Weirdly, we had to change BioShock in order to make it BioShock, or at least to retain that core principle of the unexpected.
I think the important point for us is that BioShock Infinite has the same roots as the original, and in part those roots are me, Nate, Shaun, Steve and all of the guys in my team who worked on it. In terms of the game itself, we’re talking about the depth and detail of the game world, the kinds of weapons you’re going to have, the freedom of the combat and the character growth system that we’re going to be showing later.
I’m not saying we can never go back to Rapture, but it would need to be in a way that was fresh and new.
What is your favourite moment in the original BioShock?
The two moments of BioShock that will always be special to me as writer and creative director are the opening descent to Rapture and the encounter with Andrew Ryan. We really put ourselves out there on the latter because it was a boss battle where you don’t actually fight the boss, but that was fundamental to the story, the fact that you had no choice in how it played out. We are thrilled that it worked so well because it was such a risky moment.
I don’t think people give gamers enough credit and assume that they only want explosive, visceral experiences. We also want to be mentally stimulated. The fact that the scene resonated so much proves that we are more diverse in our tastes than some think.
When faced with a choice between protecting and destroying in games, point in case being the dilemma of whether to rescue or harvest the Little Sisters in BioShock, do you think we are innately drawn to one or the other?
Well we don’t have any kind of metric to track that particular example but we do have anecdotal evidence. I do a podcast called Irrational Interviews and I was talking with Guillermo Del Toro on there. He said that he harvested in front of his two daughters and they got really mad at him. My sense is that people generally rescue and I think that decision is an emotional one rather than a logical one.
I believe players have an inclination to what we might call ‘disruptive’ actions, such as jumping around when another character is talking, but I don’t get worried about people doing weird things; games are about the player doing what they want and they are generally there to try and experience every interaction available. It’s their game.
And yet protection seems to be a running theme in BioShock games. Is this a conscious design decision?
I see what you mean in that you have Big Daddies and Little Sisters and there’s some kind of protective relationship going on there. With BioShock Infinite it’s important to point out that you’re not escorting Elizabeth all the time – she is capable of taking care of herself and she is more like a partner in your mission. But she is looking to your experience in combat. She has never fought but Booker has a rough past and a lot of combat experience.
The basic notion of protecting is one of the noblest things we can do for each other and those relationships can be beautiful in game form. Just look at that moment when you first take Yorda’s hand in Ico. In BioShock games we like to explore how those relationships can have both a dark and a light side. When a Big Daddy protects a Little Sister, he is also exploiting her by making her gather ADAM. In BioShock Infinite, when Booker finds Elizabeth she is locked in this tower with Songbird, who is her only companion but also her jailor.
Those are the challenging relationships that we are drawn to.
If you’re faced with a potential fork in your design choices, where either narrative or gameplay benefits depending on your decision, which one usually wins out?
You have to reach a decision that benefits both. We had a dilemma early in the development of BioShock Infinite with the character of Elizabeth. We needed to ensure that her powers made sense to both narrative and gameplay. We knew we had this character that was going to be extremely powerful, but we didn’t know exactly what those powers were going to be. It was a tough job making sure that what she does from moment to moment in the context of the gameplay suited her role in the overall story. We generally don’t choose; we tweak from both sides to get unity, and if you don’t get that unity, then we tend to jettison things.
How exactly are the PlayStation Move controls going to work?
We’ve got the Move controls working now back at the studio, certainly more so than we had when we announced it at E3, and really we’re just waiting for the opportunity to show that with a new piece of content. It’s working well but we still have a lot of polishing to do. Of all the motion controllers in the world, the Move is the one best suited to a first-person shooter, and a lot of PlayStation games have done a great job incorporating it. I will say that we’re discovering some great opportunities with the Skyline gameplay, but rather than show it to people with an old demo, I’d prefer to show it with a new piece of content.
BioShock famously took inspiration from Ayn Rand’s Atlus Shrugged. Does BioShock Infinite have a particular philosophical or literary influence?
I read a lot about history and I got interested in the late 19th century by the book Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which is set around the 1893 World Fair. For me, that time is the most transformative in history because you had all these technologies coming into play, like radio, movies, electricity, cars – mass production in general. Alongside that, you had social transformations with suffrage, labour movements, the beginning of the civil rights movement – all these amazing uprisings bringing a sense that the colony is starting to buckle and break free.
Just look at what was happening in science, with Heisenberg, Einstein and Max Planck; they were discovering that the Universe is so much more complex than anyone thought, and we’re still figuring out the implications of their findings to this day.
In the original BioShock we tapped in to Crick & Watson and their discovery of genetics. In BioShock Infinite we’re looking more at the world of physics and we bring that in through Elizabeth, who is able to manipulate her universe. We’re always looking at the technological, scientific, social and cultural changes that are happening in any historical period we touch, and we try to integrate those into our stories.
Originally, we conceived the game as a struggle between a technological movement and a Luddite movement, and it didn’t work out because, in reality, those Luddite movements never took hold in a powerful way, so we didn’t have such a rich well of inspiration.
What we have arrived at is a conflict between the Founders, an ultra-nationalist group that is the dominant power in Columbia, and the Vox-Populi, an international workers’ movement that is fighting against the Founders, kicking all of the rich people out of their part of town.
The real conflict of that time – and, you could argue, what is happening today – is this left and right schism of extreme nationalism on one side, and an anti-capitalist, internationalist movement on the other. With our games we’re never looking to advocate a political position and we try to ask questions more than we try to answer them. We show the extreme ends of the spectrum.
The Splicers in BioShock were insane, almost feral, but the enemies we have seen in BioShock Infinite seem more lucid. How does this affect the game?
You’re going to see a range of enemies in terms of where they’re at mentally. It’s not like BioShock where you’re showing up after an event and picking up the pieces; Elizabeth and Booker are in the middle of it all. The Vox-Populi is a small group when you show up at the beginning of the game, and your actions change that and accelerate their growth. You’re going to see changing AI based on your actions. Then you’ve also got SongBird and Handyman – examples of bigger, stronger enemies.
How does it make you feel when you hear that some players completed BioShock almost exclusively using the Electro Bolt and the shotgun?
One of the first things we did when we started on BioShock Infinite was to draw a graph with y and z axes, and to say that one of those axes was the number of enemies in an encounter and the other was the range of those enemies. In the original BioShock, the entire game lived in one corner of that graph – few enemies, all at close range — so the Electro Bolt and shotgun were perfect. BioShock Infinite is going to have much greater ranges and, potentially, far more enemies, so we’re greatly increasing the spectrum of encounters that are possible, and that requires the player use a broader set of tools.
That being said, it may be a given player will try to find a way to close down those distances and stick with Electro Bolt and shotgun, but I don’t think that’s going to be anywhere near as effective a strategy this time around. They were too devastating in BioShock, we admit that, but we’re not going to solve it by simply nerfing those weapons; we’re doing it by changing the types of encounter you’re going to face.