Interview: Ken Levine on religion and racism in BioShock Infinite
21st Dec 2012 | 11:13
In the pantheon of games developers, Ken Levine is pretty much filed and receipted as the biggest name in 'thinking-persons'-shooters'. The creative force behind System Shock and
His new game,
However, in the interest of full disclosure, some of Ken's answers below do address the first five minutes of BioShock Infinite and while he reveals no plot details, some may consider his addressing of some events in the game tantamount to entering 'spoiler territory'. So if you don't want to know anything at all about BioShock Infinite, close this browser now and get back to your Christmas preparations! For everyone else - read on...
There are nods to the first BioShock from the moment you start playing BioShock Infinite. You begin the game by entering a lighthouse, you are taken to an otherwordly city in some sort of transport pod and even the first words you hear - "is it someone new?" - references BioShock.
Oh, you caught that one?
Yeah, but this is obviously all deliberate. Is there a reason for this beyond saying 'welcome back' to all the fans of the last game?
Yes... ah... I'm trying to work out a way to say why without ruining everything... Look, everything we do in this game has a reason behind it. There's nothing in there that's just fan service. I mean, look, if you've played the first game you'll pick up on stuff - like you did with that line. But it's really hard for me to go into any sort of depth about that stuff without spoiling an awful lot of things!
Well, this is one of the difficulties in putting together an interview about this game with you. BioShock Infinite looks like it will live and die on its plot - which naturally you can't talk about...
Right. (laughs) I can't wait for people to finish the game, though, because it's like the first BioShock in that, I'm interested to see how people react to how some of the themes in the game evolve.
Well, in that case, let's talk history. Can you talk a bit about where the genesis for this game starts and when the ideas for a floating city started percolating?
We finished the first BioShock in 2007 and we played around with something else for a couple of months and then in early 2008 we started thinking about doing another BioShock game. We didn't want to return to Rapture because we felt, that as a studio, we didn't really have anymore to say about that world.
So we sat back and had a look at what the principles of a BioShock game are, and what we came up with was that the game should have an incredibly fantastically but deeply believable environment and that it should have completely improvisational combat. Besides that, though, all bets were off. There are no sacred cows beyond that.
So we started looking at when we could set it and what environments that may produce and we quickly zoned in on the turn of the century.
Because no one has really worked in that space before. I mean, you've got a ton of World War II games, Modern Warfare games - it's all been done. Even the Renaissance has been covered in the Assassin's Creed games.
The turn of the century is also a very strange time - and it's a time we were all very interested in. I'd just finished reading a book called The Devil In The White City about the World Fair that was held in Chicago, and I was watching a lot of documentary films about that period. It's a fascinating time, because it changed America's role in the world. There's also an incredible technological revolution that occurred at the time; it's a period where genius invention followed genius invention right after each other.
It also had a really great look. I was really attracted to it as an idealised look, too. In the same way that Rapture doesn't actually look like New York from any given period - it's an idealised version of it - Columbia looks like an idealised version of the cities of the time. It was different, it was exciting and it was pretty easy to get the ball rolling on it.
Rapture was a sunken, leaking madhouse, though, and Jack gets there long after its society has descended into chaos. In Columbia you had the challenge of presenting a city at the height of its existence. How did you go about tackling that?
Deep down, Rapture is essentially a sunken dungeon, right? That gives you a lot of advantages as a games developer. It's pretty much corridors filled with enemies.
With Columbia, which is on these floating platforms, we had to think about how the city worked - how people and cargo got around it and where and how streets ended.
One of the hardest things to get right was that section of the game where the player arrives in Columbia and they go through the whole 'Baptism' scene and they make there way from the garden outside the church and up to the statue of Comstock - we really had to nail that moment. That's where the player merges with the world.
You ever see the Music Man? Or Hello, Dolly? That's your idealised turn of the century - but in an idealised fantastical setting. The reason I wanted that is because that's probably what I would feel it would be like to live back then because the technology was so new and so amazing. But if you just show a normal street from back in those days it just looks mundane.
We wanted something that gives you that sense of wonder. Not just from the city visually but also from the interactions between people around them - who are also filled with wonder and filled with hope.
To do that... (laughs) well, it was very, very difficult. It took more work... look, without going into spoilers... if you've seen it you'll know what I mean, but from Booker landing on Columbia to the part involving a baseball - there's more dialogue in that section of Infinite than there is in the entire first BioShock. The amount of characters, the amount of orchestration - it's huge.
I also loved the fact that, while you're guiding the player to where you want them to go, you're also giving them a lot of leeway and space to explore along the way.
Oh, yeah, well the trick is getting them there! Once they're there the game opens up substantially. Up until that point, the game's fairly linear. Once they arrive at that stage the game opens up - it becomes a very 'hub-and-spoke' later on and then, boy, things get really ugly!
But I'm not sure how much I should be saying because I risk spoiling things. I mean there are certain things that'll set the player's alarm bells off that they're being manipulated and there are certain rules we come up with... well... for instance, walking into a room and the door slams shut and locks behind you for no apparent reason? There are certain things that you can't always avoid. But the goal is to make the player feel that everything's kind of organic.
It's this idea that not everything needs to be there for the player to progress, right? Most items exist in videogames for an exact reason. It's like in a movie if they cut to a shot of a guy taking out his toothbrush - well, you know that the toothbrush will play an important part in the story later on.
We have the advantage in Infinite that sometimes a toothbrush is just a toothbrush. Not everything in the game is utterly important - but that's okay, because it's just part of a bigger world.
How much would say that that Columbia is a kind of Bizzaro mirror to Rapture. Obviously there's the fact that Columbia's in the sky while Rapture is submerged. But the latter was founded on the principles of Objectivism and religion is outlawed there, while religion is a huge part of Columbia's society. Was it a conscious decision to make them such polar opposites?
I think zealotry play a part in both cities, really. They're both monocultures built on zealots. It's not like if you have a Bible in Rapture it makes you unpopular - you literally can't have that! That's why there's the whole smuggling subplot in the game; it's commenting on the fact that an environment driven by reason can itself become closed off and impervious to outside influence as it calcifies.
Columbia is interesting because it is itself an environment born out of a revelatory society. They believe there are religious truths beyond what they've read in the Bible - in their society, Comstock is a prophet and things are being revealed to him all the time. So there's a similarity there that the truth is revealed to a figurehead in the same way that Ryan talks about having his epiphany back in Rapture. Both of them are recipients of some version of the truth.
There are moments in BioShock where Ryan - in his audio diaries - seems to second guess himself. The only hint I've seen of that with Comstock, is when he seems to address Booker directly - which, in turn is a call-back to BioShock...
Look, all I'll say about that is... Comstock is an interesting character (laughs). And of all the characters in the game, he was the hardest for me to write.
Because it's very important to me when I'm working on a character that I can connect to them in some way and I don't really have a religious background. With Objectivism, I can be really coy about my beliefs, but I can certainly tune into the first message in Rapture's lighthouse - you know, no Gods, no Kings, only men? I like that and I can agree with that because I'm a bit of an individualist.
With Comstock, it was tougher, because I'm not anything like a prophetic religious leader.
Or a zealot?
Well, look, I'm sure I'm a zealot! We're all a zealot for something, right? But religion is not really my thing. But I knew the character wouldn't work unless I understood him. I can't really talk about how I got there with Comstock, but once I got there, he went from being the hardest part of the game to write to the easiest thing to write.
I had to understand what was appealing about religion and to be honest, some of that came out of some conversations I had with some deeply religious people on the team. From the outset I said to them, 'I'm not going to change anything in this game because it upsets you, but I want to hear everything that you think about it'.
There were things in the game that really upset a couple of people, but the conversations we had about that made the game so much better. I didn't change anything because of these conversations, but it revealed things to me gave the game and the story and the characters a lot more depth because I got their perspective.
Columbia's society is obviously a product of its age and there are scenes in there that'll shock players who are oblivious to that part of history. Was that a concern of yours when you set out to write it?
Look, to tell a story set in that age and not have racism be an element in it would be disingenuous. It was a part of that age. Go back and look at the letters of Teddy Roosevelt - who was a very progressive figure of his age - they refer to African Americans and Jewish people in the most... well, no politicians would be caught dead writing about those ethnic groups like that these days! But these are open letters!
Abraham Lincoln, who gave his life, effectively, and staked his political career on the abolition of slavery, referred to African Americans as big children. He said he believed in the supremacy of the white race - he was a white supremacist! But he was a person of his time.
To pretend the time was different than what it was would be horribly disingenuous. It also means you can't examine it and ask questions about it - like, what is lost in a society like that? There's a scene in the game where Booker and Elizabeth walk in on a janitor - who is an African American - talking to himself, and he sounds very polished and educated, but the moment he sees the player, he switches to this submissive tone and language, because that's the society he lives in and it's just easier for him to get by that way.
It's a challenge - there are parts of the game that are very unpleasant to watch, but you wouldn't be true to the time if you didn't deal with that.
Booker and Elizabeth are very engaging characters. But Booker is almost Lovecraftian in a way, because I don't trust him as a narrator. He has a shady past, to begin with, but on top of that there are hints that he's having hallucinatory episodes - the flashbacks and the posh British couple who pop up again and again. Can you comment on that? Is that something you're using to keep players on the back foot?
That's tricky. It's tricky doing it in first person too. When players play a Third Person game, they tend to look at the character they're controlling and go 'that's him' or 'that's her'. In FPS's you're controlling you, basically. But most first person characters don't talk - they don't have a personality.
So when we made the decision to make Booker talk, we knew we were opening up a whole can of worms there. And not just talk, his story with him and Elizabeth - it's a story of their relationship set against this fantastical backdrop. Part of the fun for me as a writer was learning about the pair of them as we moved forward.
Look, I could've brought Booker on and introduced him and gone 'he did this, and he did this, and he did that'. Or there's the option of slowly revealing who he is over the course of the game. It sounds like a small thing but it's one of the more interesting experimental things involved in making Infinite - figuring out how to walk that line, because this notion of trusting who you are is very complicated.
The relationship between Booker and Elizabeth is both key to the plot and the gameplay. Which came first? The idea for the characters? Or the fact that you wanted gameplay involving the player and their relationship with an AI?
Oh! Let me try and remember... it's complicated... I think the notion of two characters came first - but originally we were so intimidated by the idea that, and I'm not kidding, they were both going to be mute.
How were you going to get around that plot-wise?
Well, he was going to be mute and really, what would she say to him? It's not like they'd have a dialogue. The notion of Booker talking was more controversial.
I started writing conceptual scenes for her and Songbird and their interactions... and it took a while for the character to take shape... but once she spoke, we had to start asking questions about her. Why was she in Columbia? Why was she special? Why could she tap into other realities?
Once you go that route the story of her started to take shape. Once that Booker had to speak because we never wanted the gameplay to be separate from what's going on with the story. In BioShock Infinite, everything's about story.
BioShock Infinite will release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on March 26, 2013.