Interviews

Interview: Ken Levine on religion and racism in BioShock Infinite

Irrational's co-founder explains the narrative challenges he faces with the much-anticipated follow-up

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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.

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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.

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