BioShock Infinite: Ken Levine on 2012's most ambitious game
How is Irrational Games looking back to System Shock and the original BioShock to inform BioShock Infinite’s design?
Something we’re going to be talking about soon about Infinite is how we’ve taken some of the hardcore gamer thoughts on System Shock 2; the difficulty of it, the difficulty in the choices you had to make because they were permanent. We realised that we didn’t deliver to the super-hardcore gamer on BioShock with those choices. I don’t want to say anything prematurely but we’re really looking into that and trying to figure it out. We’re making sure the game delivers to someone who really loves BioShock… but also implementing those specific hard choices for those gamers who really missed that aspect from System Shock 2.
What’s the current state of development?
The last couple of months the thing we’ve been focusing on is spending a lot of time on Elizabeth. Getting her to be incredibly natural in every conceivable situation that happens – and she has a pretty broad range and that requires the programmers to take the time and study people. We told them to go stare at your wife – but don’t tell her that you’re staring at her. It’s the moment-to-moment human movement, and action and if you don’t get it right you get into uncanny valley. The action stuff is easy, right? Jump up here, climb here, do that, climb this… but what happens in the moment-to-moment stuff is important.
BioShock Infinite has a stronger focus on character development. How will the game provoke an emotional reaction in the player?
The core of our game is the relationship between you and Elizabeth. We make the player feel the connection to the character, to Elizabeth and to the city. The way you do that is you have to make them relatable. That was why BioShock was successful; people tuned into the story of Rapture and found connections to the people in the city. In Rapture they felt something for the citizens and how their lives fell apart. The city was a sort of haunted house, but it was also the story of a fallen king and there was some beauty to that. You have to make people relate to these stories; you have to make characters that people can say, ‘Okay, I can understand where these people are coming from,’ whether that’s Comstock in Infinite, Elizabeth or Andrew Ryan in BioShock. Elizabeth’s story is a very relatable story; it’s the story of someone who just wants to control her own destiny, whose life is being controlled by others. All she wants out of life is to have a say in what she does and what her life is. Booker, on the other hand, is a person who has lost a lot of faith in himself and in people. These two people meet at a point where they need each other.
What are the difficulties in balancing the character driven narrative with the spatial/environmental storytelling?
It’s really about the pacing. We look at each level and there’s a very tight integration of story and gameplay. I think one of the greatest benefits is the fact we don’t have a writer – we don’t need outside writers. I’m sitting there in every meeting in every level review not just as the creative director but as the writer as well. I’m thinking about the gameplay, I’m thinking about the pacing, I’m working with the team who are showing me these amazing things and I’m constantly thinking both as a creative director on the gameplay side and as a writer. That opportunity to be there that allows us to structure the pacing because the writer is heavily integrated into what’s happening on every level.
Is the player more actively involved in the over-arching desolation of Columbia, more so than they were in Rapture?
In BioShock you walk into the world after the story is over and the player is more of an archaeologist putting the pieces together. Infinite’s story is very much alive when you enter in Columbia; Booker and Elizabeth, as they try to accomplish their goal, have a very substantial affect on the larger story of the Vox Populi and the Founders. Actually, when you show up on the scene the Vox Populi aren’t really a force at all; they’re more of a bogeyman that the Founders use as propaganda. Through your actions, the Vox Populi becomes a much more substantial force and you have some responsibility there, which I think is interesting because you’re not just a passive participator in this story but you’re actually doing things that really change the dynamic of the city.
How does Elizabeth’s power affect both the gameplay and the story?
Elizabeth has the power to change what’s going on in that moment. Not just in the narrative but also that power to change combat dynamically. You can actively change the space around you, use new weapons you have, call on allies (for instance calling in the Founders if you’re fighting the Vox Populi) and changing the geometry. There are all these incredible powers that Elizabeth brings into the combat space which give another dimension to what people expect out of BioShock combat.
There must be an extremely complicated process of balancing the political aspects with the fantasy?
What’s so interesting for us is we started this story with a believable social angle. BioShock, for instance, dealt with arguments that are currently hitting America, and to some degree your country, about the role of government. The thing is, we’re not looking to the future for these issues but we’re studying the past. These kinds of arguments come up often. Particularly with BioShock Infinite, there was no Tea Party there was no Occupy Wall Street movement. We created these groups of Founders and the Vox Populi based on history, and it’s fascinating to watch the real world evolve into a situation that reflects Columbia in a lot of ways. We’re students of history and we try to make things that feel very grounded, and in Infinite we’re watching the world come to reflect our game.