Bioshock Infinite Creative Director Ken Levine Sits Down Just With Us For Extended Conversation

I am sure there are a great many of you that have played Bioshock. I am sure that number is…

Patrick Dane




I am sure there are a great many of you that have played Bioshock. I am sure that number is nearly identical to how many of you really enjoyed it. That is what you get from the “Highest rated first person shooter of all time”. The original was set in one of the most intoxicating gaming worlds ever put to coding, ripe with socio-political observations that most games wouldn’t even aim for on top of being an incredibly solid shooter.

The game industry has been waiting with baited breath to see what would come from Irrational Games and the game’s creative director, Ken Levine, for the past five and a half years. The first game of course had a sequel in Bioshock 2, and while the game was decent, it lacked the impact of the first (Not entirely 2k Marin’s fault, we just knew what we were getting). Finally after years of waiting, we are all getting very excited for the release of Bioshock Infinite.

So, a week ago I got to sit down with Ken while he was in London for a talk at BAFTA. I arrived at one of the strangest hotels I had ever been too. The lobby was draped in thin white curtains andodd postmodern features. I took a ride up in the most surreal elevator I have ever been in with strange holographic walls made to look like deep space on all sides. The insanity of it all was a stark contrast to the two sofas that separated me and Ken as I sat down for an interview. He offers me some food from a selection of vegetables he is eating. I decline, and then we jump to it.

Creating Columbia, The World Of Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite has left the underwater world of Rapture behind for the floating city of Columbia. This is a massive new step that most games wouldn’t be confident taking in a sequel. So why the change? Why didn’t this game need to be set in Rapture, “Well, I think that Rapture was very much about getting away and hiding and not being found” Levine says.

Columbia is about showing off. It is a rooster for America. So it was designed to be seen, it was designed to be impressive. An icon. It didn’t work out that way but it was very intentional. We knew right from the start that we didn’t want to do the hidden city again. Or more importantly, the unknown city that no one knows about. That presented us with challenges. Having the secret hidden base is a lot easier. Having darkness is a lot easier. Having tight quarters is a lot easier. Everything was a lot easier [laughs]

Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite both feature ‘overlords’ figureheads of wondrous cities that ended up going askew. These leaders both embody strong ideological views about how the world should be run and practice their beliefs in their city to prove it. Their beliefs are completely opposite but the outcome and basics of their structure are the same. Ken replies, “Yeah, If you go far enough left, you hit the right and vice versa.”

It is interesting how opposite they are, but also how similar they are. If you look at Andrew Ryan and Comstock, the respective leaders of the cities, Ryan is an atheist, capitalist and…imperisist. Comstock is a spirtual, religious, nationalistic figure. They sounded as different as they possibly could be, but they are also similar in that they both have a system of beliefs that answers all questions and will solve all problems, and if you don’t agree with that system of beliefs…well you are in trouble.

As well as being set in different cities, the game timelines are seperated by 42 years. The original Bioshock was set in 1960 where as Infinite is set in 1912. It is obviously a very deliberate decision, I wonder how Ken finally landed on the time period. He retorts, “I got really interested in the time period because it was so transfermational.”

I didn’t know much about it at the time. I started looking into it and I started looking into the science and technology, I know the impact that the internet had on our culture, right? In that period you look at electricity, you look at telephones, airplanes, you look at cars, you look at radio, you look at movies. You go, “oh my god” each one of those is as substantial as the Internet.

Then you look at the social changes that were happening. You look at the changes of women’s rights and the very beginning of civil rights movements and workers rights. You have WWI about to kick off. I don’t think there was ever a period so packed with transition to observe in history over such a broad thing. You know, WWII is very transitional, but that was a single event that caused that. So I was really fascinated by that. Then you start digging into the sciene at the time and you start digging into Einstein and what he meant about our understanding of our universe and what story opportunites that opened up. I just kept getting drawn in and drawn in and drawn in.

No piece of media text exists in a historyical vacuum. There is generally a reason something has come out at the point it did. Films like Lincoln and Argo all say something about the world we live in now. “I think if you are telling a story about any time period, you are telling a story about today.” Levine says. But the relevency of Bioshock Infinite also grew by happenstance.

You know, a lot of people have asked me along the way, “Oh, did you do this as a reflection of that?” And generally no. We’re generally reflecting on things from the historical period. You know the whole Occupy Movement and the Tea Party, all of those movements came after we started working on it. It is not because we inspired them or we saw them coming. It is because they are version 990,997 of those movements. They happen over and over again. I mean you can go back to Bioshock 1 and who would have known that a few years after it, a politician called Ryan, who was an objectivist would try to become the Vice-President of the United States. If that had come first, then people would have said that you are making a Paul Ryan character. And again, I didn’t know, I had never heard of Paul Ryan. It was just because, well after the financial melt down, we saw a lot of people kind of turn to that economic philosophy as a cure all in some people’s heads

Clearly Bioshock is going to juggle a lot of plates and wear lots of hats, But how did all these ideas come together in practice? It is a question worth asking. With a project so big, all this can come together slolwy or very fast. How did the team at Irrational Games come together to tell this story and where did it all start?

The first day was…we wanted to make a Bioshock game but not set in Rapture. We sort of really left ourselves open to figuring out what that was. So on the first time, we said, Well lets do a different time period. We knew that was important because that will mean a million different things because so much of Bioshock is about the culture and the history and the politics and the science and so we thought of the turn of the century and a lot of the images from the turn of the century, especially in science fiction, you saw a lot of cities in the sky at that time. All these fantastical images and I thought, that is really cool, that is so optimistic, that is so different from Rapture. So, we decided those two things on the first day and that was the most successful day we ever had on deciding things. I don’t think there was another day were we made major decisions that everyone agreed on and completely stuck. So we started with those two things.

Honestly…it may have been a year until Booker and Elizabeth made their appearance after that.