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Video Interview: Ken Levine, on BioShock Infinite


In an industry filled with rumors and leaks, last night's reveal of BioShock Infinite managed to take nearly everyone by surprise. After nearly three years of silence, designer Ken Levine and the Irrational Games team unveiled their new title -- an extension of the BioShock franchise. We had a chance to talk to Levine after the reveal to discuss his inspirations for the heavily guarded title, and why the team chose not to pursue a completely new IP. While BioShock Infinite may share a name with its predecessor, Levine explains how Infinite has the spirit of a completely new game. Watch our video interview above, or read the full transcription below.

Joystiq: BioShock went through a lot of prototypes, even late in development. How static has Infinite been?

Ken Levine: Unfortunately, we're no better at knowing exactly what we're doing at the very beginning than we were with BioShock. The notion of American exceptionalism, that didn't even exist until six or eight months ago. It was always a city in the sky from the very beginning. But very similar to BioShock 1, where we didn't have Andrew Ryan and the notion of objectivism -- we leave ourselves very open for evolution. When we build these demos, they teach us things about what we're making. We don't just work from a design document; it's just not our way.

BioShock had a strong philosophical influence. You see a lot of the same things in Infinite. What's the philosophy behind it? What would be a good reading guide for someone to get caught up?

BioShock 1 wasn't historical, but it was set in the context of history. There was a feeling in America that we were trying to represent. And very much the same here. At the turn of the century, there was this feeling of optimism. All these technologies came in place in the span of twenty years. You go from people with cows and outhouses and growing wheat in fields, to having radios and cars and movie stars, and all these incredible things. It's almost as if they felt a city was suddenly floating in the sky. That's how much the world had changed.

There's a lot of books you could read. I think Teddy Roosevelt is a great place to start. He really is the center of where America was at the time, and America's role from being a small provincial power to placing itself on the world's stage. This feeling of optimism -- we can do all these huge things -- we have the technology, we have this incredible democratic system, which really was a beacon of hope at the time. It was a world filled with monarchies and despots. And Columbia [Ed's note: fictional city of Infinite] came out of that. We really wanted to base something on that time, which people haven't really seen before, but also, in a lot of ways, feels very familiar to some things that are very much in our consciousness today.

The settings have been major characters in your games. Going into designing Infinite, was building that locale an early part of the game's inception?

We knew we wanted a city in the sky because that's what they thought would happen at that time, at the turn of the century. The same way BioShock 1 had a sense you could create these utopias, you could create these perfect worlds based on these radical systems or ideals. There was this sense that America had this mission at the time. Even aside from the American aspect, there was a sense that technology will transform everything. Because it was transforming everything! So this notion of putting this -- almost ridiculous concept, perhaps no more ridiculous than a city at the bottom of the ocean, maybe even less ridiculous -- city in the clouds struck us as a great visual metaphor for certain ideas. That was fairly early. But everything else has been evolving ever since.

How does Infinite's team and budget compare to the original BioShock? Is this a far bigger project?

It's a reasonably big team. We're still not as big as the Ubisofts of the world, not even close. We're not 350 people. We got, like, 80. We like to stay relatively smalls. Not compared to a bunch of indies that do amazing things with five people. We used to do that, but the scale is obviously very large. There's not a single shared asset between this and any previous BioShock game. All the code we're writing is entirely new. It's an entirely new engine.

In our engine, buildings actually float. Buildings can actually collapse. Buildings you're standing on can collapse out of the sky. Every surface is floating.

Rapture was a bit of a fake, in a sense that you never engaged with the ocean in a real way. That was a function of the engine
and the time we had to make it. I think people, with some justification, criticized us for that. And we said that if we're going to do a city in the sky, it has to be in the sky. In our engine, buildings actually float. Buildings can actually collapse. Buildings you're standing on can collapse out of the sky. Every surface is floating. The scale of the space. The fact that you can fight fifteen enemies at once, where you're used to fighting one or two guys in a corridor in BioShock 1.

We have this saying: "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." That's why some of the combat in previous BioShock games got to be a tiny bit samey is because when you're fighting just one or two guys in a tight corridor, electro-bolt with shotgun tends to work really, really well. Well, let's really open up the kinds of challenges you can face. Okay, maybe you will have some of those tight spaces. Maybe you'll have much broader spaces, where long-range weapons are a lot more important. Maybe you'll have lots of enemies at once, where area of effect weapons become really important. Maybe you'll move at 60 miles per hour along the sky lines, where weapons that can be used in that context become really important. So, we want to demand more out of the player, so they had to be much more engaged in their tool set.

The first game was built on a heavily modified version of Unreal Engine 2.5. Is this fresh tech, from the ground up?

It's built on Unreal 3 this time, but there's no shared code between any of our previous games and this. This game was about getting out of our comfort zone for us, because we had used that engine on several games before. It was used on SWAT, Tribes, BioShock 1, and we were very comfortable with it. But it was also a limitation which didn't allow us to do the things we wanted to do with this game. It was a lot of work, and that's one of the reasons here we are, two and a half years talking about it.

What were some of the hard choices you had to make with Infinite? Do you have any anecdotes about the concept or the dev process that was specifically difficult?

I think the first rule we made for ourselves when working on this game -- and this is a hard rule -- is there's no sacred cows. There's no BioShock sacred cows. Anything that doesn't fit in BioShock Infinite, doesn't belong in BioShock Infinite. So people say, "what about this? You gotta have that in a BioShock game!" But we say, how does it fit? Does it belong? Is it telling the story we want to tell? Is it the gameplay experience we want to say? There are probably some very iconic things that when you think of BioShock that you didn't necessarily see tonight.

What's an example?

You probably didn't see a large guy in a diving suit and a little girl walking around.

There was a big guy with big hands!

If you know our previous games, it's very much an extension of the DNA of the stuff we've done before. I think you'll see this game has evolved as much from BioShock as BioShock had evolved from any previous games we've done.

That wasn't ... um, what you think it was. That guy was not a Big Daddy. For a BioShock, that's the guy on the cover! That's the little girl on the cover in both games. I think that's a big thing, when you think of Rapture, that's another key thing. How do you take all these things you've created -- everything about how the game was presented was tied into that -- and I think that, for us, we didn't have a choice. We felt like we said what we wanted to say about Rapture. Not about BioShock, not about the gameplay motifs, not about the narrative motifs. But we said what we wanted to say about Rapture, and that kind of space and the kind of combat you have there, and some of the kind of experiences you have there. We created this franchise, and we love this franchise. If you know our previous games, it's very much an extension of the DNA of the stuff we've done before. I think you'll see this game has evolved as much from BioShock as BioShock had evolved from any previous games we've done.

Why call it BioShock, then? What not call it something else? Is that marketing? Is that artistic option?

I think it's both because I think BioShock is a lot more than just Rapture. This is a game; it's a first-person shooter set in an amazing place with a story wrought with – from our perspective – ideas that are tied with history. And everything else really is up for grabs. But we felt that if we made this game and it wasn't a BioShock game, that would be a bit of a cheat. To say, "Oh, it's a totally new thing." But it is a new thing, but it's also a continuation of the things we've done before.

It has a shared heritage.

Final Fantasy is a very similar thing. They have some similar elements. But it's a little strange because usually when you do sequels, the reason it's so similar is because there's a lot of the same assets, a lot of the same gameplay systems.

BioShock 2, for example, versus BioShock Infinite.

Yes, and that's one of the reasons BioShock 2 wasn't the right project for us and, as we agreed with the company, we didn't have the timeframe or the scale to make the product of the ambition we had. But we felt very much it was a BioShock game. There is connective tissue to this and previous titles we've done as well.

What's "infinite" mean?

That's something you're going to have to find out.

Are you concerned with disappointing fans that were really looking forward to a new IP from Irrational? Do you think there's going to be a backlash, like "Oh, it's a BioShock game? Why isn't it something else?"

I think if we had made a game that's very similar to what we had done before and tread very similar grounds, I think there is definitely a chance of that. We never know what people are going to think, but our viewpoint here is: It's a franchise that people like; I think people love. A lot of people love. We had more to say to it but we wanted to do it in a way that we weren't bound by any ideas that had come before.

Can you explain the codename "Icarus"?

Mostly we wanted to be able to talk about the game and say it without just saying "this thing we're working on." And have a name that we could use. And if you think about the name, we wanted people – and I think there are some people on the internet who kind of sussed out what we were doing because of the name, and that's okay. Like any good mystery, you want people afterwards to feel like they had some information to suss out what the solution to the mystery would be if they had some data to figure that out.

You guys had a fun podcast feature where people called in and guessed what you were working on. Did anyone guess "BioShock in the sky"?

I don't know. I don't think so. Maybe, but I could be wrong. I'm looking at my director of marketing here.

Some people did? Are you going to give them a special award, or a prize? A badge on the site or something.

The "icarus" name does hint towards that a little bit.

The game was running on PC today. Are you handling PC development yourself? I know that was handled by 2K Australia for BioShock.

No, we're handling everything.

How about a morality system? That's one of the major components of the first BioShock game, where you were able to choose whether you wanted to harvest Little Sisters or not. Is that same type of decision and morality system present in Infinite?

I think all BioShock games are set in a context of morality. They're not games about "the bad guys" and "the good guys."

I think all BioShock games are set in a context of morality. They're not games about "the bad guys" and "the good guys." We're not going to talk specifically about if we're doing anything with that kind of system or what we're doing, I think it's safe to say we're not looking to repeat ourselves there because we think we've said what we wanted to say with that and I think that's been very well expressed in two games now. If we were to do something, it would be quite different.

The city of Columbia seems a lot less devolved than Rapture was. Is this still a city full of crazies? Full of hopped-up Splicers? The people seemed a little more ... natural.

I think that's one of the things we're trying to do. One of the cheats we've given ourselves over the history of the company is sort of being in this world that's almost dead. It's completely destroyed in many ways. And you just have the sort of crazies wandering around who you can't really interact with in any meaningful way.

I think, and I could be wrong, I think I invented the "see the guy on the other side of the glass window and interact with him" thing. And that's a dubious distinction, as an invention. And that's one of the things that we said we're not going to allow ourselves to have a game that's entirely run by that. Where you see a guy and he immediately attacks you.

You saw a sequence in the bar, where you come in and people don't immediately attack you. And that's actually meaningful to what we're trying to do with this game. I'm not going to go into a huge amount of detail here but this is not a city that's as devolved as Rapture and I think that presents real challenges for us on the development side and it also presents real new opportunities for the gamer and a very different experience than BioShock.

So last question, and it should be really obvious at this point. BioShock: under the sea. BioShock Infinite: in the air. BioShock X: in space?

We're announcing three more games tomorrow and we know all the places they're going to be.

Is that another event we have to go to?

No, look. It took us this long to sort of think and evolve this. We have no idea in terms of the future, that's not even something I'm thinking about right now.

I think a "shock" game in a ship with an AI is going to do really, really well and that's something you should think about.

That's sounds like a great idea. You should make that game.

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