BioShock Infinite Interview: Irrational Boss Ken Levine

By Xav de Matos, Aug 12, 2010 11:30am PDT

It was certainly surprising to learn that, in three years after developing the award-winning BioShock, Irrational Games was working on... BioShock.

With the announcement out of the bag and BioShock Infinite revealed to the masses, Shacknews cornered Irrational Games boss Ken Levine to discuss the concept of BioShock versus Rapture, "American Exceptionalism," and his thoughts on possible fan reaction to the game's reveal.

Shack: You've finally revealed your latest title. In seeing the footage and the trailer, it appears to be a brand new intellectual property. There are, however, connections to the original BioShock title sprinkled throughout the trailer, but this is a totally different direction. So, with that in mind, why is the "BioShock" name attached to this project?

Ken Levine: The truth is, for us, BioShock was never a place. It was never "Rapture." It was never, "this location" or "this time." It was an idea. There are things that you can see [in the trailer] that are very connected in a lot of ways but are also very different.

For us, we weren't going with branding, we weren't going with a lot of the core ideas. But we said what we needed to say about Rapture. I think if you know our history and the games we've made, that was connected to some previous games we made as well; in some ideas.

We said what we needed to say about Rapture; we have a lot more to say about Bioshock.

Shack: On the Irrational Blog, your team have been showing off some of the design documents from the original BioShock. How has Infinite evolved over time since your team began working on it?

Ken Levine: Quite substantially. We had a city in the sky very early but the whole notion of "Columbia" and "American Exceptionalism" is actually about six or eight months old for us. We had the city in the sky and we start with this central idea and then that expands out, and expands out and expands out.

We worked that way with BioShock and that gives us a certain amount of freedom. And in making the demo for you guys, we learned so much about the game and how it would work and how it would feel. In fact, when we started this demo, we didn't even have the whole "American Exceptionalism" concept, it wasn't actually central to it. It just evolved.

You know, we put ourselves in the shoes of the audience. We ask, "What is interesting to the audience and how to be engage on that?"

Shack: In BioShock, the imagery of a ruler was this wise and powerful man. In BioShock Infinite, the imagery of the city is a strong, beautiful woman.

Ken Levine: That's just a symbol. If you go back through American history, before there was Uncle Sam, there was this image of Columbia. She was a recognized symbol at the time. We liked the look of it and her as an icon. There are actual leaders in the city, but she [the image of Columbia] is not a real person.

Shack: During the presentation it was mentioned that Columbia is a democratic society. So, there isn't one primary evil controlling the entire world as was the case, to some degree, in the original BioShock? The primary conflict is Booker DeWitt's quest to enter this hidden city and save Elizabeth who is being held in Columbia because she is very powerful?

Ken Levine: There's a number of different forces at work in this city. You saw a lot of the character of the city and a lot of the ideas that are present in the city. You might not necessarily agree with those ideas and that tension causes a lot of problems. The city has obviously evolved from its original Jeffersonian Principles, I think what you see in Columbia is not really that different, in the political field, from what you might see in history or today.

Shack: Irrational loves taking a time period and injecting a "super" element to it, or take a concept like "American ingenuity" and pushing it beyond what it found in history books. Obviously it was present in BioShock, to some degree it exists throughout the Freedom Force franchise. What is it about working on these "American ideal" concepts that makes your team keep coming back to it for the framework your narrative direction?

Ken Levine: I'm lazy. It saves me a lot of work.

Shack: (laughs) It makes for some good reading and research, at least.

Ken Levine: Right. But go back to the topic, like that President McKinley speech [Ken read the famous McKinley "disputed quote" regarding the Philippines during the presentation] -- I was talking to someone and he said, "God, no one really knows about this time period." It's not that common, who knows about 1900? But all those ideas, America "waking up" and presenting itself on the world stage.

At the same time, it's 1880 and you've got cows in your field and the next day you've got indoor plumbing and electricity and radios and movie stars. That's twenty-years apart. Think about that. It was almost like waking up and seeing a city in the sky. It would be as shocking as that to those people. There's a sense of optimism in the technology and the American vision. You see where the optimism goes, what happens to that dream. Here, does it succeed or go into a different direction?

Shack: There's a small window today where fans will get to see the trailer before they get to read any coverage. You said it was important that people see this reveal for themselves.

Ken Levine: I want people to see it the way that you saw it, where they don't know. I want people to not know what the game is. Even when you go to our webpage, it's not going to say the name of the game. It's going to just be, "Hit this button for the trailer."

Shack: What do you think the initial reaction will be to this idea that Irrational is going back to this franchise? You could have went in any direction, and I think fans expect a lot from Irrational Games at this point -- that isn't to pre-judge this title, of course -- but you could have done anything. What do you think people will say when they finally see that title card read: BioShock Infinite?

Ken Levine: I think it's a lot to take in, right?

Shack: It was surprising, that's for sure.

Ken Levine: I think people who understand our history will realize that we've been jamming on some of these concepts since the beginning of the company. BioShock was an evolution of that and BioShock Infinite is an evolution of that.

Hopefully they know us well enough, and they trust us; they trust that we're not interested in just repeating ourselves. The world in BioShock Infinite is as different as the world in the original BioShock was from everything else, and so are our goals for the game.

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