Friday, June 10, 2011

Bioshock Infinite Interview

Bioshock Infinite creator Ken Levine discusses his vision for Columbia.

Many new Ips aren’t successful, so why do you think that Bioshock was?
You know, if I knew the answer to that question I’d be a happier man than I am! Let me put it this way, when I was a screenwriter somebody said to me: “Ken, why don’t you write something more commercial?” and I said: “If I knew what that was, I would write it.” Because I never really know what’s commercial, it’s not really my thing. I just try to do what I think is cool. Sometimes that works out, and sometimes it doesn’t work out. I don’t think I missed any magic formula to make it successful though. I think the only thing you can do is put your heart into it and believe in it and love it, because if you don’t love it first, nobody else is going to love it. But we loved Bioshock very, very much.

"Good girls gather, gather..."

Bioshock Infinite shares a name with the original, but what makes it a Bioshock game?
When we started working on this we tried to identify the elements that make a Bioshock game. There are two main elements that we came up with. One is that it’s set in a ridiculous and fantastic, over-the-top, but somehow still very grounded and believable world. You get to explore that world, and that’s a key part of the game.

An underwater "aerial" view of Rapture.

The other element is that we offer a broad set of tools, and the player decides how he approaches the problems of the game with that toolset. Everything else we determined was secondary to that, to those two elements. When we had it, when we understood those things, that was very freeing because when we knew what made a Bioshock game, we could move forward working on Infinite, confident that it was a Bioshock game.

There’s a lot of politics and philosophy behind Bioshock, which gives it an intellectual weight. Do you think this is a good thing for games to do?
I don’t like to see myself as an arbiter of what other games should do because I like playing stupid games where you blow crap up. One of my favourite games of all time is Mercenaries – I love blowing stuff up! But as a developer, I don’t really think that’s the kind of game I’m good at making. So I think games need to be diverse, I think that’s a fairer thing to say, and the more diverse team we have, the better it is. That’s why we’re able to service more and more people. I remember the first time I showed my parents Bioshock. They’d seen all my games before, and honestly I don’t think they ever really understood what it was I did until they saw it, because they couldn’t really relate to a lot of that stuff. They’re not gamers. And I started thinking there was something in Bioshock that people who wouldn’t normally be interested in videogames took notice of. I think it’s a good thing if you can reach out to people, but I think it’s also important to make a game that hardcore gamers are going to want to play.

Would you say Bioshock is an FPS or an RPG?
I would say that it’s an FPS. Even when we were developing it, I think it had to work as an FPS, so I think I’ve always thought of it that way. I like working in first-person games particularly because I think that’s the best way to explore a world, because it’s the most intimate, most immediate.

So what are the biggest technical advances between Bioshock and Infinite?
We initially thought about doing the game in the technology we developed for Bioshock, and that we used in Bioshock 2 as well - but it became clear that wasn't going to work. We wanted you to be able to move very quickly around the space using the Skylines; that's a streaming challenge. When you're walking around in the first Bioshock, you can stream the content at a very comfortable rate. When you're going at 80 miles per hour in these Skylines that we have in Infinite, that becomes a much more challenging proposition. The moving cities, they become a moving platform. In Bioshock you'd encounter perhaps three or four guys at a time. Well in this game we want you to fight maybe 15 or 16 people at a time sometimes.

The Sky-Line is a mode of transportation throughout Columbia. It was originally created to be the city's main freight transport system, and was adapted for personal travel.

The strong horror element to Bioshock, was one of its most compelling features. Columbia looks brighter, so are you going to achieve the same kind of feel?
I think that it's certainly obvious how you do horror, in a dark stormy night - the setting like we had in the first Bioshock. But we had quiet places too, because one thing we wanted to do is to make that Rapture was a beautiful place. People asked: "You're making all this beautiful art - how do you make this scary? So that was out challenge here. This time it was: "You have this city and it's sunny and it's beautiful, so how are you going to make that scary?" We just look at different references. One of my favourite horror movies is the Shining, which was quite fluorescent - it wasn't really dark at all. I'm not sure there's a dark scene in the entire movie. For me the scariest part of that movie is the scene with the little girls in the hallway. It's just terrifying! There a scene that I remember at the end of Carrie that scared the hell out of me and that was in bright sunlight. The opening of Blue Velvet where you see that ear lying in the grass - that severed ear. It's harder, but if you pull if off you'll have a much more unique space to stand in.

The iconic Shining twins, an unlikely source of inspiration for Infinite's scarier moments.

Was the idea for Columbia one you had from the very beginning of the project?
The first idea we had was the time period. We were really drawn to the art style of that era. And then the next idea was the city in the sky because a lot of science fiction artwork from that era portrayed cities in the sky. That was their vision of where their future was going. The other reason is since that time was compelling, because the pace at which technology was changing at the turn of the century, nothing has been seen like it before. I think if it this way; in the last 20 years, the only huge, earth shattering technological innovation we've had is the internet. You go back then, you have electricity - in the same kind of time, the 20 years round the turn of the century, you have electricity, you have cars, you have aeroplanes, you have radios, you have movies, you have photographs. The electric light bulb. The telephone. All of those had the same scale of impact that the internet had. We've had one innovation in the last 20 years that's changed our lives - can you imagine how much their lives were changing then? - their heads were spinning. It was a fascinating time from a technology standpoint, and that made people think about the future. And I always thought if you asked someone back then if they though we might be living in the sky in ten years, they'd probably say: Yes, that sounds about right".

The name Columbia refers to the female personification of the United States used in various forms of patriotic symbolism in the 19th century.

What are the ideological differences between Columbia and Rapture?
We've only talked about some of the ideology in Rapture, and that evolved from the initial founders, in that the city had very much the ideals of the founding fathers of America - you know of individual liberty, of rights that were granted, that were intrinsic in all mankind. Also the notions of individual initiative and industry that America was becoming so successful with. So what we wanted to explore, I think, was that if you show the same founding documents to different people they can walk away with two very different interpretations - or three people will have maybe three different interpretations of those documents, and that was a really interesting concept to me. I'll think you'll find in Columbia different groups with different points of view as to what it means to be an American. What those same set of principles and ideals mean, and I think people might differ so much of what those pieces of paper mean that they'll kill each other over it.

Columbia's xenophobic propoganda, which harks back to the dark days of not just Nazi Germany, but America's own history.

How will choice and morality come into the game?
You know the Bioshock games are outside the reach of any kind of specific morality system. We're not talking about anything specific yet for Bioshock Infinite. But I think the game is about the setting - it's certainly set in a context of moral choice and moral systems. The questions are asked to start with, so the very nature of these worlds has a moral underpinning. So we're going to talk down the road about how specifically, game wise, we plan to do morality from a morality perspective. But I think from a story perspective you're obviously seeing a world that has a lot of conflict that would naturally come from being in that world. There's not one clear direction, although we've only shown one side and I think you're going to find, the same way that people were both drawn to and repulsed by Andrew Ryan, you're going to find some of the same feelings here of not being entirely certain how you feel about the various players in this world.

Infinite's take on morality will prove a more complex affair than simply chosing to 'rescue' or 'harvest' a little sister.

Who is Booker Dewitt then and how would you describe him?
Booker is a former Pinkerton agent. The Pinkertons were one the first private security forms, and he was thrown out for being a little too rough - even for the Pinkertons. He's sort of a disgrace, but he's known as a guy who gets things done, and sometimes if you want something that's not particularly savoury or legal to get done, he's the guy you might turn to. He's approached by this man, this mysterious figure, who needs this woman, Elizabeth, recovered for him. So booker asks a few questions and it turns out this woman is in Columbia, this floating city that has disappeared from the radar. Nobody knows where it is anymore. Of course everybody knew about it when it was first created. Booker is the man that seems like a natural choice to find it. If you have a mysterious mission and need someone's who's not afraid to get his hands dirty, Booker is the kind of guy you turn to.

Just who is Booker DeWitt? Unlike the other BioShock protagonist characters, DeWitt has his own identity, and the player is aware of it from the start.

The girl will obviously add something to the gameplay. Can you tell me a bit about how she'll interact with the player?
Elizabeth has a bunch of roles in the game. We've closely looked at the history of companion characters from a range of games, and I think there's mixed degrees of success. We've looked at all those examples and thought very carefully about how to do that right. There are several principles that we've set out for ourselves. One was that Elizabeth should never be somebody who will die if you don't look after her. That's never fun. A full-game escort mission is not a fun concept. She can tale care of herself, which she does. Another place we've seen companion characters fail is when the character can run the game for you. I've seen videos recently of a game where it can pretty much play itself, and that's the last thing we want. So Elizabeth offers opportunities to you, and if you've seen the gameplay demo you can see that she offers up these huge, dynamic opportunities - but you don't have to take them.

Elizabeth is a twenty-year old woman who has been imprisoned in Columbia since she was five years old.

In the gameplay demo we put out there's a sequence where she weakens a bridge for you, and there's an enemy on the bridge - a very powerful enemy - and you can either take the opportunity she gave you to destroy the bridge using one of your powers or one of your weapons, or you can fight the creature entirely on your own and ignore the opportunities that Elizabeth has presented to you. There’s also going to be more systemic and more emergent things she does which we haven’t talked about yet, but which we’ll announce a little further down the road. Sort of dynamically generating an opportunity that she’s going to give you, Also she’s the centre of the story, she’s the reason you’re in the city, she’s the person you’re trying to get out, and she’s the centre – as it turns out – of this entire conflict that’s tearing the city apart.

Can you tell me about how customisation is going to be expanded in Infinite?
One thing we realised in Bioshock was that we thought there were two problems with the character growth system. One is that we didn’t there were enough items to grow. There weren’t enough moments of growth, there weren’t enough things to grow with, and they weren’t lethal enough. And another thing was that none of the choices you made had any kind of permanence, and I think we missed an opportunity there. I think it’s one of the reasons there’s some perception – and I think that it’s a legitimate perception – that the player’s personal choice is irrelevant, because it didn’t ultimately have a lot of meaning, because you could completely undo all those choices at the next station. So I think we want to sort of walk a middle line there. We want to both give some flexibility to the player, but we also want to say: “Hey, there’s a hard choice for you to make, so what kind of tactical choice are you going to make here? And you’re going to live with those choices: you live with them for the whole game, and I think that’s really important and we missed an opportunity in the original game. I think it might have been left on the table. Add to this the broad number of ways you’re going to be able to grow, the number of weapons, the number of powers, the number of passive powers, the number of ways you can tweak your character is going to be substantially greater than in the previous Bioshock game.

Murder of Crows is the name of a Vigor in Bioshock Infinite that gives you control over groups of crows.

I notice that Elizabeth is extremely powerful, but she often seems to look tired after using her powers. Is this a way to make sure that the player doesn’t abuse her powers and just smash their way through the game?
There are a couple of good points there. Obviously we want to make it clear that Elizabeth is incredibly powerful, but she’s not arbitrarily powerful. There are certain times the world presents opportunities to Elizabeth she can exploit. She can’t arbitrarily decide I’m going to do X, Y or Z. There has to be this facility – and we’ll talk more about this later in the story stuff – but the world itself has some say in what Elizabeth can and can’t do, and what the opportunities are. But even when the opportunity is presented to Elizabeth, the effort that she has to take to exploit that opportunity is incredibly draining on her. I think one of the most important things about Bioshock games is that, if you’re some kind of superhero, the hero is fairly grounded and has some pretty human foibles and limitations – and we want to show that in Elizabeth too. Despite her having all the godlike powers, she gets hurt. It’s painful for her to use those powers, and we want to get these ideas across. We really want to create the feeling that you and Elizabeth are going through this experience together, and that you’re making sacrifices for each other.

Elizabeth bleeding from heavy use of her abilities.

You’ve talked about how Booker won’t get mission objectives dished out on his ear, and how you’ll act more dynamically. Can you give me any other examples of how progression has changed?
I don’t think we’ll have any radios in the ear in this game or anything like that, and it’s something I didn’t want to rely upon in the same way I relied upon it in Bioshock. Since then people have picked that notion up, and it’s very, very common now. So I wanted to move away from that, and while we were thinking about ways to do that, something occurred to us, which was giving Booker a voice of his own, I’d done this previously in a game I’d worked on called Thief. The main character in that game had a real voice, and he could interpret the situation around him, comment on what was happening in his world, and he could drive the action to some degree. He could say: “Oh here’s something I think I should do.”

Booker DeWitt is the protagonist of Bioshock Infinite, who you control throughout the game. Through his vocalization, you come to understand DeWitt's past experience and his ability to make decisions for himself.

That’s been very freeing as we work on Bioshock Infinite, it’s been like: “oh, wait a minute. Why doesn’t Brooker just say this, why doesn’t Brooker comment on this, why doesn’t Brooker comment on that?” In Bioshock it just wasn’t possible that much because Jack was the cipher. We tried to leverage that fact, to exploit that he was the cipher in the storyline. It was sort of a limitation to some degree and we tried to make it to our advantage, but we really want to rely upon this a lot more now. We want to push Booker into the forefront of the character you want to be playing as, but that’s challenging in FPS games. I think you have like a Master Chief or Gordon Freeman, you can have a lot of people speaking about those characters whenever they meet them. “Oh it’s Gordon Freeman! It’s Master Chief! There he is, I can’t believe I’m seeing him!” But I think we have an opportunity to do both that, but also to bring a voice to the character and say: “Here’s what I think I should do next.” And Elizabeth as well, of coursed

There’s a scene in the bar where not everybody immediately attacks you. So you’re not the focal point of everybody’s attention in Bioshock Infinite?
You know the first innovation I got? I was fortunate enough to work at an earlier time in the industry. Back when I was working on Thief, which was with the great Doug Church (Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Tomb Raider: Legend), one of the first important guiding principles ha had on Thief was that he wanted a new way of showing who you could see, and who could see you but not immediately attack you. You know how in System Shock you’d have the guard say: “Hey is there somebody there?” because he’s not quite sure how he saw you. At the time, I was thinking: “Why has no-one done this before? Why have I not seen this in any other games?”. And so it occurred to us as we were working through, that we should try this with Infinite. The things that we love best from Bioshock are those moments where you observe these people doing their craziness – you know, the woman with the baby carriage, and the Big Daddy and the Little Sister walking around interacting with each other.

The citizens of Columbia are not going to give you a warm welcome.

One of the problems here was that with the Big Daddy and Little Sister as soon as anybody saw you they’d immediately attack you, so we thought, why don’t we have people going about their normal daily business in the city. I’m not really interested in saying here’s their schedule during the day. No. I wanted the player to follow them when they were doing something in sync. I wanted the player to catch them when we can really determine what’s going on at that moment… the craziest moments I can create. But why do they always have to attack the player right away? Maybe we should try to capture that feeling we had in the bar in some Western, when the lead character walks into the bar and comes into a potentially violent situation, and the question is: What’s going to happen here? Is this going to get ugly? What’s going to set these people off, if anything?”

The Skylines are quite a big focus of the gameplay demo. Are the intended to be the equivalent of the bathyspheres, or will they be more integrated into each area of the world? Can you use them to move around?
They could not be more different to the bathyspheres. Not only are they more than just a method for getting from one level to another like the bathyspheres were; not only are they more than just like the rail lines you see in a Ratchet and Clank game, where you’re just moving from one zone in a level to another – these are combat experiences primarily. They’re about… we’re actually working on them right now. I’ve been having meetings about it, every day, on the first kind of big Skyline battle that we’re working on finishing. And it really is this incredibly vertical combat experience. I always think of it as like being in the sky and you have a roller coaster stacked on top of a roller coaster stacked on top of a roller coaster, and you can jump from one level to another, and you’ve got guns. And the guys on the roller coaster with you also have guns. That’s what the experience is like.

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