In an office in Union Square last week, BioShock Infinite 's lead creator, Ken Levine, said I could ask him about anything. He was in a kind and generous mood, offering me a strawberry from a bowl of them—he at eats at least half a pound of them a day, he told me.
Here are three things we talked about:
The new game Levine and his crew at Irrational Games are making takes place in 1912 on a city that floats above America. The people running this city idolize some of the founding fathers, but they hate Abraham Lincoln. This is the second straight game from Irrational that looks at some of the warped ideals of the past and warps them further, so I wondered what Levine's view of history is: something to revere? Something to scorn?
"I think there were certainly things that were culturally fascinating in a different period," Levine said. "I also think it's amazing to see people who are so ahead of the curve. I think a lot of people look at this game and in some ways think it's critical of the American experiment, but I think if you look at guys like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington or Ben Franklin, [they] were so extraordinarily ahead of the curve in so many ways in science and philosophy and certainly in politics—the work they were creating, the structure, the tripartite checks and balances and all those things were extraordinary...
"On the other hand, they were very much men of their time. Jefferson and Washington were slaveowners. Jefferson probably fathered a child with one of his slaves, which was very common at the time. I find that interesting. I don't need to… it's ok to be able to hold both of those ideas in your head at the same time. I think it's hard for a lot of people to do [that.]… These guys were both revolutionaries for freedom and held people in bondage in the same time. To me that's interesting. It's certainly not interesting for the people who were held in bondage, but looking back as a history nerd and as a culture nerd, I think they're fascinating, brilliant, revolutionary figures who are also at the same time enslaved to the ideas of the time they came from."
Levine said that Infinite isn't intended to be a history lesson. It refers to the founding fathers; it uses popular reaction to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and many others to define its factions. But if there's a message about history in the game, Levine wagers it is mostly about thinking about how our history is taught and about how these figures were more complex than we might have thought and more complex than how we traditionally think or talk about them.
Levine: "It's hard to talk about that period without talking about racism, without really being dishonest about the period."
When I played the first four hours of the game last December, I was surprised how prevalent racism was in the game's narrative and setting. You feel like you're in a place and time where racism is much more widely accepted among the white majority. This doesn't feel common for a video game, but fits with Levine's belief that you can't talk about an interesting era and avoid its complexities. "It's hard to talk about that period without talking about racism, without really being dishonest about the period," he said. "I'm sure in the same way people are going to look back at now from a hundred years from now and they're going to be shocked at some of the things that we're ok with…"
Like eating animals, I suggested?
"I think that's probably going to be it," Levine replied. "Look, I'm a vegetarian and I'm wearing leather shoes and a leather belt… I'm not a political vegetarian. People can eat whatever they want... I'm going to guess that's probably it, but I'm just guessing here. I could be completely wrong."
Or he could be outlining the plot of BioShock Future. A game made in 2113, set in 2013 all about a sick society that chows down on cows. Yes? No? (Probably not!)
We were talking about the origins of the first BioShock and Levine's commitment to having Irrational make games about things they think are interesting, even if that sends them down the path of making a game about a failed Objectivist utopia. "We just follow the things we're interested in." That sounds great. That's what I think we want people who make the games we play to say, but a thought struck me and I spilled it out as a very long question.
I said: "You guys are a studio that tries to do smart and interesting things. You find themes that appeal to you. And that explains… it makes total sense why you'd make BioShock Infinite and its setting and its place.
"You're also a studio that's really good at making shooters, so it totally explains why you'd make BioShock Infinite a first-person shooter.
"Do those two things have anything to do with each other?
"Why is it that a studio that thinks about really interesting themes and is interested in making a game about Objectivism or about a person who creates their own philosophy or some of the other things you're talking about… why is it that a studio that is highfaluting enough and interesting enough to do that is also a studio that makes first-person shooters? Do they have more to do with each other than one would think?"
Levine: "In terms of the shooting, it's weird, right?"
"Well, the first-person perspective and these kinds of worlds we create have a lot to do with each other," Levine replied as he began to talk about the core elements of Infinite, which involve you, as a character named Booker, infiltrating that lively, complex floating city of Columbia, to rescue a woman named Elizabeth who will spend most of the game adventuring at your side.
"It wouldn't really work from any other perspective because of the kind of detail [we have]. When you're controlling the camera you can get really up close to the kind of detail we have… and the relationship with Elizabeth, if you were seeing her over your shoulder that wouldn't really work… there are certain moments that only work in first-person… it's not 'the other is having a relationship with her. The goal is that you're having a relationship with her. That's the intent."
That explained the camera angle, of course, but not the popular gaming action-shooting-that goes with that camera angle. Levine got that.
"In terms of the shooting, it's weird, right? Games have this interesting thing. When you see some people experimenting, like Kentucky Route Zero and stuff like that where they are starting to experiment with sort of not having a game element or even Walking Dead has a really reduced element. My problem is, I like games. I like challenge. I like having a skill component of it. And so what is that skill component? It is weird in some ways that all of a sudden you bust out a gun and start shooting. It would make sense maybe in a [Levine interrupts himself] but the scale and the amount of shooting that you have is heightened obviously, but, you know, so is Indiana Jones. The dude is an archeologist and he's busting caps in people's asses left and right. He probably kills 100 people in that thing."
It feels like a fundamental thing, I suggested to Levine. Violence in games is an efficient way to give the player agency. Let the player blow something up or shoot something and they can sense their agency. It's a way to make a game feel interactive and to present it as a system, perhaps?
"It's a limitation of the medium," Levine said. "I can sit down and write a scene about just about anything. It's really tough to make a game about any particular topic. You go see a movie like Margin Call, which is a fascinating exploration of how emotionally and the kind of pressures that led to the financial meltdown were on people. To turn that into a game would be a real head-scratcher. But to turn it into a movie is really a function of: can you write a good movie about it? Because you don't need that skill component, and you don't need to sort of train people on the systems and things like that [as you do] in games.
Levine: "My problem is, I like games. I like challenge. I like having a skill component of it."
"So we tend to have fewer forms in the game space. One of the nice advantages of a form is that it's a skill-set that people have acquired. And remember that if you hand a controller to somebody who has never played a first-person shooter, it's not something you were born with. So, you know there are certain advantages it gives you."
Perhaps the shooter is just a simplistic thing, but not a regrettable form, I offered. It can be quite complex, right?
"I would say it's an evolutionary form as we figure out more and more… we'll go nuts with Booker and Elizabeth. We are taking some baby steps there along the way of a character relating to another character. That needle has not moved very far in the video game space—outside of cutscenes—where you have any agency. I think that was one of our biggest challenges: moving the needle there, but that needle is really on the left side (zero) and not the right side (100).
"We're figuring it out and in the context of these very big expensive games because that's one of the things that helps you figure it out is having a lot of money and time to help figure out these problems. But this is an artform that is incredibly new. Go look at cinema. They didn't have camera cuts at the beginning. They didn't have close-ups. They didn't have reverse-angles. The language evolved over time through experimentation."
I'd seen Infinite's lead producer retweet the following:
Me: Do you know what happens to the sewage in the city? I saw Rod Fergusson retweeting somebody asking what happened?
Levine: When guys on my team retweet, I'm like, oh my god, now people are going to ask me about this. Well… Ken Levine knows everything that happens!
Me: We can skip…
Levine: I guess two things can happen to it. What happens on a ship or what happens on an airplane.
Me: I guess it depends on how the Founders are feeling about the people below.
Levine: They wouldn't so much care. [laughs]
Oh, and here's one more bonus bit. There's been some talk about how well the BioShock brand is known by the kind of fratboys who help make Call of Duty popular. Levine says that any outreach to that constituency did not have much affect at all on the creation of the game. It seems like more of a marketing thing.
Levine hopes they'll get it—maybe embrace Infinite the way so many people did the similarly distinct and offbeat Inception and The Matrix: "It's not exactly something that pulls its punches or is trying to pander to a mass audience," Levine said of his new BioShock. "It's a pretty strange bird. But I believe that people who think strange birds are unappealing to a broad audience are underestimating the world."