"It's in the simulation."
When I spoke with Ken Levine about BioShock Infinite at E3, I was struck by his use of that phrase. The game as he describes it will be a complex concoction of different AIs, each of which exists independently and interacts in unscripted, emergent ways. Two NPCs get into a fight with each other as a third runs off and sounds the alarm; depending on the character's location, an attack blimp swings into sight, firing onto the street. It's not scripted—an encounter in the game can go down any of hundreds of possible ways.
Anyone who saw the game's spectacular E3 demo would have every right to be a bit skeptical—it was so slick, so clean, that it felt a touch scripted. And it was likely that the guy playing the demo was taking the most exciting options (taking a Sky-Line onto the blimp was more engaging than shooting it down with a pistol, though technically the latter was possible).
When I spoke with Levine this morning at PAX, he reassured me that the game is indeed as dynamic as it appeared. He went into greater detail describing the process of building the game's various AIs, particularly the player's companion Elizabeth.
"It's a huge challenge," Levine said. "As your improvisation partner, Elizabeth is constantly looking for opportunities to do cool stuff. As an AI, not as a person. So she's constantly looking around. That Lincoln Head [she puts on in the E3 demo] for instance; what if you're not there? Well, we put several of those throughout the level. So she's constantly looking for things to do, but as an AI, she has a lot of questions to ask: Is he looking? Is he shooting? Is he paying attention?
"And this is not just Elizabeth," he said, "this is all the AIs. So we make bespoke content, but in the demo, when one guy runs up and beats the other one up—that's two AIs saying, 'Hey, you wanna do something cool? Why don't I run over there and beat the shit out of you!' Cool, dude!'"
"I don't think Infinite's innovations in AI are about, you know, 'They're flanking better,' or something like that. It's about finding content for AIs where they interact with each other and with the environment where we don't control the experience."
One of the neat things about a game like Deus Ex (discussed in this week's Deus Ex letters) was how the choices in the game were organic, they weren't simply "Yes/No" (or maybe, "Harvest/Save") options. Levine says that BioShock Infinite will offer an advanced, modern take on a similar type of gameplay.
I mentioned to Levine that it sounds as though the game is using the improv theater technique of "Yes, and," where one actor's response to another actor's improvisation should always be "Yes, and?" in order to support his partner and open the door to new ideas. Levine agreed that the game did that with itself, but that the inclusion of interactivity added a wrinkle to the equation.
"Of course, that's not taking the player into account," he said. "The problem is, good improv actors want to help each other. The player doesn't always want to help the improvisation, so we have to account for them not being the best citizen of the improvisation. That's the player's right, and we have to respect that. It would be great if they were like, 'Yes, I want to make this exactly what Ken Levine intended!' But that's not what they're going to do, that's not their job. Their job is to have fun."
"If the player wants to kneel down and shoot Elizabeth in the butt for ten minutes, we're going to do things where she can do something like say, 'Hey, what are you doing?' There are ways people will be able to break the game, but I find that generally, people want to be good citizens. But that's by far the most complicated thing we're doing in the game, making the thing you saw in the E3 demo a dynamic experience."
Coming up at 2:00 Pacific time, Totilo will be live-blogging the BioShock Infinite PAX Panel, which will feature Levine and lead voice actors Courtney Draper and Troy Baker talking about building the game's story, and will also feature some intense video outtakes of Draper going to great lengths to breathe emotional life into her performance as Elizabeth.