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Ken Levine Interview: Taking BioShock from Rapture to Columbia

James Gallagher's Avatar + Posted by James Gallagher on Nov 10, 2011 // Blog Manager, SCEE

BioShock is one of the most surprising games of this generation. First of all, it isn’t inspired by a real-life conflict, a film or another game series, but a moderately successful novel called Atlus Shrugged by Ayn Rand, which put forward a philosophy called Objectivism, or ‘rational selfishness’.

BioShock’s writer and Creative Director, Ken Levine, and his team are now working on BioShock Infinite, a departure from the dark, dystopian corridors of Rapture into the bright skies of Columbia, a floating city named after the female personification of the United States of America. I recently had the chance to sit down with Ken to talk about the philosophies that underpinned the original BioShock and how, if at all, these are being applied to BioShock Infinite.

Ken Levine Interview: Taking BioShock from Rapture to Columbia

PlayStation.Blog: What’s more important to you: surprising the player or making existing fans feel familiar?

Ken: When you look at BioShock Infinite, you can’t deny that it’s a BioShock game. However, and this might seem counter-intuitive, Rapture was a surprise to the player; you wanted to see what was around each corner because it was so strange. If we were to take you back to Rapture then that surprise element would no longer be there. Weirdly, we had to change BioShock in order to make it BioShock, or at least to retain that core principle of the unexpected.

I think the important point for us is that BioShock Infinite has the same roots as the original, and in part those roots are me, Nate, Shaun, Steve and all of the guys in my team who worked on it. In terms of the game itself, we’re talking about the depth and detail of the game world, the kinds of weapons you’re going to have, the freedom of the combat and the character growth system that we’re going to be showing later.

I’m not saying we can never go back to Rapture, but it would need to be in a way that was fresh and new.

PlayStation.Blog: What is your favourite moment in the original BioShock?

Ken:The two moments of BioShock that will always be special to me as writer and creative director are the opening descent to Rapture and the encounter with Andrew Ryan. We really put ourselves out there on the latter because it was a boss battle where you don’t actually fight the boss, but that was fundamental to the story, the fact that you had no choice in how it played out. We are thrilled that it worked so well because it was such a risky moment.

I don’t think people give gamers enough credit and assume that they only want explosive, visceral experiences. We also want to be mentally stimulated. The fact that the scene resonated so much proves that we are more diverse in their tastes than some think.

When faced with a choice between protecting and destroying in games, point in case being the dilemma of whether to rescue or harvest the Little Sisters in BioShock, do you think we are innately drawn to one or the other?

Well we don’t have any kind of metric to track that particular example but we do have anecdotal evidence. I do a podcast called Irrational Interviews and I was talking with Guillermo Del Toro on there. He said that he harvested in front of his two daughters and they got really mad at him. My sense is that people generally rescue and I think that decision is an emotional one rather than a logical one.

I believe players have an inclination to what we might call ‘disruptive’ actions, such as jumping around when another character is talking, but I don’t get worried about people doing weird things; games are about the player doing what they want and they are generally there to try and experience every interaction available. It’s their game.

PlayStation.Blog: And yet protection seems to be a running theme in BioShock games. Is this a conscious design decision?

Ken: I see what you mean in that you have Big Daddies and Little Sisters and there’s some kind of protective relationship going on there. With BioShock Infinite it’s important to point out that you’re not escorting Elizabeth all the time – she is capable of taking care of herself and she is more like a partner in your mission. But she is looking to your experience in combat. She has never fought but Booker has a rough past and a lot of combat experience.

The basic notion of protecting is one of the noblest things we can do for each other and those relationships can be beautiful in game form. Just look at that moment when you first take Yorda’s hand in Ico. In BioShock games we like to explore how those relationships can have both a dark and a light side. When a Big Daddy protects a Little Sister, he is also exploiting her by making her gather ADAM. In BioShock Infinite, when Booker finds Elizabeth she is locked in this tower with Songbird, who is her only companion but also her jailor.

Those are the challenging relationships that we are drawn to.

Ken Levine Interview: Taking BioShock from Rapture to Columbia

PlayStation.Blog: If you’re faced with a potential fork in your design choices, where either narrative or gameplay benefits depending on your decision, which one usually wins out?

Ken: You have to reach a decision that benefits both. We had a dilemma early in the development of BioShock Infinite with the character of Elizabeth. We needed to ensure that her powers made sense to both narrative and gameplay. We knew we had this character that was going to be extremely powerful, but we didn’t know exactly what those powers were going to be. It was a tough job making sure that what she does from moment to moment in the context of the gameplay suited her role in the overall story. We generally don’t choose; we tweak from both sides to get unity, and if you don’t get that unity, then we tend to jettison things.

Ken Levine Interview: Taking BioShock from Rapture to Columbia Ken Levine Interview: Taking BioShock from Rapture to Columbia

PlayStation.Blog: How exactly are the PlayStation Move controls going to work?

Ken: We’ve got the Move controls working now back at the studio, certainly more so than we had when we announced it at E3, and really we’re just waiting for the opportunity to show that with a new piece of content. It’s working well but we still have a lot of polishing to do. Of all the motion controllers in the world, the Move is the one best suited to a first-person shooter, and a lot of PlayStation games have done a great job incorporating it. I will say that we’re discovering some great opportunities with the Skyline gameplay, but rather than show it to people with an old demo, I’d prefer to show it with a new piece of content.

Ken Levine Interview: Taking BioShock from Rapture to Columbia

PlayStation.Blog: BioShock famously took inspiration from Ayn Rand’s Atlus Shrugged. Does BioShock Infinite have a particular philosophical or literary influence?

Ken: I read a lot about history and I got interested in the late 19th century by the book Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which is set around the 1893 World Fair. For me, that time is the most transformative in history because you had all these technologies coming into play, like radio, movies, electricity, cars – mass production in general. Alongside that, you had social transformations with suffrage, labour movements, the beginning of the civil rights movement – all these amazing uprisings bringing a sense that the colony is starting to buckle and break free.

Just look at what was happening in science, with Heisenberg, Einstein and Max Planck; they were discovering that the Universe is so much more complex than anyone thought, and we’re still figuring out the implications of their findings to this day.

In the original BioShock we tapped in to Crick & Watson and their discovery of genetics. In BioShock Infinite we’re looking more at the world of physics and we bring that in through Elizabeth, who is able to manipulate her universe. We’re always looking at the technological, scientific, social and cultural changes that are happening in any historical period we touch, and we try to integrate those into our stories.

Originally, we conceived the game as a struggle between a technological movement and a Luddite movement, and it didn’t work out because, in reality, those Luddite movements never took hold in a powerful way, so we didn’t have such a rich well of inspiration.

What we have arrived at is a conflict between the Founders, an ultra-nationalist group that is the dominant power in Columbia, and the Vox-Populi, an international workers’ movement that is fighting against the Founders, kicking all of the rich people out of their part of town.

The real conflict of that time – and, you could argue, what is happening today – is this left and right schism of extreme nationalism on one side, and an anti-capitalist, internationalist movement on the other. With our games we’re never looking to advocate a political position and we try to ask questions more than we try to answer them. We show the extreme ends of the spectrum.

The Splicers in BioShock were insane, almost feral, but the enemies we have seen in BioShock Infinite seem more lucid. How does this affect the game?

You’re going to see a range of enemies in terms of where they’re at mentally. It’s not like BioShock where you’re showing up after an event and picking up the pieces; Elizabeth and Booker are in the middle of it all. The Vox-Populi is a small group when you show up at the beginning of the game, and your actions change that and accelerate their growth. You’re going to see changing AI based on your actions. Then you’ve also got SongBird and Handyman – examples of bigger, stronger enemies.

Ken Levine Interview: Taking BioShock from Rapture to Columbia

PlayStation.Blog: How does it make you feel when you hear that some players completed BioShock almost exclusively using the Electro Bolt and the shotgun?

Ken: One of the first things we did when we started on BioShock Infinite was to draw a graph with y and z axes, and to say that one of those axes was the number of enemies in an encounter and the other was the range of those enemies. In the original BioShock, the entire game lived in one corner of that graph – few enemies, all at close range — so the Electro Bolt and shotgun were perfect. BioShock Infinite is going to have much greater ranges and, potentially, far more enemies, so we’re greatly increasing the spectrum of encounters that are possible, and that requires the player use a broader set of tools.

That being said, it may be a given player will try to find a way to close down those distances and stick with Electro Bolt and shotgun, but I don’t think that’s going to be anywhere near as effective a strategy this time around. They were too devastating in BioShock, we admit that, but we’re not going to solve it by simply nerfing those weapons; we’re doing it by changing the types of encounter you’re going to face.

//Add Your Own

26 Comments

1

+ Exalted_Knight on November 10th, 2011 at 8:07 am said:

Bioshock Infinite looks very promising!! Leave it to Irrational Games and Ken Levine. I can’t wait to become a Game Designer! I dont comment much on the Blog, but I love these kind of posts! Keep up the great work Irrational Games and The team behind Ken Levine!


2

+ Tremulan777 on November 10th, 2011 at 8:18 am said:

Bioschokyyyyyy


3

+ Permafry_42 on November 10th, 2011 at 8:19 am said:

Keyboard and Mouse FTW! wish the ps3 version had keyboard and mouse support… Ah well guess i’m going to just get the pc version =D


4

+ playaplus on November 10th, 2011 at 8:41 am said:

the only game on ps3 i’ve seen w mouse and keyboard support is unreak tournament 3


5

+ playaplus on November 10th, 2011 at 8:41 am said:

unreal i mean


6

+ Falaut on November 10th, 2011 at 8:43 am said:

Nice interview! I’m very excited for this game and it will be one of the few multplats that I actually buy new due to the fact that Irrational is doing something extra for the PS3 gamer, and that is Move integration. I will say though that I hope the rumblings about a dedicated move peripheral for Infinite…are just that, rumblings.

Cheers.


7

+ io-knight on November 10th, 2011 at 9:01 am said:

Atlas Shrugged. Atlus makes video games. ;)


8

+ AJBS0NIC on November 10th, 2011 at 9:05 am said:

In my opinion, BioShock is one of the only original IPs of the seventh generation that really added something new to a tired genre. I barely call myself a FPS player but the BioShock series has won me over =)


9

+ zombie9 on November 10th, 2011 at 9:05 am said:

My favorite part of bioshock was when I beat Andrew Ryan face in with a golf club!!! EPIC
Game looks Wonderful.


10

+ SalMoriarty on November 10th, 2011 at 9:10 am said:

Actually, BioShock was inspired by the PC classics System Shock and System Shock 2.


11

+ zzamaro on November 10th, 2011 at 9:48 am said:

“Would you kindly…” my favorite quotation. I sometimes use it :)

I’m not sure if you will answer questions here, but will bioshock 1(that is included on the PS3 version) include all of the DLC?

Can’t wait for Infinite. My body is ready.


12

+ colstripcapn on November 10th, 2011 at 9:50 am said:

The real question you should have asked is: When is System Shock 3 coming out?

Those games were so awesome… SHODAN is probably one of the best gaming villains also.


13

+ IMmORTAL_78 on November 10th, 2011 at 10:07 am said:

well BioShock is bringing the move and in the futer PSVITA will have sum BioShock game in.. and this game is so long and open space and well riten that it will go down game history!!!!


14

+ ThreeLeggedFreak on November 10th, 2011 at 11:58 am said:

If Move is the best for shooters, how come Battlefield 3, MW3, or heck, Sony’s own Uncharted 3 are not supporting it?

Question for Ken, I heard that Bioshock Vita is still just all in your head and will NOT be developed by Irrational. Please tell me this is not true and Irrational is developing and it has already started?


15

+ ODINGameslayer on November 10th, 2011 at 12:38 pm said:

Add my voice to those singing the praises of Bioshock 1, as well as the severely underrated Bioshock 2. Eagerly awaiting infinite as a top-tier, day-one purchase. This is why we all play games.

If Move support is integrated as an aiming mechanism, then okay, whatever. I can accept that. I just wouldn’t want to see any swashbuckling motions for a game as serious as this.

Either way, I’ll be using the sticks, thanks.


16

+ MiiAmigo on November 10th, 2011 at 12:56 pm said:

Cool update interview. I only wish that the guys at ModNation and LittleBig would show support for the Bioshock universe by giving us some official Bioshock DLC for their games. Just like The Stranger got love on LittleBigPlanet 2.


17

+ Painkiller360 on November 10th, 2011 at 2:24 pm said:

I want some psn BioShock avatars!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


18

+ zzamaro on November 10th, 2011 at 3:01 pm said:

@14

Because it takes time and effort to make a game move compatible with the game. Something a lot of developers don’t want to put into making the game.


19

+ Kchow23 on November 10th, 2011 at 3:36 pm said:

Already pre-ordered will be awesome if they finally say when it will be released!


20

+ narwhalSTAB on November 10th, 2011 at 3:55 pm said:

So glad they decided to include Move support for Infinite. I’m not into “waggle” gaming but I tried the Move with Socom, Resistance, and other FPS and it’s great. It’s my preferred method of play for shooters.


21

+ skaixz on November 10th, 2011 at 7:38 pm said:

I wanna buy this game!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


22

+ Bloodios on November 11th, 2011 at 1:03 am said:

I seriously am looking forward to this game, but first, I want to clarify a few things:
- Will the original “BioShock” that comes with the PS3 version of “BioShock Infinite” be included in the disc, or will we have to redeem it with a code, then download it from PSN?
- Will the add-on “Challenge Rooms” be included as well?
- Is the original “BioShock” bundled with the PS3 version of “BioShock Infinite” going to be an improved version, or will we get the same sorry excuse of a port that was released in 2008?


23

+ KingLazy93 on November 11th, 2011 at 11:53 pm said:

This game is looking awesome!


24

+ tonydamiani on November 12th, 2011 at 1:02 am said:

*dies* x_x can’t wait!! :D


25

+ danilo_portuga on November 14th, 2011 at 12:27 pm said:

I’m really excited for this game, can’t wait to play it with PS Move. Ken has told with PS Move the game looks really amazing


26

+ KlorHammer on December 5th, 2011 at 11:45 pm said:

This game is on the top of my must have list. Makes me wish I had time to play thu the original again.


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