We’re pleased and excited to welcome Irrational Games to the PlayStation.Blog to reveal their latest project to PS3 fans. I was fortunate enough to get a few minutes to chat with Ken Levine, Irrational Games’ creative director and a key force behind BioShock, in order to delve deeper into the details and inspirations behind the studio’s latest creation. Welcome to the PlayStation.Blog, Ken!
Sid Shuman: So… you guys know how to make an entrance, huh?
Ken Levine, Creative Director, Irrational Games: There’s been so much speculation, we wanted to play with people’s expectations a little bit. Coming out with a press release isn’t very interesting. One of the reasons there’s been so much secrecy is that we want people to see the trailer (above) prior to knowing what the game is.
SS: Your new game is quite a dramatic change from BioShock, isn’t it?
KL: I think the mission of this studio is to make games that other people couldn’t or wouldn’t make…when it comes to a BioShock game, the obvious thing people think about is the location. My sense is it’s more about mystery. It is about location, but that location isn’t Rapture.
We wanted to start this game with a sense of, “there are no sacred cows.” Anything from the existing franchise that would go into BioShock Infinite had to earn its way there. So there are obviously some similar elements. But there are also elements that you don’t even know what to make of. That’s important to us. There are so many things that are tropes of the BioShock franchise — Big Daddies and Little Sisters wandering around, for example. But even something as primal and central as that, we thought…is that the right thing for this game? Or do we want to take it in a totally different direction?
So “Project Icarus” is turning the page on the franchise and exploring a different direction.
SS: On that note, you couldn’t really consider BioShock Infinite to be a sequel to BioShock. Do you think of it as a re-imagining?
KL: In the game industry, people have a particular sense of what a sequel is. You know, they’re going to follow the story, it will be the same world, a lot of the same weapons…
I guess “re-imagining” is a good way to describe it. Anything that was in the previous game has to earn its way into this game. We’re open to explode any ideas, change any ideas, re-imagine any ideas. That’s why we’ve been quiet for so long. That’s a question we’ve had to wrestle with for a long time, and it took us a few years to get to the point where we were ready to talk about it. Now the team is super excited about it.
Once you make a game like BioShock, the audience expects to be surprised and amazed the same way they were by Rapture. We wanted to make sure we had something that felt familiar in some ways, but also felt different at the same time.
SS: Would you say that BioShock Infinite is in the same universe, or the same timeline, as BioShock?
KL: That’s a good question. That’s something that people should keep their eyes on — once the gameplay footage comes out, there will be some things that will make people ask questions along those lines, and wonder about any of those kinds of connections.
SS: BioShock was highly notable for its Art Deco environments. But BioShock Infinite, with its flying city of Columbia, is something else altogether. What’s the inspiration for the game’s look?
KL: The feel of the game, as I described it to the team, is “Fourth of July, 1900.” The game is set in 1912 and has this feeling of an idealized America, a Norman Rockwell version of America. As with Rapture, there’s a fantastic component — the city is suspended in the air. But we wanted this feeling of this… memory of a summer’s day. Not even a real summer’s day, because there’s no summer’s day with a sky that blue, or trees that green, and the flags waving, and the popcorn popping. That’s the feeling that we wanted in this game, and it defines a lot of the look.
On a lower level, you have elements of Art Nouveau in the city, elements of colonial architecture styles in the city, and a variety of things. But they’re all in service of this “feeling.” BioShock was the same way — Art Deco gave us the “feeling” of what we wanted for that game.
SS: What brings the player to the airborne city of Columbia?
KL: One major difference from BioShock is that we felt it was really important that you are an actual person with an identity, with a mission that was clear to you. In this game you play a former Pinkerton agent named Booker DeWitt, who is known as a guy who gets things done, but maybe not in the most forthright manner.
You’re contacted by an individual who wants you to go to Columbia, a city which has disappeared into the clouds. Columbia was founded as sort of a shining city on a hill, an example of American ideals — Jeffersonian, Democratic ideals — and the city would move around the world like the White Fleet. Like the Apollo space project, it was an example of what American ingenuity and ideals can do. The city, as it moved around the world, got caught up in a violent international incident that was shocking to the world. And then Columbia disappeared into the clouds, and nobody has known where it is for quite some time. The man who has contacted you knows where the city is, and he wants you to go there to find a young woman named Elizabeth. She’s been imprisoned in a tower there since she was five years old, for 15 years, and your mission is to get Elizabeth out of the city and back to Earth.
When you arrive in Columbia, you sense this is going to be a different kind of mission. You also learn that Elizabeth is squarely in the center of a conflict that’s going on in the city. And you get more than you bargained for.
SS: Some people might call Columbia a sort of “New Rapture.” Is that accurate?
KL: One is a city floating in the air, another lies at the bottom of the sea. But the feel of the cities, and the beliefs of the populace, are things that you can sink your teeth into. It’s relatable: politics and culture. Like Rapture, Columbia is a city of ideas – very strong ideas! And those ideas are represented by how the world is visually constructed. We don’t always want to use words — I think the visuals are the strongest element we have to communicate what Columbia is.
SS: In BioShock, the player enters a devastated environment and picks through corpses in order to find out what happened. But Columbia appears to be a very “alive” city…
KL: This is very important to us, Sid. Going back to the System Shock 2 and BioShock days, we’ve given ourselves an out, which is “everybody’s dead.” There wasn’t much character interaction, and when there is… I think I’m the guy who invented the [gameplay convention of the] player interacting with a guy on the other side of a glass. [laughs] I say that with dubious pride, because that idea is getting really long in the tooth.
Our concept in this game is that there are lots of characters who don’t necessarily attack you right away — they may not be interested in getting in a fight, either. The feeling we want is somewhat like the Wild West, where you go into a room and everybody has their hand on their gun because it’s a scary place. Part of your challenge in this world is figuring out who is a threat and who isn’t. Or, if you’re in a combat situation, if there’s a way to bring another person to your side somehow. We sort of pioneered this with BioShock with the notion of the Big Daddy, who didn’t attack you right away, and here we’ve extended this idea throughout the world. We realized quickly that this is much more like the way the real world works. In shooters, we’re not accustomed to that — we’re used to everyone seeing you and shooting you. From a narrative perspective, this gives us a ton of freedom.
SS: Based on the ultra-nationalistic posters I saw in the trailer, it would seem that the citizens of Columbia don’t take too kindly to strangers?
KL: There’s a mix in Columbia, and that’s part of the conflict there. The city was designed as sort of an envoy of America…it parallels some of the conflicts in America, not just back then, but other times during our history. There are some strong viewpoints in the city; it’s taken on a certain character in regards to the role of America and Manifest Destiny, and the city’s role in the world.
SS: Will we still see returning staples of the genre, such as the audio diaries from BioShock?
KL: I’m a fan of the voice recorders for a couple of reasons. Our goal is always to see how much story we can tell in the world. Some things stick out like a sore thumb — like the guys stuck behind glass windows. But some things are important tools that can flesh out narrative in a way you can’t do any other way.
I like audio diaries, and I think we’ll be continuing with those, but our goal is to expand upon that vocabulary. Another thing we thought that was getting a little old was the idea of someone in your ear, radioing you your mission. In this game, Booker will say, “I need to find Elizabeth.” Your character can define his missions, and interpret what’s going on around him, and give feedback and drive his thoughts using his own voice. It makes you feel more active in the world.
SS: On another note, I heard you were at E3. Did anything catch your eye?
KL: I was only there for a day, and mostly in meetings, so I didn’t get to see a ton. But I’m definitely interested in seeing what you guys are up to with PlayStation Move…there was a PSN game that really caught my eye, too, some kind of Gauntlet type of game (edit: we think Levine was talking about Hoard). Another one was The Magic: The Gathering Tactics. It seemed like a good year, there are a lot of core games coming out.