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Interview: Ken Levine on religion and racism in BioShock Infinite

Irrational's co-founder explains the narrative challenges he faces with the much-anticipated follow-up

In the pantheon of games developers, Ken Levine is pretty much filed and receipted as the biggest name in 'thinking-persons'-shooters'. The creative force behind System Shock and BioShock, Levine's games put layered plots front and centre in games that usually contain one or two knife-twists storywise and narratives that leave players contemplating what they've just played through.

His new game, BioShock Infinite, has already set tongues wagging - there's probably not another more highly anticipated title in 2013 than GTA V - but he was keen not to ruin things when we caught up with him in Los Angeles.

However, in the interest of full disclosure, some of Ken's answers below do address the first five minutes of BioShock Infinite and while he reveals no plot details, some may consider his addressing of some events in the game tantamount to entering 'spoiler territory'. So if you don't want to know anything at all about BioShock Infinite, close this browser now and get back to your Christmas preparations! For everyone else - read on...


There are nods to the first BioShock from the moment you start playing BioShock Infinite. You begin the game by entering a lighthouse, you are taken to an otherwordly city in some sort of transport pod and even the first words you hear - "is it someone new?" - references BioShock.

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Yeah, but this is obviously all deliberate. Is there a reason for this beyond saying 'welcome back' to all the fans of the last game?

Yes... ah... I'm trying to work out a way to say why without ruining everything... Look, everything we do in this game has a reason behind it. There's nothing in there that's just fan service. I mean, look, if you've played the first game you'll pick up on stuff - like you did with that line. But it's really hard for me to go into any sort of depth about that stuff without spoiling an awful lot of things!

Well, this is one of the difficulties in putting together an interview about this game with you. BioShock Infinite looks like it will live and die on its plot - which naturally you can't talk about...

Right. (laughs) I can't wait for people to finish the game, though, because it's like the first BioShock in that, I'm interested to see how people react to how some of the themes in the game evolve.

Well, in that case, let's talk history. Can you talk a bit about where the genesis for this game starts and when the ideas for a floating city started percolating?

We finished the first BioShock in 2007 and we played around with something else for a couple of months and then in early 2008 we started thinking about doing another BioShock game. We didn't want to return to Rapture because we felt, that as a studio, we didn't really have anymore to say about that world.

So we sat back and had a look at what the principles of a BioShock game are, and what we came up with was that the game should have an incredibly fantastically but deeply believable environment and that it should have completely improvisational combat. Besides that, though, all bets were off. There are no sacred cows beyond that.

So we started looking at when we could set it and what environments that may produce and we quickly zoned in on the turn of the century.

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Why?

Because no one has really worked in that space before. I mean, you've got a ton of World War II games, Modern Warfare games - it's all been done. Even the Renaissance has been covered in the Assassin's Creed games.

The turn of the century is also a very strange time - and it's a time we were all very interested in. I'd just finished reading a book called The Devil In The White City about the World Fair that was held in Chicago, and I was watching a lot of documentary films about that period. It's a fascinating time, because it changed America's role in the world. There's also an incredible technological revolution that occurred at the time; it's a period where genius invention followed genius invention right after each other.

It also had a really great look. I was really attracted to it as an idealised look, too. In the same way that Rapture doesn't actually look like New York from any given period - it's an idealised version of it - Columbia looks like an idealised version of the cities of the time. It was different, it was exciting and it was pretty easy to get the ball rolling on it.

Rapture was a sunken, leaking madhouse, though, and Jack gets there long after its society has descended into chaos. In Columbia you had the challenge of presenting a city at the height of its existence. How did you go about tackling that?

Deep down, Rapture is essentially a sunken dungeon, right? That gives you a lot of advantages as a games developer. It's pretty much corridors filled with enemies.

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With Columbia, which is on these floating platforms, we had to think about how the city worked - how people and cargo got around it and where and how streets ended.

One of the hardest things to get right was that section of the game where the player arrives in Columbia and they go through the whole 'Baptism' scene and they make there way from the garden outside the church and up to the statue of Comstock - we really had to nail that moment. That's where the player merges with the world.

You ever see the Music Man? Or Hello, Dolly? That's your idealised turn of the century - but in an idealised fantastical setting. The reason I wanted that is because that's probably what I would feel it would be like to live back then because the technology was so new and so amazing. But if you just show a normal street from back in those days it just looks mundane.

We wanted something that gives you that sense of wonder. Not just from the city visually but also from the interactions between people around them - who are also filled with wonder and filled with hope.

To do that... (laughs) well, it was very, very difficult. It took more work... look, without going into spoilers... if you've seen it you'll know what I mean, but from Booker landing on Columbia to the part involving a baseball - there's more dialogue in that section of Infinite than there is in the entire first BioShock. The amount of characters, the amount of orchestration - it's huge.

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