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BioShock Infinite: Ken Levine On Box Covers, Faith And Building Games With Big Ideas (INTERVIEW)

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As the creator of BioShock, one of the best reviewed games of all time, Irrational Games creative director Ken Levine has a lot to live up to.

Most of all himself.

As numerous interviews make plain, Levine is a creative visionary of the old school - or maybe the everything-old-is-new-again school. The driving force behind the look, feel, narrative arc and philosophy of his games, which are noted for their depth and novelistic detail, he is known to be a tough man to please.

"As a writer, I used to direct plays and stuff, and in that you write a play, you get some actors together on stage, and you get an immediate sense of what's going on," he told HuffPost in a recent interview.

"Now I write a script, then you record it, then three months later you might see it on its feet on the computer, in a rough shape... That's tough."

Levine's new game - BioShock Infinite - is his most ambitious yet. Rather than the Randian underwater city-setting of BioShock, the new game is set in an early 20th-century American city, just one that happens to be overrun with racists, nationalists and leftists. Oh, and it also floats in the sky. And you have superpowers.

Previews of the game have greeted its setting and gameplay - especially the fascinating AI of the player's companion Elizabeth - with rapture (pun intended). And it's hard not to feel the game will represent a landmark achievement at the end of this console generation, and the beginning of the next.

But more than most games, even ones of the ambition of BioShock Infinite, the title has had a long and occasionally difficult generation - at least, as it appears from outside Irrational's walls.

So now he's finished (ish), how does Levine reflect on the long and exhausting birth of his new work?

And what's he doing next?

This is a lightly edited version of an interview conducted in March 2013, in London.

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You seem like an artist who was lucky enough to really find your medium, in games, at just the right moment in their history. Is that how you see yourself?

I completely lucked out. My timing was lucky, everything lucky about when I got in and how I got in. I came in as a game designer with no reason why they should have hired me as such. I got put in with great, great people.

What happened to me is I got put in a room with this guy in my second week at Looking Glass who created Ultimate Underworld and System Shock, and we worked on Thief together. It's like getting into Hollywood and on day one they say 'here's Mr Spielberg, why don't you work on something'. I just lucked out.

You just had to spend five minutes with the guy to realise he was a genius. His hours were very strange, he'd show up sometimes at like 11 at night or midnight and I'd wait just to spend some time and learn from him.

Are you aware now that you're one of those guys? The way the specialist games press writes about you, describing your dress and manner? It can seem quite reverential.

I think, maybe that's because game development is so long they run out of ideas! So they write about my T-shirt. It's also games journalism trying to become something they've not been before, which is a broader perspective on people as an artist. I think they're starting to think they have an audience for that which they may have not a few years ago… Certainly it's flattering that people be interested in your story.

It can seem like games journalism is still in the early stages, for instance with regard to how it deals with 'controversies' in the industry. Like the cover of your box.

We had our share of 'controversies' on BioShock Infinite, and it gets very tiring sometimes. Because to me they're usually all about not having information. We had a lot of people talking about people leaving our company and the game being in trouble - and I knew because I was playing the game everyday, I knew we were about to show it to people…

All these stories and speculation, and then you have articles like 'some people don't like the box cover'. About 'what the cover means for BioShock Infinite' and why it's important. And of course while the game is entirely a function of us and has no outside influence, the box cover is something you can actually put in front of a focus test and show them ten box covers, show them to 3,000 people and there you go.

To me they have nothing to do with each other. Personally I don't care about box covers. When I buy a movie or something I couldn't care less what was on the cover. But for our audience it was very important, and when we saw the reaction we let them vote on the reverse flap, so they can flip it over if they want to.

But to some degree that amount of heat that gets on these things gets to be pretty intense, and the amount of energy that one gets to spend on it versus things that are more productive like developing games can get a little frustrating. But at the end of the day it's a consumer business.

Is that just because how games are made, day to day, is baffling to people? I remember being a kid and driving past Bullfrog's HQ, and imagined it was a giant cloud where people played with toy blocks…

Did you ever see that episode of The Simpsons where Bart goes to Mad Magazine?

Yes! Exactly.

It's an office, you know. Our office we have lots of cool pictures on the walls and cool snacks and soda machines and things like that. But at the end of the day it's a bunch of people sat at their desks working on a computer like every bank or whatever you'd go to. The process is - if you observe it, it doesn't seem like anything exiting going on. And if you listen to it you realise, 'oh, they're talking about robots'.

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How frustrating is the length of that process to you? You're not a man who is short of ideas and pictures of how you want things to be. How much inertia is there?

It's not frustrating for me, because when I'm making BioShock Infinite I'm not thinking about another game I want to make I'm thinking about BioShock Infinite. I could probably tinker on it forever, and never really fully be satisfied.

But is it just irritating that there is so much you have to get through technically to the point where you can have the robot and place it over there, or over there, and put it together? For instance I ency sculptors who just have a block of rock and they can just go at it.

As a writer, I used to direct plays and stuff, and in that you write a play, you get some actors together on stage, and you get an immediate sense of what's going on. Now I write a script, then you record it, then three months later you might see it on its feet on the computer, in a rough shape.

That's really tough. Then if you want to make a change you have to go back to the very beginning of the process. That is frustrating. But that's the nature of the beast. You can't put Columbia or Rapture on as a play, and it wouldn't work. But yeah, that's the toughest part, when there is nothing on the screen yet and you jus have paper and conversations.

I still have problems visualising until I get something up on screen. Early in the game it is hard to see how it fits together.

Could there be a future game development tool where it is more like a theatre, where everything is done and then you get the actors, get the lights - or do you lose the ability to make the game you want to make?

You're starting to see that with things like Unity, that DIY approach. But to build an area in Columbia there is no much detail and complexity, the barrier to entry is pretty big. Technology could change that, but it's going to be a little while.

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It also seems like all the amazing stuff that hardware can do now, and with the new generation coming up, it's hard for someone to come up with an idea as good as Tetris. It just won't justify the investment. It seems like artists do there best work when there are restrictions, and the more you can do the harder it is to be creative.

Elegance is facilitated by constraints. That's why a lot of iPhone games are very elegant in their simplicity because there are interface constraints, so you get things like Angry Birds and endless runners. And endless runner is a platform game without the moving controls. It un-asks that question and they make it part of the gameplay. There is a certain elegance to that. But the barrier to entry with distribution has gone way down, and it's not like it used to be when you just had to get your product in a box in the store.

One of the elements of BioShock Infinite's design which most appeals to me is the image of songs from different eras popping up in the game, and bits of nostalgia and setting that sort of fit, and sort of do not. Could you talk about how you drew on these different sources to create this collaged world?

What's interesting about Columbia is it's both the past, like walking into a scene from The Music Man or Hello Dolly, that turn of the century vision, but it's also the future - or how people would have imagined it back then. We drew on a lot of imaginary art from the period, of cities in the sky.

Your first real view of the city is guys drinking lemonade, and promenading down the square, but then a building floats in and skyline cars go overhead. It's a mix of the futuristic and the past.

How you do that is - you want to tell stories and get across information. And you say what do I have, and what do I want to tell, and how I want to tell it. That's why you have so much signage and you hear people talking and little mise en scene, set-ups and characters. There is basically a very large story you can tell in this game. And a lot of it you could miss - and that's ok.

Is it okay? If it were me I'd be dragging people saying 'look at this, look at this!'

Well our whole idea at Irrational Games has been to make the player a participant in the narrative and not an observer. It means that you're not stopping the game and saying 'watch the narrative'. It also means that you're going through it at your pace. You're digging into corners and learning about the world.

I'll trade five things the player will miss for one that the player will catch and make it feel like it's theirs. That's so powerful. No other medium allows you to catch something that way. It sucks when people miss stuff but we have tricks up our sleeve to make it more likely that you'll see it…

All the BioShock games are set in a similar, if not the same, world, with a mix of fantasy and ideas. Do you have any desire to do just a game with a straightforward, outside-that-window setting?

I always do like mixing things together, but I don't know. Because I haven't thought at all about what the next game will be… We're working on DLC and after that I don't know… Games are such a big investment that people are putting a lot of faith in you and I take that very seriously.

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On the characters in the game, you've spoken a lot elsewhere about Elizabeth but can I ask you about Comstock, who as a right-wing religious fundamentalist is a risky villain for a modern game - especially when Bowser and the Pac-Man ghosts still make it into the Top 5 video game enemies of all time?

In the previous BioShock, Andrew Ryan as a villain you at least get where they're coming from, they have a point of view that's not just evil. Ryan's got this very cold world view, he's got a philosophy that he thinks answers every question. And he's based on somebody who was real. If you listen to Ayn Rand speak she spoke just like Andrew Ryan. She had that certainty about her. It always freaked me out that kind of certainty.

Comstock has that particular world view which is not based on empiricism it's based on faith. A view that he is actually a prophet who sees the future and that's a gift from God. He actually believes it. To me the challenge there is finding how to get in the head of those people. Whether they're heroes or villains they still have to make sense to you.