Q&A: Ken Levine’s Brave New World of BioShock Infinite

Ken Levine.
Photo: Irrational Games

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Considering the subject matter of his next game, it makes sense to interview Ken Levine in our nation’s capital.

Levine’s games take clear inspiration from American society and politics. BioShock, released in 2007, explored Ayn Rand and Objectivism using the setting of a dystopian underwater city. In BioShock Infinite, to be released in October, Levine pulls inspiration from the very beginning of the 20th century. Set in a floating city called Columbia, Infinite will involve themes of theocracy and American exceptionalism.

Game|Life editor Chris Kohler and I spoke with Levine last month during the Art of Video Games exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where the original BioShock was on display.

Wired: Your games have always had claustrophobic, oppressive and menacing atmospheres. How do you preserve that in an environment like BioShock Infinite where it’s set mostly outside with blue skies overhead?

Ken Levine: What we’ve shown so far is primarily what’s different about the game. We’re basically expanding the palette instead of changing it. So the [areas] we’ve shown are much more [open]. In the E3 demo, it starts in a dark, little store with lots of little things to loot around. It’s a spooky environment. And there’s going to be a ton of that in this game.

I think people know we can do the dark, gloomy, oppressive spaces, so the question was, “How can we expand the palette to include these big spaces? And what does expanding that palette mean for the game?” I think we’ve been trying to show that. We only have a limited time to put stuff in front of people and we want to make sure we show things that would tell them what’s the same, but also what’s different.

I think you’ll realize, as you start seeing more of the game, that there’s going to be more of those [dark] environments.

In BioShock, we did a certain range of stuff extremely well. But it was basically a dungeon crawler dressed up as an underwater city. And I think people felt we never really delivered upon being at the bottom of the ocean in the way that maybe they would have wanted.

But in Infinite, we wanted to make sure that we delivered upon the verticality. There’s the skylines, the zeppelin and then you’ll see a lot more stuff coming up soon. We’re just really leveraging the sky and the outdoors, as well as having all the other tools that we had before.

Wired: Can you expand on some of that?

Levine: This is going to sound evasive, but generally, as a developer, I like to show stuff right before I talk about it, because otherwise it comes off as a little abstract. But I think people are going to be surprised at just how much of the sky space is leveraged.

You’ve seen the skylines, obviously, but there’s other stuff coming along. There’s one, which is really a big part of the game: We have a piece of tech now that allows everything from a zeppelin to an entire city block to move freely in the sky. I think people will be surprised at how much of that there is.

Wired: I saw the press releases about the new enemies but I haven’t had a chance to look at any videos. Can you tell us a little bit about these guys –- the Heavy Hitters?

Levine: The two we’ve shown so far are sort of like big bad bruiser types. There’s the Handyman, who has these huge, porcelain hands. He can jump huge distances and pick up objects, including enemies, and use them as a weapon or even toss them at the player. That was the first enemy we showed.

And one trademark of BioShock games is that we always have a lot of space for telling a story outside of the main arc. For example, the story of the Big Daddies and Little Sisters from the first game. You learn all these little details about the Handyman and how they came to be and players are going to find a lot of that stuff to be really surprising.

Wired: Are you delivering these nuggets of information the same way you did in the previous games, such as the audio logs and environmental clues?

Levine: That’s exactly right. You have all these layers of storytelling in BioShock games. In Infinite you have the main story involving Elizabeth and Booker. The new layers, the ones that are really in your face, are the characters. You interact with them and they’re not dead or behind a piece of glass, as was often the case in BioShock.

We’re still going to support the traditional forms that I think are really useful for giving those detailed backstories. I was talking about music before in another interview, and the style of music along with how it came to be is going to be another story you have to follow. The story of the Handyman is another one. Both of those will be delivered through audio logs and little visual pieces in the environment.

The new character we showed last week was called the Motorized Patriot, who is this Hall of Presidents-esque figure. So imagine an automaton George Washington, who was originally used for propaganda in the city. He acted sort of as a museum guide, telling the history of the city.

And when things got ugly, the city residents weaponized him and gave him this big, heavy machine gun (laughs). So he’s spouting his propaganda but he’s also a deadly Terminator figure. I think, aesthetically, he’s really cool. He’s an enemy that’s just really relentless, and when you do kill him — well, you can even hack him and take control of him — you can take his machine gun, which is called The Peppermill. And the only way you can get that gun is by killing him.

Wired: You recently announced a mode you’re calling “1999 Mode,” which places a larger focus on making choices regarding your abilities and weapons and having to stick with the consequences of those choices.

Levine: Yeah, one thing we heard about BioShock is that there were things some people missed from our older games like System Shock. Like making a choice and being stuck with it. For some gamers that isn’t good, like “Oh I don’t want to be stuck.” But others find it really important that they have to think about their decisions.

The other thing is specialization. You have to think to yourself and say “I want to be a vigorous guy,” or “I’m going to be a sniper guy,” or whatever you choose to be. That means if you’re not specialized and you pick up a pistol, you’re going to have a real challenge with it.

And you’ll have times where you struggle because you don’t have ammo for the weapon you’re comfortable with and have all these stats to support.

I find those experiences really fun. I’ve played so many Civilization or X-COM games where I’m really behind the eight ball and I have to come from behind. So I think that’s great and it’s something that I think wasn’t strongly represented in the first BioShock.

Wired: Does the game place any larger focus on these elements outside of “1999 Mode”?

Levine: The “normal mode” does contain choices you have to live with permanently. But the thing with 1999 Mode, in terms of specialization at least, is that it’s mainly a balance issue. For instance, you could basically make the starting point for everybody with all the tools much lower. If you don’t enhance that, especially as the difficulty curve rises, you’re going to get further behind the eight ball. That’s an issue of balancing the numbers.

It creates a very different style of gameplay. A lot of gamers might not understand — well, okay, a lot of gamers probably understand now because they play so many multiplayer games and they see these balance changes with things getting made worse or made better and they see the impact that has on the game.

Balance is one of the most important things we do, and it’s not very glamorous. You sit there with a spreadsheet. But you have to know where your attention should be and in the first BioShock, our attention was focused on making a game people could get through.

We want to do that in Infinite, but we also want to support the kind of gamer who wants to be like, “Oh, God damn, what do I do here?” when presented with a tough decision. That’s a bit of an old-school notion though, which is why we call it 1999 Mode. But it’s a valid notion.

To some degree, my dream would be that a lot of people who don’t come from that kind of background play this mode and are like, “Wait, I’ve never played something like this where I’m forced to make these hard decisions.” And they’re reloading their save and they really get stuck on an area and fight and fight it and finally beat it.

So many of my greatest gaming experiences come from that kind of thing.

Wired: It sounds like you’re making two different games when you talk about these two modes. The balancing of both of them has got to really increase the amount of work you’re doing.

Levine: Yeah, and balance makes a very broad impact. Look at the original Rainbow Six games compared to the current ones. In those games, you take one shot and you’re dead, which creates a certain amount of tension. Now you could go and balance that and have a very different game just by changing the underlying numbers. You could take more damage, have the enemies react more sluggishly –- you can do a lot of things that are relatively simple to implement but very hard to get right.

Anybody can go in an say we’re going to make this game harder. But you really need an expert who actually knows what that means and knows how you get those results with the numbers. Same way with BioShock, I said I wanted people to get through this. Dorian, our numbers balancing guy, had figure out how to achieve that.

With Infinite, I said, I want that but I also want to have my cake and eat it too. So players can get through the game in a relatively straightforward fashion, but 1999 Mode drastically changes how you think about specializing your skills. That has huge knock-on effects throughout the game. If you’re specialized, finding ammo for a gun that isn’t your specialty and not finding ammo for that same gun has a huge impact on how you approach combat. Just that alone. You have no ammo for your gun that deals three times the damage relative to the gun you can use that only deals half your normal damage.

That’s a style of spreadsheet game design that a lot of people don’t see very much.

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