Talking to Ken Levine is like having a conversation with an ex-gang leader. You know he's been through a lot during his career but he still has a calm and perspective that you'd never expect. The stories are engaging and are delivered with a sincerity of someone who truly does not care what anyone thinks. It's just what happened.
It could just be that Ken Levine is so loaded with money from his BioShock blockbusters that he has no reason to care about people's opinions. Then again, the amount of thought and detail that he's put into his work since Thief: The Dark Project (1998) and SystemShock 2 (1999) shows that he does have an interest in what others think about his work. With BioShock Infinite officially out on the market, it's clear that this guy is out maintain his respect as a true video games hero and wants to further open the door to other creators who just want to do what they want regardless of the current trends.
Ken took time out to talk about his vision of BioShock Infinite and how his personal history made him into the creative juggernaut he is today. Check out our interview with him below.
You’re known for taking a lot of risks. From the beginning of your career you haven’t been afraid to take chances and go with your heart. Can you talk a little bit about how important that was to you?
I think that I wouldn’t give me credit for bravery, because I never perceived there would be a problem with that. Whenever we deal with these topics of race, religion, and nationalism, and a couple other issues, which would be defined as hot button--even though the game is very solidly set in 1912, and deals with topics that were just as important back then. We have a story to tell, and we have to honor that story. Wherever the story takes us, we go, as long as it’s honest in the story. Fortunately, the publisher trusts in the artist of the company and doesn’t ever really get in the way of that they just let them do their thing. I don’t think I have enough sense to think about the problems that may cause, I just want to tell a story.
"BioShock Infinite is based on quantum mechanics while BioShock is based on genetic engineering. Those are real things and not magic, but they’ve been taken to an extreme level."
That got pretty deep. I was actually speaking towards picking the time period, like what you did with BioShock. At the time, everyone was doing military style games, and you went under water, into a steampunk type world, that no one else was doing at the time. Why didn’t you decide to go in the direction that everyone else was for the quick cash and popularity. You took a big risk with that. Why?
A couple things, I ran a business for a long time and doing what everyone else is doing is not necessarily a good idea. It’s not safe. They’re already there and have been doing it for a long time. If you’re going to open a shop next to Burger King and try to sell burgers, you better have your head in the game. I’d rather set up a hot dog stand instead. Especially if I’m interested in hot dogs.
We have to make the things we’re interested in, not that there’s anything wrong with shooting games, I play them myself. They’re just not stories I’m interested in telling. I think there are people who tell those stories or make that type of gameplay better, so why try to copy them?
People come up with really detailed costumes to cosplay BioShock characters. How does that make you feel when you see that?
We’re particularly connected to the cosplay community. My favorite sight is when you see a father and daughter playing a Big Daddy and Little Sister, that makes my year.
For the new game, Infinite, we had a lot of people cosplaying "Elizabeth" before the game came out. There was one girl [Anna Moleva] we liked so much we actually hired her. You see her on all the key art, and subway posters. She looks so much like the character that we actually scanned her face for the TV ad. There's the technology to scan people’s faces and turn them into 3D characters. We love cosplayers, it’s hugely flattering and charming to have people caring so much about your characters that they want to spend all this time and energy dressing like them.
At a PAX event, you gave a keynote where you talked about your early days of being a nerd. Now everyone is embracing being a geek or a nerd, but back then it wasn’t as popular thing to do. When did you come into your own and accept who you were?
I always accepted it because I didn’t really have a choice. Even if I decided not to be a nerd, I don’t think my schoolmates would have agreed, they already had their opinions on me. There was no coolness to being a nerd in 1978 or 79, and there were few outlets to be nerdy in. There wasn’t a SYFY channel, internet, or comic book readers on your iPad. So I think conversely there were two keys moment to becoming happier. One is when I was on the bus freshman year of high school and overheard some kids using terms like "Cobalt" and "Orc" and stuff like that. I realized they were talking about Dungeons & Dragons so I shyly introduced myself and they invited me into their game. I had been playing by myself in my room, and if you know the game, you can’t play by yourself. That’s the nerdiest story you can imagine right? So, I met these guys on Halloween of 1980, and one of them is still my best friend to this day. The second big time is when I got into the video games industry and realized that I not only can I have friends like this, but I can go to work and be surrounded by people who share my interests. And I can get paid for it, which is great.
Why did you decide to do BioShock Infinite instead of Bioshock 3?
We did Bioshock, but didn’t do Bioshock 2, that was a different group. The reason as to why we didn’t do BioShock 2 was because the game was set in the same under water city [Rapture], and we couldn’t come up with another story as compelling as the first one. It's like, you can’t have your first kiss twice and it would be like that. It would feel like a husband and wife pretending they just met, it doesn’t work and we didn’t want to do that.
We messed around for six months and one day we sat around and asked ourselve what is a Bioshock? Is it the place, is it the weapons? We decided it’s a bunch of things, the themes, the stories, the impression the player had of the world. It wasn’t about Rapture. Eventually it turned into the turn of the century era, and we came up with city of the sky idea. If you look at sci-fi of that time, there is a lot of city in the sky imagery. I think because they were excited about technology, and optimistic about it. What could be more exciting than living in a cloud?
Do you feel that you helped build the audience for a lot of other games that share the same time period and world as BioShock? How long did it take to put it all together?
We were working on it for four and a half years. It was a long time. At one point, we had a 150 people on the team working. These are not undertakings to be entered into lightly, this is serious business. The publisher put a lot of faith in us. We were out there making this crazy game that dealt with all these topics. Like I told you before, it’s not a standard military game. So the question was who’s the audience for this? Just like with the first BioShock, who is the audience for a game about an underwater utopia? Now we have 5 million people so there's an audience but we never knew that going in. It took a lot and I’m a much older man than I was going in.
I think that the financial success of Bioshock has enabled publishers to feel more confident about green lighting games of its ilk. I’m happy about that because those are the games I like to play. If we had any small part, it's in giving publishers the confidence that they would make their money back. At the end of the day, that’s what they really want. They have to fulfill their financial ambitions or they go out of business. If BioShock can help other games come into existence, that’s the cherry on top.
What was the inspiration behind the Plasmids and Vigors in Bioshock and in Infinite. You have the usual, fire and ice seen in other games, but swarms of bees? Where does that come from?
Well, bees, I don’t know how useful that was in the first game, because you never really had crowd controls situations, where you had to deal a lot of people. I liked the idea of bees. It's really creepy, having all these insects inside your body. I did an interview once about the science behind BioShock, and the genetic technology. I was like I hate to break it to you, but there’s no genetic technology to shoot bees out of your hands. I think the guy was really disappointed.
BioShock Infinite is based on quantum mechanics while BioShock is based on genetic engineering. Those are real things and not magic, but they’ve been taken to an extreme level. The powers are about what we want the player to be able to do that weapons can’t. We want players to have a broad tool set and use both the weapons and the powers. Then, we come up with the fictional layer on top of it. We think, we have these floating cities and it’d be great if you could push people and knock them over the edge. Then, we figure out the power. It really starts with what would serve the gamer's experience, then we find a fictional justification for it.
Everybody’s doing movies about video games. Between BioShock and BioShock Infinite, which would you rather see a movie of, and do you think it could be done right with today’s technology?
From a technological standpoint, I think it can be done right, in terms of visuals. The challenge is can you tell a good story? Will the movie stand on its own? A movie that has nothing to do with the game or a movie that follows slavishly to the game never works. Movies are a different beast. If I had to choose, it would be easier to adapt Infinite because it’s more character-based. In Bioshock, you don’t say anything. The character has no identity. How do you write a story about a guy with no identity? Usually with a movie, the main character has something going on. He talks and has an objective. We didn’t have any of those. But Booker and Elizabeth have this sort of relationship, which is very communicative and they talk to each other. That helps when you tell a story. That’d be easier to do, but harder from visual standpoint, because it’s so open and in the sky. You can’t just fake that in a studio.
So, who built Columbia? According to the story?
Spoiler, but a very minor spoiler. Comstock Is the leader of this city, he's the religious spiritual and political leader of the story. He had in his following, a number of congressmen and got them to fund this endeavor. A city that would be a shining example of American excellence floating in the sky. He had the technology to make it float. I won’t tell you how though, I don’t want to spoil it too much.
How much of real-life politics did you integrate into Infinite?
There’s nothing ripped out of the history books, in terms replicating. Most are just allusions to real things. Certainly they hold very true to the period, religious and political things that happen in the game are true to the time period. We deal with some real things, like the battle of Wounded Knee, and the Boxer Rebellion, and we incorporate that into the history of this game. There’s a lot of stuff that if you know history well, you will see the echoes and shadows of real events. We created our own timeline that's based around a real timeline.
What was the inspiration behind the weapons in the game? You go back to 1912 and see a heavy hitter that can rival a lot of weapons we have now.
There’s always a bit of artistic license. It’s probably less surprising that there’s a guy with a chain gun than the fact that there’s a robot walking around. Hate to wreck your worldview, but they didn’t have those robots back then. His weapon is less fantastical than the concept of him in general. There were machine guns then, and I believe there were rocket propelled grenades back then, the WWII model of every modern weapon.
What went into choosing which weapons to put in and which not to put in?
That goes back to the thing with the Vigors, you think about what aspects of game play you want to represent. All the kind of combats you can get into, then make sure weapons have their strengths and weaknesses. For instance, for long distance sniper rifles works great, but shotguns don’t. Have all your bases covered, but make sure no weapon is the right solution for all situations. Balance it out with the player’s conflict. Which weapon am I going to power up? Which am I going use? What about the ammo? It’s all about interesting choices. If you don’t want the player to make choices, you just give them one weapon and make them play the whole game like that. But that’s no fun. We try to make the most interesting situations for the player and give them the most interesting tools to work with.