Bioshock Infinite: Ken Levine Interview (Part One)

Dave Cook


On Bioshock Infinite and what comes next for the game

Published on Jul 18, 2011

Right now, Ken Levine is a very busy man. His studio Irrational Games has written a very big cheque in the form of its stunning Bioshock Infinite E3 trailer, and after speaking with the man himself, the developer seems well on track to deliver on the vision.

In an attempt to understand the technical clout of the E3 trailer, and looking forward at how development will continue in the months ahead, we spoke with Levine at great length about his most ambitious project yet.

Irrational recently released its Bioshock Infinite E3 footage out into the wild and it looks impressive. We were lucky enough to see this at E3 behind closed doors and there, we saw examples of Bioshock Infinite’s morality system at play. How will this drive the narrative and character progression?

You’re always going to encounter challenges when implementing any system linked to consequence, and we definitely see it as more of a consequence system rather than a morality system. I think ‘morality’ implies a definitive positive and negative. Like, a definitive good and evil.

Whereas, I think the situations Booker finds himself in tend to be more like ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ choices. There are a lot of things we do that come with unidentified consequences, like that bit in the trailer where Booker is about to execute the horse and Elizabeth is trying to be the good guy. You’ve now seen what happens there.

This tends to happen a lot to Booker, and it’s not like “I’m being a good guy, therefore I get good guy points”. It’s more about you doing things and not being able to see where they are going, and in the end, where it goes will surprise you.

In the real world, you know that expression, “No good deed goes unpunished?” I think it is difficult to see where your options are going to take you.

I don't have a little good guy meter, or bad guy meter attached to the back of my neck. Life is a much more complicated than that, and I think we’re trying to express the murkiness of that a little more.

I mean it’s an experiment so we’ll see how it all goes. I think sometimes gamers want to know more, and get a little more clarity when presented with choices, but that’s not what we’re doing and we’ll see how gamers react.

The ambiguity of moral choices will kep things a murky shade of grey.

I think what was interesting about the horse moment in the E3 demo was that the gamer may use his or her own judgement and decide, “Shooting a horse is wrong”, but then you have Booker shouting in your other ear that “It’s only an animal”. Is that what you mean by keeping decisions murky?

Again, I can’t guarantee this is going to work, but we’re going to try and remove that feeling of being a good guy, who only does good things and always with the best of intentions.

We were also blown away by the visuals of the E3 demo. We’ve heard that you had to modify the Unreal Engine to suit your requirements, especially with lighting. At what point does Bioshock Infinite stop being an Unreal game and become much more?

Unreal, like anything else, is a tool. So many games built on it deliver different expressions of gameplay. I’ve never really though of Bioshock Infinite as an Unreal game, much in the same way we wouldn’t call it after a tool we used for the game’s sound.

It’s a piece of middleware, but a very useful piece of middleware. I think if you just rely on what it gives you, you’re not going to come up with a compelling experience, because people will have seen that experience before. You really have to make it your own.

So, it’s given us a lot of things in terms of workflow. But when you look at it in terms of AI; it gives you nothing. This also applies to our rendering model, and we also had to completely write much of the lighting model.

The ability to make a floating city in the engine alone is not realistic at all, in that the Unreal technology is not designed to have all the geometry moving in that way. It’s just not done like that. So our guy Richard Jobling really spearheaded that process of coming up with some very cool stuff to make it possible.

The bespoke lighting model is Bioshock Infinite's technical ace.

The tech just does not want to do that. It doesn't want to do dynamic lighting. So how do we make it work and let it happen? At the end of the day, it ups the challenge for us.

So how far would you say Bioshoock Infinite is pushing modern technology?

I don’t tend to think about Bioshock Infinite on the spectrum of over the top or radical things. It’s more about what’s creative about it, or how the technology allows a creative endeavour.

We’re not looking to create the hottest new tech demo. We’re thinking more along the lines of, “What do we need to sell this story of a floating world?”

It’s important to have tech at hand to support what is visually going on, and I think our lighting model started moving a bit more into the tech side. In terms of power, I don’t think lighting like our deferred model is the kind of thing that is necessarily exciting for gamers. It’s the kind of thing they probably don’t know much about.

But generally in games, characters will look differently when moving, because multiple light sources are reacting to them. But what deferred lighting allows you to do is it allows you to light everything with the same light source, so it helps everything look more consistent.

Techniques like this go a long way in creating a believable world, as does giving your key characters strong personalities. In the first Bioshock the protagonist didn’t have a voice, but with Infinite, Booker speaks throughout. Why did you decide to move away from a mute lead?

We’ve done the silent protagonist story in System Shock 2 and Bioshock, so I think we’ve already played that card. In Bioshock we have this anonymous character, and it impacted on the story in a very significant way, to the point where it hinged on it.

Booker isn't mute, especially not when faced with zeppelin-flavoured death.

We thought that if we were to do that again, that it would become a problem after the first Bioshock. We thought, “Does Booker have to be a silent protagonist? Can we add more character to him?”

At the beginning of my career I worked on Thief, and the character we had there, Garrett, drove his own path a little bit more. In Bioshock Infinite we have Elizabeth, and originally we were playing around with her being mute, because we were so nervous about the dialogue exchanges between the characters.

I’m very happy that we ended up doing this dialogue, because when we actually had them talking to each other – you know, getting the actors involved – it was wonderful. It really opened up things a lot for us, like that moment you saw in the store during the E3 demo.

Those kind of moments, and how they work make this a very different experience, and it creates a lot of different challenges for us. Because if you don’t feel like you’re challenging what you're doing, then you’re probably not pushing enough.

Focusing on the character of Booker again, we noticed during the E3 demo that he interrupts a public execution and the crowd spots him and start fleeing in panic. Why are these people afraid of Booker?

Well in that scene, some people try to get Booker, while others run off because they don't want to be caught in the crossfire. But the people who run recognise Booker as a dangerous figure.

Later on we see Booker taking to the Skyline, which is a superb action mechanic. How challenging was it to implement the system, and to really nail the jumping mechanic to allow fluid movement between rails?

It’s actually quite straightforward to control actually. Originally, the jumping mechanic was that you hit the ‘A’ button, you make an arbitrary jump and you hope you land on a Skyline. We had that system and it was shot. It just did not work, as you were constantly falling to your death.

Levine likens the Skyline system to SSX Tricky, which is totally tubular bro!

But if you notice when you watch the video, there are little circles that appear around you. Those are basically saying, “If you hit the bumper now, you will land here.” Basically, the game handles that jump, and the aiming circle only presents to you jumps you can make.

This is not about jumping, missing and falling to your death. Nobody likes complicated jumping puzzles, so this is more about combat on the Skylines. We want to take away the frustration, because how can we ask them to make these jumps in 3D space? Because honestly, that’s really hard (laughs).

Then you risk getting into Portal 2 levels of intricacy and physics?

Yeah, I mean we’re not going to do that when you’re moving at 80 miles an hour, while shooting people, and they’re shooting at you. So we removed that original system, and we think of it more in line with a game like SSX Tricky. In that game, it’s very easy to get down to the bottom of the mountain, but to get down there and to do it well requires greater skill.

In Bioshock Infinite, that’s more of a question of how you move, and how you perform, where are you shooting, where are you ending up, and what weapon you’re using.  It’s not about staying on the line, or thinking to yourself, “Can I make that jump?’ It’s about the combat experience.

Because the Skyline system lets you traverse great distances at speed, was there ever a desire to make Bioshock Infinite an open-world game?

No, you know, I think that our design philosophy has always been, “Limited but rich.” We’re not looking to make the biggest city in the world, or make a full city in a game. For example, we don’t want to make the whole city of Chicago with every street, and every lamppost.

It may not be open world, but Columbia feels dense and alive.

I think our goal is to make a world that feels detailed and rich. People ask me like, “How big is Rapture? How many square miles is Rapture?” and I’m like, “I don’t know”. To me, it’s not all about that.

It’s about the player’s experiences, and the city is a function of feeling like you’re in a believable space. It’s about depth for us. I don’t know, I mean maybe one day we’ll open up, but there are already people who do that very well, such as our brothers and sisters at Rockstar. They probably do it better than anybody in the world.

Can you give us an insight into what comes after the end of the E3 demo? What will be the focus of subsequent Bioshock Infinite trailers?

When I first started this process, I knew that we didn’t show a lot of the Skyline and the Vox Populi faction in our first demo. I knew I was unsatisfied with that demo in terms of what I wanted to show.

The first demo was not actually part of the game, whereas the E3 demo is actually part of the game. We used that to show you actual parts of the gameplay. It may change obviously, I’m sure we’ll change things a bit, or maybe a bunch by the time we actually release the game.

I’m not sure what we’re going to show next, at this stage. It’ll most likely be what continues to present us with the most challenges, and what scares us most. I think that is what we’ll be necessarily drawn to.

The E3 trailer has won multiple awards due to its style and technical prowess.

How important are these trailers in gauging feedback on the elements that do worry you most?

I think this is a mixed bag. The audience is never wrong in terms of, “Do we like it?” or, “Do we not like it?”  If you show it to a bunch of people and they don’t like it, and you say to them, “No, you’re wrong”. Then you’re actually wrong.

At the end of the day, if you show it to like a million people, then it really helps reading comments and getting feedback. You’re not going to listen to directionless comments, but what you don't want to do is listen too closely to every single solution people put out there.

You have to solve those problems, identify consistent areas where people are unhappy, and you have to come up with your own solutions. You’re never going to be told exactly what to do by these people, but if you could, then you’re not really driving this creative process.

It needs to be your mission and the team’s mission, not the world’s. But if the rest of the world is super-happy about something, then yeah, I think you need to take that in to consideration, as it can be useful to get that feedback. But you absolutely have to know what to do with it.

Earlier we touched on the Vox Populi faction in Bioshock Infinite. Is Booker smack in the middle of the turmoil or can he align with factions as well?

There will be opportunities to engage with them, but there’s not like a faction alignment system in the game, like a meter or something like that. There are opportunities to work for one side or the other, or play them off against each other.

Booker is no fool, and he finds opportunities in the world to help him with what he needs to get done. But there is not a dynamic meter that drives that process, it’s purely story drive.

The Vox Populi is a vicious, anarchistic sect that Booker must battle.

We also saw the Tear system in the E3 trailer. How did you decide where to place these Tears, and of course which ones to use?

There’s not a ton of macro rules about the Tears. As developers we build a space, and we use it to deliver an introduction process where you get to use one kind of Tear, then gradually use another. As the game goes on you have a lot of different varieties.

We looked at these spaces and at what would make an interesting combat experience. Basically it’s a meta level-editing platform. You have elements in each level, that aren't actually in the level, and the player gets to have a role in the level editing process.

So I could say, “Well in my version of the level, this Skyline exists.” Then someone else might say, “Well in my version of the level this doorway exists.” That’s an interesting dynamic, you know, to deliver this changeable space that exists by player choice.

That, combined with the traditional Bioshock tools of choosing a certain weapon, or a Plasmid – or Vigours in the case of Bioshock Infinite – is all going to make an interesting challenge for the game designer.

They’re only designing a bespoke level, because each space has its own meta content that may or may not be there for each gamer who experiences it. That’s both an interesting design challenge and an interesting testing challenge too.

It’s a challenge for the testers because you have to code those levels and test them not just over one set of Tear construction choices, but all of them.

Songbird cuts an ominous, fearsome presence throughout the plot.

Our sister magazine Play recently interviewed you over your thoughts on PlayStation Move integration for Bioshock Infinite. You mentioned that you would never want to include it just to appease marketing, or to have the branding on the box. The game now has Move. Does this mean you found a way to make it work?

The two components for us were: Is there a good implementation of it to add value to the gamers’ experience? And second: If that experiment – and I do think it is an experiment – doesn’t work, is the gamer who is not interested in it completely protected? Will it comprise their experience at all?

That’s what I loved about how Killzone 3 did it. They [Guerrilla] presented another way to play that game that was – for a percentage of the audience – a very appealing way. But if that wasn’t of interest to you, you’d never even know it existed.

I call it “Firewalling”. Every time you do an experiment you say, “This could be really awesome, but we have to figure out how it’s going to be.”

You have build a firewall between the rest of what you’re doing and the experiment in case it blows up in your face, and doesn’t do what you thought it was going to.

I think we’re optimistic that we can prove that. I try to be pretty transparent about that these things are experiments, as we simply have to play it by ear.

Could an offshoot be skydiving its way onto PS Vita?

We also heard that you are looking at a Bioshock game for PS Vita as well. What attracts you to the hardware, and how can you see it impacting on the industry post-launch?

When it comes to the Vita, what’s not attractive about that hardware? I don’t want to sound like ‘I’m taking sides here, but it’s kind of hard to look at the Vita and say, “This is not a cool piece of kit.” It’s 250 bucks, it’s got touch screen, back touch screen, two analogue sticks and it has an online capacity.

It’s pretty much a cool piece of technology, and I think I want that, as it’s exactly the kind of technology I want as a developer. I like the idea of a game machine that lets me play games how I want to play them, where I want to play them.

I like playing games in bed, I travel a lot, and I like the fact I don’t have to dumb down and make a half-assed version of something. I think the problem with the original PSP was that it had one analogue stick.

But thanks to the Vita having two analogue sticks, we get all of these cool games like first-person shooters and all of those things, and that is very appealing.

The interesting thing about the back touch screen is that, I have a lot of touch screen devices. The problem is that when I’m touching the screen, I can’t see the damn game. With the back touch screen fixes this, and it’s interesting to me as well.

You've read the interview, now watch the full 15-minute Bioshock Infinite trailer here.



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