Ken Levine might not be up there with the likes of Molyneux and Miyamoto in terms of popularity and public awareness, but amongst the games industry he's a big deal. The success of BioShock turned him into one of the most talked about figures in game development, and now he's back with BioShock: Infinite. We caught up with him at gamescom 2010 to chat about 'BioShock in the air' and why he didn't work on BioShock 2.
Q: If you look at your two main franchises, System Shock and BioShock, you guys have working on very similar kinds of games for over a decade. So why not make a new IP?
Ken Levine: I think we were attracted to the idea of messing with people's expectations of what a sequel is. If you do a new IP, that's a new IP but we've done that before. We've done new IPs, we've done sequels, but we've never done something where... we had this reaction in New York last week where we showed people and their first reaction was, "what the fuck? What are you doing? I don't get it." And that's what we wanted. We wanted people to have that reaction. And I think it's more a reflection of how conservative the games industry is in a lot of ways. We wanted to push on that boundary. But also we like telling stories a certain way. And because [what we did in BioShock] is not something that people have done a ton of there's a lot of room left to explore. We kind of felt like if we did a totally new IP and we did the same narrative techniques and the tool techniques people would say 'why isn't this a BioShock game?'
Q: Why didn't you guys decide to work on BioShock 2 then?
KL: There were discussions about it. We knew the timeframe it had to come out in and we knew that the company wanted more stories in rapture and neither of those were interesting to us for the ambitions we had. And so we talked about it for a little while and it just wasn't something we thought would be challenging enough for ourselves and would be a product that people would think, as a studio, would just be repeating ourselves.
Q: Do you consider BioShock 2 to be part of the canon?
KL: Uhm... Yeah, you know. It's not something we worked on and it's not something we had any involvement in. But we're either all in or all out. I understand the question but in terms of 'canon', for me, it's all kind of made up. I can't say [BioShock 2] is absolutely my vision of a BioShock game, because I didn't make it.
Q: When the trailer first hit a lot of people were sceptical, calling it "AirShock" and "BioShock in the air". How would you respond to that?
KL: I think it's not surprising that people were sceptical because I think in order to fulfil people's expectations you have to defy them to some degree. And how do you pitch or write that story about this game? It's not an easy story to write. Same with the original BioShock. When people wrote about BioShock it wasn't an easy story to write. What is it? Is it an FPS? Is it an RPG? Is it a horror game? Is it a survival horror? But getting back to that feeling of 'what the f$$k?' was really important to us.
We kind of knew that would happen. But even as the evening wore on when I was doing interviews people would start to process the game. And today it's less about meta questions like "How is that a sequel?" and now it's more about "What is Elizabeth's role in this game?" And we expected that, we completely expected that. That's our job, it's to surprise people and confound people's expectations, not to fulfil every expectation.
Like if you look at the Star Wars prequels. I think one of the challenges those films have was that it was like "Oh, you know all these guys from those movies, this is how they got there". At the end of the day this is not that interesting. It's fan service. "Oh there's C-3PO!" That's not what's interesting to me. People asking all these meta questions about how this connects with the franchise is much more interesting a question than "Oh, C-3PO didn't originally have the golden armour on" because that's just fan service. It's not what we're looking to do.
Q: What's your influence when you're writing these games then?
KL: I say these games are not set in history but in the context of history. The sort of political and social scenes you see come from real things and there are mirrors in them through many periods in history. I do read a lot of history. I'm a movie whore and a TV show whore. I think people asked in BioShock 1 things like, "Is this a steam punk game?" We get that question here. The answer is really no. I haven't read any Jules Verne but I've read a lot of Histories of Teddy Roosevelt. And we do a lot of architectural research. People working in new vogue, people working in neo-classicism. And I've always been a history buff anyway.
Before Mad Men came out there was WWII and then there was Vietnam. There was this period in between that was really interesting to us. Then in American history you have American Civil War then WWI and in between people don't know what happened, and it was such an interesting time for America finding its way on the world stage. You think of 1880, where people were driving horse and buggy around and then 20 years later there's radios and movies and there are movie stars and phonographs. If you told somebody there would be a city in the sky they might have said, "Ok, that sounds about right." You can't even imagine that. And to take that kind of optimism about America and optimism about technology and slam them together seemed really interesting.
Q: The flying city seems to be the hyperbolised version of small-town America. You have racial issues, issues about immigrants stealing jobs. Do you think you'll get backlash in the States for that?
KL: It's interesting. There are people who say I'm a Randian disciple and people who say I'm a communist. And I like that, I like that people can't really pin us down. What's interesting to me is not so much [people who say] "yeah those guys are idiots, they're all wrong" and more about showing how people can get to a place where they buy into a system of beliefs.
And that's really interesting from an American perspective. Two people can look at exactly the same writing, whether it's Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin, and come away with totally different understandings of what that writing meant. And that's one of the themes we have here. How do you look at the same text and come away with polar opposite viewpoints on that text? Because you hear arguments in America all the time, you know, "he's un-American or she's un-American". It's such an interesting notion because it's a different viewpoint. It's a theme that recurs, it's in every country and it repeats itself over and over and over again with things like Nativism and Protectionism and things like that.
Q: Are you more interested in a narrative than you are in gameplay then?
KL: As a gamer I have almost no interest in narrative. It's at a different stage than movies and films are. You go watch something like Mad Men or Breaking Bad and most games can't even get on that playing field.
Q: Why do you think that is?
KL: It's hard. It's really difficult to write for games. Because you don't have control of the camera. All you have are puppets. You can't have an actor [in the game] in terms of creating a subtle performance, you don't have the control that Pixar has of every frame, and you have an interactive experience so the player has to be a participant. I was a screenwriter before I was a game developer and coming from that background a lot of people were saying "oh we'll bring Hollywood to [games] and it'll be great". You always hear "When's the game that's going to make somebody cry?" But that's not the mission of games. Games immerse you in the world. And that's our best storyteller, not the people, the world. We can tell world like nobody else tells world, and that's where we focus on as a studio.
BioShock Infinite is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC in 2012.