Watch the full video interview embedded above, or click here for a direct link.
: Ladies and gents, welcome back to AusGamers. You are here once again with Stephen Farrelly. We’re out at Los Angeles, and I have a very special guest with me today: Mr Ken Levine.
You all know who he is; we’re here to talk about BioShock Infinite...
: I just went like this [scowling hand-wave gesture] and gave them the most evil look on my face...
: No, that’s what they expect, that’s what they want. Because you are evil, you’ve been delaying this game for everybody for so long. It’s infinitely
on its way. Let’s talk about that -- I guess that’s a really good way to get into it -- obviously you guys are one of the those studios that “it’s done when it’s done”, and it’s a really important thing, but obviously sometimes that’s at the detriment of release schedules, and the namesake of the game.
Can you talk about the importance of getting it right, and also sticking to that schedule?
: For us, at the end of the day, it has to be right. And I would put my skills as a game developer, a creative game developer, over my skills as a Microsoft project manager, any day of the week. So this is actually our second announced delay, it’s not... some people think it’s the fifth of the sixth, and that just happens. It’s been a long development cycle, but really no much longer than BioShock One -- just nobody knew about BioShock One because it wasn’t high profile.
But look, at the end of the day, it has to be great. So if it’s another 30 days, it’s another 30 days. I think the fans, at the end of the day, they want to play a game that is what the designers intended, and the developers intended. And the people who really sort of pay the price for it are the developers, because they have to keep working that much harder. But I think that we’re a team that’s happy to do that, because we’re so passionate about the game.
We have this sort of motto that -- and Rod [Fergusson] (formerly Epic Games) sort of mentioned this when he came on -- you just need to leave it all on the field. Especially if you’re a first-time game developer, and you look back at a game, you always think about the things you could have done in it.
So I like this period of game development, in fact, I just finished my work on Friday on the game, and it was weird driving home, because it was like “Oh...”. And at that point, I was just cleaning up minor bugs. So it’s now narrowing... the people working on it are narrowing down, of who can actually do effective work on the game. So it was weird for me, because it’s such an intense period. But it’s got to be right.
: Is it important for you to finish ahead of everybody else, because you’ll just keep tinkering?
: Well yeah. You sort of have to. For instance, you roll people off in a certain... there’s a process for that. So if I was to say “Oh, let’s do a new narrative scene right now”, it would be a disaster, because you open up everything else, and as soon as you change one thing, you break something else.
So basically, the whole process of shipping a game, is narrowing, and narrowing, and narrowing the things that you can change. Now we’re really at the point where it’s, like, you change things only if absolutely, absolutely necessary, and you’re really focused on polish, on bug-fixing, and performance and things like that.
: At this stage, what’s your relationship with Elizabeth and Booker?
: It’s weird, because I have a relationship with both the characters, and with the actors -- I spend a lot of time with them. And sometimes it’s hard... I’ll be watching Elizabeth in the game, and realise “Oh, that’s Courtney”, it’s not a person, you know? Because I spent so much time with both those sets of people.
Elizabeth is also portrayed by an emotion actress -- a separate person that we use for motion capture -- so, so much goes into that performance. But obviously, they mean a lot to me. I don’t know if I’ve been able to work on something... and I don’t know if there are a lot of games where there’s so much character outside... without going into cut-scenes; there’s so much in-the-world character interaction, on this level of fidelity.
And Elizabeth really is to me, I’m probably a little bit in love with her, but I have to be. And the team is a little bit in love with her, or a lot in love with her. We have a whole squad called Liz Squad, and their job is to make sure she doesn’t walk into walls, and do all that kind of stuff, and disengage from the world. But to me, she’s the heart of the game.
It might sound strange, but Infinite’s Sky Rails and combat systems actually lend themselves quite heavily to what could be an incredible multiplayer. Open levels with perks built around utilising tear spaces for turrets or health and other items would work here and the balance of being up-on-high on the Sky Rails but also being an open target just make sense, so we asked Ken if it was ever a consideration for the team, despite the poor reception of the 2K Marin-developed BioShock 2 and its multiplayer.
“Yeah, we play around with a lot of things and multiplayer is one of the things we played around with,” he reveals. “And I don’t really want to go into what form that took but I felt there was a certain style that would have been appropriate, but we never felt [that] we had what we wanted necessarily. That’s not an issue -- it’s not a knock on the guys who were working on it, they did an amazing job, it’s just that... every product has a sort of Eye Sauron, you know, it’s not just me it’s where are the company’s energies focused, you know?
: Being so in love with, not just the character, but the portrayal, and then the personality that goes along with that: is it hard to let that product out? Is it hard to give it to other people?
: No, it’s not hard to give it to other people. I think it’s hard to stop working on it. Because after BioShock One, and to be honest -- actually, I really appreciated... Cliffy B brought this up over Twitter on the weekend; he talked about his depression after shipping Gears One -- and I actually went into a pretty deep depression after shipping BioShock One. Not because of the reaction to it, but because it’s almost like how mothers go through postpartum depression. Because you have this thing that you’re working on, literally for years, and it takes up your whole life, and all of a sudden, you wake up in the morning and you’re, like, “What do I do?”.
So I think it’s more of that, but it’s a world... I feel the story of the characters is fully told. You can always tell more, but I think I’m not like “Oh my god, I barely got to scratch them”, they really go on a journey together, and I think we watch them take that journey.
: From a design perspective -- this is something that sort of came up for me as I was playing -- is you have obviously this really big fulfilled world, this floating city with all these alleyways, and it’s fantastic. For you, what comes first? The world, and then the dynamic conversation and story progression after that? Or is it story first, and you build the world around that?
Because it seems to me, like it would make sense to build that world first, and then have the characters interact with it, post-creation.
: We have a concept of the world first, of the 1900-era floating city. The very first thing we had was the period, then we had a floating world. But it was a very different floating world, and at some point we’ll release some video of what it used to look like -- it was much more like BioShock One visually, and I felt like we were just repeating ourselves.
Songbird looked much like a Big Daddy, specifically very much like a Big Daddy, with wings, and we realised we were staying in our comfort zone. So as we evolved it, it’s sort of a little bit of this [makes a layer-by-layer hand gesture], where we do a little bit of work on the world, and that gives the storytellers ideas, then those story ideas give the world-builders ideas, and you go back and forth, and frankly, there were ideas that didn’t work a lot of times; so back to the drawing board.
“I think it just never got focused enough on that to give it the chance to be something really special. At the end of the day we just looked at it and said “hey, we don’t think it’s going to fit [or] sit well with the rest of the product in the box”. But I think there are opportunities... but look, at the end of the day, it has to be BioShock. I love the Sky Rails and they would be great, but if I can’t make it feel like something that’s in that world; I think when it cheapens that world a little bit... I’m very protective of that, and it’s not something... never say never you know, and I love co-op, I’m a co-op player, I’m not a competitive gamer -- I’m 110 years old [laughs], but I love... I mean there’s some great stuff going on, obviously Borderlands has some great co-op play, but not right now.”
I can’t tell you how much of this game... we probably cut two games worth of stuff out of the game, and I say that just in terms of content. Finishing and polishing is a whole other matter, but this is just the raw amount of content, we cut tonnes and tonnes of stuff, because it’s not an easy... we didn’t wake up one day and say “Oh, yes. Booker knows a bit, and this is who they are, and this is their path; and it’s going to start this way, and there’s going to be this lighthouse”. Those things aren’t always apparent at the beginning.
: When you guys released BioShock, it was kind of ahead of that big DLC being one of the driving forces behind post-release...
: …and obviously I’m leading into a question about DLC for Infinite, but you’re also one of those studios that tends to be able to do what you want to do, and not necessarily have to fall into marketing pitfalls and stuff like that with most publishers. And 2K seem to a company that’s happy to deal with that.
For you, you say you’ve got so much content, is there a plan to even add any of that? Or are we going to get a definitive end to the narrative?
: Oh, there’s definitely a definitive end to the narrative in this game. Any of the content that I talked about, there’s nothing that we could pack together and ship. A, it’s cut for a reason: we didn’t think it fit, and B, it’s left in a state that is completely... there’s a term that we have called “rot”, in the games industry. If you leave a level, or if you leave some code for a long time, and you don’t tend to it, other code evolves around it, and that code gets broken, effectively.
It’s very much like rot. Everything would be so deeply rotted, you wouldn’t be able to do anything with it. So I think to... there’s nothing in that, that we’re ready to go with, even remotely, that we’d really be able to release -- there’s no day-one DLC on this thing [laughs], in terms of a content package. I think that we didn’t have, certainly Irrational, as a studio, didn’t have the bandwidth to be even thinking about that. We just were really focused on making this game ready.
But as a gamer, I like content. Fortunately, I’m at a stage in my life where I can afford to buy the games I want to buy, so for me, the more the merrier. But I totally get the perspective of people who are... I remember very well, being in my early 20s, and being like “well, if I’m going to buy that, it has to have this much time of gameplay, and this much of...”, so I get that. But I also like the fact that it gives the hardcore fans the chance to experience more in the world, where you used to have to wait for expansion packs for years.
So I think I’m of two minds on it, but I personally enjoy DLC, but we have nothing ready to go.
: So, with the game finally about to launch, I guess what’s the fever in the office?
: I think that they are... people are tired. They’re excited, because I think that it’s one of those games, because it’s so narrative-oriented, narrative tends... it’s not like combat, you could have played the combat a year ago and it would have been fun, but you could not have played any of the narrative scenes you saw a year ago and they would have been interesting to watch -- they would have just been a mess. Because narrative doesn’t evolve... combat, you always have at least a little engagement, and involvement; narrative really, until it’s done, it’s not done.
People who play through this game, I think, they’ll find the narrative is so rich, and it’s not a story that you could tell outside of the games medium, I don’t think. And it’s not a story... a lot of people during the game’s development, wanted me to pitch the story to them, and I would always say the same thing -- and I think it frustrated people -- that “I can’t, you have to experience it; you have to watch it”.
And I’m surrounded by a big group of people, on the narrative side, that have been with me -- most of whom have been with me, like Shawn Robertson, and Stephen Alexander -- for a very, very long time, and we all speak the same language -- and Scott Sinclair, the Art Director -- we all speak the same language, and we know when we talk about some things, there’s a shorthand we can use, and there’s a trust.
I think some people were sort of looking at us during the development of this thing -- because so much of it’s so risky and experimental, especially on the narrative side -- and be like “What are you guys doing?”. And because you don’t know, narrative, until you see it. I remember when I first pitched the Andrew Ryan scene in BioShock One to people, and, like, “Yeah, and then he... you meet the boss, and he’s standing there with a golf club; and you don’t fight him, and he gives you the golf club, and you beat him over the head with it”. Spoiler alert! People were, like, “what are you talking about? That’s not how you fight a boss” And it really wasn’t until the thing was completely done until people completely understood what it was about.
So I think now people are playing the game, and they’re seeing the narrative together. The narrative is together, it’s all there now, they can play the game through; they can see the whole story; they can get to the end; they can experience the end -- which I think is something that is really going to stick with people -- and they’re, like, “Oh... ok”. So they’re really feeling that work paying off, not just in the combat areas, and the exploration areas, but across the whole game, so people are really excited at this stage.
: Was it a different approach for you guys, going from... I don’t want to use the term an “empty vessel”: Jack’s character, the player character from BioShock, but ultimately he was the player, in so many ways. Whereas this time around, we’re Booker, and Booker obviously has history, and he has heart, and he has passion, and he has emotion, and he has ups and downs. With the approach for you guys, was it more liberating to actually be able to do that, or was it more of a challenge?
: It was absolutely more of a challenge. Because when you have a cipher, and he is, Jack is by design, an empty vessel, that’s what he is effectively. With Booker we... basically, this game was about... this game could be called “Alright Irrational, don’t rest on your laurels”. Let’s not just repeat the things we did before, even though they were successful, because we think we owe more than that to the fans.
So we had done two games very similar: System Shock 2, and BioShock, in terms of how they treat the main character, a sort of non-entity. And we have told stories in dead worlds, the Von Braun in System Shock 2 -- and Rickenbacker -- and Rapture in BioShock, and those are very useful tricks, and they allowed us to do certain things in relative ease.
This time, we thought about, not only were you engaged as a character, but you’re with another character who is engaged, and that changed everything. The script for instance -- the impact on the script -- the script of BioShock One could easily fit into one of our levels in Infinite. I remember when I wrote Boardwalk, and I sort of did a page count comparing to my script in BioShock One, and Boardwalk was substantially longer, and it wasn’t even done yet.
And that was really, really challenging, but I think we wanted to... the team was interested in experimenting with that space of you and that character. Because when you play a third-person game, like Uncharted, you sort of don’t think you’re Nathan Drake, you sort of think you’re controlling Nathan Drake. In a first-person game like System Shock 2, it’s just you, or Jack, or Larry, or this Tina character over here.
In this game, it’s this really interesting space of: you are playing somebody else who has a life, and experiences that you don’t know everything about. Because people don’t sit down, in a realistic situation, he’s not going to meet Liz, and say “oh by the way Liz, here’s my entire backstory, just so you know”, and she’s like “oh, that’s great, that’s terrific, thanks for sharing that with me and the audience”. But Larry has to know enough so that they can buy in, and get on board for what he’s doing.
The story is relatively clear at the beginning. It’s clear that Booker’s in a bad place, and the stakes are high for him. And the mission is relatively simple right? Go get this girl, and it’s this, or your life. Once we establish that, we want to establish some very simple stakes, then Booker becomes another thing to explore in the game, just like the city, and just like Elizabeth, and we’re very conscious of that.
: Basically towards the end of the demo, we were actually kind of learning a lot more about Booker, especially at Wounded Knee and all that sort of stuff. I actually really wanted to get further, and when the demo ended, I was quite upset.
Do you guys feel that there’s a bit of a weight on Irrational’s shoulders these days, as premiere storytellers in the games industry? And would you call... I mean, I’m not trying to create inflammatory stuff here, but a lot of games still seem to go down that heavy cut-scene oriented path, which to me, in this day and age... I’m a really big fan of emergent gameplay, or gameplay that’s written dynamically into a game, so that you’re still discovering it -- it’s not really being thrown at you -- which is what you guys have done.
Or a game like Skyrim, where walking 10 metres means you’ve just created your own path, and you’re own story. I feel these days, or more specifically, as a professional game player -- because I’ve been doing this for 14 years professionally -- that cut-scene heavy games tend to almost be a bit of a copout.
: I sort of make a habit out of it, to never say there’s a right or wrong way to make a game. I’m really uncomfortable with those developers who are like “oh, if you don’t make games my way, it’s not really a game”, it’s not art, it’s not this, it’s not that. I think there’s validity in all forms, so I can tell you the reasons why I approach it this way. It’s because of the experience I had playing games like Ultima Underworld, and System Shock One, that as a gamer, they didn’t take you out, ever. And I think the trade-off, of the fact that people might miss stuff, versus they caught it out of the corner of their eye, and they noticed it, it was their moment, was so powerful, that I sort of dedicated a studio to those... well, at least for many of our games, for those kind of games, and they’re really hard to make; they’re so hard to make.
When I had cut-scenes in Freedom Force, I could just tell a story; boom. And that worked in that game because of the comic book style of it, it was so much easier. But in some degree, it’s one of the most exciting puzzles in game development, to figure out “We have this pile of information to get across; how on Earth, without sitting down and telling the audience, are we going to do that?”, because in BioShock Infinite, there’s so much revelation that comes across -- I’m sure you’re starting to get a sense of that -- with things revealing themselves through the course of the game, but it’s never through a cut-scene, it’s always through an experience. But I feel it’s much more powerful.
So we try to do the hard work, and we think the gamer gets the benefit. But we also get the benefit in the sense that once you do it, and you figure it out, it feels like you’ve accomplished something.
: This is a personal one for me, just because I’m not one hundred percent sure, but are the two worlds of BioShock, and Infinite actually connected?
: You know I’m not going to answer that.
: Ahh, really?
: Why, what do you think?
: I genuinely believe that we’re going to have some nod to Andrew Ryan at some point during the game. I actually feel that they’re both interconnected in fundamental ways, whether its through UI and pacing, or through the actual Universe that you’ve created in the first game.
: Well they’re definitely connected in terms of gameplay, and feeling like a BioShock game, and some of the design principles are certainly the same. There’s the gameplay side, and there’s the fictional side, and I guess there’s the thematic side. I think it’s clear that we’re dealing with themes that are reflections, and gameplay are certainly reflections, but I don’t want to talk about the story, because I really want people to find that out for themselves.
: That’s fair enough. I have my own theories which I’ll talk to you about when we get off camera.
So let’s talk about the studio then. Obviously once you wrap this up, you’ll have a big break, and obviously, you’ll need to make sure that everything’s patched and working to everybody’s highest standards, but what’s kind of next for you guys? I know you won’t really want to talk about that, and “oh, we’re just focusing on finishing BioShock Infinite at the moment” but is there a chance that Irrational might get back to any one of its other franchises? And I know that you’ve brought this up in other interviews before.
I actually did a comic book feature recently, on the best way to make comic book videogames, because I’m a huge comic book fan, and I know Ken is as well, and Freedom Force is obviously one of those games that comes up.
Would you like to visit that again? Where would you like to go after this?
: I learned after BioShock One, that the worst time to ask someone what you want to do next, is when you’re still caught up in the thick of it. Because if you had asked what I wanted to do next at the end of BioShock One, I don’t think it could have been anything like “Oh, this game that’s BioShock, but it’s different”. My head was so deep in Rapture, it was kind of hard to see anything else.
I had some time to get some distance from it, and the team had some time to get some distance from it. So any answer I give you right now would sort of be meaningless. I just finished my primary work on Friday, so I’m still very much in the world of BioShock Infinite.