Earlier today, Ken Levine of BioShock Infinite‘s Irrational Games held an IAmA on Reddit. He was asked a lot of BioShock related questions, and gave some very telling answers to a bunch of them.
Just like the Far Cry 3 IAmA, we’ve compiled a list of the more interesting pieces of information below, in a question and answer format. The questions were then edited down for cohesion, with the answers left untouched.
*There are slight spoilers ahead and all questions (there were a lot) about his amazing beard were left out.
What is your favorite character from any of your games?
In Infinite, Elizabeth. In Bio 1, hmmm…Ryan or Tennenbaum In Freedom Force, ManBot In System Shock 2, Prefontaine (I didn’t conceive SHODAN, so I can’t count her, but she’s my favorite adopted child)
Did you have a feeling BioShock was going to do as well as it did? Or did it take sales to confirm your success?
It all depends on how well it’s marketed, but more importantly, how good the game is. Right now, I can tell you I think it’s great, but I’m probably the most biased person in the universe.
How much of what you learned making System Shock 2 all those years ago has translated to BioShock Infinite?
There are some basic things to making a game that I learned on Shock 2 (which was my first shipped game) such as make sure the story suits the storytelling tools you have and keep the player in the world as much as possible.
But on every game we always manage to find a way to really make life hell for ourselves. On this game, the killers were (in terms of development challenges) Elizabeth, the scale and floating nature of the city, the skylines and pretty much everything else.
Which genre do you enjoy playing the most?
Turn based strategy, no doubt. Xcom, master of magic, the list goes on and on. I got into gaming when I was like seven when my brother turned me onto Avalon Hill hex based wargames like Panzer Blitz. Never looked back.
What are some of the removed levels from BioShock 1 or BioShock Infinite?
I’ll talk about this in Infinite AFTER people see the game.
In terms of Bio 1, there was a zoo planned for a long time in Fort Frolic. That would have been awesome, but we ran out of time.
Will the guns be pretty crazy? Or is all that craziness saved up for Vigors?
We leave most of the craziness for gear/vigors, but some weapons mods get pretty out there. We want all the vectors of character expression to feel different from one another and not overlap.
Is Infinite going to be more like System Shock 2 in terms of atmospheric exploration or going even further on the action game that BioShock was? If not would you be interested in rediscovering more RPG-ish gameplay in a future game?
I would say it’s roughly on par with Bio1 in terms of exploration. It’s heavier in terms of in game (as compared to cutscene) narrative…it’s very story heavy, which you can ignore in the bioshock way if that’s not your bag.
I can definitely see one day doing a smaller game that’s much more systems focused. But I’d think I’d miss the big narrative. Grass is always greener again.
Did you prefer making a game where the protagonist wasn’t silent?
It was MUCH harder to have a speaking protaginist. Way more than I expected.
Are the aspects of stealth and pre-planning from BioShock in BioShock Infinite?
It’s very important to us that there are many combats that are player initiated. More important than stealth to me is that the player can
a) get a sense of the battlefield before he’s in a fight and b) have an opportunity to plan a strategy.
Sometimes its also fun to be ambushed, but we worked hard to make sure there was a good mix.
What made you release gameplay videos so early in the development process?
The primary reason was were were nervous about the news leaking (not that leaks ever happen…) that we were working on a BioShock game and the perception that it was set in Rapture would become the commonly understood wisdom, and that would make us spend a lot of time and energy converting that perception.
I don’t know if it was the right or wrong move. I never claimed to be a brilliant marketing person, we just do the best we can.
With so many generic games on the market, how do you creatively speak about your games to make them unique?
We dont’ really approach it that way. We just make what we think is cool and exciting. We’re lucky enough to pursue our interests. I remember thinking after the first BioShock how awesome it was that so many people were in to the fucked up shit that we were into.
How does the BioShock Infinite ending stack up to BioShock 1?
Here’s my view on the ending:
The BioShock Infinite ending is the thing I’m most proud of that I’ve ever worked on. Your mileage may vary. I make no promises as to how much people will like it. But I can promise you the real story keeps going until the last frame.
What’s the pressure like on working on a game that has been delayed and how difficult of a decision was it to delay the game?
The game was delayed five months, which in the scheme of things isn’t that long. I think it seemed longer because we announced it as early as we did (in 2010). The longer the game’s in development, the more pressure there is because it simply is going to cost more money. But I would say Take Two has a view on quality which is hard to match. If you don’t have quality, you don’t have much, and they get that.
Will Infinite be free roam?
No, unless you consider Bio1 free roam, which I do not. But there is a ton more verticality and variations of spatial layout. There’s also like a zillion times more in game assets and characters.
Where did you get the idea for Little Sisters?
The original idea came to me when I was watching a show about ants. ( I think it was ants). There were the worker/gatherer ants, the army ants who protected them and other bugs who ate ants. I remember thinking that those roles read very clearly even if you didn’t know anything about the story and how cool it would be to be in a game where you could watch that ecology around you. It took some time for the ants to anthropomorphize into Big Daddy and Little Sister.
How important was it to make the themes of Infinite different that BioShock 1? Was it difficult to come up with a villain that has different views than Andrew Ryan?
The world had to feel very different than Rapture than just as compelling. I think of all the narrative challenges, this was the biggest. And yes, developing Comstock was one of the hardest parts of writing the game. We had many meetings/lunches where the writers and I scratched our heads and said “How the hell do we write this guy?”
What inspired you to make games with such complex themes in their stories?
The key thing is to never forget that if you’re story doesn’t impact the viewer via sound or pixels, it doesn’t exist. That’s why we don’t keep a story bible or anything like that. On Infinite, I had to remember there were a couple of things I had said about Booker that actually weren’t in the game a few months later, and I had a holy shit moment because in my head it was there because I had talked about so much in interviews.
When I was working on Thief with Doug Church, we used to joke that if people didn’t understand the game, we’d ship a video of us explaining why it was fun.
That’s a very dangerous trap one can fall into.
Will there be any Easter Eggs we don’t know of yet?
Easter eggs: Yes.
Any connection between the universes of System Shock and BioShock?
If there was, I’d be in big trouble.
Any concepts that needed to be scrapped? How does the gameplay differ from what we saw at E3 a couple years back?
I’d say the gameplay/flow is VERY similar to what we showed at E3 (not the level layout per se, but the feeling and features of the game). Elizabeth has been substantially expanded in terms of her feature set (which you can read about in other previews from our recent press tour).
In terms of concepts scrapped, in this game, I’d say if you weighed the game vs. the cutting room floor, the cutting room floor is probably heavier. That’s a GOOD thing. We cut things because they don’t work.
How long of a period of time does BioShock Infinite take place? Or is this a spoilerish question?
The game takes place over at least a couple of days. Yes, Elizabeth has at least one costume change during it, as you’ve seen. And maybe a haircut, too.
How has the player’s experience evolved the most from BioShock to BioShock 2 and BioShock Infinite?
The gameplay experience (shooting, growth etc) was stronger in 2 than 1. I think Infinite’s growth is in having living people around you and the kind of narrative that affords, as well as having a much more diverse playground (indoor/outdoor, skylines, etc) to play on.
What do you think about Kickstarter? If you lost creative control from a publisher, would you use it?
I can see the appeal of the kickstarter thing because it really is a level of freedom, not so much in publisher doing creative control (Which take 2 does NOT at all, they’re great about that) but just the nature of releasing a very large, very expensive game that either has to a) recoup it’s costs or b) be the last one of those games you ever get to make.
There is an appeal in doing something that can be successful if it sells 100k units, but I also like the fact that our games really impact a lot of people. Grass is always greener.
Do you feel that first person is best suited for your type of world building in games? Or is there another genre you want to explore?
I love first person because it gets you so close to the detail of the world. Infinite wouldn’t work in any other perspective.
What games did you play in your youth that shaped your design sensibilities?
Adventure on the Atari 2600. Castle Wolfenstein on Apple 2 Ultima UnderWorld System Shock 1
Who is your favorite BioShock Infinite character? Will there be any twists in Infinite?
On the first, I’d have to say Elizabeth, but there’s a fond spot in my heart for Lutece. On the second, I’ll tell you if you give me sixty dollars.
What was your reaction when BioShock was named to the Smithsonian’s Art of Video Games exhibition? Did you feel like you accomplished what you set out to do?
It was fun, but I never felt the need for games to have mainstream recognition as a form of validation of them as an art form. I generally prefer stuff like this than going to award shows or fancy events. I’d rather stay home, tweet, eat ice cream and play Xcom.
Will BioShock Infinite have some sort of hidden backstory for Columbia like Rapture did in BioShock?
Yes, but the backstory won’t be about a collapse, because when you get there, the city is very much alive and kicking. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say the past matters in a very serious way in this game. Shawn Elliott said that where the last game was about Archeology, this game is also about Anthropology, in other words, you get stories from both the living and the dead in Infinite.
Was the goal of Comstock to be a character that would be both similar to and yet the complete opposite of Andrew Ryan?
Honestly, in the beginning of Infinite, the conflict was between a group of technologists and a group of Luddites, so Comstock wasn’t even a glint in our eyes.
It really wasn’t until I finished writing him till I realized how similar he was in many ways to Ryan, while being his (in many ways) polar opposite. Go figure.
With BioShock Infinite so different to BioShock 1, what do you think makes a BioShock game a BioShock game? How do you think you’ll make another BioShock game? What things would you change about BioShock 2?
I think it actually has a lot in common with the first game. I’ve said in a bunch of interviews that we had to step back when we started working on this game and say “What makes a BioShock game?”. If it was Rapture, there would be no Irrational BioShock game coming out now. After a lot of soul searching, we determined it was
a) The game takes place in a world that is both grounded in reality and fantastical at the same time. That world needs to be more detailed than any other game world out there. b) The combat has to have a strong improvisational nature, with a suite of player tools that lets everyone approach combat differently.
In terms of more Irrational BioShock games, it’s way too early to say. It will ALWAYS be dependent upon us having an idea that we’re in love with and excites us. IF we don’t have that, I suspect it would be another studio making one, if there was one to make. But I can’t imagine doing it if we weren’t in love with the idea.
I didn’t work on Bio 2, so I wouldn’t change anything.
What is the biggest fear or pressure that comes with making a series like BioShock?
I’d say it’s making sure the team who didn’t work on the first one isn’t overwhelmed by the pressure they feel coming to the company. BioShock games are the hardest kind of games to make that I’ve ever worked on. I think sometimes people on the team look at the old timers and wonder “Do these guys have any idea what they’re doing?” because we know part of the process is not knowing, but discovering.
But that’s hard for people who haven’t been through it before to always understand.
Do you see the world of BioShock Infinite open for a sequel? Or do you see it as a one off?
You want the truth or a lie?
Okay, I’ll give you a lie. No, the truth. Here it is:
If a large corporation has a property that can make a lot of money, they’re going to be interested in making sequels to it. With Take Two, they understood what we wanted to do with Infinite, in other words make a sequel that in many ways felt like it wasn’t a sequel. I think that’s the most common thing we’ve heard from the press who played it. “It’s just like BioShock, and it’s totally different at the same time.” (I’m paraphrasing).
We knew BioShock is really a hard game to sequelize. There’s no real standard formula, and if you use a standard forumla, the fans are going to be turned off. So, in other words, we invented a franchise that is nearly impossible to sequelize.
But we figured it out last time so who knows.
Where does the replay value of BioShock Infinite come from? Is it suited for muliple playthroughs?
I’d say it’s very much like BioShock 1 in terms of length and replay. Perhaps a bit more, because we have this very large selection of gear and vigor and weapon upgrades. There’s another kind of replay value which is more story oriented, but I can’t really talk about that without spoiling shit SO DON’T ASK.
Are you as confident in BioShock Infinite as you were with BioShock 1?
That’s not up to me, it’s up to the fans. Personally, I think it’s amazing, but why the hell would you take my word for it? Read reviews, talk to friends who played it, etc. I will say that there are risks in there that nobody’s taken before and the team is bursting with pride.
What are your recommendations for aspiring writers in the game industry and if there was anything you would be looking for in a portfolio what would it be?
I think there’s lots of different ways to write games. I have a particular style that doesn’t rely heavily on cutscenes. That tends to be super tricky for a lot of writers and a lot of good writers who have applied here didn’t make it because of that issue (despite their work being excellent otherwise). The most important thing to remember is that games aren’t movies. I’ve written both and I find games much harder to write for. If you were applying at Irrational, I would write something that its clear you’ve thought of the five thousand ways a player could break the scene.
I’d also watch every film the coen brothers, paul thomas anderson, stanley kubrick and sodebergh has ever made.