Ken Levine Interview: Taking BioShock From Rapture To Columbia

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Ken Levine Interview: Taking BioShock From Rapture To Columbia

BioShock is one of the most surprising games of this generation. First of all, it isn’t inspired a real-life conflict, a film or another game series, but a moderately successful novel called Atlus Shrugged by Ayn Rand, which put forward a philosophy called Objectivism, or ‘rational selfishness’.

BioShock’s writer and Creative Director, Ken Levine, and his team are now working on BioShock Infinite, a departure from the dark, dystopian corridors of Rapture into the bright skies of Columbia, a floating city named after the female personification of the United States of America. I recently had the chance to sit down with Ken to talk about the philosophies that underpinned the original BioShock and how, if at all, these are being applied to BioShock Infinite.


What’s more important to you: surprising the player or making existing fans feel familiar?

When you look at BioShock Infinite, you can’t deny that it’s a BioShock game. However, and this might seem counter-intuitive, Rapture was a surprise to the player; you wanted to see what was around each corner because it was so strange. If we were to take you back to Rapture then that surprise element would no longer be there. Weirdly, we had to change BioShock in order to make it BioShock, or at least to retain that core principle of the unexpected.

I think the important point for us is that BioShock Infinite has the same roots as the original, and in part those roots are me, Nate, Shaun, Steve and all of the guys in my team who worked on it. In terms of the game itself, we’re talking about the depth and detail of the game world, the kinds of weapons you’re going to have, the freedom of the combat and the character growth system that we’re going to be showing later.

I’m not saying we can never go back to Rapture, but it would need to be in a way that was fresh and new.

What is your favourite moment in the original BioShock?

The two moments of BioShock that will always be special to me as writer and creative director are the opening descent to Rapture and the encounter with Andrew Ryan. We really put ourselves out there on the latter because it was a boss battle where you don’t actually fight the boss, but that was fundamental to the story, the fact that you had no choice in how it played out. We are thrilled that it worked so well because it was such a risky moment.

I don’t think people give gamers enough credit and assume that they only want explosive, visceral experiences. We also want to be mentally stimulated. The fact that the scene resonated so much proves that we are more diverse in our tastes than some think.

When faced with a choice between protecting and destroying in games, point in case being the dilemma of whether to rescue or harvest the Little Sisters in BioShock, do you think we are innately drawn to one or the other?

Well we don’t have any kind of metric to track that particular example but we do have anecdotal evidence. I do a podcast called Irrational Interviews and I was talking with Guillermo Del Toro on there. He said that he harvested in front of his two daughters and they got really mad at him. My sense is that people generally rescue and I think that decision is an emotional one rather than a logical one.

I believe players have an inclination to what we might call ‘disruptive’ actions, such as jumping around when another character is talking, but I don’t get worried about people doing weird things; games are about the player doing what they want and they are generally there to try and experience every interaction available. It’s their game.

And yet protection seems to be a running theme in BioShock games. Is this a conscious design decision?

I see what you mean in that you have Big Daddies and Little Sisters and there’s some kind of protective relationship going on there. With BioShock Infinite it’s important to point out that you’re not escorting Elizabeth all the time – she is capable of taking care of herself and she is more like a partner in your mission. But she is looking to your experience in combat. She has never fought but Booker has a rough past and a lot of combat experience.


The basic notion of protecting is one of the noblest things we can do for each other and those relationships can be beautiful in game form. Just look at that moment when you first take Yorda’s hand in Ico. In BioShock games we like to explore how those relationships can have both a dark and a light side. When a Big Daddy protects a Little Sister, he is also exploiting her by making her gather ADAM. In BioShock Infinite, when Booker finds Elizabeth she is locked in this tower with Songbird, who is her only companion but also her jailor.

Those are the challenging relationships that we are drawn to.


If you’re faced with a potential fork in your design choices, where either narrative or gameplay benefits depending on your decision, which one usually wins out?

You have to reach a decision that benefits both. We had a dilemma early in the development of BioShock Infinite with the character of Elizabeth. We needed to ensure that her powers made sense to both narrative and gameplay. We knew we had this character that was going to be extremely powerful, but we didn’t know exactly what those powers were going to be. It was a tough job making sure that what she does from moment to moment in the context of the gameplay suited her role in the overall story. We generally don’t choose; we tweak from both sides to get unity, and if you don’t get that unity, then we tend to jettison things.

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How exactly are the PlayStation Move controls going to work?

We’ve got the Move controls working now back at the studio, certainly more so than we had when we announced it at E3, and really we’re just waiting for the opportunity to show that with a new piece of content. It’s working well but we still have a lot of polishing to do. Of all the motion controllers in the world, the Move is the one best suited to a first-person shooter, and a lot of PlayStation games have done a great job incorporating it. I will say that we’re discovering some great opportunities with the Skyline gameplay, but rather than show it to people with an old demo, I’d prefer to show it with a new piece of content.

BioShock famously took inspiration from Ayn Rand’s Atlus Shrugged. Does BioShock Infinite have a particular philosophical or literary influence?

I read a lot about history and I got interested in the late 19th century by the book Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which is set around the 1893 World Fair. For me, that time is the most transformative in history because you had all these technologies coming into play, like radio, movies, electricity, cars – mass production in general. Alongside that, you had social transformations with suffrage, labour movements, the beginning of the civil rights movement – all these amazing uprisings bringing a sense that the colony is starting to buckle and break free.

Just look at what was happening in science, with Heisenberg, Einstein and Max Planck; they were discovering that the Universe is so much more complex than anyone thought, and we’re still figuring out the implications of their findings to this day.

In the original BioShock we tapped in to Crick & Watson and their discovery of genetics. In BioShock Infinite we’re looking more at the world of physics and we bring that in through Elizabeth, who is able to manipulate her universe. We’re always looking at the technological, scientific, social and cultural changes that are happening in any historical period we touch, and we try to integrate those into our stories.

Originally, we conceived the game as a struggle between a technological movement and a Luddite movement, and it didn’t work out because, in reality, those Luddite movements never took hold in a powerful way, so we didn’t have such a rich well of inspiration.

What we have arrived at is a conflict between the Founders, an ultra-nationalist group that is the dominant power in Columbia, and the Vox-Populi, an international workers’ movement that is fighting against the Founders, kicking all of the rich people out of their part of town.


The real conflict of that time – and, you could argue, what is happening today – is this left and right schism of extreme nationalism on one side, and an anti-capitalist, internationalist movement on the other. With our games we’re never looking to advocate a political position and we try to ask questions more than we try to answer them. We show the extreme ends of the spectrum.

The Splicers in BioShock were insane, almost feral, but the enemies we have seen in BioShock Infinite seem more lucid. How does this affect the game?

You’re going to see a range of enemies in terms of where they’re at mentally. It’s not like BioShock where you’re showing up after an event and picking up the pieces; Elizabeth and Booker are in the middle of it all. The Vox-Populi is a small group when you show up at the beginning of the game, and your actions change that and accelerate their growth. You’re going to see changing AI based on your actions. Then you’ve also got SongBird and Handyman – examples of bigger, stronger enemies.


How does it make you feel when you hear that some players completed BioShock almost exclusively using the Electro Bolt and the shotgun?

One of the first things we did when we started on BioShock Infinite was to draw a graph with y and z axes, and to say that one of those axes was the number of enemies in an encounter and the other was the range of those enemies. In the original BioShock, the entire game lived in one corner of that graph – few enemies, all at close range — so the Electro Bolt and shotgun were perfect. BioShock Infinite is going to have much greater ranges and, potentially, far more enemies, so we’re greatly increasing the spectrum of encounters that are possible, and that requires the player use a broader set of tools.

That being said, it may be a given player will try to find a way to close down those distances and stick with Electro Bolt and shotgun, but I don’t think that’s going to be anywhere near as effective a strategy this time around. They were too devastating in BioShock, we admit that, but we’re not going to solve it by simply nerfing those weapons; we’re doing it by changing the types of encounter you’re going to face.

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5 Author Replies

  • I haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing any of the Bioshock titles yet. I know, I know….LUDICROUS ;)

    This does look fantastic though, so I may pick up the previous titles first!

    • They do have a feeling all of their own. Rapture is surely one of the most memorable game worlds I’ve been in – it makes you want to explore every corner.

  • Still no Payday voucher :(

  • Can’t wait for this. Looking forward to the Move footage.

  • Great to hear that they are actually outting some work on the move support :)

  • Thanks James, you’re about the only helpful person at SCEE, but I already checked spam (once every hour) & tried callin customer service but they just put me on hold or hang up, which is a real pain as I’m callin on international rates, already spent half the price of rebuying Payday on phonecalls without results.

    I’m starting to see this as theft, not a mistake

  • I’ll give it a shot, I made one post on support forum 2 days ago,no reply, every email I send they reply asking me to call & then they don’t take my calls :(

    But I’ll try the link as one last shot at this

  • With every update we hear, this game is looking to be more and more spectacular.
    I honestly can’t wait :D

  • How about this question being the debate for this Friday. Has Sony left Move to fight for itself?

    It seems Sony has seen Kinect sales and thought, ok no point. Lets abandon this.

  • sorry but when Dungeon Defenders will come out in the uae store? plz answer!

  • James come to my house and play cod with me

  • Love the bioshock games and can’t wait for this, looks truly epic

  • Will be an hard fight 2012 for GOTY between this and Starhawk :D

  • @Catkiller1

    Bioshock 1 is a fantastic game and it can be found very cheaply nowadays, but you might find it interesting to know that Bioshock 1 will be included exclusively on the PS3 version of Bioshock Infinite for free :)

  • As someone who has/had both previous bioshock games i am a bit unsure as what to think, i posted a comment the last time (few months?) that Ken talked so long and openly about infinite, basically asking what went wrong with Bioshock2, i had a pm off a fellow original Bioshock (1) fan who said that 2 had nothing to do with Ken Levine, So if this is true And if Infinite is the True sequel to the class 1st game then i will obviously be picking it up, Though depending on it’s release ‘period’ i can’t say if it will be a 1st week purchase, I know i may get some hate here but .. i also kinda hesitate whenever i see that a game is incorparating the move function in it, i allways think that something Must need to be left out/sacrificed from the games true potential, though am sure its just me, though i hate loading a game and being made to watch the long instructions, that can’t be skipped, same as the warning to take regular breaks etc or the photosensetivity ones, all trivial in the scheme of things, though more n more common lately, I thought the days of lawyers chasing ambulances were gone?. Anyway thnx for another great insight into … genius

  • I’ve loved bioshock 1 and 2 and this looks even better then the 2 previous games, I’ll definitely get this

  • @chrisandsheva

    It is true. Irrational Games and Ken Levine did not make Bioshock 2, 2K Marin did.

  • off-topic but i havent recieved my uncharted 3 beta code

  • Still waiting for my PayDay code!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • @Bjarno86
    Thnx for confirming that for me m8. I just may not have given 2 enough time before dismissing it as bad but it wasn’t a patch on the 1st (real) one, imo.

  • PLEASE, Sony, make the Move slideshow befor every move enabled game skipable or better put in the menue u box so I never ever have to sit through that slideshow again.

    This game is going to be so awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • ” but a moderately successful novel called Atlus Shrugged by Ayn Rand, which put forward a philosophy called Objectivism, or ‘rational selfishness’.”

    *cough* please stop rating things in terms of how many irrational fans praise something. Not everyone is pleased with a lecture from someone educated at Wikipedia University, you know..

    By the way, your MAG servers are down. Is this for a reason such as: “yes, we are in fact going to roll back the server patches that stupidly removed the client filtering and group spread enforcement in order to belatedly attempt to counter the player-drain we have had in that game since the week after the release”?

    Or did you just pull the servers offline because you hate good games, despise the players who buy them in spite of the problems you cause, as well as the developers that make them?

  • i completely agree with the comment about straying away from reality conflicts. sure modern warfare is really good and battlefield looks very good. but it is nice to get away from it and go to a different and unique place such as rapture. the first time i saw the city lights on my screen with the whale navigating its way through the city was spectacular. it’ll be nice to see more games take more unique approaches. any way back to bioshock infinite.

    i remember the E3 footage like yesterday. the new look i thought at first was great but those snap shots looks beautiful. looking forward to it.

  • just an idea but why not use online passes to an advantage by making online trophys download with it so you dont need them for platinum trophys as passes are just dlc unlock codes?????

  • Move is great with Killzone 3 :)
    just sad there isnt more games taking good advantage of it.

    I love BioShock and good news the developers like working with move, it will be nice for customers to have more than one way to play their game.

    thanks for the article :)

  • Is the move part a rail shooter?
    Will there be navi support?

  • James Still no Payday code. Have checked my junk mail box that contains two weeks worth of junk but no code.

    My deleted messages folder contains a similar amount of junk mail but no code. Rang customer services yesterday who couldn’t help me. I’m not ringing again as it’ll end up being cheaper to re-buy the game.

    I’ve been to the forum you mention and all I found was a lot of other people in a similar situation to me, though no solution was found.

    I’ll contact Rabid Walker via twitter to see if they can help in the matter.

    But to be honest I’m very dissapointed that I have to go through all this trouble to get something which I have already paid for.

    This doesn’t look good for Sony, who set this promotion up to compete with the xbox summer of arcade promotion that runs every year and they can’t even get the codes out to people.

  • Interesting read, I’m really looking forward to the new bioshock.

  • @Catkiller1

    Cant get over the fact you not played Bioshock, for me 1 of THE best games i’ve ever played on any format. The atmosphere is truly memorable.

    C’mon man get with the program! lol. Fill in this most important gap in your gaming education.

    Strangely enough though, the more I see of this latest effort, the less excited I get. Worried its gonna be another ‘hand holding’ game and the hectic looking roller coaster traversal system looks absolutely horrible in my opinion. (Braces self for fanboy backlash)

  • @ grizla75

    Just a simple case of too many games, not enough time!

    I played the Demo for Bioshock, but that’s it!

    I was enjoying the games I had at the time too much, to warrant a purchase.

    Both can be picked up for less than £15 combined, so when I have some free time next year, i’ll pick them up ;)

  • @Catkiller1

    Make it a priority pal, you wont be disappointed.

    Cant see it being Immortal’s cup of tea though, lol.

  • @ grizla75

    I’ll try but BF3 & Uncharted 3 are keeping me busy at the moment!

    Next will be Batman: Arkham City, Saints Row The Third, Sonic Generations then i’ll try the Bioshocks……well maybe ;)

  • @Catkiller1

    Those new games will still be there next year pal, considerably cheaper too, lol.

  • @ grizla75

    Ha Ha, nice try buddy ;)

    The funny thing is I have owned bot titles numerous times but never played them. Got as far as the menu screen. I can hear you right now calling me a fool lol!

    Like I said, one day just not anytime soon!

    I’m looking forward to the Simpsons Arcade port, from Backbone more than anything else :)

  • i loved the first game even if it was a terrible 360 port which didnt do it much justice on the ps3 but the 2nd game was utter [DELETED] and could never get into it…. and now i know the reason why cant belive they didnt make the 2nd one is there a reason that they didnt? cant understand why a developer who made such an awesome 1st game would not make the 2nd game does anyone know why they chose to bum it out to 2k games???

  • I always thought that bio shock was a bit dull and over rated.

  • This should become my favorite Bioshock so far..

  • Love this interview. An insight into a very clever mind. I really enjoyed the first Bioshock and I can’t wait to play the other before Infinite! That being said, I would have loved to see how a Bioshock game would have worked with the technology-centric society and the Luddites. It could have asked some very profound questions that are more pertinent today than ever before.

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