Foremost in his mind when he’s developing a new game is what Ken Levine calls the “archaeologists.”
Those of us who play videogames have a huge range of comprehension, says the creative director of Irrational Games, but also a huge range of desire to comprehend.
“Some people just don’t care, they want to shoot stuff, and that’s fine. But at the end of the day, we have to make the game for those fans we call the archaeologists, those players who want to uncover every detail in the world.”
The worlds Irrational builds are award winning. They are rich in detail and nuance; a place for the developer to show, rather than tell, and they are reason the series is rightly acknowledged as one of the most important new intellectual properties of this hardware generation.
At the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean we explored the rusted decrepitude of Rapture: a city where the world’s finest minds hoped to build a new Eden only to fall into chaos as isolation, addiction, greed and opportunity quickly usurped civility.
In March, we’ll ascend into Columbia, another aspiring utopia, albeit one cut from a radically different cloth. In 1912, a new prophet has promised a literal kingdom of heaven in the skies above America, and to enter, all Father Comstock asks for is perfect discipleship.
The False Shepherd
Booker DeWitt is a Pinkerton, a private eye, who is running from his past. He has accepted a dangerous contract to track down Elizabeth, a girl held captive in the enigmatic, airborne city-state of Columbia. Under a stormy sky, Booker is rowed in a perilously small boat to a lighthouse. Atop, he summons Columbia. Wan reds light up the turbulent clouds, and ominous, throaty foghorns drone from above. A capsule then fires Booker upward through the storm, into the dazzling sunlight, and onwards to Comstock’s new paradise. The sequence is homage to the original BioShock, and not since that game have players been treated with such a short prologue that is so long on contrast, awe and revelation.
“Games are the only form of media where the player can control their experience,” says Levine. “That’s the reason environments are so important to us, because you can control it, you can build the most fantastic environments and let people loose in them.”
Unlike Rapture, players enter Columbia in its prime. It’s a city of boardwalks and salt-water taffy stores, of carnivals, Ferris wheels and barbershop quartets. It’s inspired by the 1892 Chicago World’s Fair – officially called the World's Fair: Columbian Exposition – and The Beaux Arts architectural movement that was so popular in America at the turn of the century.
For Levine, the choice to set the game in 1912 was made in part because it was an era that hadn’t been touched upon in games. “It’s an era people don’t really know about, and it’s such an interesting era,” he says.
“I read a book called The Devil in the White City, and then I’d seen a documentary called America in 1900. Both of those talked about this incredible infusion of enthusiasm and technology that happened in that period. When you think about it: the telephone, the radio, the car, the airplane, movies, records – electricity. They all came in 20 years. It was crazy. Everything was transformed.”
“That was outside of my understanding, that sense of wonder. At the very beginning you come out of the garden and see that city street, to me that’s what it must’ve felt like: wonder.”
For the player and Booker alike, that sense of wonder is immediate. However, all is not as it seems in Columbia. Beneath the cordial veneer lies religious extremism, and institutionalised racism. The game appears to exaggerate for sharp relief the notions of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny.
Propaganda materials adorn billboards and public galleries. Booker is invited to partake in the public punishment of a mixed-race couple, and later, he will have to navigate a grand lodge for a knightly Order based on the Ku Klux Klan, replete with statues that almost deify John Wilkes Booth. In one particularly harrowing sequence, a small boy wilfully alights himself at Comstock’s instruction in order to impede Booker’s progress.
As in the original BioShock, Booker is presented with choices, and how the player responds will impact the outcome of the game. Similarly, Booker is given a range of fantastical powers – called vigors – that the player can use throughout the game.
“We’ve allowed ourselves certain deviations from the world as we know it,” says Levine. “So in System Shock 2 there were things like faster-than-light travel, and you have this AI. In BioShock, I said, OK, underwater city, genetic technology and robots. That’s it; those are the only technologies we have.”
“In this game, we have a flying city, some robotics, and Elizabeth, but everything is connected, and it may not be immediately apparent, but we don’t believe in the kitchen sink approach to fiction. Every deviation from the norm, you pay a price for in suspension of disbelief, so you try to win it back.”
The Lamb of Columbia
Much of the game hinges on the relationship between Booker and his quarry-come-companion, Elizabeth. She is endowed with the power to manipulate tears in the fabric of time. In the game, Elizabeth will help Booker by scavenging for items, and opening small tears that will bring items and objects into and out of existence.
“One of the reasons we spent so much time on Elizabeth’s skill-set – things she can do to help you – is because people were connecting with her in the narrative, but not so much in the gameplay,” says Levine. “So we said to ourselves that we have to work to form those bonds, there’s work there, she can’t just be an observer throwing out the occasional tear, she really has to be present all the time. That took a ton of work.”
Unsurprisingly, Elizabeth’s ability to manipulate time plays heavily into the game’s key reveals, and peculiarities within the continuum occur throughout the game. We see a captured Elizabeth opening a tear into the future, and the French premiere of The Return of the Jedi. Elsewhere, a ragtime rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s 1979 song “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” plays on the boardwalk.
Indeed, BioShock Infinite is soon exploring so many ideas that three hours with the game asks far more questions than it can begin to answer. What is the significance of the man and woman who continue to interrupt Booker, and ask him to make decisions? Were they the same ones rowing him out to the lighthouse? What does the “AD” brand on his hand mean? Who is Comstock, really, and are we really helping Elizabeth?
“Like BioShock, we didn’t originally have the whole notion of what happened with you, and Andrew Ryan, and Frank Fontaine – that theme didn’t exist,” says Levine. “It took me a while. I start with something like Objectivism. I’m interested in that. I’m really into American history at the turn of the century, and then it takes me and the team a lot to find the deeper meaning in what we’re doing.”
“Sometimes you just have these moments of revelation, where the thing presents itself to you. For every day like this, there are 20 days not like this. But there are a couple of days when the clouds come apart.”
“I have an expression I use all the time that I’m sure everyone hates me for, but when someone pitches an idea, I’ll say, ‘That would make a great novel, but how are we going to do that?’ And they’ll say to me, ‘When the player sees this, they’ll think that.’ I’ll say ad nauseam, ‘don’t tell me what the player is going to think, just what do they see, and what do they hear. All we have is pixels and sounds.’ That’s the hard part, it’s taking these big, complex ideas and turning them into pixels and sounds. It can be very, very difficult and there can be some long days, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get tired of it.”
BioShock Infinite is coming to Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC in late March.