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BioShock Infinite: Ken Levine on choice, consequence and parallel universes

PSM3 talks exclusively to the BioShock creator about 2012's most important shooter

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BioShock Infinite is the innovative shooter that intertwines philosophy, love, time travel and the burden of choice in a potentially infinite universe.


It's no ordinary game, and its creator Ken Levine is no ordinary developer. During our exclusive one-hour chat, the conversation swerves from the perils of ambition, to Thomas Hardy, to grey-area morality, in the same stimulating, scattergun fashion that BioShock Infinite attempts to explore relationships, moral responsibility and the theory of US Exceptionalism - all while retaining its status as one of the most mind-blowing, ambitious, shooters of 2012; where you get to ride skytop rails at death-defying speeds and using gene-enhancing tonics to paralyse your foes.

Much like the Metal Gear series, and its obsessive creator Hideo Kojima, BioShock is a game that inspires fierce devotion. A kickass shooter, sure, but one unafraid to think or ask complex, moral questions with wider implications for society and human nature. In this age of safe sequels, dull shooters and mock 'edgy' settings, BioShock isn't a game to merely admire. For anyone with a belief in games as the emergent medium, this is a game to love.

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The original BioShock was inspired by Russian-American philosopher Ayn Rand's theory of Objectivism: "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life." In real-life, Rand's theory inspired the ex-head of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan. The same Alan Greenspan whose policies and beliefs directly (if unwittingly) contributed to the global financial crisis of 2008.

Ours is a universe in which choices and consequences are seldom clear, even when experience fools us into thinking we know the formula or blueprint. For all its superpower-granting tonics and tears in time and space, BioShock wants to live in this universe, too, as Levine explains.

"We're trying to present a moral universe where no matter what you do there's always going to be some degree of muddiness to those choices," he says. "What I didn't want to do is have a situation where you do something that's good and Elizabeth goes, 'Good job, Booker'. Or you do something that's bad and Elizabeth goes, 'Oh Booker, that was terrible.' Because that's not the relationship I was trying to build." Infinite's floating city of Columbia is, like Rapture, one in which personalities and ideals engage in brutal, bloody conflict.

CIVIL WAR

But that's just a backdrop, its themes drawn from history like an artist draws from a palette. The game's core is the relationship between Booker DeWitt, a disgraced intelligence agent sent to infiltrate the city, and a young girl, Elizabeth, whose power to rend space-time has made her central to the fight between the Founders (Columbia's ultranationalist ruling class) and the Vox Populi (a violent and conflicted resistance).

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Elizabeth, though strong beyond her years, is the product of 12 years' imprisonment on Columbia and another, more abusive relationship that runs parallel to your own. The Songbird, very much the King Kong to Elizabeth's Ann Darrow, has been programmed by the Founders to feel betrayal should its ward ever escape. Its weird mechanical devotion to her is monstrous in a way that makes the Big Daddies look cute.

Comparing the two dynamics, Levine tells us: "It's sort of the difference between a relationship of your childhood versus a relationship as an adult; one of equals and one of parent-child. There's a large fantastical layer to our story, and fantastical layers don't work unless they have an underpinning of what we all do. You watch Star Wars: Luke's goal at the beginning is not to go do some intergalactic political thing, but to get out of his crappy home town; to grow up and go experience life. That's why he's relatable as a character."

Luke Skywalker does of course change throughout Star Wars; his soul is scarred, his beliefs shattered, his virtue tested. That's basic storytelling, something Levine's own background as a writer makes crucial to Irrational's games. DeWitt and Elizabeth's emotional journey is driven by her emerging powers, which are, as you would hope, a bridge between story and gameplay.

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