Interviews

Interview: Ken Levine on religion and racism in BioShock Infinite

Irrational's co-founder explains the narrative challenges he faces with the much-anticipated follow-up

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I also loved the fact that, while you're guiding the player to where you want them to go, you're also giving them a lot of leeway and space to explore along the way.

Oh, yeah, well the trick is getting them there! Once they're there the game opens up substantially. Up until that point, the game's fairly linear. Once they arrive at that stage the game opens up - it becomes a very 'hub-and-spoke' later on and then, boy, things get really ugly!

But I'm not sure how much I should be saying because I risk spoiling things. I mean there are certain things that'll set the player's alarm bells off that they're being manipulated and there are certain rules we come up with... well... for instance, walking into a room and the door slams shut and locks behind you for no apparent reason? There are certain things that you can't always avoid. But the goal is to make the player feel that everything's kind of organic.

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It's this idea that not everything needs to be there for the player to progress, right? Most items exist in videogames for an exact reason. It's like in a movie if they cut to a shot of a guy taking out his toothbrush - well, you know that the toothbrush will play an important part in the story later on.

We have the advantage in Infinite that sometimes a toothbrush is just a toothbrush. Not everything in the game is utterly important - but that's okay, because it's just part of a bigger world.

How much would say that that Columbia is a kind of Bizzaro mirror to Rapture. Obviously there's the fact that Columbia's in the sky while Rapture is submerged. But the latter was founded on the principles of Objectivism and religion is outlawed there, while religion is a huge part of Columbia's society. Was it a conscious decision to make them such polar opposites?

I think zealotry play a part in both cities, really. They're both monocultures built on zealots. It's not like if you have a Bible in Rapture it makes you unpopular - you literally can't have that! That's why there's the whole smuggling subplot in the game; it's commenting on the fact that an environment driven by reason can itself become closed off and impervious to outside influence as it calcifies.

Columbia is interesting because it is itself an environment born out of a revelatory society. They believe there are religious truths beyond what they've read in the Bible - in their society, Comstock is a prophet and things are being revealed to him all the time. So there's a similarity there that the truth is revealed to a figurehead in the same way that Ryan talks about having his epiphany back in Rapture. Both of them are recipients of some version of the truth.

There are moments in BioShock where Ryan - in his audio diaries - seems to second guess himself. The only hint I've seen of that with Comstock, is when he seems to address Booker directly - which, in turn is a call-back to BioShock...

Look, all I'll say about that is... Comstock is an interesting character (laughs). And of all the characters in the game, he was the hardest for me to write.

Why's that?

Because it's very important to me when I'm working on a character that I can connect to them in some way and I don't really have a religious background. With Objectivism, I can be really coy about my beliefs, but I can certainly tune into the first message in Rapture's lighthouse - you know, no Gods, no Kings, only men? I like that and I can agree with that because I'm a bit of an individualist.

With Comstock, it was tougher, because I'm not anything like a prophetic religious leader.

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Or a zealot?

Well, look, I'm sure I'm a zealot! We're all a zealot for something, right? But religion is not really my thing. But I knew the character wouldn't work unless I understood him. I can't really talk about how I got there with Comstock, but once I got there, he went from being the hardest part of the game to write to the easiest thing to write.

I had to understand what was appealing about religion and to be honest, some of that came out of some conversations I had with some deeply religious people on the team. From the outset I said to them, 'I'm not going to change anything in this game because it upsets you, but I want to hear everything that you think about it'.

There were things in the game that really upset a couple of people, but the conversations we had about that made the game so much better. I didn't change anything because of these conversations, but it revealed things to me gave the game and the story and the characters a lot more depth because I got their perspective.

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