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Return to Rapture: Ken Levine on BioShock Infinite: Burial At Sea

By Nick Cowen on Friday 4th Oct 2013 at 12:00 PM UTC

A couple of months ago, Irrational Games released information that sent the BioShock faithful into fits of ecstasy. First, the studio announced that there would be some story-based DLC for BioShock Infinite. Second - and perhaps more importantly - Irrational said this story would take place in Rapture, the sunken dystopian city first seen in 2007's BioShock.

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Irrational Games creative director Ken Levine

Best of all, the story would be set before that city's descent into madness and war, so for the first time, players would be able to experience Rapture in all its untarnished glory.

We recently were allowed a hands-on with Burial At Sea (see our impressions below) and spoke with Irrational's creative director, Ken Levine, about the decision to return to Rapture and how Booker and Elizabeth fit in.


CVG: Why the decision to return to Rapture?

Ken Levine: Well, BioShock Infinite in particular is the story of Elizabeth and Booker and where that story took them. We wanted to do something surprising and interesting. We didn't want a situation where Elizabeth pulls Booker out of the water and says "hey, here's this tear, let's go on a whacky adventure together in Ancient Rome".

I had a story I wanted to tell and it was about these people in particular and I'd be kidding if I said there wasn't the desire [on my part] to go and play back in Rapture. The last thing I wanted to do, though, was explain what people already knew [about Rapture] and really didn't need to have explained to them.

So, this is not about going back and explaining the fall of Rapture. It's a backdrop to this story. For example, Sander Cohen has a role, but it's not just to explain more about Cohen and Rapture. It's because I need a human trafficker in my story and I though, well, which one of Rapture citizens would fit? Who'd be comfortable with that? That was the opportunity to bring in Cohen.

We always look at it that way. We're not about giving you the greatest hits. It's a brand new story and it's set it against this backdrop. There's the also the fact that we could take the engine we have now... Well, if you go back and look at Rapture [in the first BioShock game] you'll see that your memories of it are a little rose-tinted. The kind of spaces we can build now are things we could never have built back then. Just the fact that we can have a population with the technology we used to build Colombia - let alone Elizabeth - we saw that as a huge opportunity to see what life was like right on the very eve of the fall.

Impressions: Booker And Elizabeth The opening feels like classic detective noir - and not just because it takes place in art-deco surroundings in the 1950s. Everything about the way in which the dame (Elizabeth) hires a private dick (Booker) feels like it could have come out of a Raymond Chandler novel, from the way he lights her cigarette and asks "you got a name, miss?" to the way the shadows cast over her face from the Venetian blinds in his office.

It's also the fact Elizabeth seems to know a lot more about Booker than he does about her. The way she reads his motivations and casts the odd disdainful comment at him speaks to the notion that she's taken the measure of Mr Booker DeWitt and found him wanting. The fact he knows nothing about her places her firmly in the role of a classic Femme Fatale.

The case she wants him to take involves a young girl who went missing named Sally. The last time Booker heard about the kid, he presumed her to be dead. Elizabeth has heard different and leads send her and Booker in the direction of Rapture's favourite sociopathic artist, Sander Cohen...

I'm not really sure how to take Rapture and Burial At Sea at this stage. It's great to see these characters again, but I'm wondering if it's separate universe from both Infinite and BioShock. Is it one of the many possibilities that Elizabeth was talking about at the end of Infinite?

It's prime. It's Elizabeth prime and it's Rapture prime.

How was it resurrecting some of the old characters? I know you have a certain fondness for Sander Cohen...

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Crazed artist Sander Cohen returns in Burial At Sea

Oh it was great! My big concern was: did I have something for him to do that was worthy of him? And what would he be like a year less crazy? I mean, he's sociopathic in Burial At Sea but he's not having the player murder people and add them to an artistic piece.

He's still a vain artist who's not above a little disgusting business - selling people in this instance - but he's not a complete psychopath at this point. And to go back and pull him out and show what he was like a year earlier before he's completely gone off the deep end - that was really interesting to me. How do you write that character from a year earlier? How do you have it make sense and how to you fit the story into his larger view of himself as an artist?

It was really critical that he work in that context. I didn't want it to be 'oh, look! There's Sander Cohen! What's up dude!"

Cohen's not completely mad at this stage and, in a way, it feels like you had to partition the madness in Burial At Sea by sticking all the Splicers in a separate section of Rapture...

Well, we had to send Booker and Elizabeth to a place that was effectively a little window of the future of Rapture where everyone is still fighting over resources and Adam and Little Sisters and people are spliced to the gills.

It was all a case of how we made it work organically. How do we tell the story with Rapture before the fall? How do we have the traditional BioShock story on top of that?

Impressions: Combat The mechanics of Burial At Sea don't throw any curveballs at the BioShock faithful. The lion's share of your time is taken up by juggling guns and Vigors (Plasmids) and scrounging for resources and audio diaries. However, the level design is more classic BioShock than Infinite.

Rather than attacking the player with anything approaching organisation - as the Colombia troops used to - the Splicers usually announce their presence with their insane ranting and raving, allowing the player to take stock of their surrounding and plan out their attack. This means that the 'trap' deployment of the Vigors is more of a tactical boon than ever before. It also means players should take note of puddles of gasoline and floors filled with water - just as they did in BioShock.

They should also prepare themselves for a rather trying time; ammo and money is in short supply and while Elizabeth occasionally tosses the player what they most require - health, bullets, EVE - sometimes she will announce that she's out of aid. She can always open a tear in reality, though...

What struck me immediately is how quickly I fell back into the way I used to play BioShock. Besides the mechanics - shooting and Plasmids - I found myself scrounging in Nano-Tubes and immediately looking for cameras and health stations to hack. There's no hacking and no health stations, I noticed...

Well, Elizabeth takes care of that to an extent.

I suppose so.

But health kits may be coming back.

Really?

In maybe some other DLC...

My question is that, given the way you play BioShock in this has been slightly tweaked, how to introduce players who have never been to Rapture to a story where some lore is probably necessary to understand the lay of the land?

I will confess we did make an assumption that by the time someone gets to the second DLC pack of BioShock Infinite, they're a fan.

I had dinner the other day with Chris Hardwick (Talking Bad, Talking Dead). He does a podcast for the Nerdist and he had been out of video games for a while and his girlfriend said to him "you are not allowed to play the BioShock Infinite DLC - because he was a fan of Infinite - until you've played the first BioShock". He went back and played it and he said he wished he'd played it years ago.

"I can't tell you how this ends, but Elizabeth is not the person you met"

I think [playing BioShock] helps you to understand certain aspects of Burial At Sea. But we had to make a choice and we decided this was going to be a love letter to the fans. When you're making a brand new product and you have to go out and introduce it to an audience, you have a different set of requirements than if you have [a product] where a portion of a fan base that will go with you. We think a large portion will go with us and we think that a large portion of that will be people who've already been to Rapture [in BioShock].

Both BioShock Infinite and BioShock addressed subjects with their stories and characters beyond the need to simply move the action along. Their narratives are pretty layered. Did you find yourself having to say something beyond simply telling a story in Burial At Sea as well?

I think that there's a difference between BioShock and BioShock Infinite in that it was about the moral progression of its two characters.

The Elizabeth you see here is not the one that was dancing on the beach in Infinite - even though there are echoes of that scene here - she's more opaque. I can't tell you how this ends, but she's not the person you met. While her story set against the backdrop of this world, in terms of the political and social themes, their function is to show how they impact on these characters rather than show how they themselves operate - because I think we did that already.

It's not enough to say, "okay, this week we're looking at oligarchy". You have to have something to say about it, so in this instance we're looking into the human impact that these philosophies have, specifically on Booker and Elizabeth.

Impressions: Rapture Burial At Sea takes place before the fall of Rapture and the sunken city has never looked better. As in BioShock Infinite, players have the opportunity to walk through the streets of an otherworldly city, drinking in the beautiful architecture and catching snippets of conversation between the city's citizens.

In terms of Rapture lore, Burial At Sea kicks off just shortly after Frank Fontaine's rebellion took place. Eagle-eyed players will see newspaper headlines stating that Fontaine died in a hail of bullets and Ryan Industries has been asked by the council to take control of the dead traitor's assets.

As far as Fontaine's army of Splicers goes, Andrew Ryan's forces rounded them up and locked them in Fontaine's Department Store, which was then sunk. It's now an underwater prison filled with murderous madmen. Only the desperate or insane would venture into it....

It already looks like it's had an impact. Booker and Elizabeth, for example, seem far darker than in Infinite.

Look, Elizabeth is a product of ideological obsession. Don't forget she was put in a tower because of that. She was tortured because of some man's beliefs; remember she spent two months being tortured. By the time she gets here - and she's here for a reason - she's a product of the effects of people's ideas being put into reality. She didn't ask for any of this. It was all put on her and now she's the product of it. So I guess, if you look at it, she's the embodiment of extremism.

When you first met her, she was this optimistic young woman in a tower. At the beginning of the DLC she's not that person anymore.

"It's a bit of an experiment. All of this is"

In this DLC, she's a bit opaque. The player doesn't really know who she is or what she wants. In the next DLC, the camera goes into her head - you're her in the next DLC. You play her in the next DLC.

Basically it's the full circle of seeing this person as this innocent, going into the head of someone who has seen all this darkness, and seeing who that person is. The whole goal of the next DLC is to see the world through her eyes.

It's a bit of an experiment. All of this is. Going back to Rapture, bringing Booker and Elizabeth back together - why don't they know each other? It's all an experiment. But like I said: whereas last time [in BioShock] it was about showing a system, at the end of this DLC it's all about being the person who is the product of the system.