Ken Levine Bioshock
Credit: BioShock Infinite's Ken Levine

One of the most hotly anticipated games of 2013 is BioShock Infinite, a dark steampunk adventure set in an alternate-universe in 1912 on the flying city of Columbia. It’s the first game that designer Ken Levine has completed since the first BioShock, the Ayn-Rand-Goes-to-Atlantis megahit that is still widely regarded as one of the great achievements in modern gaming. EW got to play the first few hours of Infinite, and then we spoke to Levine about exploring mature themes, the violent videogame controversy, and how Dungeons & Dragons saved his sanity. BioShock Infinite is set for a March 26 release on Windows, PlayStation 3, and XBox 360.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I noticed that this game is really pushing some serious issues with the American Exceptionalism theme. Early on you deal with religion and racism; what motivates you to explore these deeper themes?

KEN LEVINE: It’s not like we say: ‘Let’s open the deeper themes closet.’ It’s more like we have a story we want to tell and that story takes us to wherever it takes us. We started with the time period and then we started with characters and their motivations and their views on the world. With racism, it was very hard to tell a story in this time period that didn’t deal with that issue. As much as racism still exists, it was so overt back then that you could not miss it. Just go by a bathroom: “coloreds” and “whites,” “no Irish need apply,” those were all real. Let alone the minstrel shows, which was very out there.

I thought it was really subtle the way you see the “colored” bathroom first, and it’s horrible, and then later you find the “whites” bathroom and it’s pristine, beautiful. It’s such a nice atmospheric touch.

Yeah, there are very overt moments of racism and then there’s the more subtle. If you come up to the guy sweeping the floor in one of the bathrooms, he’s like, “You’re going to get us both in trouble if you talk to me.” That nervousness he obviously has. “You’re not supposed to be in this sh***y place, you’re supposed to be in the nice place.” And it’s those little touches you can do in a game. And the reason they’re interesting or meaningful is because you discover them. That second bathroom is not on the critical path; you could have missed it completely. But I think it’s actually rewarding when you find it on your own.

It’s no problem for a movie or a TV show to deal with this kind of thing, but it actually almost felt a little shocking seeing it in a video game. I’ve always found a lot of stories very disposable, and obviously that is the opposite of what your game is trying to do. Do you think people are going to be shocked by this or people are going to take a headline and completely distort it?

I think there’s three reason why it comes across as shocking as it does. One of which is, it’s just shocking material in general, what was going on in that time period. And not all across that time period, there were certain parts of the world that were much better and certain parts that were much worse, just like there is today. Then there’s the notion that it’s a video game, you’re sort of not expecting it in the medium, which to me is a shame. Not racism in particular, but just the fact that we feel theme-restricted. And then there’s the third, the nature of it being a video game, the fact that you have agency in these moments, I think makes it even more shocking because you don’t have that protective layer of passivity. So when we have that scene with the baseball, [Early in the game, you attend a carnival and enter a raffle where the winner gets to throw a ball. It turns out you have to decide whether to throw the ball at a bound interracial couple, as the crowd demands, or throw it at the announcer.] The reason we thought it was so important to confront you with that choice was because it said you’re not an observer here, you have to be active, you’re in this world, and you can’t just close your eyes.

And it’s timed, so there’s even greater urgency.

We don’t have a giant sort of morality system running underneath that tracks all your things and gives you extra powers. I mean there are small changes, like I don’t know which one you chose.

To throw it at the bad guy!

I ‘ve never seen a single person [throw it at the couple].

I can’t imagine! It’s horrifying to think the way that The Walking Dead [game] tracks the stats, it’d be horrifying to see what that would actually be.

I’ve seen nobody do it. What’s interesting is people say to me, what is the moral effect of that, and there is a small effect, meaning that, you probably met the couple later on [If you choose not to throw the ball at the couple, they later meet you and give you a gift as thanks], but that’s very small to me. To me the interesting part is how it makes you feel in all of it. That’s the moral effect, not some number. I wasn’t really interested in a morality system, versus just moments where we confront people with hard or weird or dangerous choices. So I think it’s effective for those reasons. Certainly The Walking Dead is a really interesting example of games that are starting to explore a more interesting range of elements, but we just pursue the things that we’re interested in.

One of the big things I picked up on [in the original BioShock] was the relationship between the Big Daddies and the Little Sisters. It made Big Daddy kind of an iconic character. He’s in Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale, which is supposed to be these huge characters from the last few years. I’m wondering what you think character-wise might resonate to that degree from Infinite.

I don’t think there’s any one-to-one thing. I think Songbird [a huge winged creature that guards Elizabeth’s prison] has a different role. Elizabeth—people are already cosplaying her left and right—once they actually get through the experience and go through the game with her, I think their feelings for her will get much deeper. And she’ll surprise you in many ways, some good and some bad. These things have an effect on her, and she changes throughout the course of the game. She was certainly the most important to me when I was writing the game. She’s sort of the emotional center of it. I think that she is something quite different than what you see in a lot of games.

The only other game I can think of that did this kind of non-playable character was Half-Life 2 with the Alyx [Vance] character, to whom a lot of people really responded.

I think there was game called Enslaved [Ninja Theory’s 2010 action-adventure game] that did a reasonably good job with the character, but I just can’t wait for the game to come out cause I just want people to see Booker and Elizabeth go through their path, their journey through this game and see where they end up.

When I was in high school was when Mortal Kombat hit Genesis and Super Nintendo, and obviously there was a huge uproar over the violence, and that’s been a huge issue in the media lately following the Newtown shootings. Vice President Biden is looking into it, and Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander recently said video games are “a bigger problem than guns.” Why do you think the industry is such a punching bag for this kind of thing?

Independent of any science or reality or anything, any new form of media is going to be not understood, generally by people who are older. Go back to when the novel first appeared on the scene. It was shocking! People thought that when women were reading it, young wives were reading it and getting all these crazy ideas…

Putting notions in their heads!

Exactly, it was scandalous, and people were like, the novel has to be stopped. The mandarins of taste were up in arms, and the list goes on. Rock and roll music, jazz music, comic books, movies, TV, everything is lesser and not art and not meaningful in some way. And at the same time, Dungeons & Dragons, that movie with Tom Hanks [CBS’ 1982 made-for-TV movie Mazes and Monsters] where people would play Dungeons & Dragons and go insane. It’s heartbreaking for me because as a young kid, I have to say Dungeons & Dragons…I can’t say it saved my life, but it saved my sanity as a kid because I was a friendless little nerd. I was literally friendless, until the ninth grade. And then I was on the bus driving home from school one day and I heard a couple of kids in the front of the bus talking about, “My paladin fought these orcs…” and I was like, what?! And I went up and I introduced myself, and two weeks later I was at a Dungeons & Dragons game with people who would–one of whom would remain my best friend to this day–and it completely transformed my–all of a sudden I had found my people, you know? And to think that that could be viewed as a source of evil is so disappointing and depressing to me.

At the end of the day, science is science, I don’t think research is ever a bad thing. Without video games, without gaming in general, I don’t know where I would end up. I don’t know what I would be. And I’m not talking about like would I be a big success. I don’t know how I would have gotten through high school. Games saved me over and over again. When I had a career in my 20s that was going nowhere, games came in and saved me again. I became a game developer. And for kids–I don’t want to say this is necessarily true of you—nerdy kids with not a lot of social skills, games are a socializing element. Go to PAX, my god. It’s incredibly social. And I think the lack of understanding people have about how most people play games, and how they think about games, is really lacking, and how important it is to kids who don’t have strong social skills.

I love the part where Elizabeth pulls open the tear and you see the La revanche du Jedi sign [Early in the game, Elizabeth opens a portal to another time where you see Revenge of the Jedi (Its original title before Return) playing at a movie theater in Paris], and I was just wondering if she would be able to open it to like 2015 and see if the new Star Wars is gonna be any good?

Well, she knows, actually. She’s starting a blog about it right now. She’s expressing her rage–her nerd rage. She knows, but she’s not telling.

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