BioShock Infinite DLC Returns to Rapture
Ken Levine explains why he wants to return to the setting of the original BioShock and retool our understanding of the series at large.
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SPOILER WARNING: This feature discusses major plot details of BioShock Infinite.
The reveal of the second and third DLC packs for BioShock Infinite, Burial at Sea - Episode 1 and Episode 2, is a major announcement for anyone who traveled to the dystopian underwater society of Rapture in the original BioShock. It was a sinister yet captivating world, and how Booker and Elizabeth are critical to its tale isn't clear, but BioShock Creative Director Ken Levine sees a return trip as the appropriate way to give the entire BioShock series greater context. On top of it all, in Episode 2, you'll finally wield the most powerful force in BioShock; Elizabeth.
What was the spark that made you want to revisit Rapture?
Levine: We really didn’t know…even when we had the Rapture bit in Infinite, we had no idea. We were thinking about what to do for the DLC that would make it feel very special for the fans. We kicked around a lot of different notions, and I sort of had this image in my head of Elizabeth walking into an office in Rapture, dressed like Veronica Lake, and that was a powerful image, and we’re working from there. I kind of can’t resist that.
I generally work that way, when we come up with something that is exciting, and go…"well, how do we make that happen?" I never wanted to do the midichlorian thing. A lot of people ask me, well why don’t you tell the fall of Rapture? To me, that just seems rote.
So, we have a certain story with a new perspective: "What’s going on here? Why is Booker there, why is Elizabeth there, and why don’t they know each other? What is this about?" That’s the only way, to me, to tell an interesting story, is to start out with questions, not with answers.
It takes place before the fall of Rapture, but the goal isn’t to retell what you already know from the audio logs, it’s to give you a new perspective. We knew it was going to be more expensive and more time consuming. We had some people who wanted the information and wanted it to be quicker, but if it’s quicker, you can’t rebuild giant chunks of Rapture, or even conceive new chunks.
You’ve said before that you’re a slave to a story. Now that you’re revisiting one, presumably that you were done with, how do you feel going back to it now?
Levine: To me, it is a love letter to the fans, but it started with something I wanted to do, when I saw this image of Elizabeth. Of course, Elizabeth evolves as a character throughout the course of BioShock Infinite. She goes from a kid to something much darker and more complex. To see her really as a woman from the very beginning, as a full-grown woman, really driving the narrative with a sense of control, is something very appealing to me. And then, thinking about Rapture, and what stories we could tell and how that story could tie into what takes place on New Year's Eve, 1958, the day the bomb went off that set off the revolution in Rapture, is what’s going to be interesting to me.
Does Elizabeth’s ability to create tears into alternate dimensions give you freedom to create inside a world that already exists?
Levine: You have to be careful about the freedom that gives you, and you have to constrain yourself to a degree. It’s that Superman problem, right? Elizabeth ends BioShock Infinite incredibly powerful, to the point that the whole ending sequence…is that something that’s actually happening, or is that just her way of explaining to Booker what her perception of the universe is? She has this cosmic awareness. To some degree, you have to figure out what your constraint set is. If everything is possible, nothing is interesting. We want to make sure there’s a rule set, and that we stay within that rule set, and we continue to challenge ourselves not to solve our problems with a deus ex machina, but to give people an actual emotional story.
How do you bridge the gap from opening up to the expanse of Columbia for BioShock Infinite, to then return to the confines of a place like Rapture?
Levine: The first part of Burial at Sea is split into two halves. One is a quest that takes place at Eden, the pristine part of pre-fall Rapture. If you remember the original story in BioShock, Andrew Ryan takes over Fontaine’s business; a literal hostile takeover. You learn in this that Fontaine’s cronies are stuck in Fontaine’s department store at the bottom of the ocean, in like an Escape from New York prison. They can’t escape; they’re in the bottom of the ocean. So the second half takes place in this ruined department store. You have both experiences of Rapture, the sort of pristine and the non-pristine.
In terms of the environments, we have a little more freedom in terms of scale just because of the engine we have. There’s a lot of things, for instance: the vista in the trailer, the outside, in the original BioShock is a 2D image wrapped against a wall, and this is actual 3D geometry because we have those sorts of draw distances, and so we can have much more range and scale in space, but we also did want to pull back a little bit. Something I missed about making BioShock was hearing splicers in the distance and being able to plan some strategies ahead of time before combat started. We wanted to tweak the awareness levels, and tweak the balance in Burial at Sea - Episode One, more towards BioShock, in terms of the types of combat and the ability to plan for combat.
In the Elizabeth DLC (Burial at Sea - Episode 2), we’re going to push it even further, to an almost survival horror place so she feels different from Booker, where for her, the ability to be stealthy and get a drop on the environment is much more about who she is. She’s very powerful, in terms of tears, but she can’t sit there and go toe to toe with a Big Daddy.
Is there anything about Rapture that lends itself to her powers and abilities?
Levine: We’ll see.
To be able to play the role of Elizabeth sounds fun, but how do you take someone who’s the deliverer of a story, and put yourself in her shoes, without feeling that disconnect from switching to a first person role?
Levine: It’s hard to say without spoiling a lot of things, but to me, BioShock Infinite and the DLC is about the evolution of Elizabeth as a person, for good and bad. She’s not necessarily in a great place in this DLC. She’s the woman you met when you pulled torture devices from her body, and when she drowned Booker at the end. This is a woman who’s evolved and grown, and she's very much her own agent. But there’s maybe some darkness that comes with that as well. To be her is going to be very interesting after seeing what happens in the first part of the Burial at Sea DLC.
Does the survival horror aspect have anything to do with her internal struggles, or is it imposed upon her?
Levine: She chooses to take something on, because she feels she has to. But it’s a reaction to what happens in the first one. She doesn’t expect to be where she is at the start of the second DLC.
Can Elizabeth and Booker’s story be wrapped up, or is it a situation that’s ultimately open-ended because of the lack of physical limitations within the world?
Levine: It’s always hard to say, because I never know what ideas we’ll come up with. But as I see it right now, this is a very deliberate goal to give people a perspective on every BioShock game they’ve experienced. I think it’s going to give people a proper perspective of the whole franchise, and I think it does complete their story, at least where I’m sitting right now.
I think their story wraps in the end of BioShock Infinite, in one perspective. I think we’ve found this opportunity to tell a very different kind of story about the two of them, and their very different kind of relationship, to bring larger context to the whole franchise.