How Half-Life Influenced BioShock Infinite

We speak with Irrational's creative director Ken Levine about the latest trailer revealed at the VGAs.


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GameSpot: What's the significance of the song, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" that you chose for Elizabeth to sing in the trailer?

Ken Levine: I talked to Courtnee who does the voice of Elizabeth in the game and I asked, "Hey Courtnee, do you sing?" She said, "Oh yeah--I kind of sing." It's interesting because she did all of the work in the movie Tangled, playing the part in the whole preproduction process, before they put Mandy Moore in. I heard her sing and thought we have to find a way to integrate this. So, what I really wanted to do first was a test of how it would feel or how it would feel if Elizabeth were singing. We were in the recording session and it turns out that Troy--who plays Booker--was there and he said, "Oh, by the way, I'm a musician. I play guitar." I thought maybe he could just play a few chords, but he ended up in the recording session for a few hours trying out different versions [of the song] and in different keys. He is this amazing musician and she has this incredible voice and I thought, "Wow. I lucked out here."

As for the integration in the game, there are a bunch of things I'm thinking about that I want to surprise people with. But we had an opportunity to do this trailer for Spike and we really just wanted to do a mood piece, and the mood we set out was this factory town of Finkton and the state people were living in before they become part of the Vox Populi. That song really stuck with me. I don't know if you know the song, but it's a period song...a hymn from the period, actually. It has a beautiful, haunting melody. It had the feeling of that town.

We were putting this trailer together, and I was trying to think what would bind it all together because if you do a trailer, you can just have it go to different lines of dialogue, but I didn't really want to do that. I wanted to do a mood piece. And we have this song, and it's like we have everything sitting here, so we just put it all together.

GS: When you're putting a trailer like this in front of this audience, are you trying to hook people who may not know every little bit about BioShock or are you catering to people who are already in the know?

KL: I think the goal was--and games are really behind the curve on this, taking cues from some of the better film trailers out there--can we create a mood? Also, game trailers are also [often about features like] here's a new weapon. There's plenty of room for that. We've done plenty of trailers like that. But given that this is an awards show, I really wanted to do something that was creating a mood and giving the sense of place. We talked internally about what themes we could feature to give a sense of what the mood is and then also have half the video be more action-oriented combat that plays against the song a little bit, but that's intentional. So I guess you don't really think about the audience so much as we think about what we're trying to convey.

GS: Do you get frustrated or does it bother you at all that you have to explain this stuff? Obviously, it's great for us to be able to talk to you about it, but do you ever just want to put something out there and have it speak for itself?

KL: There is part of me that loves talking about the game, of course. It's our baby. We love talking about our baby, but I think there are a lot of questions I get that are prior to the work being shown in any way. Like if I just said, "There's going to be music in the game," without knowing [anything about the trailer] or hearing Courtnee's voice or the tonality we wanted. I don't want to have to explain it ahead of time. I'd rather just show something. It's funny. Once people have already seen the content, I'm much more comfortable talking about it because the work has hopefully done a lot of the work for us. I get a lot of questions like, "What's Songbird's origin?" or "How does Elizabeth get her powers?" I don't want to talk about that because I'd much rather show it.

One of the most common things, and I'm going to level with you here, is someone will say to me, "Well, then you learn that Booker does that and Elizabeth this." Wait a minute. Don't tell me what I learned. Tell me what I see. When we show stuff publicly, I'd rather just put it in front of people then tell them about it. I'm far more frustrated that I'm asked about things before I have a chance to demonstrate them.

GS: You're introducing people to new areas in the BioShock Infinite world, like the Fink Manufacturing area. What do you want them to glean from the trailer?

KL: It's our responsibility to show an image and [make sure] that image has some resonance. When you look at that statue of Fink and you look at that giant clock, hopefully, people will take away some things about him, his world, and what's important to him without me having to explain it. I'd much rather open the curtain slowly, in the visual sense, on him. You see his town. You see the people and what their lives are like. You see what some of his ideals are through that opening shot of his statue and his clock. There's a lot of detail in there. If you look at that trailer, there are a lot of things that will tell you what's going on at a high level and give you a taste of this aspect of the world.

GS: With this trailer and the E3 demo, it seems like you're really trying to build up the relationship players have with Elizabeth before the game even comes out. Do you run into a potential issue of where the player's relationship with Elizabeth is going to supersede Booker's relationship with her?

KL: It's a fine line we walk with Elizabeth because Booker has a relationship with her and the player has a relationship with her. Then, Booker and the player have a relationship with her--this hybrid. When you're doing a first-person game, you have to be very careful that you don't step on the player's intention, and that's a fine line to walk and we're very conscious of it. I can't tell you, "Oh my god! We're going to make this absolutely perfect! We know exactly how to do it!" It's a real we do that or how we foster the connection between Booker and the player, Elizabeth and the player, and how we merge those two together.

For us, the notion of having these characters [being the focus of] an FPS isn't something you think about all that often. The best example is Alyx from Half-Life 2 because she's central to that story and she's an emotional driver in that story. I think what we're trying to do is take that notion and make a character who's even more central and has a relationship with a character who has a voice, unlike Gordon Freeman. And I think that we're making her more central to gameplay and making her more central to giving the player a voice in what he does in the game in terms of the tears. It's just giving her a real story arc to go through. This person starts completely naive, having never seen anything or done anything, but is thrown into this horrible world and forced to grow up very fast. How does it change her?

Games are stories about change. She changes. Booker changes; and they change each other. She is really central, so we want to feature her a lot. But from a technology standpoint and a narrative standpoint, we're doing things that people really haven't done. We have this notion here that when you look at Liz and she sort of looks like a robot, staring at you creepily, we lose. We spent a ton of time and resources just figuring out what she does moment to moment. We have an actual actor. Well, an actor can make choices moment to moment. They can create content moment to moment because they're a person, right?

With Elizabeth, we have to construct all of the underlying technology that generates what she does moment to moment; where she looks, how she crosses her arms. Like that shot we have where she looks at the camera--that's a shot that's actually generated. That's not an animation. That's a bunch of heuristics put together where she will occasionally look at the player. Depending on what else she's interested in the world, she might lose interest in something and then turn and look at the player. That's just a great shot we caught of her looking at Booker in the simulation.

She's obviously really important to us and what we're doing.

GS: When I watch this trailer I find myself asking a question of who I'm supposed to sympathize with--Elizabeth, a crumbling Columbia, the people who are sick or poor. Is Infinite the kind of game where there is no clear-cut morality? It seems like everyone has a justification for doing what they're doing in the game.

KL: People ask me often, "Is this the hero?" or "Is this the villain?" Once you get that to that question, you've kind of lost. It's very hard in life to find...well, let me just put it this way, one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter. That's not to whitewash any horrible things people have done, but I think it's much more interesting to send a question to the audience and ask, "What do you think?" instead of predetermining everything.

What's interesting is what you saw in the trailer is a world where workers and the underclass in Columbia live in. You saw in the last demo what the Vox Populi become and they become pretty dark figures themselves, and you actually see that progression in the game. Booker and Elizabeth are at the center of that progression--whether it's intentionally or unintentionally. Like what we did with the original BioShock, we show how these things can happen or how these movements become a certain way. I won't tell you exactly how that happens, but watching its evolution in front of your eyes is going to be a very interesting thing.

You don't just sort of come upon [the Vox Populi] as you see them in the last demo where they're ethnically cleansing a part of town; you see where that rage comes from. That doesn't necessarily mean you're going to watch what they're doing later on and say, "Oh yeah, I totally support that." In terms of what they do later on, you're going to say, "Holy s***! What have they become?"

GS: Obviously, this is a BioShock game and there seem to be certain tenets that you're sticking to because it has that name. Along those lines, do your business sense and creative sense ever collide?

KL: Not really. We've been making Shock games for a while now--System Shock, BioShock, BioShock Infinite. They're very similar in a lot of ways, but they're also quite different from one another. We know we started this movement of let's combine shooting, character growth, deep environmental storytelling, and a superpower beyond shooting. That's what these games all really have in common, whether or not there are any connections beyond thematic connections, which I haven't really talked much about. It felt very much like a BioShock game. It always was a BioShock game.

To me, and for us as a studio, doing another BioShock game set in Rapture wouldn't be a BioShock game because it doesn't have that component of learning about a new place. That first hour of the original BioShock, you're coming to this place and you're like, "What the f***! What is this place?" To not have that feeling for me, and for us as a studio, makes it not a BioShock game.

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