Ken Levine is watching you.
Well, only sometimes and only the few of you who want to be watched, watched while you watch the ending to his BioShock Infinite.
People recording their reactions to video games and uploading them to YouTube is something relatively new, at least to Levine, but he loves it; loves to watch the look on a person's face when the final scene unravels in Infinite.
"I watched one with a 15-year-old kid the other day and just watched him sitting there like this, for like five minutes," Levine tells me, mimicking the teen's slack-jawed, wide-eyed face. "Watching the wheels turn is really fun."
This is a story about the ending of BioShock Infinite, about the reaction people had to that and other moments in the game, about Levine's reaction to those reactions. It is laden with spoilers, be warned.
We're sitting in a hotel suite in Boston to, in theory, discuss the coming of new content to BioShock Infinite. But before we get onto that I can't help but ask Levine about the game's ending. That's all it takes to soak up my entire time with him discussing what it all means.
"We got some criticism about it being opaque, and my feeling is I'd much rather err on the side of giving people something to debate about in their head or with their friends, instead of saying, ‘No, no. This happened, that happened, that happened,'" Levine says of the ending. "That's why I haven't been out there telling people who ask me all the time —‘Is this his 122 time through the world?' and ‘What is this?' and ‘Is that Songbird in BioShock 1?' — I don't want to answer any of those questions because, frankly, I don't think it's very interesting for me to answer those questions. I'd rather have people figure it out themselves."
That doesn't mean Levine doesn't have the answers, it just means he doesn't want to share them.
There are answers to everything, Levine just doesn't want to discuss them all.
There are, he says, answers to everything. Sometimes he'll even share some of those answers. For instance, if a fan asks factual questions, things that aren't really open to interpretation, he often will explain.
"People ask me why does Comstock look older than Booker and, we actually explain that, it's because the effects of being near that tear machine, it does several things: It gives him cancer, it makes him sterile and it makes him age prematurely," he said. "Those are factual, so I answer those questions, but questions about the end — Is that Anna in the crib? Also, once you getting into quantum mechanics, a single answer doesn't necessarily ... is the cat in the box or not? There is no answer to that question and that's one of the things that's interesting to me about it, writing it."
That's what's so great, and so terrible, about using quantum mechanics as the framework for a story: The concepts wrapped up in the science leave so much up in the air. So much, in fact, that it can be infuriating and Levine knows that.
"One scientist, I think it was Max Planck, said, ‘If thinking about quantum mechanics doesn't make you angry, you're doing it wrong.' Our brains are just not designed to understand it. It doesn't mean you can't write something that's internally consistent, but there are questions just about what the very nature of those things that are currently very impossible for us to put together."
While Levine won't discuss what the game's ending means, he is willing to explain how and why it changed.
In January, Levine told Official PlayStation Magazine that following conversations with religious members of his staff, he decided to tweak one of his characters. But at the time, months before the game's release, he couldn't say more. With the game now released, Levine explained what happened and how it made the game better.
The overt problem, Levine said, wasn't as much the implied religious implications of the ending, but rather a character flaw he hadn't spotted.
"I didn't really have a person saying why Comstock was appealing," he said. "Like, why would somebody follow this guy?"
The discussion made Levine realize that he needed to not change Comstock's character, or the game's ending, but rather flesh out who Comstock was.
He decided to do that through some of the game's audio logs, the add-on content that players can seek out and listen to while playing the game.
"Lady Comstock was pretty unwritten at this point," he said. "If you'll remember, her audio logs are all about she obviously had a very dark background and she had obviously done some terrible things and he forgave her unconditionally."
The process of fleshing out Lady Comstock's character also made Levine realize why the ending and the underlying story felt incomplete to some of the developers.
It was missing something integral to most religions: The notion of forgiveness.
"I realized that the portion of religion that was missing from it was the notion of forgiveness."
"I realized that the portion of religion that was missing from it was the notion of forgiveness and how that's very, very important certainly in Christianity," he said. "And not being a religious person, I didn't put in any character who was speaking to why Comstock would be meaningful to them. And forgiveness is the theme of the whole game in many ways, about redemption and forgiveness. I hadn't written her, so after that conversation I didn't change Comstock's character, I didn't make him less whatever. I just developed a character who already existed — she was there and she got killed but I didn't really have a voice for her — and I wrote this thread for her about what her relationship with the prophet was like and why it mattered.
"It wasn't like I got nervous and I changed the game. I said, ‘OK, let me round this character out through another character.'"
The decision to feature a more realized Lady Comstock in the game, seemed to pull BioShock Infinite together. Levine said he knew that he had to do more with her because she's so present in the game — the ship is named after her, Elizabeth is wearing her clothes for half the game.
"I just realized I had a big question mark in terms of Comstock's appeal," he said, "and I had a big blank of a character."
Religion, one of the central themes of the game, also became a bit of a problem for some players. At least one requested a refund after realizing that the game was going to force Booker to go through a baptism.
Levine said he was kind of surprised, not with that particular reaction, but that there weren't more like it.
"I read a lot of articles in Christian journals where people were actually, the reaction was more positive," he said. "I think it was a lot of people worrying for other people."
The game's take on religion is quite in your face, but it's not really a treatise on religion per se, but one that addresses the outcomes of what happens when someone abuses its power. Like the original BioShock and its look at what happens when Objectivism runs unchecked in an isolated city, BioShock Infinite is, in many ways, a view of "how somebody can use religion."
And that discussion, buried in the subtext of the game, can't help but be in a player's face, and at times uncomfortable, Levine said. Levine knew that forcing players to be virtually baptized through Booker if they want to play his game, was going to be uncomfortable to some. But he makes no apologies.
"I think that we knew that was going to be a moment that was going to be confrontational with people," he said, "but why bother if you're not going to do something that may effect people? Even negatively.
"I want to, we want to make an impact on people, we're not making a game so that everybody feels comfortable. "
I liked BioShock Infinite's story, found the ending, while initially perhaps a bit predictable, a conclusion that stuck with me, that had me reflecting on it long after the playing was done.
But the game's violence wasn't what I had expected from the game, especially following my last conversation with Levine.
In March, Levine talked to me about the inherent problems of creating a violent game that brings with it a meaningful message. He explained how he tried to create a game of meaningful violence by creating a scene in which Elizabeth is horrified with Booker's bloody defense of her. Levine warned me at the time, that Elizabeth wouldn't always react that way because it would mire the game's inherent shooting mechanics in too much hand-wringing consternation.
Was BioShock Infinite's violence meaningful?
Despite the warning, I still found the game too violent and asked Levine about it, again. In retrospect, does he feel he delivered a game with, to use my own words, "meaningful violence" or would he change anything if he had it to do over again?
"I think what's interesting — the last thing I gave a shit about is ‘Am I nervous about showing this game to my mom?' I don't give a fuck what people think of what I do," Levine said. "I don't need to prove to anyone why I play video games — I think the more interesting question here is games are games, right? Every game is a game, right? That's the nature of a game. There are things you do, whether it's matching gems or shooting people, that are not congruent with everyday life."
"I think the more interesting question here is games are games, right?"
That's what great about zombie games, Levine said, the nature of the setting and backstory erases much of that incongruity. The constant killing, he said, is perfect in the context of a zombie world. But Levine's games aren't about zombie worlds or alien invasions, and they often bring with them heavy, thoughtful stories that strive to make gamers think, making the violence all the more incongruous.
"When you have a character like Elizabeth, who people went along with for the ride, and then you have the sort of gamey-ness of the environment, it introduces a new challenge," he said. "To some degree, by trying to advance the medium, you also heighten some of the challenges the medium has. We've developed further in terms of what we can do emotionally and what we can do from a gameplay perspective."
Some games address that problem by essentially reducing the gameplay mechanics to a minimum. David Cage's games, like Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain, lean on the quick-time event. The Walking Dead approach, he said, is to effectively not have a game at all.
"I don't mean that as a critique," he added quickly. "It's a choose your own adventure game. As a gamer, I like games and I like gamey-ness. So it's an interesting challenge for me and makes me mostly think about context. I actually don't think it's an issue of violence per se.
"These things just excite me as a developer about the future. I didn't get caught up in the hand wringing about it."
So the question isn't really one of violence at its core, but rather what happens in those in-between moments when story is not at the forefront of the experience.
"These things just excite me as a developer about the future. I didn't get caught up in the hand wringing about it."
Levine and his team chose to make a game that tells a story and criticisms and accolades aside, Levine said he's happy with that decision and the game it lead to.
"I made the game I wanted to make, and I'm very, very, very happy with this game," he said. "I told the team before the game came out, ‘Here's what's going to happen.'
"The game's going to come out and I had a sense of how people might respond in reviews, in fact it was probably a little more positive than I'd hoped. This happened to BioShock 1 too, then you're going to have a bunch of people say, ‘Fuck that shit.' Because that happens when a game is successful and it didn't surprise me the least. And it doesn't bother me at all. The game sold really well, it reviewed really well, the fans love it, everybody's cosplaying the characters.
"There are only so many standards of success you can make for yourself and you have to at some point say, ‘Alright, I'm happy with it.' And I personally feel happy with it. Certainly as a writer, getting across the narrative, I always thought the most important thing is the connection people have to Elizabeth."
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