Game Veteran Ken Levine Discusses His Inspirations For BioShock Infinite

A behind-the-scenes look at how BioShock Infinite's Columbia was conjured.

A behind-the-scenes look at how BioShock Infinite's Columbia was conjured.
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One of the most-anticipated games of this year is about to hit store shelves from 2K Games and Irrational Games. BioShock Infinite, the first new game from celebrated game creator Ken Levine since BioShock, introduces PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 gamers to a brand new world that could only be conjured from the mind of Levine and his talented team of 200 in Boston.

Levine told me that one disappointment he had in the original BioShock was that he felt they never were able to provide a payoff for all the work that was put into Rapture being at the bottom of the ocean — outside of from the visual perspective. 

“We never really got to bring that into the gameplay,” said Levine. “When we started BioShock Infinite we knew the setting was going to be in the sky. We made it a mission this time that we’re going to really pay it off. We’re going to figure out a way to bring in an open-air verticality to the space.”

Four years ago, Irrational Games kicked around a lot of ideas, including the concept of flight, which Levine said had lost its magic because it’d been done so many times before in other games. Once the developer began thinking about how freight would be moved around the floating city of Columbia, the game’s iconic rail system was born.

“I always loved roller coasters when I was a kid and I started thinking like being in a battle on a roller coaster that’s stacked on another rollercoaster, that’s stacked on another rollercoaster and with guns,” said Levine. “It was really challenging, but once you have that visceral feeling of being on those skylines and figuring out how they would work in this world, how they would look in this world, how they would feel in this world, it got really exciting for us.”

The end result is some truly frenetic action shootouts that will send players – as former Pinkerton agent Booker Dewitt — hurling through the city while being chased by enemies high above the floating city’s ground. And these enemies are not ordinary, as anyone who’s seen the animatronic-inspired Motorized Patriot, a Gatling gun-armed, George Washington enemy that looks like it escaped from Disney World’s American Presidents exhibit.

Of course, this being a BioShock game, nothing’s ever exactly as it seems – even when the world’s that’s being conjured is set an alternate 1912 on a floating city that involves an epic political battle between the Founders, an ultranationalist group led by Hale Comstock that wants Columbia only for American citizens, and the Vox Populi, a ragtag resistance group led by Daisy Fitzroy, which is fighting for the rights of all people. The game introduces the ability for Elizabeth, an AI-controlled character that aids Booker – and vice versa – throughout this adventure, to tear through time and bring 1980s technology, including weapons, back with her.

“All I’ll say about the tears in time is that BioShock games are always trying to tap into things that were in the scientific brain space at the time,” said Levine. “BioShock 1 took place in the late ‘50s early ‘60s and it deals with when (Francis) Crick and (James) Watson were starting to figure out the structure of DNA by mapping the human genome. Obviously, the characters in that game took that work and went completely crazy with it. In BioShock Infinite, Elizabeth is not a scientist but she’s tapping into these tears. What was happening in Physics at the time around the turn of the century was that guys like (Albert) Einstein and (Werner) Heisenberg were just starting to understand these concepts and everything was just completely opening up. Elizabeth’s tapping into this notion — and I don’t want to ruin any of the details of the story, but we do always like to reflect what was going on in science at the time in our own very BioShock way.”

While BioShock Infinite promises plenty of action, it also looks like there will be many layers of mystery to solve as the more astute gamers search through every nook and cranny of Columbia – which was inspired by the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Irrational Games has used the extra development time to not only polish the look and feel of the game, but to add even more intricacies to its rich fiction. Where does Levine and his talented team dream up such stories?

“I think that storytelling has an influence on you whether it’s a book or a movie or another game,” said Levine. “There are parts of BioShock that are influenced by stories that are several thousand years old. I won’t say which ones, but there are also some very old storytelling influences in BioShock Infinite. We’ve always been very open to being influenced by great work of other people. We’re half in the history, cultural and non-fiction space, but there are lots of great influences from the fictional space as well.”

Gamers will be able to explore this original steam punk-fueled take on history, blended with some mesmerizing fiction. What starts off as a simple rescue-the-girl mission quickly evolves into something much more. And contending with a 30-foot mechanical Songbird will likely be the least of gamers’ worries as they fight their way through to the end. When you embark on an Irrational Games adventure – and this one spans 16 hours, you’re in for a ride like no other.


About the author

John Gaudiosi

John Gaudiosi has been covering the video game business for over 20 years for outlets like The Washington Post, Reuters, Fortune, AOL and CNN. He's EIC of video game site