Behind Bioshock Infinite: Ken Levine On Writing A Groundbreaking Game

With the coming release of BioShock Infinite, Ken Levine follows up his award-winning BioShock with another alternate-history shooter. Here, he walks us through the process of creating a game’s story and interactive world.

In 2007, BioShock was released and found both critical and market success with a narrative and aesthetic more complex than the usual action fare. For creative director and lead writer Ken Levine and the others at Irrational Games, that meant extra pressure to follow up with something fresh. They began thinking about a spiritual successor.

"What is a BioShock game? It came down to the kind of world you would be in, the kinds of themes you would explore," says Levine. "Taking a moment in history and really digging into that and fictionalizing around it." Bioshock Infinite takes place in 1912, with former Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt going to a floating city of religious fundamentalism and American patriotism to rescue a young woman named Elizabeth.

Ken Levine

Levine shared with Co.Create the process of writing a modern video game that balances visual narrative, cinematic plotting, and player-controlled action.

In the Beginning…

Levine starts any game with brainstorming ideas and a deep dive on relevant culture. For Infinite, he was drawn to the time between the Civil War and World War I, a time of scientific progress that saw the development of electricity and the telephone but also religious belief and nationalism. Specifically, he cited, "Devil in the White City, which is a great book about the 1893 World’s Fair, and then certain movies give you a feel—There Will Be Blood gave me the weird vibe of revivalism and frontierism."

After research comes what he calls the most time-consuming part—the meetings about the plot wherein Levine and his team break down levels and plot points. They create a stripped-down dummy script, with only the basic info needed: "Elizabeth says we need to go to that house and get that thing." Levine then reviews the dummy script before writing dialogue. "In the worst case, I’m scratching my head and going, 'This is going to break the game.' Then there’s a lot of phone calls. If I’m writing, I am sitting in front of Final Draft and typing away," said Levine. "Sometimes it’s very solitary and sometimes it’s very communal."

But as he polishes the plot in the dummy script, he has to keep an eye on the interactive structure as well. Levine said, "What is the quest structure? What if the player decides to go left here instead of right? I stop writing and we have a two hour conversation to figure that out. And that’s very different than writing a novel."

Making a Scene

The repeated back and forth of plotting and writing is necessary. "It’s an iterative process. Write stuff, throw it away. Write more stuff, throw it away. Everything you do has a bullseye on it," Levine says. "Writing is rewriting. Painting is repainting. Generally, your first work is going to be a stab, then you stab again, and stab again, and you get closer and closer to the target."

This includes rewriting dialogue to be spoken aloud, not read. Levine says, "Elizabeth speaks in a slightly archaic way, her language construction is a bit Old Time. Finding that balance was tough." When some of this archaic dialogue would come out flat, he turned to the actors, Courtnee Draper and Troy Baker. "I would say, 'This really isn’t working. What do you think is the right way to say it?' Almost one hundred percent of the time they would have a good idea. I did a ton of rewriting in the studio."

Certain scenes went through many iterations. "The most important thing to express with any character is what their goal is. So the opening at the lighthouse with Booker is that his goal is to get this girl. So then we get to Elizabeth and we have to establish what her deal is," Levine says. While Elizabeth resembles a Disney princess, Levine didn’t have the luxury of a musical. "What Disney princesses do is sing a song—'I want to be where the people are…' in The Little Mermaid. You can’t do that in a game. So I struggled with that."

Booker meets Elizabeth in a tower where she’s under some sort of scientific study. From behind a one-way mirror, you watch Elizabeth in her bedroom. Her interaction with a painting of the Eiffel Tower reveals she wants to leave the sky city. The player learns her goal, but the scene serves a dual purpose. "You observe her in her natural habitat, expressing her desires, but she doesn’t know she is being watched," Levine says. "It also expresses the creepiness of observing her, and that’s how the level evolved."

Some of what Levine does with a scene is straight out of film school. "You want to enter it as late as possible, so you are not spending time on nonsense. You want to get out as quickly as possible," says Levine. "Sometimes it’s more interesting for a new character to bring information. How you attack a scene, the information, is one thing, and how you convey the information is something else entirely."

The Player’s the Thing

Levine also makes use of a game’s atmosphere to support narrative—the architecture of the cities, the ambient conversations of the citizens, the advertising of the time period. "I have a growing respect for information in the visual and audio space." Levine says. "We start the game with a quote and a conversation; we start with words to create a mood and a setting, but then there is a long period where Booker says almost nothing." Levine adds, "A scene can always be shorter. It’s hard to write a sentence that is as powerful as a visual can be."

It’s all part of creating an experience for his audience. "All I can do in my role as lead writer and creative director is use my best judgment and try to inhabit the spirit of the gamer. They want to be entertained and they’re not going to give up their hard-earned money unless there is a reason to." He explained that one reason he didn’t succeed as a screenwriter was that he didn’t understand who he was writing for.

In the first scene of Infinite, Booker finds at the top of the lighthouse a seat in a cage. The player sits and looks through the metal bars as they pass through the clouds to the floating city. He had to add a countdown to launch because some players thought it was a time machine. Levine says. "You wouldn’t believe the kind of mistakes people make, myself included, in just comprehension issues. I’m not going to sit over their shoulder and say, 'No, that’s a rocket ship.'" So how do you plan for this? "You will see reinforcement of the same idea multiple times. We can’t count on you seeing it any one time," he says.

And in the End

As the scenes of a game build toward a climax, preparations must be made. "If you have an ambitious scene, if you leave it to that moment to dump all the information on that player, you have probably failed. You have to be weaving stuff through the entire game and setting up the ending. You have to pre-load all this information in the player’s head." Levine points to the film The Usual Suspects as an example, "You have one new piece of information, that he was not who he said he was, and all of a sudden all of the events change their meaning."

Levine’s final thoughts are for the overall way creators tackle narrative. "Figuring out the story is not the hard part. Figuring out how to tell the story is the hard part. What is the interface between the story in your head and for the gamer? A lot of people do it by locking you in a cutscene for 10 minutes and explaining it to you," he says. "As a writer I am not a fan of that. If you ask people if games are going toward more interaction or less interaction, I think it will be more. A narrative has to do its best to respect that."

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  • johnathankanna

    I love Ken's work on System Shock 2. While I liked BioShock, I hated the dumbing down of the game play to make it a game on the rails, more of an experience than an actual game where I make the decisions on where to go and when. I miss that. I expect more hand holding in BioShock Infinite, and one line that Ken mentions in this article sheds light on why. He talks about how some people thought the space ship was a time machine and he had to clarify it for them by stating the obvious with a countdown....I wish we would stop catering to people who simply dont get it and instead make the product the way it was intended....I know its all in the quest for more and more inclusion which = more and more money, especially needed when games have bigger and bigger budgets...But can ANYONE keep it smart anymore? My beloved gaming has been given to the masses and I fear I'll never see a big budget game that doesn't treat us like idiots ever again. Give me a PS3/Xbox 720 version of System Shock 2, Ken. I'll buy 1000 copies, man.

  • Drew

    I think you are mistaking clarification for dumbing down. A countdown merely subtly reinforces what is occurring. For mine, a bunch of exposition about taking the rocket would be dumbing down.

  • johnathankanna

    Take a series like Hitman or Tomb Raider. What used to be about FIGURING something out, using your brain, understanding the context, has been reduced to quick time button pressing and hand holding on the rails gaming. Having to THINK your way through a level doesn't exist anymore in the bigger games. Its all about making the experience easier, more "pleasing" for dumb gamers to get them to keep coming back. If you cant see that I don't know what else to tell you man.

  • johnathankanna

    No, Im not mistaking clarification for dumbing down. its essentially the same thing. Some things dont need to be made obvious, we should expect people to "get it" or figure it out quick enough on their own. What is happening is, more and more people are lacking the ability to understand context of a situation and thus need things spelled out for them or dumbed down for them. Back in the day you had to figure it out, and with games being made for gamers, who usually had no problem understanding context, this was never a big deal. Now with companies wanting to reach wider audiences, they need to make these "clarifications" more and more to help out the idiots. Every game is slowly becoming one big dumb Michael Bay experience with all of these obvious "clarifications".