Bioshock Infinite will hit store shelves today. Whether the sky world of Columbia has expanded the gaming landscape or flown over our heads, the scope and ambition that went into crafting it cannot be faulted. That ambition belongs to Irrational Games‘ creative director and co-founder Ken Levine.
On Mar 11, BAFTA held a Q&A with the game making auteur to discuss Bioshock Infinite. As well as a focus on the man’s career and aims, Levine shared his thoughts on the continued search for a deeper narrative experience in games. For him, it is about making the player a part of the game world rather than a bystander deftly moving through it. His work expresses a need to involve the player through active interaction with the characters in that world, but in a natural, unforced way. An aim that may owe its realization to the evolution of the A.I. companion role.
Such an elaborate undertaking involves taking risks, and risks are what Irrational is famed for. From Rapture’s unsettling submerged world of child experimentation and ADAM veiled drug abuse in Bioshock to the cybernetic sinister atmosphere of System Shock 2‘s maddening space horror. Courting taboos and presenting difficult worlds are risks worth taking. Risks are inherently irrational, as the studio’s namesake suggests.
Building a World
Its his cinematic perspective that has helped create the worlds in each of his games, and the characters that fill it. Game directors like Levine, Hideo Kojima and David Cage are often criticized for trying to produce movies rather than games, but an involving story and believable world is crucial in helping gamers to invest their empathy within a game. For that to happen there needs to be a significant amount of time dedicated to building those elements within the mind of the gamer, just as it is necessary in a film.
Building a Relationship Within That World
Relationships are a key plot point to Levine’s work. Much in the way Big Daddies had Little Sisters, and Booker DeWitt has Elizabeth. Levine’s plot have a heavy reliance on building partnerships.
The gamer inherits the role of Booker DeWitt, a gun for hire with a shady past. The other lead role belongs to the dangerously powerful captive Elizabeth, a coded in character designed to react to the player and the world in a variety of ways. Because her seemingly limitless actions are all dependent on how the player moves within Bioshock Infinite, Elizabeth demanded an extreme measure of development time to work.
Naturally, putting so much emphasis and pressure on the performance of an A.I. scripted character was not always met with burning enthusiasm from the development team. The game hit roadblocks plenty of times getting the formula for Elizabeth right. She had to follow and react seamlessly along a player lead path. What we see comes at the cost of more than a few prototype Elizabeths doomed to repeatedly fall through floors, go cross-eyed and warp through the air in early builds.
As her implementation seems to have broken new ground it will be exciting to see just how well she features within the game and crucially, how this approach might influence games in the future.
There has been talks before about the changing appearances of Elizabeth before, but it is useful to understand why things appear in this game the way they do. Elizabeth’s oversize eyes are intended to make it easier for the player to see her expression at a distance and to empathize with her. A more practical approach having been optioned over a stylistic one. In terms of how the game flows, all dialogue and cut scenes take place within the moving gameplay rather than through FMVs, so the player does not feel removed from the action.
The player interaction is so detailed that players are even alerted to Elizabeth’s current emotional state at times. An emotional state that changes in reaction to the player’s actions. This is a partner character, and as such she will aid Booker in combat throwing ammo and health when needed and attack in equal measure using her own abilities. A reliance on Elizabeth is established rather than using her as a plot accessory. Ultimately, that emotional and practical mutual reliance is the goal of a successful A.I. accomplice lead partnership.
What’s Next for A.I. Partners
The interactive accomplice is not a new gimmick, this is a familiar device within narrative driven games. Although more fringe style sci-fi vocal accomplices like GlaDOS in Portal and SHODAN in System Shock 1 and 2 owe much of their depiction to Hal 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, there are plenty of A.I. sidekicks in games that could only have been depicted so effectively in this medium.
There are familiar examples in gaming’s most mainstream franchises. The Legend of Zelda has relied on actively participating accomplices since an Owl guided us through Koholint Island in Link’s Awakening. Many entries in the series come with a tour guide, from the nerve testing instruction manual like Navi in Ocarina Of Time to the father figured King of Red Dragons in the Wind Waker. The latter mentioned mentor memorably revealed to be a far more significant character at the games finale. The role is not often a throw away one.
Naughty Dog‘s survival-horror, The Last of Us will offer a take on the crucial A.I. partnership as the player lead Joel guides around an intuitively programmed Ellie. If gamers ever get to see this relationship formed in the troubled The Last Guardian or not, the chances are the game would offer another step towards how players approach their polygon partners.
The A.I. partnerships in The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite will more than likely shape how this creative tool is implemented in future games. These are two of the year’s biggest releases. They come at a tipping point for the AAA game, the point at which they evolve to a more involving experience. As the world rushes towards the PS4 and the next console generation, there will be more processing power to make the Elizabeths of the future less of a logistical challenge and more of a must have mainstay.
Whether cyber or steam punk, Ken Levine finds worlds that challenge perceptions and inventing ways for gamers to play through them. He may not ask to be thought of as ‘changing the landscape of games’, but that seems to be happening whether he likes it or not.