Ken Levine: We’ve Created a Rube Goldberg Device that Yields a Person in BioShock Infinite

Part two of my interview with BioShock Infinite's Ken Levine, in which we talk about the game's linchpin artificial intelligence, Elizabeth and why it's okay if you blame BioShock for the rise of the Tea Party.

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Irrational Games

I’m only a little ways into BioShock Infinite at this point, loitering among its giant balloon-hung neoclassical buildings, gawking while barbershops sing hauntingly beautiful renditions of Brian Wilson and Tony Asher’s “God Only Knows,” knowing the way you always know in a Ken Levine game that the status quo is doomed — that the carefully pruned, sun-dappled gardens and fireworks and festive carnival stands must eventually give way to unimaginable things.

But before we say more about the game itself — it’s out next week — I need to finish my conversation with the Irrational Games co-founder and creative lead (part one is here), wherein we talk mostly about Elizabeth, the girl you’ve been sent to retrieve from a mysterious floating sky-city at the game’s outset, before Ken explains why he reads the The Lord of the Rings as allegory, and why it’s okay if you blame BioShock for the rise of the Tea Party.

Let’s talk about Elizabeth. What led to her inception? When did she become central to the gameplay?

When we started working on the game, I think we started with a lot of the same assumptions, that okay, you’d be a character, you’d be in a dead world. Rapture’s a graveyard, essentially — everybody’s either dead or crazy. That made our job a little bit easier, because dead and crazy people are relatively easy to simulate. Fully normal people are much harder to simulate, so you drop them in a cutscene. With a cutscene it’s easy, right? You give them a script and let them go. But how do you hang out with an A.I. that’s believable, that isn’t just standing there like your standard…most games, like in a military shooter, you have companions, but they’re really just gun turrets that occasionally spout lines. How do you make a character that feels real?

That’s what we struggled with, and why we didn’t want to do it for a long time. And then we looked at our body of work and said, well, we’ve been playing the same tricks for a long time, and we’ve gotten kind of lazy with it. It’s time to step it up a little bit. And so we decided to give you a character, to give you a companion to be with, and we decided to make it a story not about a world but about how the world affects these two characters, how the story, the larger story, impacts these two characters and what it does to them.

With Elizabeth, we just kept growing her role over time. We had to come up with her arc, her narrative arc through the game, which is really the primary plot of the game. Why is Elizabeth so important to the city? Why is everybody after her? Why were you sent to get her? But then you have these big dramatic narrative moments, and those are the relatively — and I underline relatively here — easy parts in the sense that you write a scene and the scripted actors act it out in the game. There’s some problems with that because you never know what the player’s going to do. They may run off in the opposite direction, and that sucks. But we write that stuff and you have to make Elizabeth charming and likable and capable and smart and interesting and vulnerable and all those things that you want out of an interesting and believable character. That’s the work of the writer.


Irrational Games

But then there’s like, what does Elizabeth do as a full A.I.? And just letting her go, watching her do her thing, and she can completely…she just lives in the space, she interacts with the space, she interacts with other characters, she interacts with you. She’s just constantly looking for things to do, and that was a ton of work, because what does a person do when they’re just standing around? You know, what do they look at? How hard do they look at it? How close do they get when they talk to you? What’s too close? What’s too far? What do people do when they’re bored? What do people do when they’re excited? How does their face look when they’re angry? When they’re confused? And all those things we had to figure out, then how to make her play those when we don’t know what the heck the player’s doing at that particular moment. That’s what Elizabeth is. She’s a big, complex machine who we’ve attached all this great content to, and the machine figures out what content to play when, and that yields…that big sort of Rube Goldberg device yields a person, or as close as we can get to it in a video game.

Why haven’t we paid more attention to this sort of personality-based, can-it-pass-a-Turing-test A.I. design in gaming?

Elizabeth for me…there are moments, there are moments, when I forget that she’s not a combination of this voice actress and this motion-capture actress and these animators and my writing and all these objects in the world she can interact with — I just think of her as this person Elizabeth who I know. And those are great moments, you know, because she is not…she doesn’t exist. But that’s what the goal is here. Immersion in a world is great, immersion in combat is great. But immersion in a character? I think that’s the end goal here, and it’s really hard. The reason people don’t do it is because, as we learned through painful lessons, it’s really, really, really hard.

But also worth it. That was the thing. We said this game, if we look back on this game and we find the player feels a connection to this character, we think we’ll have done what we set out to do, or the most important thing that we set out to do.

As a player, do you wish there was more of an industry trend to focus on creating meaningful A.I. experiences?

I think we come to these things in small measures. In the original BioShock, I had this idea for an ecosystem first, but I never really had the idea for the kind of relationship that the Big Daddy and Little Sister wound up having. I had some gut sense that you had to have a connection, but I didn’t really realize how far we could go with that and how we could lean on the paternal-child relationship to heighten their appeal and interest. And then you come to these things and you look at the Big Daddy and you look at them together and you see this big, hulking guy and this little girl, and you’re like, “Oh s***, I know what that’s telling me, it’s telling me go in that direction.”


Irrational Games

And with Elizabeth, we get these moments where, we do a couple of experiments and she’s in the world, and at the beginning, these A.I.s are always completely broken. They’re always doing the wrong thing. It’s like the shark in Jaws, you know, you can’t get the damn thing to work. But then you have a moment, and she does something amazing, and you’re like “Okay, clear the decks, put everything else aside, push-push-push-push-push on this.” Because there’s something unique here. And it’s unique not because, outside of cutscenes, in a first-person game, you just don’t, you know, since Half-Life really, you just don’t see much of it.

So this isn’t more prevalent because, I’m guessing, the first thing you need to do is figure out what people do and how they act, then you have to figure out how to simulate that. Those two things are both really hard. The first part, we basically said to our artists and our animators, go home, look at your wife, look at your husband, look at your boyfriend, look at your girlfriend, and observe them, but don’t tell them you’re observing them — because the observed always change their behavior if they know they’re observed — and just watch how they do things. Watch how they turn the TV on. Watch what they do when they’re bored. Watch what they do when they’re waiting in line. Watch what they do when they’re fidgeting. Watch what they do when they’re tying their shoes. And get all that data. Figure it out. How close do they get to you when they talk? How close do you get to your friend? How close do you get to your enemy? Then it’s like, “How the heck do we simulate all that?” And it’s a combination of good A.I., and instead of designers going into the world and marking things and telling Elizabeth what she’s interested in, what she’s afraid of, what she’s scared of, it’s up to Elizabeth in the action watching the player and seeing, “Okay, is he looking at me? Do I have something to interact with? What mood am I in? Alright, let’s do it.”

You’ve been reluctant over the years to attach political positions to your games, which makes me think of Tolkien when he said people shouldn’t read The Lord of the Rings as allegory. And yet BioShock was deeply engaged with political and philosophical questions — BioShock Infinite perhaps even more so.  Take someone like the historian Howard Zinn, where he argues “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” What’s your view on games as political or philosophical platforms?

I could be wrong here, but I think what Tolkien was saying was that The Lord of the Rings shouldn’t have been read as an allegory for World War II. Isn’t that what he said?

That’s right, though I think he also said something about disliking allegory in general.

So is it an allegory? Forget about World War II for a second. First of all, who knows what Tolkien was really thinking. And does it really matter? Because what matters is the viewer. What do I intend when I make a game? What does my team intend? Who cares. It’s what you react to, it’s your emotional reaction that matters. So if I never heard what Tolkien said and I thought it was an allegory for World War II, then that’s my prerogative, that’s how I interact with the experience. My feeling on The Lord of the Rings is that it’s absolutely an allegory. It’s an allegory for how power can destroy anybody, including the most innocent, loving creature in the world, Frodo. Even he can’t resist the call of power. Maybe Tolkien thinks its about different kinds of tea, you know. He’s entitled to that.


Irrational Games

But it doesn’t matter. What I think about BioShock Infinite doesn’t matter. What matters is what you think as the gamer, the person experiencing it.

And in terms of being neutral on a moving train, look, the problem is that I don’t think there are two sides in the world. I think there are people out there who are very anxious to turn us into teams, and the conversation is much more complex than these people want to let us make it. I love the fact that…a couple days ago on Twitter or some forum, somebody said “F***ing Ken Levine, if not for him, nobody ever would have heard of Ayn Rand, and there would be no Tea Party movement, that a**hole Ken Levine.” Which shows an almost breathless lack of understanding of the political history of the 20th century, but it also shows that people can take…I’ve had people say I’m responsible for the rise of Randian thought, you know, that I probably knew that Paul Ryan was going to come and that’s why I named someone Andrew Ryan five years before that happened.

I love the fact that people don’t really know, and the reason they don’t really know isn’t because they don’t have political opinions, it’s because what we’re trying to challenge is certainty, and that notion that you don’t need to think anymore because we have all the answers. I think that’s when things get scary. Both Ryan and [Zachary Hale] Comstock [the leader of an ultranationalist party in BioShock Infinite] share that sort of smug satisfaction of knowing all the answers. And that is, at the end of the day, what turns them into the men they are, even though their world views are completely different.

In other words, a one-dimensional read of BioShock might reduce it to an anti-Rand, anti-capitalist polemic, when it fact it also shows all the things a system like unfettered capitalism and markets and ideas can produce on the way up.

That’s why mission number one was making Rapture a stunning, beautiful place, like a place that you go “Oh my God, how did they create this incredible thing?” Because the ideas Andrew Ryan had were very powerful and they had a lot of amazing potential, and then the journey is watching him taking these ideas and seeing them failing, because he’s human, because these ideals out in the world of flawed humanity don’t hold up. It doesn’t mean his ideas are all bad, it means his rigidity…that’s the problem. It’s his lack of self-awareness. But the tragedy is also that the ideas still have potential, you know?

And that’s where the nature of the medium itself, the plasticity of the experience, works against rigidity.

Absolutely. There are people who’ll zip through that thing and just notice the burning stuff or the fires, and then there’ll be the people who’ll stop and just see the incredible beauty, and then there’ll be people who’ll see both and be like “Wow, what is this game trying to say?” And hopefully the answer is, “I don’t know, let me go think what I think it is,” and go off and develop their own experience. If they want to come back and say “Ken Levine created the Tea Party,” well that’s their prerogative, that’s fine, because that’s their experience of the game.