Ken Levine reflects on his role as storyteller and auteur on BioShock Infinite

The first words that I heard in BioShock Infinite‘s floating city of Columbia took me back through multiple years of family Passover celebrations. The priest who would soon baptize Booker DeWitt and send him off on the final leg of his journey into the city proper chanted out the history of the airborne society, concluding each line in the story with the refrain “That alone would have been enough.”

The Passover holiday is both a celebration and a remembrance of the Jewish peoples’ turmoils in ancient Egypt, a dark period which ended when Moses led them off to their promised land. The prayer Dayenu is sung each year, a series of phrases recounting the story of Exodus that each end with the word Dayenu. “That alone would have been enough” is the rough translation.

A Different Kind Of Exodus

“It seems generally more authentic if you find some kind of point of reference,” Irrational Games studio head and Infinite lead writer Ken Levine told me when we sat down to chat following my hands-on runthrough of the March 2013 game’s early hours. “I am obviously familiar with that [prayer] – last name Levine – so I just sort of repurposed Dayenu for Columbia.”

“It struck me as an interesting prayer and song because its structure is so… structured as a prayer,” Levine explained. “It’s this sort of round of the same thing over and over and over again. I find most prayers to be very unstructured. It was useful for something that needed to repeat for a long time and not just sound like a mass of words. You could just hear part of it and understand what it’s about.”

It’s also hard to miss the parallels that connect the tale of Exodus and the society established by Zachary Comstock. The actual circumstances leading to Columbia’s founding remain unclear, but Comstock is seen by his people as the prophet who led them to their own promised land. 

“People who are building a society have to have a dissatisfaction with their existing society,” Levine explained. “Andrew Ryan never would have created Rapture unless he felt he had no choice but to create Rapture. He felt compelled to do it. Comstock was equally compelled by very different sort of motivations. He felt compelled by, in his words, a prophetic image shown to him by an angel that it is his destiny to do this.”

The BioShock creator’s words echo any number of age-old stories which serve as the basic building block for many a religion. “That’s the story of Moses, that’s the story of Mohammed; they’re sort of the prophets leading the people to either a new religion or a new land,” he said. “It’s a very old story, and it tends to be similar [even as time goes on].” 

“Like [Mormonism founder] Joseph Smith. Why would Joseph Smith and Brigham Young have led the people away from New York State unless they felt that they couldn’t live there, and they needed to go and form a promised land” You don’t go form a promised land unless you have a problem with the land you’re in, whether it’s Egypt or upstate New York.”

Tugging At The Common Threads

Failed societies. Highly charismatic leaders. A false promised land. These elements, along with the extended Infinite intro that is nearly beat-for-beat identical to that of the first game, suggest that a highly self-conscious approach was taken to crafting this new story. Levine pulls up short of acknowleding the auteristic qualities of these thematic and symbolic connections between the two games, but he makes no secret of the fact that he’s a storyteller who draws inspiration from other storytellers.

“It was very hard to talk about the game in the beginning because I think what we were trying to do, there’s not a huge precedent for it in games,” he explained. “I feel this is very much a BioShock game even though it’s not a direct sequel to the story of Rapture. Both in gameplay and in thematic elements certainly, you’re starting to get a sense of more mysterious connections [between the two]. That was always intended.”

“People have come before us who have worked very hard to build certain techniques that are effective. You ignore those at your peril,” he added. “Theme … and repeating themes is a very common element in films and in music. These sort of Russian dolls of concepts built into concepts. Peeling back layers of an onion. These are all things in movies I adore and love. I just try in my own meager way [to follow those examples] in the work that I contribute to the game.”

Historical Incongruities

One such contribution is the unconventional class structure that exists in Columbia. The sort of racism that dominated in America before the emancipation of slavery is alive and well in the floating city, but the gender split is unusually progressive. Many players will notice in the early parts of the game that the police force opposing you is made up of men and women, something that would have been an unthinkable situation in the early 1900s.

So while race-based discrimination is at the forefront of Columbia’s social situation, the gender divide between men and women is, or appears to be, non-existent. The purpose of this split isn’t to make a point, but to explore the often unusual cultural twists that a close examination of history frequently reveals, Levine explains. “There’s often surprising aspects and seemingly incongruous aspects of culture that come about, and I just thought it was an interesting thing to put in this. It’s surprisingly, oddly progressive,” he said. 

“If you look at a guy like Teddy Roosevelt, for instance … he was this incredibly odd mix to [people today] of what we would call a deeply progressive person. I don’t mean left or right [politics], but just in terms of his views on the world of change. He was an environmentalist, ahead of his time. He believed in social structures supporting poor people. He believed in busting up trusts and monopolies. All of which you would perceive on the very left side of the [polticial] field.”

“At the same time, he was also what you would effectively call a neo-Conservative. He believed that America had a sort of responsibility to spread across the world, whether people liked it or not. The Panama canal and the Spanish-American War were very much things that he supported deeply, in fact so deeply that he resigned his post in the government and rode up San Juan Hill with guns a-blazing. He wasn’t just on Meet the Press talking about how we should do it; he was there.”

“So he’s a person of a lot of incongruities, and culture is often like that. I just thought it was interesting that Columbia could have that … seeming incongruity. [Race and gender] weren’t necessarily meant to conflict with each other. It was mostly because that’s the observation I’ve had of history.”

Ever A Storyteller

Levine’s own historical observations directly inform the directions he takes as a storyteller. As much as there was to discuss about BioShock and its story from a philosophical perspective – and as much as there will be in Infinite – that isn’t actually the point. The only message that Levine and his team at Irrational want to send is that a video game can have a well-told story.

“Frankly I think I’m less intellectual than you might think. I like good stories, and … the ‘Would you kindly?’ moment [in BioShock] was a moment I wanted. Not for philosophical reasons; as a storyteller, I thought it would be a good moment. The trappings come around with it, but it’s mostly because it’s the stuff I’m interested in, the stuff the team is interested in,” he explained. “I’m the type of guy who likes to stay up late talking about stuff, and the games I work on sort of end up being, for better or for worse, about the kind of stuff I like talking about.”

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