March 6, 2012 at 7:19 PM ET
At this moment, Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games are busy putting the sequel to the original "BioShock" together. The 2007 hit was heralded for its finely tuned gameplay and politically-tinged narrative, both of which the sequel, "BioShock Infinite" aims to top. MSNBC sat down with Levine, to discuss the recently revealed Motorized Patriot and ask other questions.
As one of the new game's "heavy hitters," The Motorized Patriot is the brainchild of Nate Wells, the game's art director. After the art and design teams refined the concept, he was presented to Levine, and it was love at first sight: "At first I went, 'whoa, what is that?' But I knew immediately how I could write him. I loved the mecanique, creepy vibe, the fact he's spouting propaganda."
The Motorized Patriot fits well, both figuratively and literally, within the game's setting. "Infinite" takes place in Columbia, a floating city designed to embody the American spirit, but which becomes torn by civil war. Given how politics is a central theme once again, it's easy to assume that Levine believes in games having a responsibility to address such issues to their audience. But that's not necessarily the case.
"Games are no different than any other form of media," says Levine, who notes that the only reason why the subject matter stand out in games is because it's such a new medium. "Video games shouldn't be required to address politics; if people want to create a game that deals with such issues, great, more power to them. If they want to make a game about super fast hedgehogs, that's great too."
As for why Levine and his team have chosen such a hot topic: "All you're seeing is a reflection of us as developers and our lives. I tend to read a lot of history, lots of political blogs. All you have to work with, ultimately, is whatever is in your head. The challenge, of course, is finding a way to express all that in the form of a video game that is channeling, immersive, and interesting.”
To those scared away by the political subtext of the first “BioShock” and even asked why it was necessary in the first place: "Well, what else am I going to do? We make games about things we are drawn to and are knowledgeable about. I could make a football game, but because I know nothing of the sport, it would be embarrassing. I'm also sure those making football games who know nothing about objectivism or jingoism, who would be equally hopeless."
As for those who embraced the first "BioShock": "I was surprised by how well it did. I couldn't imagine some guy walking into Wal Mart and GameStop, picking up a game that deals with objectivism, utopianism, all that kind of stuff, and finding it interesting. Again, I didn't know what else to make other than what interests me. It was such an honest expression as a team; the fact that people like it was the most thrilling aspect of my career."
"We learned that we didn't have to pander in any kind of way or any. From both a gameplay and narrative standpoint, if anything, I underestimated gamers, for being capable of being drawn to the sociopolitical aspects. But I also tend to be cynical in general."
It could be argued that one reason why some were willing to listen to the ideals that the first game explored, specifically objectivism, is because it is still such a foreign concept to many, so biases have yet to be formed on the matter (Ayn Rand is yet to be a household name). Given that "Infinite" touches upon themes that are closer to today's headlines, there stands the chance of it being more polarizing.
To that end, Levine believes the topics that “Infinite” addresses have been around forever: "When we started making the game, there was no Occupy Moment, there was no Tea Party. We were able to tap into things that were eventually going to form into real world because some movements have existed forever, in one shape or another, since the dawn of time."
"Even though we are living in a historic time, nothing that is happening is entirely unique. Everyone who thinks the kind of negative campaigning we see today is something new, go back and read about the Presidential race between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. There was just as much mud slinging back then as you see today between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney.”
If the first game didn't have much political fallout, what were most of the complaints about? For some players, it was too easy: "'BioShock 1' was a game that we wanted the player to get through and not to be too punishing. But then we realized, as both gamers and developers, that there's a style of gameplay that many of us enjoy, in which you have to make very hard choices, like in 'System Shock 2.'”
"So we looked at 'Infinite' and asked ourselves, 'can we do this, yet not compromise the core experience that, if you wanted, could just blow through?“ Thus, 1999 Mode was born.
According to Levine, one of the first game's biggest successes is directly tied to one of its biggest flaws: the Vita Chambers, which "didn't break the flow of the game. People tend to quit when they fail, not when they succeed. So we gained something, but we lost something. 1999 Mode is a way to regaining what was lost, not just in terms of difficulty, but the notion that you have to make choices, and then live with them."
"BioShock Infinite" arrives on the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC on October 16.
Matthew Hawkins is an NYC-based game journalist who has also written for EGM, GameSetWatch, Gamasutra, Giant Robot, and numerous others. He also self-publishes his own game culture zine, is part of Attract Mode, and co-hosts The Fangamer Podcast. You can keep tabs on him via Twitter, or his personal home-base, FORT90.com.