For years, Ken Levine has been keeping gamers on their toes. System Shock 2 built on player expectations of both shooting games and the original System Shock. BioShock reminded modern audiences that action and terror could be balanced well and coupled with good storytelling and multi-dimensional, memorable characters. And now, BioShock Infinite has delivered one of the best gaming sucker-punches since Spec Ops: The Line, though he did so at the very end of his game with what has been called a bit of an exposition dump. Given the nature of the dialog, and the method of it’s presentation, one might even go so far as to say Levine a pretentious dick for doing what he did… and you know what? That’s okay.
Spec Ops was also a bit pretentious. Braid, Journey, Bastion… all of these games use their gameplay to move the story forward and play on themes that are above and beyond the scope of many of their contemporaries. They work on higher levels, and sometimes multiple levels. The pretense upon which such games work (hence the word ‘pretentious’) is that their story is just as important as the accuracy with which the player can shoot dudes, or the level of challenge in their puzzles. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I’d argue that in terms of game development and presentation, Ken Levine is an example of someone doing everything right.
BioShock Infinite may not be a perfect game, and it may be flawed, but what it does is done so well it’s likely to be towards the top of many Game of the Year lists. Like its true predecessors, it builds on player expectations before yanking the rug out from under them. BioShock parsed past the linear progression of many other shooters (even some that came after it) and showed just how artificial that sort of pacing could be by making the player’s character a literal pawn in somebody else’s game. Very few of the choices the player makes in that game are their own; outside of weapon and plasmid selection, the phrase ‘would you kindly’ rips any agency out of the player’s hands and pushes them towards the game’s conclusion. While there’s nothing wrong with linearity in games, especially ones so heavily concerned with story, I always got the impression that Levine was demonstrating how important choice and consequence truly are by exposing this sort of railroading. In a way, this has always been his crux: make the wrong choices in System Shock 2 and it becomes impossible to complete, “A Man Chooses, A Slave Obeys” in BioShock, and in BioShock Infinite we see the choices made by both Booker DeWitt, and especially Elizabeth, changing the world around them.
A choice made by Booker alters things forever, and he may be the player’s surrogate in the world of Columbia, but I don’t think the game is his story. The first thirty minutes or so of BioShock Infinite involves you exploring Columbia once you arrive and its exposure for what it is beneath the bright, idealized facade. The story proper, for me, didn’t really kick in until our first conversation with Elizabeth. Not only is she a fascinating and well-rounded character, her presence draws out more development for Booker, she has a direct effect on the world both during the shooting and as part of the narrative moving forward, and the story literally would not be possible without her. As much as ‘focus testing’ showed that target audiences wanted Booker on the cover of the game, it was clear to me that Elizabeth is the true protagonist of BioShock Infinite, the one who makes the more difficult choices and truly grows as a person, coming into the full realization of her powers and potential. While Booker does face truths about himself and comes to terms with his past, his arc is simply not as interesting as Elizabeth’s, and the fact that Levine was able to get this story into the hands of those who did not expect it just tickles me.
I think there are a lot of game designers out there who really want to make a difference. They see the state of gaming and interactive storytelling, and they want to change things for the better. It’s a little fanciful to think it can be done, but Ken Levine has shown one of the ways you do that. I called Bioshock Infinite a sucker punch because the nature of its story, the degree to which we care about Elizabeth, and the final revelatory walk through the many worlds and lighthouses are all things most gamers did not expect. Like his other games, this is one that bears re-playing, and enjoying all over again, and not just for the challenges of the gameplay or the unlocking of achievements. Ken Levine’s ideas on how to tell stories in games and how that can change things may be fanciful – but it also works.