When my friends found out that I was going to interview Irrational Games‘ Ken Levine, who led the development of the acclaimed video game BioShock, as well as its just-released sequel BioShock Infinite, everyone said I had to ask him about the Seasteading Institute, a group that has been jokingly referred to as “BioShock for real.”
The institute was co-founded and funded by famed entrepreneur investor and libertarian Peter Thiel, and it’s looking to build communities at sea that are independent of any government. To gamers of a certain mindset, that seems pretty reminiscent of Rapture, the libertarian undersea community featured in BioShock. So I asked Levine what he thinks of the idea, and he said:
What I was trying to do with BioShock was to say, ‘Okay, well, [in Atlas Shrugged] that’s a utopia where Ayn Rand, who made the philosophy, made all the rules, and all the characters were under her control. What if things weren’t under everybody’s control?’ And I think that’s the problem with utopias — we bring ourselves to it, you know? We think we’re leaving our problems behind but – I don’t mean this in a cynical way – we are the problem. Like whatever social problems that occur come out of us. It’s not like they fall out of the sky. I think people think they’re going to go to a utopian society, and I think it’s not really possible.
We also talked about the setting of BioShock Infinite, which takes place at the turn of the 20th century. Levine said he was attracted to the period because it was a time of enormous technological change, with the introduction of electricity, cars, airplanes, radios, phonographs and more, all within a few decades: “We’ve really only had one piece of technology in our lifetime which has been that substantial, which is the Internet. They had 10 Internets, effectively, in terms of things that just changed their world completely.”
Not that the new game takes place in a realistic historical setting. Instead, it’s set in a floating city of the sort that people imagined they would live in, and one that’s dominated by religious fundamentalism, nationalism and racism. Those can be pretty sensitive topics, even today, and while Levine said he’s mostly trying to tell a good story, he also has to follow that story wherever it leads:
If you start getting scared of what story you’re telling, it’s going to show. You have to be kind of stupidly fearless, I think, to do this stuff, because otherwise you’re going to try to please people. And that’s not what we’re in the business of doing. Which is weird, because we’re in the video game business — we want to please people so that they’re going to have an entertaining experience, but we’re not trying to make people super-comfortable with everything. We want to challenge people, and we want to challenge ourselves, too.
Lastly, I asked Levine about whether he’s interested in making the move from consoles to mobile or tablet gaming. He said he certainly plays those games, and he’s open to the idea, but he hasn’t figured out his next project yet.
“I think that whatever I wanted to do, I would make sure it’s something that embraces the platform that it’s on, rather than fights the platform it’s on,” he said. In other words, he doesn’t want to take a console game and try to squeeze it onto an iPad.