Recently, IGN posted this interview with Ken Levine about the creation of the Songbird, along with questions about this brand new concept art of Songbird with a young Elizabeth. Enjoy :)
IGN: When first laying the groundwork for Infinite, was the Songbird/Elizabeth dynamic in there from the beginning and how did that idea come about?
Ken Levine: No. We're very open to evolution. We have no idea what we're doing at the beginning and figure it out as we go along. With Infinite, the first thing we had was this city in the sky concept and we really evolved from there. Elizabeth and Booker didn't really appear until probably over a year into the project. We were very iterative. I know it was a function of the fact that we sort of blew up our own ability to do the silent cipher main character after what we did in BioShock, we really couldn't go back there, we had painted ourselves into a bit of a corner. We decided let's go the opposite direction, let's have you be an actual character this time.
What if you were with somebody? That was another thing in BioShock that we had never really had. You're always sort of alone in the world and we always like putting ourselves into an uncomfortable spot, trying to do things we hadn't done before. Once we [had] this character, Elizabeth, we really had to figure out who was she and what her role in the world was. These things happen in very small steps for us, very small bits of evolution. We didn't want to just have a character walking around with you. We wanted a character who you connected to in a meaningful way. After saying that I realized how hard that is and how difficult that is to do in a video game.
Instead of saying well what are cool things she can say, we say how is a player going to get behind this character and root for her? How is the player going to connect to her and feel an empathy with her? And that's where the story of this woman who has been essentially trapped her whole life came around. That kind of story is a very natural story because I think we all go through that as a child, you know? We all go through this period of feeling, at least I did I know, feeling like we're locked up, feeling like we have potential to do things and we can't. That there is a figure in our life who is both there for us to provide for us in some way but also in some way we feel is keeping us back. I think we all have that experience with your parents of breaking free of them. I think there is an ambivalence in that relationship, whether we wanted to or it just sort of evolved, that ambivalence formed the basis of [Songbird and Elizabeth's] relationship.
IGN: In terms of how that's evolved, Elizabeth is young in the [concept art]. It looks like Songbird is also young and so it appears like to at least some degree they've both been growing up alongside each other. In other words, there is a sort of upward path to Songbird. He's not always this gigantic monster creature, he was once you know younger and smaller and maybe just as innocent as Elizabeth appears to be in this art.
Ken Levine: You know the, I won't say specifically whether that's true or not. I think you can look at that picture a couple ways. I mean you can look at that picture as an objective viewpoint. I think you can also look at it as a subjective viewpoint from her eyes. If you follow my meaning.
IGN: So that's just her perception of it?
Ken Levine: Maybe, maybe. That's not a scene from the game, but when we imagined what it was like for her growing up that's the image we naturally were drawn to.
IGN: It seems like the relationship itself, Songbird is just kind of passively watching, and Elizabeth seems content as well. It's not necessarily this adversarial relationship.
Ken Levine: Yeah, I think that is reflective of themes that I was talking about which is when we're younger we are protected and as we get older that becomes a more fractious relationship.
IGN: You mentioned you couldn't go back to the silent protagonist in this case. Can you explain more why you couldn't do that? It's just you didn't want to do the same thing or was there more to that?
Ken Levine: You know when we had that scene where you encounter Andrew Ryan [in BioShock] and he tells you you've been this cipher, I don't want to spoil it for people who haven't played it but, you know, that you've been following orders blindly the whole time and by extension the player has been a cipher and following orders the whole time, how do you go back? How do you go back and say okay, well you're that kind of character again after you already had that discussion with the gamer? And how do you make something fresh and new without saying well forget all that, you know? Our response to it was, let's really place you firmly in the world this time. Let's give you a story, let's give you a character to develop a personal story. You're not so much a tourist this time as you were in the first game. You thought you were an accidental tourist, you weren't in the first game. This time, nobody would mistake you for a tourist. You're very active your story is very active, Elizabeth's story is very active.
IGN: Within the setting Songbird is also a known quantity there. The residents of Columbia know what that bird is. He's been around for a while there I suppose? Has he always been there or did he just show up at one point? Or can you say?
Ken Levine: I don't want to go into like a ton of detail. I'll say that the public's perception of him is, did you see that poster with the anarchist with a bomb and the Songbird that we have out?
Basically he's a bit of a boogeyman in Columbia. It's what parents tell their kids to scare them and make sure they eat their vegetables at night. They see him flying around, [but] it's not like he's walking down the street and doing interviews. He's a sort of presence in their world and the man on the street is not exactly sure what his evolution is and where he came from but they're aware of his presence and there's a sense that if you're not necessarily toeing the party line of the founders that he might be something that you might encounter him in a way you might not want to.
IGN: Do you consider Songbird to be a villain? Is he meant to be a villain?
Ken Levine: I try not to think like that. Were you to ask me whether Andrew Ryan was a villain I'd give you the same answer. A friend once said to me that everybody is the hero of their own story. When I was working on Bio 1, I watched this documentary about Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. And the whole documentary, it was just Kenneth Branagh reading from his diary, reading from Goebbels' diaries with film and still images from Goebbels' life over it, that's the entire movie. You would think this guy was the most put upon, noble individual in the universe that everybody was out to get and nobody understood, if you didn't know what he did. In his view he's this noble figure, this complete scum bag was this noble figure. I think there's nobody if you ask them would say "oh I'm the bad guy here". I don't want to think that way because that inhibits you from writing characters with an internal monologue that makes them noble.
IGN: Is that how you avoid characters falling into those definite roles? By giving them the public perception but also that internal justification for the actions and bringing those into view for the player so that you can tell one role doesn't suit them?
Ken Levine: Other people have to tell me how successful we are at doing that, but the goal is to give people an internal monologue that you can expose enough of [so] you understand their motivations. Whenever I'm stuck in a writing problem, the problem is always one of two things, or three things. Either I'm being very lazy, the scene is too complicated and I need to go back and figure out a simpler way to do it, or the third thing, probably the most common thing, is the characters aren't properly motivated. They're following the plot rather than their own goals. Ask yourself what does this person want here, you're usually going to get better results than "well how do I advance the plot?"
IGN: In terms of how Songbird communicates, does Songbird talk or is it more the animations, the expressions and the actions that convey message?
Ken Levine: We've not demonstrated him talking. I think that we're better off in some ways if we can succeed without him ever saying a word.
IGN: What effect does that achieve? Why is that a more effective way?
Ken Levine: The nice thing about silence, and actually we played with Elizabeth being silent for a while, that just didn't turn out to be feasible, the nice thing about silence is it forces you to make very clear decisions about that character. It forces you to make that character have very clear motivations because you can't caught up in a ton of subtlety. Now hopefully when [people see] Songbird and Elizabeth they understand there is some subtlety in that relationship, there's some complexity to that relationship. It doesn't necessarily require words. The goal is to get across that relationship without them sitting down and having coffee and discussing it.
IGN: I guess that wouldn't be as interesting in a video game setting if you're just watching people have coffee.
Ken Levine: It's always very tempting to have people talk, you know? We'll do a level review and either me or somebody else will have like an idea, "this person will say this!", and generally that's the least effective way to get across information in a video game. You know the audio line to the player is about a 14.4 connection but the visual line is a cable modem in terms of how well you can communicate and how much data you can send to them at once. Audio dialogue is a very thin line because you only hear it in order. You hear this line then that line, whereas visuals can all come at once. You can take in so much visually at once, so we really try to tell as much of the story as we can in the visual space. We don't always succeed but that's the goal.
IGN: Can you talk a little bit about Songbird's design? Why a bird-like character and what other ideas were played with when coming up with the character?
Ken Levine: The two characters that took longest to develop in the game were Elizabeth and Songbird. They both went through a lot of iterations. Elizabeth's were much more finely tuned. She was always a young woman and it was variations on a theme and style. She would look very different over time but Songbird was like, okay, what the hell is this thing? We didn't even know his name, we just knew he was this force in the world. Much like the visual style of Columbia evolved, it was much more BioShock 1 when we started because that's a place of comfort, right? He looked much more like a BioShock 1 character when we started and we kept coming back to something my friend said to me, is that this character, he has to be a god of the sky. He has to be a creature of the sky because your game takes place in the sky and if he's going to be powerful and if he's going to present a sense of awe, he has to appear to own that environment. My friend Drew told me that and I really took that to heart and we really worked with the artists a long time to make sure this character both was expressive in a really subtle way; his ability to communicate what his relationship with Elizabeth is but also he has to appear awesomely powerful and a master of that domain.
IGN: Is Songbird more a father figure looking out for his daughter? Or is he actually courting her to a degree, is there some kind of attraction between Songbird and Elizabeth, as weird as that might be?
Ken Levine: I don't think there's a sexual attraction, I think that's sort of beyond his capacity. But there's much more the complexity of a parent/child relationship, and not necessarily an ideal parent/child relationship. I don't think Elizabeth really had a normal, straightforward relationship with Songbird. Essentially he kept her trapped but he was also her only friend and you see these sort of dichotomies. People who have long imprisonments often form a bond with the person who keeps them there and that bond is very, very hard to break. People need emotional connections and when they don't have anything else they'll turn to whatever is there. Elizabeth forms a bond with him which is very complicated and messy, and he in his capacity, his limited capacity, has formed this bond with her.
IGN: It seems his appearances will change the dynamics of the game, taking Elizabeth away from you, which I assume affects what you can do in a gameplay sense. Is that something that occurs regularly throughout the game where his appearances will actually alter the types of abilities that are available to you?
Ken Levine: Elizabeth is your access to open those tears so in a sequence where you're not with her, you don't have access to that. You are with her for the majority of the game. But you know in the demo, the E3 demo, we show you one of the sort of critical moments involving Songbird where he does separate you from Elizabeth and at the end of it Booker makes a determination to go after her. Songbird is involved in several sort of key plot points and he's also he's also this presence that's constantly hanging over them, this force, this terminator-like force who is constantly dogging them as they move through this world. They're up against a lot of things and I think Songbird is just the most substantial thing they're up against.
IGN: Songbird is a he, right?
Ken Levine: I don't know. [Laughs] You know, it's always tough in these interviews because I'm trying to answer questions but I don't want to give away things in the game so I end up coming up with these big evasions. I should probably just say I really can't talk about that.
IGN: Okay, no I understand. I know that's part of what will likely draw people through the final experience, which is still 2012 at this point?
Ken Levine: Yep.
IGN: Thank you for your time.