BioShock Infinite might be titled after his last hit, but director Ken Levine says the highly anticipated third game in the series isn’t like any videogame he’s ever written.
What sets Infinite apart from Levine’s previous work, he says, are its two main characters. Booker and Elizabeth, introduced in the game’s thrill-ride E3 Expo demo, stick together as a pair for much of the game, constantly talking to each other as unbelievable things go on around them.
That back-and-forth requires a more human touch than Levine’s previous game narratives. The original BioShock thrilled gamers with a gripping story about genetic horrors in an underwater city called Rapture, but the madness unfolded entirely in monologues delivered to the mute player, whether issuing from the mouths of other characters or found in “audio diaries” scattered around the destroyed world.
At a panel last Saturday at Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, Levine introduced his secret weapons for BioShock Infinite, set in the xenophobia-riddled air city of Columbia. He is working alongside veteran voice actors Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper to bring a heightened level of collaboration to the process. The three go into the studio together, talk about scenes, improvise new lines, challenge each other to find the perfect read — and scrap what doesn’t feel right.
“When I work with (graphic) artists, they would do cool stuff and I’d be inspired to go write something,” Levine said in an interview prior to his panel. “Now I have actors, as well, to do that with…. I’ll write a new line based off the emotion that they brought honestly to the portrayal.”
It’s a big change for the veteran game designer, who’s worked with actors over the phone for other projects. “It’s always, like, here’s the script,” he says of previous games. “These guys are actually out spending time with me, and we’re working together as a team.”
Levine, Draper and Baker are still deep in the recording process for BioShock Infinite, which 2K Games plans to release sometime in 2012 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.
The days of voice actors showing up and reading their lines off a script are over, says videogame veteran Baker, whose major game roles include Snow in Final Fantasy XIII and Two-Face in the upcoming Batman: Arkham City.
“The bar has been raised,” Baker says. “Gamers expect a higher performance. You’ve got games now … that are bringing in writers [and] actual talent directors and they know they have to deliver a dramatic and cinematic performance.”
‘Troy and I talk in very gamey-gamey terms.’
“I’ve never worked on something with such a dynamic creative process,” says Draper, whose TV credits include Ghost Whisperer and CSI: Miami. “There isn’t always a willingness for someone to bring something new and have a director or writer take that and rework it.”
Levine calls Baker and Draper “the genius and the novice.” While both are veteran actors, Baker has performed in many games and Draper in almost none. Levine sees these two extremes as a potent mix.
“A lot of times, Troy and I will turn to each other and talk in very gamey-gamey terms,” Levine says. “The advantage of having Courtney not having a ton of that is that she doesn’t bring any preconceptions about what a ‘game performance’ is.”