Ken Levine committed five years of his career to the creation of BioShock Infinite, a game set within a breathtaking city suspended in the sky, held together by religion and propaganda, made possible through science and slavery. He doesn't want to ruin it for you.
Blanketed across the floating city of Columbia are Voxophones; audio diary entries which on one occasion will reveal a door lock code and on another shed light on the deeper mysteries of Infinite's false utopia. But, in keeping with the principles of interactive entertainment, Levine wants you to find these secrets for yourself and draw your own conclusions.
When I first asked Levine to discuss the underpinning stories and themes of BioShock Infinite, he was initially unsure. And during the interviews we had in the weeks that followed, each time he offered a new insight he would always insist on prefixing it with the same warning.
"So, spoiler alert, okay? There's an audio log in Infinite where Comstock implies that people suspected he was Native American. Comstock was a man who wanted to demonstrate that he didn't have Native American blood when, frankly, he did."
Zachary Comstock, the game's chief antagonist, reigns over Columbia with a ruthless paranoia worthy of Stalin and dazzling white beard borrowed from Darwin. In Voxophone 061, entitled The True Color of my Skin, he breaks silence on that guarded past:
"In front of all the men, the sergeant looked at me and said, 'your family tree shelters a teepee or two, doesn't it, son?' This lie followed me all my life. It was only when I burnt the teepees with the squaws inside, did the take me as one of their own. Only blood can redeem blood."
Levine explains: "It was that self-loathing of his past, that loathing of what was within him, that drove his actions."
Comstock's true character is buried under myth the same way Columbia is plastered with propaganda. He is infertile, yet claims to have produced a child in a single week. He mutilates religion by preaching self-serving decrees from his private gospel ("no animal is born free, except the white man").
One night, when his wife revealed she could no longer live his lie, he murdered her and accused his black maid, Daisy Fitzroy, of the crime. This is a man whose ethical foundations have ossified from years of delusion and pretence, abuse and control. He even looks like a lie: a frail figure masks his wiry and political-savvy mind. A pale skin betrays some Sioux ancestor.
"We see a lot of Comstock's denial and self-loathing in history," Levine says.
"In the '40s there was a senator in America called Strom Thurmond who ran a presidential campaign on a segregationist platform. But secretly, behind closed doors, he had a child with a black woman, the natural result of a personal loving relationship. A child which he financially supported.
"And then there's the evangelical pastor Ted Haggard, who spent years campaigning against gay marriage and attacking homosexuality in the Church, before admitting that he himself was bisexual. It was that self-loathing about being gay, a self-loathing that I find incomprehensible, that actually fuelled his campaign against it.
"Then of course there's Adolf Hitler. Whether he had Jewish blood or not is a matter for debate, but we know for a fact that he suspected he did. Who knows what that led him to?"
It's a testament to Levine's conviction that he can wrestle Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies and emerge with a salient point intact: Comstock is a collection of deceitful figures from history, living their lies so we may learn from them.
But BioShock Infinite's apparent fixation on history, and indeed Levine's own fascination with America's past, creates friction between what the game says and what the author intended.
Levine claims that the core messages in BioShock Infinite are neither personal nor political. They are, he insists, historical. But play the game for yourself and you navigate a world that is laced with undertone and meaning; this is a story about a floating city as much as Animal Farm is a story about a farm. "It was that self-loathing of his past, that loathing of what was within him, that drove Comstock's actions"
From the game's reception, it is clear that people see a wider picture than the narrow scope of American history, regardless of what Levine or the team at Irrational Games intended.
"When people play BioShock Infinite and they see references to, for example, the Tea Party, I totally understand why they would," Levine says.
"But I hope people view things in the game with a greater understanding of the arc of history. History is rich with all the things you see in BioShock Infinite. People talk about racism in the game, and discuss Columbia as a particularly racist society, and think we were trying to make a point about that. In reality that's more a factor of the time."
Cover image: DeviantArt
I dislike the answer. Perhaps it's the personal attachment, but I don't want to believe that BioShock Infinite - a game where a scientist sends an atheist to kill a religious leader - is the work of creative historians.
Remarking on the 2011 Supreme Court ruling which gave games First Amendment protection, video game essayist Ian Bogost said "it is hypocritical to fight for free speech and then have nothing to say".
When I present this comment to Levine, he replies: "Who is the judge of whether the industry has something to say? Is it Ian Bogost? Is it me?
"Honestly it doesn't matter what I think about what others are saying. The point of First Amendment protection is that you don't have a person judging whether something is valuable or whether something shouldn't be aired or published. Everything from the Powerpuff Girls to Shakespeare deserves the same protection, no matter how much or little they say.
"There's a sort of elitism in that [Bogost's] statement, which I find a little disappointing. It's like someone is allowed to decide when something is worthy or not.
"Ultimately the player decides what is good and bad."
Perhaps, in trying to find definitive answers within Infinite's narrative, I have missed this point altogether. Games are wondrous interactive playthings that allow people to control worlds and determine fates and command objects with unlimited possibilities. Why shouldn't a game's storyline expand on this winning formula?
It's fairly embarrassing to admit that, at times when playing Infinite, I saw it take on the form of a love song about a relationship that fell apart. It probably won't make any sense unless you've finished the game (and even then perhaps not), but for quite some time I believed that Infinite - for all its Tarantinoesque violence and ghastly racism - was in fact carrying the same central message as Cher's If I Could Turn Back Time, or, when I was going full-on David Icke, God Only Knows by The Beach Boys. I believed it was a story that fantasised how perfect life could be if we didn't fail at those key moments in our past (the revelation later being that problems don't go away if you avoid one mistake; they simply are carried down another path).
"So, another spoiler here," Levine says, before explaining that my interpretation isn't right or wrong - it is mine.
"There are many parts of Infinite that are open to interpretation, and the purpose is that you draw your own theories from them. Take, for instance, the very final scene in the office when you hear a child's music playing from a crib and Booker asks, 'Anna is that you?'
"People ask me whether she is in the crib or not, but I actually don't have the definitive answer. What actually matters is what people think. Why does my interpretation matter more than yours?"
But, for the curious, what does BioShock Infinite mean to Levine? For him, is it about learning from the past? Is it about regret? Racism? Cher?
There was one moment during our interviews when, very briefly, Levine spoke of one aspect of the story that reaches out to him personally: "There's another spoiler here, Booker and Comstock, who are obviously the same person, are both ruined by their self-loathing. Their whole past is haunted. All of Booker's and Comstock's divergent paths come back from this origin point of somebody telling him who he was, and him believing it.
"Who hasn't had that experience in life, when someone tells you something about yourself that you don't like? I remember being one of the only Jewish kids in a predominantly Christian school. I wanted to be part of it. I wanted the tree! I was desperately jealous at Christmas. Hanukkah isn't very exciting, from a holiday design perspective. I saw everyone else drinking eggnog and opening presents and I was jealous as hell. At the time, I didn't like the fact I was Jewish."
What occurs to me is that Levine's intention with Infinite only seems peculiar when compared to other video games. Place his work against films and, tellingly, it's a natural fit.
There is a flood of indie game devs and studio managers who try to attach some urbane meaning to their work. Where they speak of King Lear, I see a game about abstract colours or basic infantry teamwork. It's foolish to think all games must carry poetic or philosophical meaning, but it's even worse to pretend they do.
With Infinite the opposite is happening. Its fans debate the core themes yet Levine avoids providing an authoritative final answer. "When I think about what quantum mechanics is inherently about, my brain explodes"
"I know some people are frustrated by the opacity of the story in Infinite," he says.
"Frankly, I'm totally fine with it. I love opacity. It's why I love films like There Will Be Blood, and why my favourite film of all time is Miller's Crossing, because you have to actually watch it fifteen times to completely understand it.
"Every time I watch The Master, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, I come back to the point of trying to figure it out. Do you know what I love? I love that the filmmaker trusts me enough to not explain everything.
"Actually if you look at 2001, I don't think there's a definitive conclusion that can be drawn from it. It's not supposed to be figured out. It's about mystery. It's about profound mysteries that we cannot possibly understand. Like quantum mechanics."
Possibly the deepest (and most controversial) mystery of BioShock Infinite is the Many Worlds Theory that resides at the heart of the narrative. The story acknowledges there are countless realities that exist alongside ours (this is a genuine interpretation of quantum mechanics) and that, through the course of the game, the player has switched between these worlds several times.
At the conclusion it is revealed that Comstock has stolen a child (the one he proclaims was born in seven days) through a dimensional wormhole forged by the quantum physicist Rosiland Lutece. That child is yours, and at the same time it is Comstock's. He and you are the same person, separated by dimensions and distinguished by the different decisions made in each world.
At the precise moment when your child is pulled between dimensions, the narrative performs its own sort of big bang: an explosion of infinite interpretations, meanings and plot holes. There have been a few words about the graphic violence, and a piece or two about the depiction of racism, but the Many Worlds Theory is where BioShock Infinite truly divides its audience.
American mathematician Claude Shannon would tell us that a sequence of random numbers contains no information, and so the theory goes that a story hinged on quantum mechanics contains no meaning either. When one of those infinite monkeys writes the Complete Works of William Shakespeare through chance, is it still Shakespeare? "I know some people are frustrated by the opacity of the story in Infinite"
He never says it directly, but I expect Levine doesn't intend for you to take him for a sci-fi writer. To him, the Many Worlds Theory is a storytelling device; one that gives his narrative something unique in games yet celebrated in film: interpretability.
"When I think about what quantum mechanics is inherently about, my brain explodes. I don't think we're designed to understand it. I can also totally understand why people missed things in the game, but I wanted it to be that way. I wanted people to find things out for themselves.
"We were talking about self-loathing characters earlier. There's a phenomenal scene in There Will Be Blood where Daniel Plainview begrudgingly agrees to be baptized so he can build an oil pipe through town. So then he's confessing his sins and just going through the motions, until the pastor tells him to confess he's abandoned his child. And you see his face turn. You see that loathing of himself. He's a man defined by loathing others but, for just a few seconds, you see how much he truly hates himself. 'I have abandoned my child. I have abandoned my boy'.
"I love films that I can go back to with a new perspective. It's why I loved Fight Club. It's not just a twist: the whole film redefines itself when you find out that Tyler/Jack are the same person. Remember that scene with Marla, when she comes down in the morning and Jack says, 'what are you doing here?' The first time you watch it, Jack's being completely reasonable asking her that. The second time, Jack is a fucking monster.
"Give me those films. Give me them night and day."
The first thing Levine said to me when we had our initial interview was: "I'm now in a phase of my life where I'm thinking about the future, instead of trying to finish something".
He carries a healthy outward positivity to the extent that I am embarrassed to complain in front of him. When he asked me what I thought of the Xbox One, I must have paused for what felt like an eternity.
Perhaps the optimism is because Levine has clearly had bleaker moments in his career (his first attempt to break into Hollywood was a failure) but is now is responsible for two games which have leaped to the heavens of review aggregators.
The latest rumour is that he's now been commissioned to write the screenplay of the Logan's Run remake. The news came after the interview, but he has previously spoken to me at length about his love of the original film and its false utopian setting. It wouldn't be a surprise at all - Levine's abilities mark him out for finer things - but what I know for certain is that he is not done with games.
BioShock and BioShock Infinite have together shaped an entire decade of Levine's career. I ask him, is he ready for another immense undertaking? His answer, much like his work, is left open to interpretation.
"These projects, they certainly take a lot out of you. Y'know, we're talking internally about what's next. And I think there's a question of what makes sense for us, what makes sense in terms of where the industry is going. There's a lot of questions about what the right platform is. I remember when we were just making PC games and our team was thinking, well, is this the right thing to do?
"There's always going to be quality, there's always going to be good games no matter how they are delivered. I certainly think there's a lot of macro questions about what the industry should be pursuing.
"So, I think we should be careful at the very beginning of a project to make sure we're not building in a format that people aren't going to enjoy or have access to. What I'm trying to say is, scale is the issue. There are lots of different ways to make core games for people. I don't personally have too much an interest in making iOS games, but if I did they would be very core oriented.
"All I know is that I want to make games for one specific audience, no matter what platform that may be on. How's that for vague?"