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Infinite Chemistry: Ken Levine talks about collaborating with the lead actors of “BioShock Infinite”

Infinite Chemistry: Ken Levine talks about collaborating with the lead actors of “BioShock Infinite” (photo)

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The next title being made by Irrational Games may have traded the deep sea milieu of Rapture for the high altitude of Columbia, but that’s not the only thing changing from “BioShock” to “BioShock Infinite.”

Many of the world-building components in the highly anticipated first-person game show signs of an evolution and among those are the presence of lead characters who talk. Booker DeWitt and the computer-controlled Elizabeth form a bond that Ken Levine–Irrational Games co-founder and creative director–hopes will take storytelling in video games to another level.

I had the chance to speak with Levine after this year’s PAX Prime, where he presented a panel with Troy Baker and Courtnee Smith, the actors who are bringing the protagonists of “BioShock Infinite” to life.

What were the qualities that Courtnee and Troy had, as opposed to other actors that you guys auditioned for the parts of Booker and Elizabeth?

It’s not that they had particular qualities. We had some dialog for the characters that we auditioned them with. We read them together and they just seemed to really inhabit the characters in a way we hoped an actor would be able to.

Sometimes you find you can’t really find somebody, which is usually the fault of me as a writer; nobody can really read the lines and make them work, and that happens sometimes. Then, sometimes you hear people who just completely inhabit that character. I think we got lucky.

We had done a lot of auditioning and had been looking for a long time. There were actually a lot of different actors, some very strong, but they weren’t quite able to inhabit these characters in the way we were hoping.

With Courtnee and Troy, we found them on the same day in the same audition session, and that was great.

Were you working with a casting director, externally, or how were you finding candidates?

There is a service that I can’t recall the name where you send a description of the character, and they get literally hundreds of people to read the parts and they record them for you, and you just listen to them.

And, basically, you do callbacks from that. So we didn’t have like a particular like person who was driving the casting process like you do in movie and TV. We had people in the office here listening to auditions, narrowing it down for me and finding good candidates for me, but nobody external.

One of the thoughts that I had after hearing about Troy’s resume was that I didn’t realize he had done quite so much video game work before. Were you worried about a Nolan North effect, like a guy with a somewhat ubiquitous voice being the voice of Booker?

Troy Baker.jpg

No. I think it’s so difficult to find somebody who inhabits the part, that if you can find that person, you count yourself lucky. I think a strong actor can differentiate their work. I think that’s what makes a strong actor. What’s great about Nolan or somebody like that, he’s always here. He was he voice of Johnson, the demonic gun/sidekick in the new Suda51 game.

Yeah, in “Shadows of the Damned.”

Yeah. He was pretty unrecognizable in that. And that’s attributable to a very talented actor. With a guy like Troy, the goal is you have an actor who is able to play the part, not play himself, and that’s why you cast your lead. We’re certainly not in the business, like Hollywood was in the ’80s, when everybody cast Schwarzenegger and he ended up playing Schwarzenegger. You’re trying to cast an actor to play a part.

Fair enough. It seems like one of the challenges for the actors and for you, from a different perspective, is that you want them to approach their parts and the development of the story with the same amount of “awe” that you want the player to. Right?

What do you mean by “awe?”

I’m talking in terms of discovery. You want them to sound as if they’re encountering the developments of the plot.

Ok. Then, yeah.

So, was this a matter of you feeding them what they needed to know piecemeal so they could react organically?

Absolutely. They know very little. I mean, they basically know what the characters would know about the world. I have not told them all the journeys that these characters are on. So, there’s lots of things that they don’t know about the people they’re playing. I want to do that so when the time comes to record future sessions, they have that freshness. They haven’t had that kind of time to process it.

Obviously, they’re going to see the line, and you’re going to have to tell them at the moment or shortly before, but I want to keep that as fresh as possible. That’s certainly an effort we have internally is to keep them as fresh as possible.

We don’t do a ton of preparation. I actually spent the morning with them the day after the panel talking about the next session we’re doing. Because as much face-time you can get with each other, the better. What was so fun about that morning was it became not just a session of me telling them what was going to happen.

I had the goals of what I wanted out of the characters, from of that session. I basically said, “Look, here’s where we want to get, let’s talk about how to get there.” So it was just the three of us, as collaborators, who sit around.

And that’s how we had a really great brainstorming session and came out of the session with a direction for the team that we really didn’t have before for a sequence. It’s the part where the characters first meet each other. I had a structure for it, but I didn’t really have a full execution for it, and they really helped me find that way.

That’s great. So Troy is obviously a little more well-versed in the realms of video games and nerd culture. So the fantastical stuff probably didn’t seem as off-putting to him. Was there anything like that with Courtnee, where she seemed like she might not get what Elizabeth’s abilities, how important they may have been to the game?

I think what Courtnee was good at, and I think this is the right thing for the character, she wasn’t trying to step back and say like, “Oh, what is Elizabeth’s power doing for the plot?” She really focused on, “What is Elizabeth’s powers mean to Elizabeth?”

I think one of the reasons why she’s good at this is because she’s not getting caught up with things that wouldn’t matter to Elizabeth. I think she’s able to align herself with what Elizabeth’s state of mind might be. And this is a character who is interesting because of her journey, not because of her abilities.

Troy is quite worldly about the video game landscape, and Courtnee is a bit more of a novice, and that really reflects the characters somewhat, too. Courtnee is quite new to this realm and Troy is probably the old hand. In terms of this very violent adventure that Booker and Elizabeth are on, that gap in familiarity sort of reflects what we’ll experience in terms of the action that Booker’s appearance brings to Columbia.

Right. It’s interesting because you have Booker, a man who is probably more used to violence by virtue of his past than Elizabeth is. But Elizabeth is more capable of destruction on a bigger scale by virtue of her powers. And that’s something that I guess Troy and Courtnee had to figure out how to embody as well. Did you help them in that regard? Like what kind of backstory or watch-words did you tell them to help them get into character?

I think they were able to intuit it very easily. They both have sort of a background in this. It’s interesting, because Courtnee actually was doing, I think the term is “scratch work,” on “Tangled.” Before they put Mandy Moore in there, when they were developing that movie, she was playing the part for a very long time; for a period of years is my understanding.

So, in terms of the characters of Rapunzel and Elizabeth–who both happen to be young women trapped in towers and watching the world from the inside out–I think she had a connection to that already. A heroine who has innate powers and was unable to really express her identity, I think she had an understanding of that. I think Troy being a fan of nerd culture, and he definitely understands the private detective archetype.

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Going where the characters meet and where they start, both of them had a implicit understanding. My job is to illustrate what makes these characters different and work with them not just illustrate that, but help them bring that out as actors.

Because this is a much darker story than Tangled. This is a much stranger story than a private eye story that you read for thrills in the ’40s. My job is to help show them the differences. But, I think, in terms of just helping them understand the basic archetypes, they were both in pretty good places to start down that path.

What was different for you in this process when you compare it to the first “BioShock?” Obviously, multiple actors in the same room, which I think you said on the panel was different than how you guys did it before.

From a technical standpoint, being in the room and having the actors here in the studio, as opposed to recording remotely. We didn’t have a recording theatre in “BioShock 1” in the office and we built one for this purpose. Having it here, having the three of us just workshopping stuff and trying to figure out those type of interactions made a huge difference.

Generally, in “BioShock,” you have people talking at you or people talking to themselves. You don’t have people talking to each other that much. I was very comfortable writing that sort of monologue form that you have in “BioShock 1.” I did this before in “System Shock 2.” I’ve done a lot of dialog before because I used to be a playwright and a screenwriter, but not for this medium. This is a very different form. You have the need to have much more interactive kind of dialog. We’re not doing cut scenes in the traditional way.

So, just having exchanges with Booker and Elizabeth has to be of their inner nature and dynamic. And some of them play out one way. Some of them play out another way, depending on what’s going on in the scene and the action.

Learning to communicate all of that has been a new challenge. I really sort of said, “I need to rethink how I do this.” My intuition was that I need to rely on the actors more than I usually have done to help me find a way here. I think the more involved they are in the story part of the process, the more they’ll also invest in acting part of the process.

Do you have an example of what having to rely on the actors has been like?

Well, I spent with them just the Sunday morning after PAX and really enjoyed it. After I got the conversation kicked off, it was just watching the two of them just kick ideas back and forth, and I just sort of sat back in my chair for 10 minutes and let them talk and help develop the scene and the action.

Courtnee Draper.jpgThis was great because even with Courtnee’s inexperience with games, her understanding of the character shone through. You kind of expect an actress who’s not terribly versed in games, and new to the genre, to say a lot of things that make you roll your eyes just from lack of experience. But she was really on-point. And her going back and forth with Troy was almost like watching two game designers talk. They had such an implicit understanding of their characters that we all became equally productive in the work that we came out of there with. I recorded the whole thing. I’ve got to transcribe it now and go through the notes, and I’m going to use those notes as I start constructing the actual words that the characters are saying. So, again, I sensed that I could use some help in creating dialogue dynamic that work for and fortunately, I found partners who were very much up to the task.

It’s interesting, because you also spoke about the technology that’s going into “Infinite.” As I understood it, you guys are trying to build an engine that reads and anticipates where the players might move the camera and then generates something interesting for them to see there, right?


So what was behind that in terms of like, it’s a completely different direction technologically for you guys, at least it seems that way based on BioShock 1, and some of the previous Irrational games. What was the genesis of that?

In “BioShock 1,” we gave Big Daddy and Little Sister a bunch of business to do that was fairly dynamic. The Little Sister would harvest ADAM, she gets tired, the Big Daddy would pick her up and carry her around. They would have these sort of interactions with each other. And their passing into the world occasionally diverged, too. Where Little Sisters would come out of and go back into vents, the Big Daddies would be wandering on patrols throughout Rapture.

The thinking there was that we wanted interactivity that the player could just sort of observe in a voyeuristic way. I think people really liked that and really were drawn to it. Because when one thinks of first-person shooters, we think of guys who just shoot. I love the whole FPS genre, but we wanted to shift things a little bit. In “BioShock,” the characters go through their whole day and there will be all these activities that we hinted at.

Even though I love what we did in “BioShock 1”, we didn’t want to do that all over again in a different environment. In making “BioShock Infinite,” we were more driven to find the most interesting moments for characters to interact with. That means creating another component where the AI characters are always on the verge of doing something really interesting. But, because of the nature of the player–he has agency and can take actions that are hard to predict–the player can screw this kind of stuff up, too.

We couldn’t just script all that. We had to come up with a system wherein the AI had to be able to react to what the player was doing and respect what the player was doing and look sensible in relationship to what the player is doing.

So basically the engine’s populated with all these scenarios that can constantly play out at any time, but the questions of when, where and how they play out, that’s really influenced by other parts of the game’s systems. There’s also algorithms under the hood to track player camera movements and unfold contextual content in the area you’re looking at. It’s watching the player all the time, with and Elizabeth as an AI saying , “Can I do something cool now?” Other AIs are essentially doing a kind of improv, too, and will essentially be like ” Hey, the player’s looking! I’m gonna come over there and beat the shit out of you now!”

That all sounds really intricate…

And Elizabeth is this person you are with all the time. Unlike BioShock 1, you’re never with that person all the time.

So in order for Elizabeth to feel natural, you can’t have her standing there staring at you the whole time. You really need to make sure she felt inhabited by human spirit. And the human spirit is strange, and unpredictable, and curious.

And that’s been the biggest thing for Elizabeth, is how do we make her curious and alive all the time because she’s with you most of the time. So we needed to make sure that she’s not standing there staring at you going, “What do we do next in your quest line, Booker?”

That’s not what people are like. People are curious and people are nervous and people are scared and people are excited. Getting all of that complexity across is what we’re trying to do. And that’s a real challenge. I can’t say to you Evan, “Oh my God, we’re totally going to knock this out of the park.” What I’m saying is we’re going to try.

Fair enough. One of the things I also thought while watching Troy talking about Booker as he was to portraying it, was that he used the word scared a lot. Generally, that’s not something that fictional heroes are supposed to be.

They’re supposed to be kind of steely and grim and determined. And if they have any fear, you’re not supposed to let it show. Was that a conscious decision on your part to make Booker a little scared?

I think Booker goes into this experience thinking that, like every other experience he’s had, he’s sort of seen it all. And then comes the flash-forward scene where he glimpses those 1980s buildings in that time-space tear that Elizabeth creates in. Remember, he’s a guy that was born in the Nineteenth Century. I think encountering what he encountered there that’s got to give a guy, even one as rough and tumble as Booker, pause.

He’s encountering things he never contemplated before. Yeah, he’s been in a gunfight before, he’s seen violence before. He’s not seen anything with Elizabeth before. And that throws him off his game. Elizabeth throws him off his game, not just her powers. Elizabeth is not a person who’s been out in the world. She is a person who is kind of nouveau.

Everything is new to her. Everything is fresher. She doesn’t bring the same cynicism that Booker comes to expect out of people. So she definitely, in every way between her personality and her powers, throws him off his game. And we’re hoping that the same thing happens with the players, too. That–through Troy and Courtnee’s performances and the design of the game–we defy some of the expectations that people might have of “BioShock Infinite.”

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