Ken Levine And The Science Of Tears In 'BioShock Infinite'


Yesterday I posted the first part of my chat with Ken Levine, the creative director of Irrational Games and the chief mind behind "BioShock Infinite." The focus of yesterday's post was on some of the major gameplay differences between "Infinite" and the original "BioShock," including charged vigors and unstable nostrums.

In this second and final post on my chat with Levine, we're going to delve into what is arguably the most important aspect of the world of "Infinite": Tears.

(Fun fact: By tears I mean dimensional tears, pronounced "tares." Not to be confused with tears, as in the crying kind. Turns out the word "tear" is something called a heteronym!)

Since Irrational first starting showing off "BioShock Infinite," it was made clear that Elizabeth, the girl you're sent to rescue from the floating city of Columbia, is tremendously powerful. Until the latest demo, we didn't quite know what that power entailed, but now we know. Elizabeth can manipulate tears, allowing her to summon objects into existence from, well, somewhere else. Where? Levine isn't saying.

But Levine is clear on one thing: This is not magic. The time period of "BioShock Infinite," set in the year 1912, is a crucial indication of what exactly is going on here and from where Elizabeth derives her powers. Said Levine:

"When we choose a time period for a 'BioShock' game, it's not just a random time period. We always want to be tied into what was happening scientifically, what was happening culturally, what was happening politically at the time. There's a reason genetics are part of 'BioShock 1.' If you look at the work of Crick and Watson and identifying the structure of DNA, Tenenbaum and Suchong, the scientists in that game, were taking that and running with the notion that was just coming about at that time. They obviously took it to a place that was way beyond where anybody has gone now."

But the early-1900s setting of "BioShock Infinite" means there would have to be another source of inspiration for Levine and his team.

"You look at Einstein, you look at Heisenberg, what they were starting to tap into. Getting an understanding of what the universe was. When you compare it to Newtonian physics, it's mind-bending in terms of what their understanding of the potential of the universe was. Elizabeth is able to tap into some of the principles that they were just scratching the surface of as scientists."

The study of quantum mechanics and particle physics isn't exactly something that comes easily to most people, but if you look at the work of Einstein and Heisenberg during this time period, you can start to see connections with Elizabeth's powers.

For example, the concept of the "Einstein-Rosen bridge," or wormhole. Imagine being able to instantly travel from one point in space-time to another. Or, in Elizabeth's case, imagine being able to move an object in and out of these tears at will. Wormholes also allow for theoretical time travel, which would explain Elizabeth and Booker's traumatic sojourn into the mid-1980s after the attempted revival of a dying horse in the latest demo. With that sort of power, you could rule the world. Or, at the very least, a massive floating city.

We've already seen that these tears are literally ripping the city of Columbia apart. In the first demo for the game (which you can watch here), there were visual tears like the changing painting in the bar (at 6:00 in the video) and the insane politician in the gazebo whose pin changes from an American flag to a hammer and sickle (at 3:20 in the video). The only hope for the city is to have someone that could control these tears, which makes Elizabeth the most valuable person in town. She becomes the driving force of conflict between the two main factions of "BioShock Infinite," The Founders and the Vox Populi, and Booker is basically caught in the crossfire.

Since it's these tears in space-time that will drive the story of "BioShock Infinite" to its undoubtedly complex conclusion, if you're looking to avoid feeling dumb, you may want to hit the books. Don't worry, particle physics starts to make perfect sense after the first three or four thousand pages.