How One Christian Developer Helped Ken Levine Shape BioShock Infinite's Controversial Themes

It was something that occurred to me during my four hours with BioShock Infinite — its treatment of Christianity was interesting and, as far as I could tell, pretty scathing. Surely there were Christians working on Ken Levine's team: I wondered how they might react to the game, and what their input was.

I actually asked this question to BioShock Infinite's Design Director Bill Gardner and received a relatively benign response. Yes, there were Christians working on the game. No, everyone was on board. Yes, there was input from everyone.

A little context: BioShock Infinite's city in the sky, Columbia, is decidedly cultish, a large scale Christian commune led by Comstock who has rewritten history, placing himself at the centre as a divine saviour. Its satire is, as far as I've seen, pretty cutting and I'm interested to see how Christians react.

But in a recent interview with GameSpot, it seems as though the game's Creative Director Ken Levine was asked the same question, and he had an entirely different response. Apparently, after playing one scene in the game, one Christian developer actually handed in a resignation letter as a result of Comstock's characterisation. The following conversation Levine had with this developer actually helped him reshape his writing of Comstock in the game.

"My first impulse was I don't want this guy to go because he was a good guy and a talented guy," said Levine. "And we actually ended up having a long talk; he was an extremely religious guy and when we started talking, I realized that something I could connect to was a notion of forgiveness and what an important part that is of the New Testament and why Christ was such a revolutionary figure."

"And thinking about how I would incorporate the power of that notion to Comstock into his world was, to me, the key. Because who hasn't done things that they don't want to be forgiven for?"

Apparently the developer in question eventually decided against leaving Irrational Games.

Levine, as an Atheist with no religious background, had difficulties writing the Comstock character according to the interview. It's interesting that this conversation took place, and that it ultimately ended up shaping the game in a positive way.

BioShock Infinite's religious themes led dev to consider quitting [Gamespot]


Comments

    Let's hope that the long chat with the "very religious developer" improved the Comstock character and not just "dumbed him down" to placate the developer so said developer would stay. Writing good characters is a hard job to pull off, especially in video games, Mind you, Comstock does sound like he is a member of Westboro Baptist Church.

      If they based him Lyle Shelton or Jim Wallace I'd be pretty happy.

    There has to be some sort of irony about believing in an obviously made up story then getting offended by another made up story that references it.

      So, no historical evidence for Jesus exists? (BTW, I know you are being funny and clever)

      Last edited 01/03/13 12:33 pm

        Jesus may have existed, but so did Abraham Lincoln, but I think it's fair to say the storied about him hunting vampires are made up.

          WUT?!

          HE DIDN'T HUNT VAMPIRES! LIER! WHY MUST YOU LIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!

          Well, yeah. I think we all established it was zombies he fought. Why else do you think we have so many zombie games or games with zombie modes in them?

        Do you mean historical evidence for a man named Jesus who had a bunch of followers who believed in his divinity? Or do you mean historical evidence for Jesus, the actual son of God who created the universe? Because there's not much of the latter if you are accurate in your understanding of "evidence", which would make Markd's comment about it being a made up story more likely than not.... IMHO.

        ...But this is a game site, not a religious debate site, allow Markd to be funny and clever and let us all enjoy the awesome games while maintaining our own privately held beliefs!

        Last edited 01/03/13 12:55 pm

          Even the support for the former is quite flakey. For starters, many of the events directly contradict other sources, or just don't make sense. The nativity story is a great one - the Roman Empire did not do census by making people return to their home towns, as defined by an ancestor from a thousand years prior. That would be ridiculous.

            and how exactly would you know? do you happen to be a reknowned expert historian? Fact is, atheist historians say that Jesus existed.

            So if one source contradicts another, you automatically believe the one that you like better? That's called bias. The same bias that exists in any person who was doing any kind of recording back in those days. If the Nazis had won, we would now be reading history books that say that Nazis and Hitler are awesome and good. And yet, our history books don't say that, because our history books are for the most part written by people who fought against the Nazis.

              "Fact is, atheist historians say that Jesus existed."

              Please name one. I've been searching for evidence forever and nothing is conclusive. If you point me in the right direction of proof that the son of God existed I'll be eternally grateful (for obvious reasons)

                Proof that a man named Jesus existed and was a well respected religious figure there's actually plenty. Proof that he was a Demi-God with powers beyond our mortal comprehension? No.

                The story of Jesus has been rewritten multiple times for the benefit of the church. There where times when people went to Church and the entire ceremony was in a language they didn't understand. They stole Pagan holidays and converted them into religious holidays to make converting people easy. Heck the Romans blamed somebody else for his execution despite the fact he died in a way reserved for people who pissed off Rome. If the Jews had really killed Jesus he would have been stoned to death.

              I need to clarify this. My point is, if the Government right now asked you to go to the birthplace of your ancestor from a thousand years before (which is what the bible claims happened) where would you go. It makes absolutely no sense from a practical standpoint.

                How do you want it to make sense from a modern perspective and a democratic bias? This was an empire that obliterated other countries and other cultures to the point it was so large to be almost unmanageable. I can imagine reasons to do censii in different ways than we'd do them today.

            You'll get no argument from me on the latter, however, we have enough contemporary historical texts to verify Jesus (the human historical figure)'s existence. Josephus is one that comes to mind, along with Tacitus. Neither were Christian writers and wrote at the time of his life (when he was actually doing things of note - rather than just being born).

            As for being the Son of God... you got me there!

            Last edited 01/03/13 2:02 pm

              What's interesting about both those sources is that neither mention Jesus claiming to be the son of God, an absolutely massive omission. There's no reference inside eighty years of Jesus supposed death. That and neither was a direct reference.

                Two pro-Roman propagandists didn't mention Jesus claiming to be the son of god? HOW AMAZING. QUICK BURN ALL THE CHRISTIANS.

                  Your missing my point: they didn't mention that he CLAIMED to be the son of God. Not even to label him a heretic or a mad man, which would make a hell of a lot of sense from a "propagandists" point of view.

                  That's not how propaganda works. By omitting all mention of divinity they marginalise any pretense to his role as a 'spiritual' rebel and just make him one of many sectarian rabble rousers. Calling him a heretic or mad would lend more credence with audiences at the time.

            There is more evidence (outside the Bible) for Jesus' existence than for Julius Caesar's.
            - Paraphrased quote from Stephen Fry, as host of QI.

              Yeah - there's not a lot of evidence for Caesar, and they've just done a massive rethink on Cleopatra too.

          There is a certain amount of evidence for a failed apocalyptic prophet called Jeshua ben Yusef (failed as in the world failed to end and the Jew's local deity failed to show it's face) from around that period.

      Poke that beehive.
      Though I tend to fall into your camp as well I would supplant "obviously" with "mostly"

        Haha that was a bigger poke than I expected :) Though I stick to my 'obviously', its definitely clear that all human cultures invent supernatural stories, which is what makes each one them obviously made up to an objective observer

    I don't understand.

    The game is a work of fiction, being offensive and vile are perfectly acceptable traits for an antagonist, no?

    I genuinely hope the character was improved rather than changed to pacify ones offence as Jones stated above.

      My first reaction to reading that Levine altered his game based on a feedback from a Christian had me a bit worried, but upon further thought I expect that it will actually make Comstock a more fleshed out and interesting character. Great antagonists are multifaceted and not just caricatures of villainous archetypes, and it will be interesting to see some of the good sides of this fabricated religious cult juxtaposed with the bad. Having said that, all the interviews I've seen with members of cults like the Westboro Baptist Church make them seem to be as one-dimension and thoughtless as the most basic video game enemy imaginable.

      I'm personally extremely fascinated by Christianity and other religious mythologies and the effect it can have on individual and group mentality, so I'm excited to see Levine's take on it. After all, you don't need "Would you kindly" when you have religion!

        Pretty sure religions version of "Would you kindly" is "You better not...".

        It's interesting that us Gamers have been vilified for years, and have had to accept the fact we have crazies in our ranks. Muslims have had to accept that they have crazy extremists in there ranks, many are happy to live their lives and not interfere in ours.

        But despite evidence to the contrary Christians don't believe there are extremists in their ranks. That being said I've met Christians who believe in God but also believe in Evolution and that there is other life out there in the Galaxy, God has both the time and the Patience to wait and guide Evolution and he can do a billion things at once why not foster multiple types of life. They'll even tell you that the Bible is exaggerated, that Jesus is just a man but God is more.

        But "Rational man who believes in Science and God" won't sell Newspapers or make you watch a story on TV like crazy "Westboro Church protest kitten parade"

      Levine doesn't really strike me as the kind of guy who would needlessly censor his product.

      Being offensive and vile is fine, it's the designer's choice. But it's within the employee is more than entitled to make their opinion heard, like this one did. For example, I would probably never work on a GTA or Saint's Row game. I respect their right to exist, but I have no interest in being part of one (I've occasionally wondered what would be considered "NSFW" in the Volition offices...)

      Levine by his own admission has no religious background. If a conversation with a Christian could help Levine understand the motivations of the character, and get a much clearer idea of the emotions, goals and intent behind Christianity then it could only have made the overall narrative stronger and more believable. Believe me, it's pretty tiresome for Christians to see ourselves constantly reduced to the same tired old cliches that get dragged out over and over again by people who, by and large, have very little experience with or understanding of the subject matter.

    Slightly off topic: Calling Christians, or presumably members of any other faith, "religious" is kind of offensive. The vast majority have examined and studied Christianity and decided to follow it for a mixture of both rational and emotional reasons. You may disagree with their reasoning, but it would be wrong to assume that they are less intelligent or less capable of rational reasoning than the rest of the population.

    Their faith is an extremely important part of who they are, and to reduce them to being just "extremely religious", as if they're attracted to religion in general like moths to a flame, is dismissive and insulting. It may not be your intention, but it is upsetting people.

      I couldn't really read past "Calling Christians, or presumably members of any faith, "religious" is kind of offensive."
      I can't picture anyway you can logically justify that statement, it honestly sounds like you are saying "Calling water wet is kind of offensive."

        Maybe you shouldn't have stopped reading. I did explain it.

        It's not really all that important, it was just a conversation I had with a friend recently and then this article popped up, followed by a run of comments talking about "religious" people.

          In this case, "I couldn't really read past" was a turn of phrase. I read the entire comment, I just didn't think your justification came anywhere near justifying the opening statement.

            Yer, I'm with inkk on this...

            I'm religious but find that offensive because I prefer the term christian?
            Yer no..

            I had a religious friend and I thought her above and beyond the stupidity that stigmata breeds then the whole homosexuality thing came up and she started saying that the gays are attacking her marriage and I lost all respect. All religions = cults to me now.

            But, on the subject of this actual article.
            I'm all for exploring the character more deeply but what I'm worried about is them making it Politically correct because they are worried that if Christians boycott the product it would hurt their sales.

            It's way to late now, with only 7 days till release its likely already boxed and on its way to shops.
            So please make it a more rich and developed character rather than one that more politically correct so not to offend people.

              I don't think it was a question of being politically correct, what I took from this is that they were creating a negative christian-like character and then took some input from someone who knew what they were talking about to add some more depth to him.

              Not completely change or censor the character in question, but maybe add a little bit more reasoning behind whats going on that would make sense when thinking about things from a christian perspective.

              I mean, this is Ken Levine, the guy who had small girls stabbing needles into corpses that you could then harvest for your own power here. I don't think he's worried about being politically correct, and I guess it comes down to whether you trust his vision on this. Which I do.

    Honestly, I am a Christian, but I'm open minded enough to enjoy things that ask questions. As a matter of fact, I cannot wait to pick this game up. In my opinion. Everyone should decide for themselves what they want to believe and what they want to be offended by. But things like this never offend me, because they are fictional. But whatevs, thats just my opinion there.

    To be honest, I have a suspicion that this "developer who threatened to resign" is an apocryphal story used to allow Levine to talk about the development of the villian's character.

    "I wrote the bad guy to be more nuanced" isn't as compelling as "I had a deep and meaningful talk with a religious member of the team and that made me think about notions of forgiveness and how Jesus was such a revolutionary character".

    I wonder what the underlying problem was that the Christian developer had with the story/character, because I can't seem to find it mentioned anywhere despite the fact people seem to have enough knowledge of it to pass judgement. It kind of sounds like it comes down to a portrayal that relies on negative stereotypes and perpetuates the myth that all Christians are just another Anders-Brehvik in waiting or members of the ACL. To be honest, it feels a little like it's just a PR stunt to make us go "Oooh, controversy".

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