Creative Director Ken Levine on BioShock

By Chris Remo, Aug 22, 2007 12:10pm PDT
On the eve of BioShock's release, at a Boston launch party complete with costumed splicers and glowing green shots served in syringes, I sat down with Irrational Games--now 2K Boston and 2K Australia--co-founder and creative director Ken Levine, the formidable mind behind not only BioShock but classics such as System Shock 2 and Thief. I spoke with Levine about the massive collective internet hysteria over BioShock, challenges and arguable missteps in development, how his design role has changed, exhibiting creative freedom in game development, how to sneak philosophy into action games, and much more.

Come back next week for the second part of this epic interview--but be sure to complete the game first. In the followup, Ken and I delve deep into the plot points and themes of BioShock for an in-depth discussion about the world of Rapture, its philosophies, and its unforgettable heroes and villains.

For a critical appraisal of BioShock, check out Carlos Bergfeld's review. Otherwise, read on--and rest assured, this installment of the interview is spoiler-free.

Shack: How does it feel to have the game hit such a critical mass of hype? It seems like suddenly the buzz shot through the roof.

Ken Levine: There's a book called The Tipping Point, which is not about gradual change, but a point where things radically change. It talks about prime rates, where things go off a cliff, up or down, and the reasons why. BioShock, and I think video games in general, I think we in the industry misunderstand how gamers think. We think most gamers are like us--journalists and developers--where we scour every page for information, but in reality, most gamers think about games like we think about Diet Coke or Oreos.

Shack: Yeah, I'm very aware of that having worked in retail, but it's easy to forget.

"In reality, most gamers think about games like we think about Diet Coke or Oreos."
Ken Levine: Yeah, they go to the store and say, "Oh, there's a new game out. Awesome!" But maybe there's a friend in his group who goes to GameSpot or Shacknews and he's reading about every game, and there's one game that, when it gets cool enough, he'll tell his friends about it--but he's not going to tell his friends until it's cool. BioShock, at some point, hit a point where the hardcore gamer in every group said, "Okay, that shit's cool," and told their friends about it. That started happening after that event in New York, and then built up recently.

We've never been through anything like this before. It's gratifying, because I want to make more games like this. The money and everything is nice, but no matter who you are nobody is going to give you $20 million to make some screwed up game if it doesn't sell well. I love these kinds of games, from our first game, and I've really been dreaming about popularizing these kinds of games. Hopefully, this is the one that does.

Shack: Do you think in five or ten years, games like BioShock will be more common, or an anomaly?

Ken Levine: It's hard to say. What is it about the game that's appealing to people? I think it's always very hard to tell. I went to a lot of people you wouldn't think of as gamers who were interested in the game because of the aesthetic and the vibe and the mood, whereas I think if they saw a System Shock 2 or a Deux Ex they may not care because as much. Aesthetics draw people in and introduce people to gaming in general, at least for this type of game.

So it's unclear whether it's particularly BioShock, or if it's that people like these kind of mechanics. I hope it's the mechanics, because I love these kind of mechanics, but we cared a lot about the aesthetic and the world.

"Marketing it as 'The ultimate in first-person Objectivist shooters' is not really the right path to go."
One thing I realized while making BioShock was that we had a lot of arguments about what people liked in System Shock 2. In reality, I think the fact that the world is so interesting, and the kind of interactions you can have--more than any specific gameplay, it's the fact that you're in this world that's very unique, and you can interact with that world on many levels, is what makes it fascinating. It's not this stat system or that stat system. Make an interesting world, and let people interact with it in unprecedented ways.

Shack: For me, the single most appealing thing about BioShock is its aesthetic--its world, its philosophical considerations, its visual design, and so on. Now obviously the combat gameplay is a big part of it too, but I notice that marketing focuses almost exclusively on those elements. The back of the box mentions combat alone, with no allusions to the greater themes. Did you find you had to manipulate how you presented the game to different groups?

Ken Levine: You know, marketing it as "The ultimate in first-person Objectivist shooters" is not really the right path to go. [laughs] I think you really have to sneak up on people. You have to mix in that stuff. If you beat people over the head with it, they're not going to be interested. We were really careful about story.

My parents don't know anything about video games, and they asked if gamers were going to be interested in these kinds of themes. Well yeah, if you can mix Objectivism and freaky mutants, they might be interested. If you just give them Objectivism, probably not. The medium is about entertainment.

"I want to push forward in the context of what you can do within an action game."
I think about movies like The Matrix, which tries to inject all kinds of heavy themes, but within the context of a great action movie. I think the problem with the second two movies is that they stopped being great action movies and got too caught up in the themes. Lord of the Rings has themes of the seductiveness of power, but you've got to have the orcs, and the trolls, and the dragons. BioShock is the same way; you've got to have the splicers, and the plasmids, and the Little Sisters, and the Big Daddies.

Shack: That said--and I assume you will answer this in the negative--would you ever consider making a game like this without combat, or without very much combat? When playing BioShock, I got the sense that the world is so rich and compelling that one could theoretically develop a game there not centered around combat.

Ken Levine: Well, I like shooting stuff. [laughs] I've never been a fan of adventure games, but obviously, that's another medium that's been used to tell stories. At the end of the day, I'm a game first kind of guy, so I don't know if it's something I'd do. I'd probably do it as a book or a movie or a comic book or something.

I just want to push forward in the context of what you can do within an action game. Our goal was always to be shooting and telling stories at the same time, and that was a goal with BioShock. We wanted to have our cake and eat it too.

Continue reading for Ken's thoughts on BioShock's hacking mini-game--and why he might have done it differently if given the chance--creative freedom with 2K Games, building on System Shock 2, expanding aesthetics in video games, and more.

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Shack: How did you end up with the hacking mechanic? It comes off as an uncharacteristically abstract component in a game where most elements are intrinsically tied to the game's story and themes?

Ken Levine: Yeah. There was a period of the game design that I was less involved, and a period where I was more involved. At the beginning, I was involved with the story, but not so much the game design. That was an element that was designed back then.

"If we could go back and do hacking again, we would have maybe rethought that a little bit."
I think that we also didn't know the game was going to have the budget it did, so we had to express that idea and we had very limited tools to do it. There was a huge contingent of people who, when we tested it, loved the hacking game.

Shack: Oh, I think it's fun in its own right, it just doesn't seem as organically part of the world as other parts.

Ken Levine: It's a little out there. That's why it was important that you could bypass it in two ways; you can buy it out or you can use the hack tools--or you can just ignore it. There's only one hack you have to do in the game.

But I think if we could go back and do it again, we would have maybe rethought that a little bit. I think it was more a function of our limitations at the beginning of the project when we had a very limited budget, and then we zoomed in so many other areas that we sort of forgot to go back to that area.

Shack: Speaking of those early budgetary uncertanties, Irrational employees have spoken on the initial difficulties in securing adequate funding for the game. Even with the recently publicized issue of the Little Sister scenes being toned down, when you play BioShock it feels like a game whose developers were given a surprising level of creative control. How did you go from those troubles to having all this freedom?

Ken Levine: We had more than one choice when we were selling the company, and we chose the company that would give us the most creative freedom. 2K did give us pretty much complete freedom on the game, and I don't know if every other publisher would have done that. There was really no time when they said, "No no no."

Still, I don't think it's a game that's very exploitive in any way. We were careful to choose our moral challenges and deal with those in a way that highlighted what the moral challenges were. If anyone ever played this game and was getting off on violent situations with a child, that would repulse me. It was about the moral inflections.

"If anyone ever played this game and was getting off on violent situations with a child, that would repulse me."
In the same way you watch a movie like Schindler's List and you watch Amon Goeth comment and do horrible things, it's important that you show those things, but you don't enjoy them. That was an important step for games to take, but we had to do it in the right way and the publisher was very supportive.

Shack: You mentioned you would like to do more games in this vein. Speaking of moral choice, do you think it would be possible to push the idea of moral inflection further, beyond binary choice or more nonlinear? Is that a technical question?

Ken Levine: I don't know. To me, the moral choice of BioShock was inherent to the story. That's one of the few things that came out of the story, not the other way around. It's not like every one of our games needs to have moral choice. It's not a crusade of mine. For some people it is. Sometimes you want to make a movie about moral choice, and sometimes you want to make Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I think it was really necessary and central to this game. If it were a different franchise, I'm not sure it would be part of it--maybe even in another story in the BioShock world, I don't know if it would be part of it, but it was a part of this one. It's not a back of the box feature to me, it's an inherent part of the game.

Shack: This game is well known as a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, and as BioShock has been more widely seen and played many people have pointed out some striking similarities even down to particular aspects of the world and plot. That game was acclaimed, but did you feel like BioShock was a chance to try that sort of thing again with more commercial success this time?

Ken Levine: We have a bunch of people who worked on that game, including myself, who like that kind of game and want to build on that type of game. It wasn't a crusade. I think for a lot of gamers it is, and I understand that. System Shock 2 was very different from System Shock in a lot of ways--it had those RPG elements, and character growth.

I think if it was that kind of crusade, instead of making BioShock--which is very distinctly BioShock--I would have made Blystem Block. That's not what we wanted to do. We wanted to make our own world. We just always had certain design elements. I went to Looking Glass because I loved those elements. I changed them around for System Shock 2, with things I came up with and the other guys came up with.

"Games like System Shock 2 have been hampered by limited budgets and to a degree an insensitivity to aesthetic and vibe."
BioShock was a continuation of that, but it wasn't a crusade. I'm really happy if it means there are more games like this, because I want to play those games. They've always so far been hampered by limited budgets and I think, to a degree, an insensitivity to aesthetic and vibe. They're a little stiff. I think that's why it was so important with the BioShock aesthetic not to be like that.

Shack: I have a friend who's not a hardcore gamer, but who saw some BioShock footage on TV and asked me about it simply because he loved the Art Deco design.

Ken Levine: I don't know if the world of Deus Ex and System Shock are ever going to appeal to my wife. Not because of the gameplay, but because people have trouble getting past the other elements, the super hardcore cyberpunk things. Look at The Matrix--they took cyberpunk and made it stylish and fashionable. It's like System Shock, with the hacker, but instead of all cyber-y, it's all cool and sexy and stylish. I think that's important.

Shack: The game world is astonishingly coherent and inventive, and fortunately gamers seem to be responding very well. When you were developing the game, did you have any sense that what you were making would resonate so strongly with people?

Ken Levine: No. Honestly, it's always very hard to tell when you're up close. A few months ago, I was playing it, and I thought, "I don't normally play our own games this much." The aesthetic was always beautiful, and I knew that would work, but with the gameplay and the story, I didn't really know. I thought people would say, "Well... It's not as good as this," or, "It's not as good as that."

It's really hard to tell. You just have to go to work every day and do what you think is right. I'll do level reviews and say, "This doesn't feel right, that does feel right. Change this, change that." I look at parts of the story, I fire actors, I hire new actors.

You have to use your gut. Trust me, I've been there; your gut can be wrong, and your gut can be right. I think that in this case our gut was right more often than it was wrong.

Shack: How's X-Com going?

Ken Levine: [laughs] I don't know what you're talking about.

Shack: Thanks for your time, Ken. Always a pleasure.

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