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Levine: BioShock Originally About Cult Deprogrammer (Updated)

Recently, posts spread around the internet detailing BioShock's former setting of an isolated tropical island inhabited by genetically experimental Nazis, demonstrating just how much a game can change from initial conception to final product. That's nothing on what the game was about before then, however: a cult deprogrammer hired by the parents of a woman involved in a lesbian relationship to kidnap the daughter and rewrite her brain to steer clear of what her parents perceive as deviant activity. Update: Ken Levine has contacted Shacknews to clarify that the player in the prior revision of BioShock's story did not necessarily reprogram a lesbian character; such actions are merely examples of the sort of tasks actual deprogrammers are hired to perform in the real world. Irrational's earlier story was more political in nature, with a deprogrammer being hired by a senator. Original story: BioShock's creative director Ken Levine detailed the bizarre former premise to Shacknews during an extensive interview about BioShock, its world, and its fascinating and deranged denizens. The interview is packed with spoilers, however, so here are his remarks presented in a safe setting: "There was another story before that about a cult deprogrammer," Levine explained. "I don't know if you know what a cult deprogrammer is; it's someone who goes to take people out of cults to deprogram them so they no longer believe in it. It's a weird thing, because they're basically kidnapping people." The game's protagonist was one such fellow. "[There are] people who hired people to [for example] deprogram their daughter who had been in a lesbian relationship," he continued. "They kidnap her and reprogram her, and it was a really dark person, and that was the [kind of] character that you were. It went through a lot of changes. That wasn't really fleshed out, we just needed something, and I said, 'Maybe I'll develop this, maybe I won't.'" It may seem almost unbelievable that a game could undergo such drastic changes, but Levine emphasized that the development principle at Irrational Games (now 2K Boston and 2K Australia) has always put design first. "A lot of the game design elements stayed the same," he said. "Story changed radically, but gameplay always comes first for us."

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"I see - I thought deprogramming is a term directly connected to sect/cult dropouts."
- Lukiopimp    See all 24 comments


Ken Levine on BioShock: The Spoiler Interview

During the launch party for Irrational Games' (now 2K Boston and 2K Australia) BioShock, I sat down with creative director Ken Levine for a long talk about the game, which had already been garnering rapturous reviews. The first part of that interview was published last week, but a considerably longer portion was locked away in the Shack vault for safekeeping. I have finally succeeded in hacking that vault by way of a video game-like pipe-arranging puzzle game, and now we can present to you the remainder of our epic interview with Ken Levine on BioShock. If you want some in-depth discussion about the world of Rapture, its creator Andrew Ryan, and its various antagonists from the man who conceived it, this is the interview for you--in all likelihood the only interview of its kind. But first, a warning: WOULD YOU KINDLY STOP READING IF YOU DON'T WANT TO BE SPOILED? Please, only continue reading if you satisfy at least one of these two conditions: you understand the clever game reference embedded in the above imperative, or you do not care about having crucial story elements presented to you. The first question is a buffer containing no real spoilers, but beyond that we will not be held responsible! Now, if you have the context to continue, read on! Shack: Do you think you gave Objectivism short shrift at all? I'm not an Objectivist, I'm just curious as to how you'd respond to that. Ken Levine: I'm fascinated by Objectivism. I think I gave it--I think the problem with any philosophy is that it's up to people to carry it out. It could have been Objectivism, it could have been anything. It's about what happens when ideals meet reality. If you had to sum up BioShock's story, that's what it is. When philosophers write books, when they write fictional works like Atlas Shrugged, they put paragons in the books to carry out their ideals. I always wanted to tell a story of, what if a guy wasn't a paragon? What if his intentions were really good, but at the end of the day he was human? I think that's where the problem is. It's not an attack on Objectivism, it's a fair look at humanity. We screw things up. We're very, very fallible. You have this beautiful, beautiful city, and then what happens when reality meets the ideals? The visual look of the city is the ideals, and the water coming in is reality. It could have been Objectivism, it could have been anything. Shack: The plot really has a major dynamic shift from Ryan to Fontaine in the last third of the game. Is that part of a suggestion that it's not the philosophy that's fundamentally at fault as much as a failure of all its participants to play along? Ken Levine: They're really both extremists if you look at it, Ryan and Fontaine. Ryan believes in this thing completely, and Fontaine believes in nothing. At the end of the day, they're almost equally dangerous. [Fontaine] is a nihilist, all he cares about is himself. He has something missing in him that makes us human. Fontaine is the only real monster in the game, because he has no ideals at all, and all Ryan has is ideal. I play with this a lot in all the games I do, whether it's back to Thief where you have the pagans and the fundamentalists, and you feel sort of in the middle. I think Fontaine's an empty human. That's what happens when you have nothing. Shack: It was interesting to meet Ryan, who has been pushing all these plasmids, and see that he's just a normal looking guy. What was behind Ryan's exhortation to the player to kill him? Was he trying to draw out the player's humanity? Ken Levine: That was a really controversial decision, Ryan's "boss battle." What's the player's justification at that point? Fontaine's set you up to go kill that son of a bitch, and he's been mocking you and tormenting you, and what do you expect people to do? I told people, "Not only are you not going to have a fight with you, he's going to make you kill him." Shack: And it's out of your control. Ken Levine: And it's out of your control. At the end of the day, everything he had to do had to be about his ideology. Nothing was more important to him, even his life. When Ryan goes out, you may think he's nuts, but you have to give the guy props for his convictions. It was more important for him to show you he was the master of your will than to live. I think that it was really the ultimate insult to the player, that he chooses to die but you can't choose to do anything. You have no will at all. The rest of the game after that is to establish your will in the world. Will is a very important thing in video games. What will do you have? Shack: Valve has toyed a bit with that in the Half-Life games as well. Ken Levine: Yep. But in BioShock, I wanted to take it to the point where the player was doing things that were, in retrospect, out of his control. He was being mind-controlled by someone else, doing things that are usually done in a very mind-controlled fashion in video games. You know, "Go do this thing," then, "Okay, I'll go do it because the game tells me to." I always say I want to change how people talk about shooters. This is one of those things. When someone's telling you what to do, I want you think, "Well, what's his agenda in this situation?" Ryan sort of had to show you, as a character, that there are things more important to a character than winning the fight. He could die as long as he died with his ideology intact, and while showing you that you had no ideology, that you were nothing. To him, that was more important. It was really controversial, and getting that scene right took a long time. Shack: A few years ago, BioShock was reported to be set on an island with Nazis. What happened to the Nazis? Ken Levine: [laughs] You know, I wish I could say I have my ducks in a row earlier than I do, but I don't. People were coming, I needed a story to tell them, and I came up with that. I didn't know I was going to change it, but I also didn't know... There was another story before that about a cult deprogrammer. I don't know if you know what a cult deprogrammer is; it's someone who goes to take people out of cults to deprogram them so they no longer believe in it. It's a weird thing, because they're basically kidnapping people. [There are] people who hired people to [for example] deprogram their daughter who had been in a lesbian relationship. They kidnap her and reprogram her, and it was a really dark person, and that was the [kind of] character that you were. It went through a lot of changes. That wasn't really fleshed out, we just needed something, and I said, "Maybe I'll develop this, maybe I won't." (Update: Ken Levine has contacted Shacknews to clarify that the player in the prior revision of BioShock's story did not necessarily reprogram a lesbian character; such actions are merely examples of the sort of tasks actual deprogrammers are hired to perform in the real world. Irrational's earlier story was more political in nature, with a deprogrammer being hired by a senator.) Ken Levine: But for us, game design always comes first. A lot of the game design elements stayed the same. Story changed radically, but gameplay always comes first for us. Shack: So on New Year's Eve, that was Fontaine's attack, right? Ken Levine: Yeah, that was "Atlas'" attack against the haves. The have-nots swarmed out of Fontaine's Home for the Poor and armed themselves with plasmids and weapons, and attacked Ryan's people, the rich and powerful. That's how the civil war started. That was basically told through McClintock, Ryan's girlfriend. She sort of gives you the story of the civil war from Atlas' side, and McDonough gives you the story from Ryan's side. Continue to the next page for confirmation of the protagonist's origins, the importance of contextual storytelling in games, and the thinking behind the game's memorable "boss" characters. _PAGE_BREAK_ Shack: Our reviewer for BioShock, Carlos Bergfeld, wanted me to ask about the sea slug stem cell thing. It's interesting in that it's a topical subject, but he also felt it was maybe shoehorned in. How long has that been a part of the story? Ken Levine: Well, it's shoehorned in probably because my scientific background is about as deep as the liquid in this drink. For me, it was never about science, it was more like, "Okay, buy into the stem cell thing, and let's move on." I'm not a scientist and, honestly, I don't care about that aspect. I cared about it being pseudo-believable, but I think if you can suspend belief past that, and you can throw the word "plasmid" at them, you're there. We did some research; one of our artists was a pre-med, and my brother's a doctor, so my research was talking to them. I needed the total starting course in genetics. Tenenbaum was vaguely based on someone from the period working parallel to Crick and Watson. I did some research but, frankly, to get to people shooting fire out of their hands takes a little bit of doing. There's no practical way, especially given the limits of exposition in video games, you could make that totally believable. [laughs] Shack: Just to be clear, the player is Ryan's illegitimate son? Ken Levine: The stripper in Fort Frolic--did you see that room? Shack: Yeah. Ken Levine: That ghost scene--her diary there reveals that Fontaine paid her to get impregnated by Ryan, who was already her mistress, and then they harvested her egg. Ryan's invulnerable to the security system, and only he could use the bathysphere, so you needed his genetic material. You're half of Ryan, so you're somewhat vulnerable to the security. These are things that are relatively tertiary, but I really wanted a game in which everything could be answered. Shack: What are your thoughts on contextual richness of the world versus exposition? Most games just deliver narrative straight, but some of the most successfully atmospheric games, like BioShock, tend to present the world in a much more subtle, less movie-like fashion. Ken Levine: There's a goal there, which is tell the player enough of the story so he gets it in the world and the cutscenes, but then if he wants to dig, let him dig. There's an insane amount of detail in the story if you want it. I sat there, and the way I structured it basically every character covers a plot thread. McClintock's there to talk about what happened to average people in Rapture and the rise of Atlas, McDonough talks about Ryan's ideological decay, Sullivan and Peach are there to talk about the rise of Fontaine and the criminal area. That was relatively easy to do, because I'd come up with a theme--I didn't want to confuse people, because it's such a complicated story--and then just keep each character on one theme. This guy talks about this, that guy talks about that. Really keep it focused. Shack: The main antagonist characters--the "boss" characters--had very specific artistic and creative obsessions. What went into their creation? Ken Levine: They're all reflections of Ryan. They're all people who take an ideal. With the plastic surgeon, it was physical beauty. He would take his ideal and, with the plasmids, push too far. Is it the plasmids or is it him? With Cohen, it was his art he took too far, and with Ryan it was his philosophy he took to far. They're all essentially foreshadowing Ryan. Ryan's saner than they are--he had his shit together more--but at the end of the day he's just as unmovable as they are, convinced of their own correctness. These guys have no doubt at all about what they're doing, not a shred. That to me is always very scary. A little doubt is a helpful thing. Shack: There were clearly a lot of people in Rapture who represented the "have-nots" and who seemed probably deliberately out of place in this kind of affluent utopia. Ken Levine: When I started talking internally about the game world, it was hard for people to understand exactly what I meant by "utopia." I didn't mean a place where everyone holds hands. It was hard to get across what I wanted. Even little things like the medical area. They started building a hospital, and I said, "No no no, it has to be thirty competing businesses, really crass advertisement." This isn't... Shack: It's the ultimate free market. Ken Levine: Exactly. There's no central administration. Everything's about competing businesses. That was really hard to do, because System Shock 2 wasn't like that at all. It was like, here's the engineering deck, here's the medical deck. It was a constant struggle, because it's not how gamers think about things. I think we did a great job in the end, coming up with all these places that are very unique. But the other thing people thought is, "Oh it's a utopia, everybody's happy together," but in reality, why do you have plumbers? Not everybody's going to make it. Some people are going to fall to the bottom. Shack: I remember one of the audio logs pointed out, somebody's got to scrub the toilets. Ken Levine: Right. That's what it is. Somebody's got to clean the toilets. Right from the second level, at the fisheries, Peach Wilkins cleans the toilets, and Fontaine takes advantage of those people. He sees these people, and creates a charity. That's his shtick. He gives you a bed and a cup of soup, and you'll give him everything. I got the idea for that whole thing watching Syriana. Did you ever see that movie? Shack: Yeah. Ken Levine: They find disadvantaged people, they make them feel welcome, then they strap a bomb onto them. It's very powerful. Fontaine is a predator. He finds the disenfranchised, makes Fontaine's Home for the Poor and the Little Sisters Orphanage, and he recruits all his people through charity. Which is ironic, because Ryan hates charity. He becomes his father of the community, but he's just doing it for his own advantage. People fall through the cracks, and he takes advantage, and he makes it worse for them. All the people in Fort Frolic get caught up in his smuggling ring, and he says, "You better continue to work for me, or I'll turn you in." He's a criminal mastermind. Very ideological people can be very easy prey for a guy like that. Continue to the next page for Ken's thoughts on the ending of the game and the treatment of Little Sisters. _PAGE_BREAK_ Shack: Really, it seems in part because of Ryan's changing attitude towards Rapture that allows Fontaine to take control in the end. Ken Levine: They both let nothing get in their way. I think at the end of the day, Fontaine is truer to his philosophy than Ryan is to his, because when things start going bad for Ryan in the business world with Fontaine, he sacrifices his ideals when he takes over Fontaine's business using government power. Ideals are great until they don't work for you anymore, then you work around it. Shack: Ryan said outright how important it is to avoid big government and regulation--but then there ended up being exceptions Ken Levine: Yeah, and I think the brutality of his end was his mea culpa, his penance for that sin. McDonough is sort of the Greek chorus character--don't do this, you're heading towards the abyss! But he goes over. Ryan's a true believer, and he comes back, but it's too late at that point. BioShock's a tragedy in that sense. Ryan could have beat Fontaine if he put his mind to it. I think he was stronger and better, but he got scared. Shack: I ended up getting the "bad" ending. What's the implication for the future there? Ken Levine: What did you see happening? Shack: Well, maybe a Fontaine-like situation, where you return to the real world with this massive amount of power you can exert over others. Ken Levine: Literally, the end is that you take control of this nuclear submarine, and for me it's less about war and more about having that power. Extending the power of Rapture to be a third superpower, potentially. Now, none of this is canon, it's just how I interpret it. He gets ahold of a nuclear weapon, and what would happen if that city became on par with other superpowers? That would be an interesting world. [laughs] Shack: So Rapture isn't necessarily destroyed there? Ken Levine: Maybe. I don't want to speculate too much. You embrace the power, and where the city was going. At the end, is it about power or people? You have to take a bet on what Tenenbaum says, and it's a leap of faith. To have the "good" ending, you have to make a leap of faith. The bad one is a bit more cynical, but not that uncommon. I'm not sure how many people would get the good ending in real life. Ryan doesn't. When backed into a wall, he takes the easy path. Everything we tried to do was a reflection of something else. Do you become Ryan, or are you better than Ryan? Shack: What went into toning down the Little Sister harvesting sequence and keeping you from killing them outright? Ken Levine: I think a lot of people on the boards were upset when they heard you couldn't shoot the Little Sisters. I'm not sure why, but that's their prerogative. I thought it was much more powerful to have it right in front of you, with that choice. I still find that sequence almost unwatchable. If that's tame, I don't know... I mean, I guess people are accustomed to different things. Shack: There's been a similar outcry among certain Fallout fans, with Bethesda undecided about killing children in Fallout 3. Ken Levine: Sure, same thing. It's every developer's call. I personally believe that art is art and reality is reality, but it wasn't meaningful in our game and it didn't advance what we were trying to do. There were gameplay problems with it, and it was just the wrong thing for us. At the end of the day, it was a controversial decision internally, with people asking, "Well, are you limiting what people can do?" For me it was a no brainer--well, not a no brainer, but it was a clear path once I thought about it. Shack: I could be reaching pretty far here, but was there any influence from Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate? Ken Levine: Oh, yeah, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, that movie had a huge impact on me. I've always said I have different influences than a lot of game developers. There's a concept in movies--I don't know if I came up with the terminology for it or if someone else did--I call the unreliable narrator. It means you don't necessarily trust what you see on the screen. Boy, that scene in the original Manchurian Candidate, you know, with the garden party? Shack: Yeah, amazing. Ken Levine: Some movies just put you in a place. That movie was so ahead of its time. I was wondering, if you can play with narrative like that in a movie, can you play with it in a game? It took me a long time to figure out in BioShock. I kept talking about the unreliable narrator; I was driving the design team crazy. It took me a long time to figure out how to do it right. In a movie it's one thing where you have control of the camera and everything. But yeah, that movie, I can't even tell you what an impact it had on me as a storyteller. It fucks with your very perception of the events. A movie like Fight Club is another one, when you go back and watch it a second time, it's a totally different movie, and I love that. Even something that did it fairly well, like A Beautiful Mind. They're not cheating, it's fair, but what you're seeing is not what you're seeing. It was challenging to pull that off in a game, but we had done the displaced identity notion in System Shock 2 and we wanted to go the next step--not just somebody else's identity, but your own identity is what was in play. Not an amnesia story--you have a reasonable idea of who you are, but that whole life is a fiction. That became a central part of the story. Shack: That's an interesting property of video games in general, the concept of telling a story that actually revolves around the player rather than having the player observes. Ken Levine: And you have no choice. You have to do this stuff or the game doesn't go anywhere. Games are strangely about fate. You can argue about fate in real life, but there's fate in games. What if we took that notion and turned it on its head? People who played the demo said, "Why did I stick that needle in my arm? Why did I go in that lighthouse?" I just said, "I don't know," but the answer is that you're born to go down in that fucking place and put that needle in your arm. Shack: Presumably that's what the wrist tattoos are about? Ken Levine: Yeah. You never want to completely pull the rug out from under people. You want to plant the seed, so they can say, "Okay, okay, I get it." I don't think it's completely unfair to just say, "That guy's not a human, he's a gopher." "What?" You have to put enough clues along that the way that the player could have figured it out, even if they didn't. Continue to the last page to hear how BioShock drew from Fight Club and The Usual Suspects, as well as Valve's games and the world of theatre. _PAGE_BREAK_ Ken Levine: It's like when you watch Fight Club the second time. Did you see that? Shack: Yeah. Ken Levine: I always remember the scene in the kitchen of that horrible house where he's talking to Helena Bonham Carter, and she freaks out because in his mind she's been fucking Brad Pitt all night. You think, "She's kind of weird," then the second time you think, "Holy..." Shack: The Usual Suspects has that kind of thing. Ken Levine: Yeah, and there's even a little bit of Keyser Soze in Fontaine. There's also part of that scene where he's looking around the bulletin board and assembling a story. Shack: Speaking of bulletin boards, that's you [the character] as the unnamed photo on that one bulletin board surrounded by Ryan and the other key audio log characters, right? Ken Levine: Yep, and if you keep your eye open in the world, there are other clues as to where Fontaine constructed this character of Atlas. Subtle little things. Shack: Sometimes it kind of kills me that more developers don't embrace that style of storytelling that more fully embraces the medium, as opposed to the more linear movie style with these massive cutscenes. Ken Levine: Honestly, any writer could write a 20-minute cutscene. I hate those as a gamer. I skip them. Those games, I don't know what the hell is going on. I'm not going to sit through those. But in Half-Life, I know everything that's going on. That was a big inspiration. I know more about City 17 than I know about any Final Fantasy world. Even a great game like Okami, it has 20 minutes of "blah blah blah" and I just want to kill myself. It's not fair to our medium, it's so self-indulgent. I think we have to work harder. Trust me, it's a lot harder to do what we did in BioShock than to do a 20-minute cutscene. I could write that stuff all day long. Shack: Well, you have a screenwriting background, right? Ken Levine: Yeah. That's easy. Putting it in the world, making that work, cutting narrative down to little tiny snippets, that's harder. Doing that first Big Daddy scene, where we really had to make sure the player understood, and had to take some degree of control away, was one of the hardest things to nail. Cutscenes are a coward's way out. Shack: One of Valve's big impacts on design is the principle of never ever taking away player control, and they still stick to that more stringently than pretty much anyone else in the genre. Did that influence you? Ken Levine: Absolutely. I'm a huge fan of Valve's. They have so much class and style in their storytelling. The most important thing we embrace in BioShock is that they trust the gamer. They don't have to grab you by the nuts and point you in a direction. There are a lot of tricks to make the gamer look at things, trust me, but the last thing you should do is take control to look at something. Shack: Valve's commentary for Half-Life 2: Episode One talked a lot about that kind of attitude to mise-en-scene. Ken Levine: They draw the eye. I have a background in theatre originally, and that scene where you see the Big Daddy drill through the splicer and save the Little Sister, to get that right--it was actually in a theatre, which is ironic--took a lot. We bathe the Little Sister in light--we had a rule, if we want you to see something, draw attention to it. Even the Ryan scene, it's just like a stageplay. You come into the audience. The light comes down in the audience, and the lights come on to Ryan. It's very artificial in a lot of ways, but it's very theatrical. You ever see an actor, when they come offstage, what their makeup looks like? It's very ridiculous offstage. Games are like that, you have to project to what the player see. We did a lot of that in BioShock. Shack: Cohen's introduction had that quality as well, and that was one of the most affecting moments in the game, and that was much more of a direct nod to that theatricality. Ken Levine: Right. Before, it was theatre, but for the audience, whereas Cohen was a guy actually making theatre. Shack: I was blown away when I idly shot one of those apparent plaster statues, and it bled, suggesting something a lot more disturbing. Ken Levine: Well, the whole world is on the razor's edge of beauty and horror. Ryan's world, Fontaine's world, even Steinman's world--they're trying to make beauty, but it edges over into horror. The visuals of Rapture are all about that razor's edge. I think horror games sometimes forget that beauty is an important component. Did you ever see the movie The Shining? Shack: Yeah. Ken Levine: The moment when the naked girl comes out of the bathtub, this hot girl, then she becomes this waterlogged dead hag. That transition--that hotel is on the cusp of beauty of horror. That always scared me, and I wanted to bring it to the game. Shack: In a lot of the cases, like Steinman's living Picassos, their very idea of beauty is horrific. Ken Levine: Thematically, it's about people who don't have that barrier. Take a good idea, and just keep doing more of it. Even something like making people more beautiful, in his head that becomes something else. Shack: Ken, thanks so much for your time. Ken Levine: Thank you.

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"hmm i think i missed that. i was short 1 weapon station by the end. not sure what you're ..."
- dantastic    See all 83 comments


BioShock Interview

Q&A: Levine surfs BioShock's wake on GameSpot offers an interview with Ken Levine, the founder of Irrational Games 2K Boston. Levine is asked about the various BioShock launch nightmares.

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BioScandal Dwindles: Levine Promises Eventual Removal of DRM, Ends Betrayaltongate 07

Continuing this morning's progress towards resolving Aspect Ratiogate 07 and DRMgate 07, BioShock creative director Ken Levine has informed Joystiq that the game's oft-criticized SecuROM copyright protection will eventually be removed. "At some point we'll move back from online activation," Levine stated. "If people want to play BioShock ten years from now, they'll be able to play it." Based on his wording, it's presumed that SecuROM activation will be disabled when retail sales of the game are no longer a pressing factor. Levine then ended the brewing Betrayaltongate 07 scandal, conclusively vowing that there is no PlayStation 3 version of the Xbox 360 and PC game. "I promise you, there is no secret plan about the PS3 that we're keeping from people," he said. "There's no PS3 development going on that we're hiding." As for the PS3 mention in one of the demo's configuration files? "There's lots of stuff that gets into game code," explained Levine. "Plans change over time and we got an exclusive deal with Microsoft. We were keeping our options open, maybe it comes from back then?" Levine offered no comment on the status of Contestgate 07, which sees Shacknews giving away numerous BioShock-related goodies in exchange for amusing illustrations of Big Daddy's day off.

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"Errmm, I never accepted it. Has Valve removed the online activation of my HL2 retail box copy yet?"
- samduhman    See all 65 comments


DRMgate 07: BioShock Copyright Protection Keeps 2K Controversy Burning

In a story that has truly swept the nation, 2K Boston and Australia's BioShock release woes continue. The newest complaint stems from the PC version of BioShock, which uses SecuROM copyright protection, preventing users from installing the game more than two consecutive times. Responding to the concerns, steadfast 2K Games community manager and soon-to-be mental patient Elizabeth Tobey explained the issue in a thread on the 2K Games forum. "You can uninstall and reinstall this game, and if, by chance, you have 2 computers you want to simultaneously play this game on, you also can do that," she said. "If by some chance you are reinstalling this game without uninstalling it first, a lot, there is a chance you may have to call securom and get a key, or deactivate some older installations." Unfortunately, reports have been coming in that a simple uninstall does not allow another installation of the game. Those who have contacted 2K Games for support have been directed to SecuROM--those who have contacted SecuROM were told to call 2K Games. Like a tough puzzle in an excellent, genre-advancing PC shooter, gamers have turned to the internet for help. The tail-chasing spurred 2K Boston's Ken Levine to stop his white Ford Bronco long enough to make a statement: "I've followed up on the circular email with securom and we are working on this issue. I agree, it sucks, and we need to get that sorted," he said in a thread on the 2K Games forums. "I've been told by 2k that we will." Former president Bill Clinton declined to comment on the contentious issue when contacted by Shacknews. Expect more miscellaneous BioShock news as we think up further iterations of the "gate" naming convention.

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"Oh those bastard developers trying to protect their work and make some money, shame on them"
- moshman    See all 142 comments


Creative Director Ken Levine on BioShock

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. _PAGE_BREAK_ 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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BioShock PC Demo Coming Monday August 20th

2K Games has confirmed that the PC demo of Irrational's 2K Boston and Australia's BioShock will be released for download Monday evening around 7pm EST. The company was sure to note that new ATI and Nvidia video card drivers will be released the same day, and should be installed for best performance. The BioShock demo will be of an impressive 1.84GB in girth that you will be able to eagerly gulp down at FileShack. The demo will also be available on the new FileShack Quicksilver system for Mercury members with support for download accelerators with multiple connections. In a following update on the company's Cult of Rapture website, BioShock creative lead Ken Levine warned users away from potentially spoiler-filled forum posts and implored users not to post spoilers themselves. "Please don't ruin other people's experience by revealing secrets in unmarked threads, and if you want to enjoy the game to its fullest, stay away from any threads that might ruin the fun for you," wrote Levine. "With a game like BioShock, it will really make a difference. Look for a new Shacknews interview with Levine in the coming days.

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BioShock Goes Gold as Irrational Loses Name

Irrational Games, the acclaimed developer behind PC classic System Shock 2 as well as nearly-released SS2 "spiritual successor" BioShock (PC, X360), is no longer known as Irrational Games. The formerly independent studio, whose two branches were acquired by Take-Two Interactive last year under the 2K Games label, are now known as 2K Boston and 2K Australia. Take-Two claims change will result in no loss of creative control for the companies. "We're proud to be part of the 2K Games family and enjoy the new opportunities and artistic freedoms this strengthened relationship provides," said Irrational president Ken Levine in a statement. "The name change signifies our growing position as a central part of 2K Games, and we plan to ensure our future titles continue to set new standards of quality and innovation for the industry." 2K and Irrational 2K representatives were unavailable for comment. In a separate announcement, Take-Two announced BioShock has gone gold. The game will be available for PC and Xbox 360 in North America on August 21 and in Europe on August 24.

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BioShock Podcast

2K Games' Cult of Rapture site has been updated with a new BioShock podcast. This time Ken Levine talks about Andrew Ryan, founder of BioShock's Rapture city.

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BioShock Q&A

GameSpy is the latest site to publish a BioShock interview with Irrational's Ken Levine. There are questions about killing the Little Sisters, System Shock, hardware limitations, working with 2K Games, and reaching more than hardcore gamers, among other things.

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BioShock Interviews

Team Xbox has posted the second part of a BioShock Q&A. Ken Levine talks about gameplay, lack of multiplayer support and people's interest in the game. There's also an interview at Computer & Video Games.

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BioShock Preview

In our previous BioShock preview, Shacknews editor Chris Remo elaborated on developer Irrational Games' high-minded approach to storytelling. Ayn Rand's philosophy, mise en scene technique, and all manner of artsy, complicated concepts were explained. And while Irrational president Ken Levine has certainly delivered on his promise of a captivating presentation, I didn't see much of that this week. During a demonstration of one of the game's later levels, what I saw was pure carnage; frantic, unrelenting mayhem. Make no mistake: While BioShock may have all the nuances of a gripping novel, it also provides all the gleeful destruction of a great action title. Loading up a section of what amounts to the third level of BioShock, Levine set the scene. The player has progressed to an area of Rapture--the underwater world where the game takes place--in which a forest, dubbed Arcadia, was grown as a sort of tourist attraction. These plants double as the city's oxygen production center, and now Rapture's Orwellian creator Andrew Ryan has released a toxin into the atmosphere which is slowly sapping the life of the trapped trees. The player first has to concoct an antidote to the toxins using the game's crafting system, but Levine proudly acknowledged that he had cheated. With the substance in hand, all that had to be done was to release the cure into the chamber. Fortunately for our purposes, the diabolical Andrew Ryan intervened at the last second, sending a swarm of genetically-modified minions to attack. In one swift movement, the player ran straight up to a doorway and cut down the first incoming enemy with a gory shotgun blast to the temple. I was immediately taken aback. This felt more like a scene from Monolith's visceral Condemned: Criminal Origins (X360, PC) than a moment from a tactical shooter. Levine was quick to note that there are, of course, more intelligent ways of going about your business in the hostile world of Rapture. On queue, the player fired a trip-wire trap into a wall, and with another shot attached the second end of the wire to the opposing wall. The wire wasn't positioned effectively enough, so the player then switched to the Telekenesis plasmid. Plasmids are essentially magic powers, through which the player can cycle through as he would a physical weapon. Using Telekenesis, one end of the trip wire was snatched up into the player's hand and quickly replanted across a doorway. "We found out in testing that this worked," Levine remarked, alluding to the game's unpredictable nature. An enemy soon came barreling through the passage, the wire sending out an electric current and dropping him like a sack of potatoes.
These kinds of traps can be set in a variety of methods. As more enemies poured into the room, the player began rapidly using the Cyclone Trap plasmid, dropping swirling vortexes along the floor which instantly shot the mutants into the air like a rocket. Standing in front of a pool of water, a handful of wading bad guys were dispatched with a quick shock from the Electrobolt plasmid. Environments can often be taken advantage of in this way. An oil slick milling in a corner can be ignited with the Incinerate plasmid, the fire spreading realistically from end to end and torching everything in sight. Machines are exploitable as well, both by the player and by the ghoulish Splicers. Passing a medical station, Levine noted the dual nature of the innocent contraption. "These will heal people, and if the enemies use them they can heal themselves. But not if you hack it. If you hack it, it will poison them," he explained. At this an enemy approached, running to the machine for a boost of health. The player ran for the machine, attempting to hack it before the monster had used it--too late. Another shotgun round covers up any trace of failure. Hacking is a free, easy way to increase your odds of survival in BioShock. Vending machines can be hacked for discount prices, and stationary turrets can be converted to save on ammunition. As the player will often traverse one section of the game many times over, having a turret on hand to defend from roaming Splicers comes in handy. Once in close proximity to a hackable object, the press of a button begins the hacking minigame. The game tasks you with completing a series of pipes by swapping out various pieces before the flow of water catches up to the end, like a timed game of Rivers, Roads, and Rails. Often challenging, but not frustratingly so, the minigames are a pleasantly puzzling diversion. With so many mechanics at work in BioShock, some fairly inventive scenarios can be devised. While enemies were slowly cutting through a steel door, a proximity mine was attached to a barrel and placed just in front of the doorway. Needless to say, the ensuing battle was short-lived. Flying attack bots can also be hacked and put to non-standard use. Attaching a proximity mine to an oblivious bot, the friendly machine runs straight into a swarm of enemies like a homing missile, exploding in a massive fireball. "That's nice," Levine cackled, still entertained by a world he has labored to create for years.
Some time later, the player managed to tether a flying bot to the ceiling with a wire, the bot bouncing back and forth in a futile attempt to escape. Wires can also be attached to Splicer enemies, the ensuing tangled mess leading to clothes-lines that take down other enemies as they run in circles. In a brooding, atmospheric game, the entertaining combat often transforms it into a dark comedy. "The best part is when you blow off people's hats and just toss them back at them," Levine said while, on screen, a little ingenuity transformed a teddy bear into a deadly weapon. Continue reading for more details on BioShock's environments and teaching methods. _PAGE_BREAK_
The enemies now defeated, it was time to head back to the forest. After using the antidote, the trees began to branch out and flourish, restoring oxygen to the city. While the combat can be intense, the draw of the game is rooted in its sense of atmosphere and exploration, with the interaction between the player and the environment serving as a driving force behind the story. In many ways, BioShock reminds me of Metroid Prime, and I wasn't surprised to find that Levine himself had compared it to the Retro Studios adventure-shooter in prior presentations. Exploring the dead world of Rapture is simply enchanting. Every neon sign and faded billboard is a crisp work of art, dangerously drawing your attention away from the path ahead. It is as alien as anything in Metroid, and as finely crafted. While it is easy to become distracted, the action ramps up at a rapid pace in BioShock, and players will have to know their stuff to survive. Throughout the game, hints are doled out gradually, with the goal of teaching the player each of the game's many systems. While I was concerned at first that these tooltips would be intrusive, my fears were quickly assuaged. "I hate fucking tutorials," Levine told me. "We do very little telling you, 'this is how this works.' I don't think there are any quests designed to test repeated skill usage." To that end, if a player isn't using the correct ammunition to attack an enemy, or if he has cash on hand but no health, the game will drop a brief textual hint at the bottom of the screen. Pressing the back button while looking at an object brings up a related tooltip, allowing the player to request help at any time. The game also teaches the player in more subtle ways. For example, in the first scene that the player is introduced to the hulking Big Daddy monster, his Little Sister companion is attacked by a Splicer. In response, the Big Daddy becomes enraged, dispatching the unlucky attacker. The player knows from that point onward that the Big Daddy will protect his tiny cohort by any means, and not to mess with them. This "show, don't tell" approach is a simple idea, but remains a breath of fresh air in a medium full of dull training levels and heavy-handed explanation.
Of course, it's not all about genetic powers; sometimes you'll have to pull out a Tommy gun and go to town, although the most satisfying strategy involves a combination of plasmids and conventional weapons. Zapping enemies with the Electrobolt momentarily stuns them, giving you an easy window for a point-blank headshot. The Winter Blast plasmid freezes them in place, with a quick shot sending the unlucky foe shattering to the floor in pieces. However, BioShock is set in an abandoned city, and ammunition must be carefully managed. More than once I found myself completely out of bullets and the "Adam" energy which powers plasmids, resulting in several deaths as I ambled around aimlessly. Scouring every nook and cranny for everything from bullets to potato chips pays off in the long run. Cash found on dead enemies and amongst dying scenery can be spent at automated vendors, which sell health packs, ammunition, and tonics that buff your abilities in various ways. With a massive set of noise-canceling headphones wrapped around my head, BioShock's sound field immediately stood out. The clarity of dialogue was stunning at times, with soft voices slowly creeping up behind my ears. While I was never truly frightened in playing the game, the moody atmosphere was ultimately more interesting to me than any moment of real tension. Stepping into the Rapture for the first time, Trenet's La Mer echoing through the halls, I wasn't scared when the lights went out--I was more anxious to simply move on to the next gorgeous area.
In one early scene, the player is faced with an impassable block of ice. Later, an abandoned crematorium is found, with burning corpses and oil slicks littering the area. After finding the Incinerate plasmid, the player backtracks to the ice wall, melting the blockade and continuing onward. This brought to mind a similar sequence of events in Metroid Prime, and further connected the two games in my mind. The subtle story and need-based objectives, combined with backtracking and the unlocking of new areas with special powers all came off as reminiscent of the Nintendo series. Even the opening of doorways with a blast from the Electrobolt seemed an homage to the iconic, concentric doors of Metroid. I had intentionally watched very little BioShock footage before going into the presentation. After more than an hour of playtime, I couldn't shake the feeling that despite the chaotic, bloody combat, the unique mechanics, and the entirely different setting, BioShock has more in common with a Metroid title than I had expected. From me that is high praise; not often does a shooter find that tricky blend of elements that provides a more fulfilling experience than your average run-and-gun du jour. With Metroid Prime 3: Corruption set to release literally a day apart from BioShock, late August is looking like a great time for gamers who demand a little more depth to go along with their gunplay. Irrational Games' BioShock is set to be released in North America on August 21 for PC and Xbox 360. The game will follow in Europe on August 24.

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BioShock Preview

New at GameSpot this evening is this BioShock preview. The article offers impressions of later game levels, and there's a video interview with Ken Levine as well.

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Ken Levine Interview

The 36th Gamers With Jobs podcast is up, offering an interview with BioShock lead designer Ken Levine. The interview touches on BioShock, and other gaming topics.

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BioShock Interview

New at FiringSquad today is this article format BioShock interview, asking Irrational's Ken Levine about the game. Missed our most recent preview of the game? You can find it here.

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