First person: Ken Levine on his break in games, forming Irrational and the making of Bioshock

Ken Levine hosted a BAFTA event last night in London, at which he told the story of his career to date and how those experiences all feed into Irrational Games’ next project, Bioshock Infinite. Here, he tells the story of what happened several years after his career as a Hollywood scriptwriter fell flat, in his own words.

Levine’s first job

“I’d always played videogames – I didn’t even realise people made games, I just thought they sort of showed up in a box somewhere. I was reading this magazine at the time, a great magazine that doesn’t exist any more called Next-Gen and there was an ad in the back for game designers and I’m like: ‘what’s a game designer?’

I applied for the job and a week later Looking Glass flew me out there and [another] week later they hired me. I found myself in a room with Doug Church, who is one of the great unsung heroes of videogames, he was the guy behind Ultima Underworld, he was the guy behind System Shock 1 and he and I worked together on Thief. It’s like getting hired into the film industry out of college and getting put in a room with Steven Spielberg in your first week. It was incredible. And I’m forever grateful for that opportunity.”

Forming Irrational Games

“When we started Irrational there was three of us. Jonathan Chey, and Robert Fermier and myself and only one of us had shipped a game. Robert Fermier had worked on the original System Shock and John and I hadn’t. And I’m not exactly sure – again – how I lucked out with this, but we managed to make a deal with Looking Glass and EA to develop System Shock 2.

And at that point we didn’t know what we were doing at all. Here I was, president of company, lead designer and I had never shipped a game. I had worked on Thief but it hadn’t shipped yet. We were really wondering how we were going to make this game with the Dark engine, which is the same engine that Thief was built on, it was not really a shooter engine. It was getting compared to Quake’s engine at the time, it was sort of slow but it did some things really well – it did a level of detail really well.”

The Making Of: System Shock 2

Developing System Shock 2

“So we looked at the engine and said okay, so it’s not going to run very fast, it does a lot of detail, what if we combined shooting and RPG and really focused on the story? And because of that limitation we sort of stumbled into Irrational Games’ mission and that mission has been to bring players not in [as] an observer of narrative, but a participant in narrative.

Generally, especially at that time, full-motion videogames were supposed to be the big Hollywood thing and probably why they’d hired me because I had worked as a screenwriter, I always hated those games so I was really excited to say ‘how can we combine these two aspects? How can we make a player participate in a story without pushing them back and making them observers?’

System Shock 2 was our first attempt at it. One of the key things here is that we wanted to make a player interact with characters but our tools were really, really limited. At that point they were practically non-existent. They had innovated this notion of these radio messages and audio logs in the first System Shock, a guy named Austin Grossman brilliantly came up with that concept, and we had inherited this character, Shodan, which is great.

When we got the rights to make System Shock 2 I knew I was going to put all the money on Shodan as a character. But I started thinking about how could you start to make a dialogue between the player and Shodan, is that possible? And I didn’t want dialogue trees or any of those old, traditional things.

It was our first sort of stab at really interacting with characters without pausing, without cutscenes, without any kind of dialogue tree.”

The making of Bioshock

“So a number of years pass, as you guys know, and after much trying and much effort, we manage to get somebody to pay us to make a game about a failed underwater utopia. Which frankly, I did not think this game was going to be successful.

I was excited about it, I was thrilled about it. But as they started paying us, as they started offering us more money to make it because they got some confidence, we started getting more ambitious. Because originally it started out very much a System Shock game with not a lot of changes to it. But as we started getting more resources we started thinking of other ways we could bring the game in from the story. One of them was obviously the world. The graphics had evolved to the point where we really could start telling story in the world. But we also wanted the player to connect emotionally. Now audiologs had always been really good for that, but they were sort of an old tried and true method. Could you connect with an actual AI in an emotional way?

And we had this whole concept that was really highly conceptual about protectors and the protected and predators and I got that idea from watching a nature show, actually, and I thought well those would be really good AIs. Because if you watch a nature show, nobody needs to explain to you what those relationships are, you can intrinsically figure them out. And those, over much time, evolved into Splicers and the Big Daddy and the Little Sister. The roles are obvious. But the goal here was could we make the player feel an emotional connection to these characters?”

After Bioshock

“So, we still had a relationship, and it was a relationship that I think people could relate to. I think it’s a relationship that I think you see an echo of when you go to a gaming conventions and you see fathers and daughters cosplaying. And to me, this is one of my favourite things. Because as weird and screwed up as this relationship between Big Daddy and Little Sister is, there’s something there that people can connect to. There’s an affection between the two.

And in a first-person shooter you’re not used to seeing affection. For me it was really the heart and soul of that game. And when people to me about the new game a lot of people say “well who’s the new Big Daddy? Is it the songbird, is it the handyman?” And the answer, I think, is kind of counter-intuitive, but very natural. The inheritor of the mantle of Big Daddy and Little Sister is not a monster – because that’s not what made the Big Daddy interesting – the inheritor is Elizabeth. Because [Bioshock Infinite] is a game [where] we’re taking our next step as Irrational to bring the player into the narrative experience and most importantly where they were an observer of that relationship between the Big Daddy and the Little Sister, the goal here is to make them a participant in that experience.”

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