Inside Irrational: from System Shock 2 to Bioshock Infinite

BioshockInfinite

BioShock Infinite has just gone gold. It’s February 19, and outside it’s a frigidly cold morning on America’s East Coast. Sheltered from the elements, we’re speaking with Ken Levine in a dimly lit meeting room deep inside his studio’s Boston HQ. Rather than bask in the satisfying knowledge that five years of developmental graft are finally at an end, the Irrational Games co-founder and creative director is focused on the future. “If we have a mission,” he explains, “it’s to figure out how to integrate gameplay and narrative so it’s one consistent experience, and to make the player a participant in the narrative and not an observer.”

A quick glance at Levine’s CV will tell you this is a philosophy he has carried throughout his career. And if you’ve played Thief, System Shock 2 or the original BioShock, you’ll have experienced that storytelling bent first-hand. Speaking with his colleagues, it’s an ethos that seems to have bled into the very foundations of Irrational’s working process, too. For starters, it has forced an intense level of communication within the studio.

“There’s a lot of collaboration,” says writer Drew Holmes. “Everything tends to start with the script, and then we bring in the other departments, make sure their feedback is heard and that they are a part of this creative process. There’s a sense of narrative being just as much a part of the design as everything else. It’s not all about writing through dialogue. We put a lot of work into telling stories in the environment – making sure a store is telling a story, a character doing a simple animation is telling a story.”

This level of departmental collaboration can be traced back to early development work on the first BioShock. The results are evident in the game, where the visuals and audio play as large a role in the storytelling as the dialogue itself. What’s more, its setting – the now infamously twisted subterranean dystopia of Rapture – is, in a sense, as much of a lead character as the game’s silent protagonist, Jack. BioShock’s storytelling focus had ramifications beyond the game world, however: it physically altered the layout of Irrational’s studio and affected its working practices.

“Early on in BioShock,” recalls animation director Shawn Robertson, “all the artists sat together, all the animators sat together and we realised you’re just creating these fiefdoms where everybody is worried about what they’re working on. You’ve got to promote the idea that games are a collaborative effort, and one of the early experiments we did was to take an animator, a designer and a programmer and put them all next to each other. You have this environment where if you have an idea – you want an AI to do something – you have the designer who can start working on that system, you have the programmer who can enable it and you have the animator who can represent it, and they can all bang out something in a day and see if it’s going to work or not.”

The experiment stuck. Stepping outside of the meeting room with Levine, Irrational’s moodily lit workspace unravels in front of us. It’s a sprawling open-plan hub of artists, designers, writers and programmers, all with grand creative ambitions. The setup sounds equally grand, but how does it really work?

“I can stand up from my desk,” says Holmes, “walk 20 feet down the hall and sit at an animator’s desk and be like, ‘Here’s what I was thinking for this, can we bang something out?’ The speed at which this company moves is not like anything I’ve seen before – it’s staggering. The level of iteration we tend to do here at Irrational is not really seen at any other company, certainly not at the company I was previously at, Volition.”

Rewind 15 years, however, to when a trio of ambitious coworkers, namely Jonathan Chey, Robert Fermier and Ken Levine, broke away from Looking Glass Studios to form Irrational, and it transpires that guiding philosophy of fusing narrative and gameplay was born partly out of necessity. “We got the opportunity – complete chance and luck – to make, for our first game, the sequel to one of my favourite games of all time, System Shock. It was remarkable,” says Levine.

But immediately the studio, an outfit far from the distinguished name of today and taking its first baby steps into full-time independent development, was faced with a momentous challenge. And not simply because of the obvious pressure that came with making the follow-up to such an influential and critically acclaimed shooter. “We sat back and looked at what we had, which was this engine, the Dark Engine, which Thief was made on,” Levine explains. “We looked at System Shock, which was a shooter, and said ‘Oh man, these things don’t really go together. This engine is not designed for high-action sequences, it’s designed for a stealth game.’”

System Shock 2 concept art.

The answer? Strip the game of its shooter core and turn it into a narrative-led action-RPG – a far more viable project for Irrational given the technology available. “We knew our shooting wasn’t going to be as good as System Shock,” admits Levine. “We looked at our budget and our resources and had this idea of combining shooting with RPG [elements] as a way to sweep under the rug the failings of the shooting.”

Navigating the constraints of tight budgets and outdated engines, the burgeoning team at Irrational infused System Shock 2 with “a mood and a vibe”, as Levine succinctly puts it. This was something that would become apparent in an early prototype that Levine recalls as being one of his fondest memories of the project.

“It was basically a demonstration of the shooting and RPG stuff, and it really was cool,” he explains, an enthusiastic grin spreading across his face. “I remember playing it and it was not functional in any way, shape or form – it barely held together. We had no AI. We had things that pretended to be AI. We had lots of things that pretended to be things, but there was no real anything. But we really tried to tell a story in this space with the limited tools we had and I remember finishing it and thinking, ‘Wow, we created something that has an emotional feel to it.’ It was powerful to me as a setting, sort of a vision of my future as a game developer encapsulated in this demo.”

Fortunately for the studio, System Shock 2’s roleplaying leanings were a hit with critics; 90 per cent or greater scores abounded (as well as eight out of ten in E77). “We were as stunned as anybody else as to it getting the reaction it did from the press,” admits Levine. “I think we expected the critical reaction to be on par with the commercial reaction, which was tepid.”

And therein lay a hard truth for Irrational. Although System Shock 2 spawned a dedicated fanbase that thrives even now (mods are still being cobbled together that improve the game’s graphical fidelity and overall performance), the game failed to ignite the sales chart, crossing the 50,000 copies sold mark around six months after release.

It would be eight years before the studio produced a title that was truly commercially successful, despite working on well-liked and critically praised games such as SWAT 4 and Freedom Force Vs The 3rd Reich in that period. Yet despite the sudden influx of capital and obvious physical growth of the company that it brought, the success of BioShock changed Irrational’s work ethic surprisingly little.

“All of a sudden, I was the cool dad, for sure!” jokes Robertson. “It was great to go from the critical darlings – everybody loved our games but nobody bought them – to finally having a game that was critically successful but also financially successful, which gave us the freedom to do what we wanted with BioShock Infinite.”

“It didn’t change the old timers so much,” Levine explains, “because we all have the ‘fat kid’ syndrome – like we’re the unpopular kid in school – and I think we’re always going to feel that way. But I think it changed the people who were coming here. [They came] with a different perception of what the company was, thinking there was a certain way to make a BioShock game and that we knew how to do it, like a formula. I think a lot of them were surprised when they realised we were just figuring it out as we went along. We don’t trust formulas, because we haven’t found them reliable and I think we’re most comfortable when we’re most uncomfortable.”

Ironically, it seems that the comparative financial stability secured after BioShock has only encouraged Irrational’s appetite for creative risk taking, and for furthering its ever-present goal of “telling the best stories we can in videogames”, as Robertson puts it. “I don’t think I’ve ever been comfortable in a day of work at Irrational. I almost feel like if I come to work and I’m comfortable and confident that what we’re doing is going to be successful then it feels weird.”

Holmes echoes his sentiments: “What’s safe isn’t interesting to us. Something that scares us to death, that’s what we want to work on.”

Bioshock Infinite’s Booker.

And while work on Infinite was conducted over the relative safety net of the BioShock name, Irrational’s culture of seemingly perpetual iteration – “Don’t be afraid to kill your babies!” says Holmes – must have been a challenging practice for some at the studio. We’re reminded of the mini staff exodus that occurred towards the tail end of 2012 as development on Infinite was nearing its completion, although Levine bats away our suggestions this had anything to do with the company’s iterative approach. “It was a mix of people leaving and people being asked to leave. I don’t think it’s different than at any other studio and it always surprises me that we’ve had so much attention on it. That said, I think [Irrational] is an environment where we expect a lot out of people. We make good games because we have good people, we have people who are committed – it’s no magic formula. People have to be really good.”

They’re also encouraged to contribute ideas, many of which helped flavour the narrative of BioShock Infinite, ideas that evolve through regular brainstorming meetings between the team. Because Levine – although resolute in his demand for excellence – is no dictator, preferring to guide his team’s creative flow rather than control it. “You can always come to him with ideas,” explains Robertson. “Ken is one of those guys who can make you look at your work in ways that you never thought about looking at it. From a creative standpoint, you can bring him something and think you’ve got all your bases covered and Ken can always turn it on its edge – in a good way – and make you see another facet of it.”

“Ken is challenging in the best possible way,” agrees Holmes. “We’re a company that is not afraid to fail. Try it, see if it works; if it doesn’t, now you know what not to do. That’s the way we operate with Ken. We demand excellence of one another, and that’s a hard thing to do. It takes a lot of time and effort, but I think everyone understands what the goal is – to push narrative in videogames forward.”

It’s a goal that has been at the heart of Irrational for 15 years, and the rock around which the fluctuating tides of commercial success have ebbed and flowed. But whether or not Infinite will share the same level of success – commercially and critically – as its illustrious predecessor, Levine is still unsure. “I think there’s extremely challenging content in the game. There’s a lot of ambition and if you leap high, there’s always that chance you could fall right on your face. If I look back on this game, I’ll judge it as a piece of artistic endeavour; I’ll judge it based upon what I viewed as my goals for the game, which was to advance the integration of the narrative experience – putting the player into the narrative experience rather than observing.”

And regardless of how BioShock Infinite performs, it’s clear that Irrational will take that goal with it into the future and the next generation of console hardware. “We have a very strong team and lots of talented people,” says Robertson, “and I’m looking forward to discovering the next big story we’re going to tell.”