Ken Levine has had better nights. It’s February 2007, and the creative director and co-founder of Irrational Games is standing behind a one-way mirror in an office in downtown Boston. He’s watching a bunch of gamers play a hands-on build of his latest game, BioShock. It’s depressing.
The crowd on the other side of the glass is jeering. They don’t just dislike the game, they’re viciously mocking it: ‘Who’s that Australian idiot talking in your ear? Why are these zombies wandering about this place? Why are those robots flying at us? It’s all really stupid.’
“It was pretty depressing,” Levine recalls, speaking to us recently in Irrational’s office in Quincy, just to the south of Boston, Massachusetts. “The guy who managed the focus group came up to us afterwards. It was like the doctor telling you you’ve got two weeks to live. He was saying, ‘Yep, you guys are kind of fucked.’”
For Levine, it was the worst possible news. Everyone knew that BioShock didn’t tick the usual boxes. It was a firstperson shooter where political philosophy flew as freely as bullets, and its world, a submerged art deco city, was unlike anything seen before in videogames. No one expected audiences to gel with it right away, but neither did they expect the game to be laughed at.
As he listened to the feedback, Levine wondered if he’d make a mistake. He’d led Irrational in pursuit of this shooter/RPG hybrid. He’d even sold the company he co-founded to Take-Two and 2K Games to help finance his vision. All for what?
An outsider looking in at that point might have concluded that BioShock was a monumental act of hubris on a par with the game’s own underwater city, Rapture, built by megalomaniac Andrew Ryan. But despite the jeers, Levine’s vision was no folly. And unlike Rapture, crushed under the weight of its ambition, BioShock was destined to swim, not sink.
The story of BioShock began just over seven years before that terrible focus group. Irrational Games had released System Shock 2 in late 1999, a critically acclaimed horror-FPS on the PC that proved the developer’s credentials, but met with poor sales. Despite sporting a bruised ego, the Boston developer picked itself up and worked on Freedom Force and Tribes: Vengeance during the early 2000s. Yet it kept returning to the idea of making a spiritual successor to the ‘Shock series. It was an itch its staff just had to scratch.
Not that it was straightforward. Although BioShock has one of the strongest creative visions in gaming, its genesis was pretty chaotic. It took a couple of years for basic ideas to coalesce, and a few more for the game to start taking shape as this side project morphed into the company’s next big thing. “At Irrational, we tend to work in an evolutionary process,” explains Levine, “which is a polite way of saying we take a long time to figure out what the hell we’re doing.”
Irrational’s art director, Nate Wells, compares the company’s approach to development to an artist sketching: “If you watch a really good artist put pencil to page to draw a curve, he will take his pencil and strike it to the page 12, 15 times before he finds the curve. He doesn’t put his pencil down and draw the exact curve he wants. He sculpts, then selects one of those lines to darken. That’s what we do on every front: the visuals of the game, the design of the game. We’re always sketching until we see, from that chaotic process, the right ideas emerge.”
By 2002, Irrational’s pencil had barely struck the paper. All the team had to show for its efforts was a very basic concept, a game system with three groups: protectors, harvesters and drones carrying a valuable resource. Eventually, these would become the game’s Big Daddies, splicers and Little Sisters. Back in the early 2000s, though, the game was very different to how it would eventually end up.
Early pitches set the core game system against the backdrop of an abandoned Nazi genetics lab or in a sci-fi environment. But they weren’t exciting enough to grab publishers’ attention. Codemasters passed on it, as did Atari and EA. Even when 2K, part of Take-Two, signed the project in 2004, the game was a shadow of what it would become.
“It was not Rapture,” Levine remembers of the internally financed demo that snagged 2K’s funding. “Andrew Ryan didn’t exist. The Big Daddies and Little Sisters as you know them didn’t exist. It was just this idea about games systems. Take-Two bought it on that basis, I’m not exactly sure why they did at the time. I think it showed a lot of vision on their part.”
With 2K’s help, BioShock would evolve from a low-budget RPG-heavy title made by a team of 30 to an RPG/FPS hybrid built by a core team of 90, and with access to the kind of funding that would catapult it into the realm of lavish $15 million games. As part of that process, Irrational would be bought out, becoming 2K Boston and 2K Australia (although Boston would later revert to the Irrational name). But before anyone could justify that kind of money, BioShock’s designers needed to decide what the game was going to be.
Levine was standing under the shadow of the GE Building at the heart of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Manhattan, when it hit him. Walking around the towering, 70-story edifice, with its art deco design and famous statue of Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders, he began to think about replicating its ornate style. It wouldn’t be the kind of world FPS games normally allowed players to explore. In that moment, Rapture was born.
Building Rapture’s detailed world was a joy, not least for the art team, but it was something that was only possible thanks to Take-Two cash. “I think where the money really showed in BioShock was the bandwidth it gave the artists to build and really realise the visual look of the game,” says Levine. “We’d never had the resources before to really establish an aesthetic as carefully as we did in that game. A lot of that was about having the time and resources to hire the people to develop the look and develop the assets.”
That trip to the Rockefeller Center also fed into BioShock’s story. The plaza was first planned in the 1920s, but the Metropolitan Opera pulled out when the stock market tanked and the Great Depression hit, leaving John Rockefeller holding the baby. Taking out a $65 million loan, the oil tycoon finished the project solo.
A great man building an architectural triumph against all the odds: you don’t have to ponder that for long to see the link to BioShock’s chief antagonist, Andrew Ryan. He’s an industrialist who rejects American society and builds the city of Rapture beneath the waves. He wants a place where everyone is free to pursue happiness, but his dream turns out to be a failed utopia. Rapture’s hyper-capitalist philosophy and brave genetic research prove unable to cope with the vagaries of human nature and the city is split by civil war.
Rapture would become BioShock’s greatest asset: a baroque, collapsing world surrounded by water, and underpinned by reams of art, a rich backstory and flamboyant characters. But it was also the backdrop for the core gameplay idea of soldiers protecting drones carrying a valuable resource. As the world took shape, the team wondered if it would be possible to make players care about what happened to the drones.
“We did cycles and cycles of this,” remembers Wells. “How do we make the players care about these bugs so they don’t just stomp them? Of course, the key is don’t make them bugs.” While the Big Daddies’ design was nailed down early on, the drone characters proved harder to conceptualise. They evolved from bugs to dogs in wheelchairs, with each iteration trying to find some degree of pathos in their plight.
Finally, the team wondered if they could use a little girl. “It was a pretty terrifying implication, because it was pretty clear that this is what we should do,” Wells says. “We were like, ‘Oh God, we’re going to put a little girl in a game and she’s going to be a target. We can’t possibly do this.’” But do it they would. The key to justifying it lay with a Russian émigré philosopher and novelist.
Weighing in at some 1,168 pages, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is the Sherman tank of American literature. First published in 1957, it’s the very antithesis of light reading. At its heart is Rand’s striking idea: the belief that man should be governed by selfishness, not altruism. She saw social democracy as a curse, and the poor as parasites on the productive power of the rich. What would happen, she wondered in Atlas Shrugged, if men of talent got fed up of carrying the rest of the world on their shoulders?
Rand’s philosophy would become the intellectual framework behind Rapture, a city built by an Atlas who has shrugged off the parasites and turned his back on the world above the waves. As a bonus, it also gave Irrational a way out of the impasse it faced with the Little Sisters.
Originally, the girls were vulnerable to gunfire and the player’s stock of ‘plasmids’, the game’s genetic weapons. The problem was twofold: firstly, they tended to get caught in the crossfire and wind up dead before you could harvest or save them; secondly, it was an open invitation for BioShock to become the next Night Trap and suffer a maelstrom of moral outrage.
BioShock managed to sidestep controversy by using the Little Sisters to distil Rand’s philosophy to a basic binary choice: do you act altruistically and save the girls, or harvest them for your gain? The Little Sisters weren’t just a sensationalistic ploy, they were the key to bring Randism to life. “That’s where the moral choice started to evolve,” says Wells. “You can’t kill them, at least not in the traditional ‘shoot them with your gun’ way. So how are we going to deal with them? I believe harvest and save were born out of that. We decided we could put this choice to the player and make it non-graphic… We could take it off-screen and defer it to a moral choice.”
Not everyone got it. One incensed local newspaper called Levine a pederast, although the journalist himself admitted he hadn’t even played the game (“That was strange and upsetting,” says the designer). But for the most part, BioShock’s release was free of controversy.
The choice players faced regarding the Little Sisters also proved a huge part of the game’s appeal. It gave this FPS intellectual heft and an unlikely seriousness too. Player actions did have consequences, some of them surprisingly real: “I heard about this guy who had to sleep on the couch for a couple of days because his wife came in and found him harvesting,” laughs Levine. “She was so repulsed by what she saw and the choice her husband had made.”
The reaction to the game was a far cry from that disastrous 2007 focus group, which left the team bereft. “We thought we were building our own little nerdy kingdom,” recalls Levine. “We thought of it as a nerdy shooter/RPG hybrid with political themes.” Wells adds: “As a game, we were a nerd trying to run with supermodels.”
In part, it was an issue of managing player expectations. BioShock was so unusual that new players could easily feel alienated and lost. “The fact that BioShock was different was a double-edged sword,” believes Levine. “Call Of Duty and games like that have a little bit of an easier time. There’s not that period of ‘What the fuck am I even looking at here? What am I seeing on the screen?’ If our game had been more traditional, it would be much better at getting those initial ideas across to the audience. But would they have gotten as excited by it as they did over BioShock, because its world was so unique?”
In response, the team added an opening sequence set onboard an aeroplane that crashes into the sea above Rapture. Influenced by Levine’s then-favourite TV show, Lost, it posed more questions than it answered. But it helped players connect with Jack, the main character. “They needed just even the tiniest bit of information about Jack,” the designer explains. “It was critical for people to understand the game and buy into it. We changed a bunch of other stuff along the way too, but that opening was the bridge across the chasm between us and the audience.”
After its release in August 2007, BioShock would sell more than 4 million units and become a Game Of The Year critical darling. “We were surprised by people’s reaction to it,” confesses Levine, without a hint of false modesty. For the creative director, it was also a vindication.
“One of the reasons that BioShock was so rewarding for me personally was [that] it’s a validation of the fact that I can work on things that I find really interesting, and there’s a shot that enough people will find it interesting that we’ll be able to work on more games,” he says. Andrew Ryan’s failed vision turned out to be Irrational’s triumph, and his sunken city a testament to elevated, artistic ambition.