Gamers have a strange, and in ways very English, attitude to success - a cautious, suspicious response that says that it's okay to be successful, as long as you pretend you're not and keep your mouth shut. Talk about how you made your game, what you learned from it or why you think it did well, and the internet will rise up swiftly to accuse you of having a God complex and believing that the sun shines out of your own backside like a perverse, fleshy torch.
It's something that people like Ken Levine, the creative lead on last year's wildly successful BioShock, fall foul of on a regular basis. Levine isn't a man given to silence - when he speaks, he speaks volumes, and his analytical, even philosophical approach means that he's happy to dissect his own successes (and failures) at great length. For those who loved BioShock and are intrigued to know more about the creative process which spawned it, that's great news. For everyone else, it probably means eye-rolling and accusations of megalomania ahoy.
Levine and his team - including design lead Bill Gardner and technical director Chris Kline, both of whom joined us for this interview - are hard at work on their next project, and probably not that bothered by the slings and arrows of those who accuse them of self-aggrandising. They're certainly more than happy to talk about BioShock, discussing the creative process, the slow evolution of the game, and even the occasional controversy and criticism which followed the launch. So, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight on one of last year's biggest games, we started off by talking about one of BioShock's strongest suits - the story.
Eurogamer: In your presentation at Develop, you described the story of Bioshock as being something which developed in an almost organic way alongside the rest of the game. How much of it - if any! - did you actually have in mind at the outset?
Ken Levine: The goals were there, but the particulars? Almost none.
Eurogamer: And when you say the goals...
Ken Levine: That I wanted it to be player-driven, that I wanted it to be non-cutscene oriented.
Bill Gardner: The themes as well, I think. The extremism and all of that.
Ken Levine: Sort of, sort of... Really? I think the AI ecology was the genesis of that.
Chris Kline: We wanted to see what we could do that would differentiate us from other people, given our experience.
Ken Levine: It all kind of came together - like, we wanted a world that's cut off from the rest of the world. So, have an underwater city. Well, why on earth would there be an underwater city? Maybe it's a utopia. What kind of utopia would it be? We had these gatherers, these Little Sisters, so maybe it was some kind of economic thing, or a philosophical thing. I personally had been reading all that stuff, like every kid who went to some liberal arts college, so I sort of tuned into that. It accretes over time. Ideas build on other ideas.
Eurogamer: So you didn't start off with all the objectivist, Ayn Rand stuff in mind - that just sort of added itself as you went along, and became the overriding, thematic core of the game.
Ken Levine: Yeah, I think that's... To me, the narrative core is that Rapture is a place where people have removed their limitation - of all kinds, completely. Either artificially, or philosophically. What happens? What happens in that situation - when there are no constraints of any kind? We built it from there - things like the genetics stuff came out of that, and the characters all grew out of that. We kept building on that theme.
We had the medical level, right? At first, that was just some doctor guy. We had a mission where you had to go and kill this doctor, and he had a key - a very basic thing. Then I said, this doctor needs to be somebody - so, who is he? I thought of Ryan, and I asked, what would Ryan be if he was a doctor? He'd be this guy who says no limits - I want no limits on me.
That became Steinmann. We asked, what would that guy's personality be like? He'd think he's like Picasso - that he could reinvent the form, even in a form that really can't be reinvented, like plastic surgery. He'd think that anybody trying to limit him was an enemy of his.
They're all reflections of Ryan, all of those characters - Steinmann and Cohen, they're reflections of Ryan. They're people who say - no limits, no limits, no limits.
Eurogamer: Your narrative ends up feeling like a critique of objectivism - there seems to be a strong political view behind it. Is that your own point of view, or even something you share?
Ken Levine: It's funny, because you have half the people saying that - and you have half the people saying, it's objectivism boosterism.
Eurogamer: I'm not really sure where they get that idea from...
Ken Levine: It's an amazing accomplishment, right? The city itself is a pretty amazing accomplishment...
Eurogamer: Up to the point where they all start killing each other.
Ken Levine: Well, we kill each other here, too. Is a great nation not a great accomplishment because it goes to a horrible war? England's been to a lot of wars, does that mean it's not an amazing nation?
Chris Kline: It's more of a treatise on extremism than on objectivism.
Ken Levine: System Shock 2 had a lot of similar themes, where you had Shodan and you had the Many. That was something we introduced - I always feel like a person caught between idealogues. I think that politically, I feel that way, and in general, I think that the most successful people - the people I like to work with most - are people who don't have rules about their lives. They don't have rules about how they do things. They follow logic, not ideology.
I'm very uncomfortable with strong ideologies that people follow regardless of the facts at hand. To me, that's always where things end up in the sh***er - saying, we're going to follow this ideology, and the ideology must always be right.
So, in System Shock 2 we had Shodan, who was the ultra-id, and I came up with a counterpart for Shodan, which was the Many - this glorious union of everybody. They were both merciless in their views as to their ideology.
You can only be so scary, you know. What ideologies are about is putting a whole world-view in place. You don't have to show Shodan building this giant city - you know what this city will be like, because she's Shodan. You know what the Many would do with the world, how they would suck the individuality out of everything - while Shodan would crush everyone with her will.
In BioShock, it's the same thing. You have Ryan, who has this ideology of embracing the will of man and nothing else, with no limits - and you have Fontaine, who is the opposite. He's almost got no ideology, he doesn't believe in anything - he's a nihilist. You're stuck between those two people, and that gives the player space to think about those extremes.
Eurogamer: When it comes to telling a story, are you constrained in some ways by the way the game must play out? For instance, are there things you would have liked to have done with the story, but which simply couldn't be done given the narrative tools at your disposal?
Bill Gardner: I think it's more about finding ways to present that sort of stuff. We're not really limited in any way. Obviously, it would be liberating and easier for us to do cut-scenes to get all the stuff across... But no, I can't think of any point where we were held back.
Ken Levine: It's about how. How do we get this idea across? We beat on it until we find the way to get it across within our toolset. I don't think we've ever thrown away an idea, saying there's no way we could possibly express it. I think that shows a lack of intellectual rigour on the developer's part - you have to be able to say, does my idea have to be exactly the way I'm thinking about it, or is there another way to show this?
This is how development works. You have an idea, and I go to Chris or Bill and they say, "well, dude, that's f***ing crazy" - and we sit there and we talk about it until we find a way to get the idea across.
Chris Kline: It's one of the great things about working with this team. The design team comes up to me with something crazy they want to do, and I'll say, technically, we can't do exactly that. What's interesting to me is that they'll then say, okay, well here's what I'm trying to get across to the player - how can we present it in a different way? It's a great experience to have that sort of back and forth. When you work with people who are focused around an idea, rather than a particular scene or a particular special effect, it can be really liberating.
Eurogamer: One of the common criticisms of BioShock is that the gameplay is more traditional than people expected - it's more linear, less innovative, and it's the narrative and the presentation of it that's really different. Was it a deliberate decision to stick with things that are more familiar on the gameplay side of things?
Ken Levine: This is an interesting thing... Let me preface by saying that the gamer is always right. If that is their opinion, they're totally entitled to their opinion - and I'm not here to argue an opinion. However, I think this is a matter that's modulated by perception.
If you take BioShock and compare it to other first-person shooters - and we're always very clear that this is a shooter, first and foremost - it's in general, less linear than most first person shooters, like Call of Duty, Half-Life, stuff like that. The feature-set is pretty substantially different, in terms of stuff like the plasmid system, hacking, taking control of bots, the Big Daddies and Little Sisters, passive gene tonics, all the min-maxing that's involved...
It's not World of Warcraft level by any stretch, and we never present it that way, but we really didn't show a lot of that stuff because we didn't want to get across the idea that there is a WoW level of complexity at work here. If you think about the missions, whether it's the residential area, Olympus Heights, or the Medical Pavilion - compare it to a CoD level or a Half-Life level - it's actually far less linear than those levels. Now, I'd say that the mission structure is pretty linear.
Grading on a curve, or relatively to other products, I think it is... I don't quite understand that criticism. I don't invalidate it, because people...
Eurogamer: A lot of people who played the System Shock games expected it to be a progression of that play style, basically.
Ken Levine: This is interesting too, because if you play System Shock 1 compared to System Shock 2, for instance... System Shock 1 is actually a pretty straightforward shooter. There's not a lot of characters - we added a lot of that in System Shock 2. So I think if you compare it to SS1, it's quite a lot more systemically complicated. Not in interface terms - interface has come a long way since then. I say this as the biggest fan of System Shock 1 ever - I got to make the sequel! It was awesome!
As for Shock 2, I'd certainly love for someone to lay out the systems side by side. Is it really - and I'm really trying to be genuine here - is it really less complex than Shock 2? I don't know...
Bill Gardner: I don't know if it's about that. I mean, I'm just as baffled as you...
Ken Levine: I'm really curious to know. I want to figure this out.
Bill Gardner: To me, when I look at shooters in the past ten years - and that's what we are - I look at Halo, where you get the cover system, the recharging health, and all that. Those are the big things. You go to Call of Duty - they were the first game with iron sights, I think, or maybe Medal of Honor. Iron sights was a big thing, they made it into a core mechanic where it was all about shooting from the hip versus going into iron sights.
To me, BioShock is the first shooter that really introduces combos. It's almost like a fighting game in some senses - you've got the one-two punch, you've got this plasmid and that weapon, and all this creative, improvised gameplay. I may be overstating, and I'm obviously too close to it - to me, I view it as pretty innovative in that sense, but obviously the gamers are the ultimate arbiters. Judge, jury and executioner! [Laughs]
Chris Kline: I think there's less up-front presentation of complexity in the UI, and I think that's where it comes from. The systems are just as complex - it's just that we hide the drudgery of having to deal with over-complication.
Eurogamer: You mean that because you don't show people all the stats, they don't realise they're there?
Chris Kline: You don't need to physically drag your inventory items around, say...
Ken Levine: And to be fair, some people may not view that as drudgery. Some people may view it as fun... I love min-maxing in WoW, and I love messing around with my inventory. I mean, why the hell do I like managing my inventory slots in WoW? I don't know, but I do.
I think that we wanted to expand the audience for a first-person shooter, while retaining that hardcore audience. And I think, honestly, really, deep-down, we wanted to popularise this kind of gameplay that we've been attached to for so long. If the first iteration of it was a tiny bit simpler than System Shock 2... How many of these type of games do you think are going to be made now, compared to how many of them were going to be made before? It took us, how many years to get this game green-lit?
Now, future games - competitors' games, our games - we can build upon millions of people's knowledge base. How many people had played these kind of games before? 300,000 or 400,000 maybe? Now it's millions of people, because of this game. It's like with RTS games, if you go back and play Dune 2 - and now look at them! They have build queues, all this complexity - there's Company of Heroes with cover and stuff like that. It's because a system was popularised, and people were willing to invest in it with confidence that there would be an audience.
Before, as great as System Shock 2 and Deus Ex were, nobody bought 'em. We want to crack that - and I think that now, the sky's the limit for how deep these games can go.
Bill Gardner: I think it's similar to film - when you got to the point in time where there was an established vocabulary of how you used a camera to show certain things, creativity took off. It wasn't dumbing anything down.
Ken Levine: If you showed The Matrix to an audience in 1958, they would not be able to follow one frame of it.
Bill Gardner: Or to my parents... [Laughs]
Ken Levine: There is a language which people have been initiated to, a filmic language. We're now expanding the... Sorry, I don't want to end up sounding like Jonathan Blow or something, but the "gamic" language. The ludic, gamic language! However the hell you want to say it!
I don't really play in that space, talking about games in a very academic way - but I know what people will get, and in BioShock we really tried to push the boundaries of that in a popular first-person shooter that could sell millions of units. Now, they get it - so we can push a little further, and a little further.
It's not to say that the criticism is unfounded, anyway - but nobody's ever been able to explain to me exactly where it comes from. Look, nobody likes the idea of these hardcore guys selling out, or whatever - but I view it the opposite way. We brought such a large audience to this... I can pretty much guarantee you that if BioShock wasn't successful, there never would have been another game like this.
I don't know how we convinced people to pay for BioShock, because these games had never made any money. That's what we were told. Everybody told us when we were pitching BioShock, it sounds like a great idea, you'll sell 150,000 units - next! We managed somehow to sucker our friends at Take-Two to make this game, and god bless 'em, they bit, and they went for it. Now, I think people who like these kind of games can benefit.
Eurogamer: That's a question in itself - if games in this genre had previously made no money, why did BioShock manage it? What did you do differently that turned out to be the magic ingredient?
Ken Levine: I'll tell you exactly what it is, as far as I'm concerned. I looked at all the stuff in System Shock 2, and I thought that the most compelling thing was the atmosphere. Not the game systems, not the min-maxing - if you make a world that people get really lost in, and really immersed in, you can make the world a character - and people want to play the game.
That's what we focused on in BioShock. If we spent resources on anything, it was making Rapture real. That paid off. Most first-person shooters are like, next hallway, next office building, next whatever. You get some things that are very familiar but really well executed, like Call of Duty - where you have these amazing tableaus - but it's downtown Baghdad. Their stock and trade is working on the familiar, and they give you that sort of experience. Our stock and trade was the unfamiliar, and we knew we had to focus on this - on atmosphere, and on a sense of place.
Bill Gardner: I think that's definitely number one. I think there's definitely an element of luring the player in, easing them into the complexity - almost tricking them, in a way. It's about elegantly introducing players to different mechanics, systems and play styles. The one-two punch is a core example. I don't think that's the kind of thing that any player would ever even think to do.
Ken Levine: Step that back for a second. If you said to the player, "first you have to set up an enemy... blah blah"... We found a way to communicate that very simply, the one-two punch - which people are familiar with from boxing. People didn't understand the concept before we presented it that way.
There's a lot of training going on in the game, which people may not even notice. There are all these dynamic messages that pop up in the game, which watch for when the player doesn't get stuff and reminds them. I think if the game came up with a lot of text on the screen - System Shock 1 actually had all that, all the tutorial stuff - people would have had a perception of complexity that they didn't have in this game. What first-person shooter can say, "if you shot this guy in water, he's vulnerable for a period of time and then you can use another weapon, but he may be more vulnerable to this type of damage..." It's just not the lingua franca.
Bill Gardner: It's a microcosm for the way the whole game was presented. If you look at the first half hour, Jesus Christ is there a lot of stuff we throw at you! The plane crash alone is more than enough to carry some games through the first half-hour. You get the plane crash, the bathysphere, then you've got Rapture, Ryan, the Big Daddy, the splicers, the security bot, the one-two punch, the wrench, plasmids...
Ken Levine: Meanwhile, in another game, they're taking Hill 451 after D-Day again. Again, in no way am I dissing that stuff - but they just have an easier job of what story they sell.
It's a much more familiar story.