Shock Tactics

Ken Levine talks to us about BioShock.

It's surprising to us that we're not Ken Levine's girlfriend. Not just because we're hot, obviously, but also because we share his love of good ideas that have fallen apart. Then again, there's an obvious reason we'd never work together: for him, it's the worlds of Orwell's 1984, and Logan's Run; for us, it's the worlds of games like System Shock 2 and Freedom Force. In other words, we'd only be sleeping with him for his work.

What a good time to sleep with him, though! With BioShock just a few months away from its 24th August release on PC and Xbox 360, the world of Rapture must be reaching completion - and we're keen to dive in, and work our way through the broken underwater home of the corruptive "Adam", a substance whose regenerative and mutative properties proved too much even for the heightened minds of Rapture's once-Utopian society to handle sensibly.

Stalking the streets, where "Little Sisters" gather Adam from the dead under the ghoulish protection of their biomechanical Protectors, is top of our list of priorities this August - and with that in mind we managed to track down Ken Levine for a few quick words about how it's progressing, how it's been influenced, and what drives him to make games in the first place. And, as you'll see, he propositioned us. Filthy man.

Eurogamer: It's easy to imagine expectations that stem from BioShock's spiritual predecessors, Deus Ex and System Shock, preying on your minds as you develop it. What's the reality? What sort of influence have they had?

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It might be tempting to use Little Sisters for your own purposes, but you should beware that the game is paying attention.

Ken Levine: I wouldn't say System Shock 2 is preying on our minds any more than an earlier album of any recording artist preys on the mind of the same artist when they find themselves back in the studio. All of our previous successful games give us confidence: "Hey, we're not total idiots! Maybe we have a shot of making this work out!"

Irrational has always tried to break traditions, and BioShock at heart is this: a great shooter that gives the player more that what he expects when he plays a shooter. There are a million features in the game you won't find in other shooters but they all revolve around one thing: giving the players more ways to take control of the world and do horrible things to his enemies.

Eurogamer: With the implied moral structure of BioShock's world, we've been given the impression that we'll need to make tough decisions while playing. What purpose do moral challenges have in gaming? To what end have you made use of them here?

Ken Levine: I don't believe moral choices in games have a huge amount of meaning if they don't go hand in hand with gameplay choices. BioShock ties the two together. The game asks the player: "How are you going to deal with the Little Sisters who've been enslaved by the city of Rapture? Are you going to help them? Or exploit them?" And the choices the player makes will directly tie into not just elements of the plot, but with how the player's character's abilities grow and develop over time.

Eurogamer: Do you feel as though your primary influences are literary or cinematic?

Ken Levine: All of the above. Here's a partial list of the inspirations that BioShock begs, borrows or steals from: Atlas Shrugged, Logan's Run, The X-Men, The Shining, Fight Club, 12 Monkeys, etc. etc. etc. I watch a lot of movies.

Eurogamer: How do you think your games have earned the peculiar reverence with which the gaming press receives them?

Ken Levine: I provide sexual favours to the press.

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Protection racket.

Eurogamer: Okami's designer, Atsushi Inaba, said recently: "Entertainment does not have to be profound and we did not have any intention for Okami to be seen in this way. If you thought otherwise, maybe we should have developed the title in a way that it would have been received as pure entertainment." What do you make of that?

Ken Levine: Games should be about entertainment. If you're going to be profound (or try to be), you sure as hell better know what you're doing, and you better be fun. Any "profundity" in BioShock is in service of making a great game experience. Look at Lord of the Rings. What separates the book/movie from, say, any crappy run of the mill Elf-a-thon? Lord of the Rings is mediation on the nature of power, and how seductive it is. Most of the special effects of LotR really come from the acting, not a 3D shop. But if the battles weren't amazing, if the monsters weren't cool, if the explosions weren't incredible, the whole thing would fall apart.

In other words, get your monsters right, and then worry about being profound. If you can do both, you're cooking with gas.

Eurogamer: With American politics currently chasing after any anti-gaming lead it can find, do you fear that BioShock might be misunderstood, and perhaps fall victim to this climate? Is there still room in gaming to provide players choices, where one choice might be morally abhorrent?

Ken Levine: Considering what happened to comics in the '50s and the ridiculous hysteria applied to certain games going back to when I was a kid (anybody remember the uproar over Mortal Kombat or the arcade game Death Race?), it doesn't really matter what we do as game developers. If somebody wants to go after you, they'll go after you.

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Wanted: underwater cleaning ladies.

Eurogamer: Talking of choices, what drives you to create videogames, rather than simply write stories?

Ken Levine: The challenge. The ability to work with a team. I'm a gamer at heart. It really is the place where all the things I love (stories, gameplay, aesthetics) converge. Videogames are the love child of movies, comics and war games.

Eurogamer: Windows Vista is out now, and BioShock will take some advantage of DirectX 10. Besides the obvious technical changes, what sort of practical applications does DX10 have for an ambitious storyteller like Irrational?

Ken Levine: The best thing about DX10 and Vista for me is not better graphics. It's the push Microsoft is making to make PC games easier for the user to buy, install and understand. The new rating system for system requirements is going to go a long way to broaden our market. PC gaming needs to grow up in this regard, and Vista is a great start.

Questions by Tom Bramwell and John Walker. BioShock is due out on PC and Xbox 360 in August.

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