Ken Levine: The GamesRadar Interview

The brain behind BioShock talks about hacking DNA, creating true horror, and the rise of "fart gecko."

GR: The art deco environment looks quite unlike any game we can think of. Do you anticipate modern audiences having any problems relating to a fantasy world from 60 years ago?

KL: We're not trying to make a 15 million dollar architecture appreciation class. The audience wants something that looks cool, unique and feels believable. They don't care if it's art deco or fart gecko.

GR: How has the undersea, frozen-in-time environment been a design challenge? Were there things you wanted to do, but the game's own fiction wouldn't allow?

KL: The great thing about building an underwater Utopia that split off from society with the best and the brightest and created amazing unheard of technology is it frees you up from a lot of constraints. That said, we need the world of Rapture to be believable and consistent. We've done a lot of work to make it so, from the buildings, to the advertisements and products of the world, to the dozens of characters who you'll meet and learn about in the game.

GR: How do you create and sustain a scary game without just stringingtogether a bunch of "boo" moments?

KL: There's a difference between making people jump and creeping people out. We tend to specialize in the latter. It's also a lot harder to do, but more rewarding in the end. With that said, here's the extreme cliff notes version of making creepy video games:

"Imagine Irrational at its most ambitious. That's BioShock." For gamers who remember how Irrational Games defined spooky shooters with 1999's System Shock 2, that's a powerful statement, even from the mouth of Irrational's creative director, Ken Levine. In fact, SS2 is still worth tracking down and playing today; few shooters have topped its immersive creep factor. But the upcoming BioShock, which traps players in a mutant-filled underwater city on the brink of collapse, shows every sign of changing the rules again. "Irrational now has the time and money to not just make a companion to a game we made seven years ago," says Levine. "Our goal with BioShock is to redefine what it means to play a first person shooter." While the team is still keeping many key details secret for now - BioShock is not slated for release until 2007 - he did give us some tantalizing details and thought-provoking insight in our exclusive interview. That doesn't make the wait any shorter, though. ---*---*---*--- Page Break : page break 0 ---*---*---*--- GR: We have only seen a handful of enemies - the flying robots, the big guys in the diving helmets who protect the creepy little girls, the crazy lady on the ceiling. Do each of those enemies have final names yet? And can you reveal more adversaries? KL: The Crazy Lady on the ceiling was one of the ceiling crawlers, the big guy was a Big Daddy, and we haven't released the name for the flying guys yet. Can we reveal more adversaries? All in due time, my friend, all in due time... GR: We know that survivors in Rapture seek out something called Adam, and they find this in corpses. What's the difference between Adam and good ol' fashioned blood? Is it the only energy source in the game? KL: Adam has nothing to do with blood. It's really genetic material that converts existing cells into stem cells...in short, it's genetic 0s and 1s, ready to be turned into anything - bigger muscles, bigger brain, even super powers. GR: Rapture is a peaceful underwater utopia surrounded by glass. Where do the guns come from? KL: Who said it's peaceful? Rapture was never a hippie love fest. Even before it goes wrong, Rapture is a libertarian, capitalistic free-for-all. It's a world with no government restraints on sex, money and power. GR: Will the player ever get to go outside of Rapture, into the ocean depths? KL: That's not in our plans right now. ---*---*---*--- Page Break : page break 1 ---*---*---*--- GR: We understand that Plasmids give the player special DNA-powered abilities, like a fiery touch or telekinesis. Are these permanent upgrades to your character or can you swap them at will? Since you're basically hacking your own DNA, is there a risk in using them? KL: You can swap them out whenever you find a Plasmi Quick (a genetic ATM of sorts). Is it dangerous? Well, that's a very good question... GR: We've heard there will be a crafting system, so you can create your own Plasmids. What will you make them out of? How will this work? KL: This is something we'll start to talk about very soon. But not yet... GR: BioShock looks like it's being designed as a single-player experience at its core. Will there be a multiplayer component? Nope. We are focused like a laser on single player. GR: Why was the game shown on Xbox 360 at E3? We expected to see it running on a PC. KL: Baby, I never promised you an E3 PC build. In our development process, there is always a PC build before there is a 360 build, just the nature of working with the Unreal engine. We have two teams devoted to making custom versions of the game for the two platforms. I think the reason we wanted to show the world a 360 build is because we don't think a lot of people would have believed the world of BioShock could be built on stock 360. With a PC, everybody knows you can have 28 SLI Nvidias running that sucker. However, we did have a PC build on hand in case anyone wanted to view it on the PC. ---*---*---*--- Page Break : page break 2 ---*---*---*--- GR: The art deco environment looks quite unlike any game we can think of. Do you anticipate modern audiences having any problems relating to a fantasy world from 60 years ago? KL: We're not trying to make a 15 million dollar architecture appreciation class. The audience wants something that looks cool, unique and feels believable. They don't care if it's art deco or fart gecko. GR: How has the undersea, frozen-in-time environment been a design challenge? Were there things you wanted to do, but the game's own fiction wouldn't allow? KL: The great thing about building an underwater Utopia that split off from society with the best and the brightest and created amazing unheard of technology is it frees you up from a lot of constraints. That said, we need the world of Rapture to be believable and consistent. We've done a lot of work to make it so, from the buildings, to the advertisements and products of the world, to the dozens of characters who you'll meet and learn about in the game. GR: How do you create and sustain a scary game without just stringingtogether a bunch of "boo" moments? KL: There's a difference between making people jump and creeping people out. We tend to specialize in the latter. It's also a lot harder to do, but more rewarding in the end. With that said, here's the extreme cliff notes version of making creepy video games: 1) Make the world believable. Horror requires empathy. Nobody ever made a horror movie where the victim is a shrimp cocktail. The audience need to care about the world and the people affected by the horror, and to care about them, the audience needs to emotionally connect to them. 2) The audience needs to feel vulnerable. There's you don't cast Arnold Schwarzenegger or The Rock as the protagonist in a horror movie. You need to feel that the hero, or the player in the case of a game, is actually vulnerable. They could lose this thing. 3) Mess with their head. Video games tend to be very literal. Make a world where the gamer is not always sure that what they think they see is actually what they see. Don't let them ever become too comfortable with their perception of reality 4) Build things up. Good horror is like good foreplay. Take your time. ---*---*---*--- Page Break : page break 3 ---*---*---*--- GR: Other than System Shock 2, are there any other horror/fear-based games, in any genre, that you feel create the right scary atmosphere?   KL I'm pretty hard to scare. I don't think I've been really scared by any movie since I was a kid. As for games, I think Eternal Darkness for the GameCube was probably the best I've played. Those guys had a lot of great ideas. The Aliens total conversion for Doom way back when (like 1996) I think was the game that showed me games could be scary.  GR: Where has the team turned for appropriate inspiration during BioShock's development? Where haven't we turned. Fight Club, The Shining, The Fountainhead, Rockefeller Center in NYC, Django Reinhardt, Half-Life 2... that's just a partial list. GR: Irrational is located on the east coast, while many other prominent game developers have set up shop in Texas, California, and Washington. What's the lure of Quincy, Massachusetts? KL: Well, we kind of ended up here because a lot of us started out at Looking Glass. But we like Quincy (it's a few minutes outside of Boston). Boston is the San Francisco of the east coast.  I've lived in San Fran, LA, New York and Boston, and Boston is by far my favorite.  And there's a comic book store, great movie theaters, and several game stores within minutes of our office. I got no complaints. GR: Care to share your strangest BioShock nightmare? KL: Getting a publisher to fund the game. You wouldn't believe how much reluctance there is out there to take risks.   For even more on BioShock, check out our sister magazine PC Gamer's September 2006 issue.

1) Make the world believable. Horror requires empathy. Nobody ever made a horror movie where the victim is a shrimp cocktail. The audience need to care about the world and the people affected by the horror, and to care about them, the audience needs to emotionally connect to them.
2) The audience needs to feel vulnerable. There's you don't cast Arnold Schwarzenegger or The Rock as the protagonist in a horror movie. You need to feel that the hero, or the player in the case of a game, is actually vulnerable. They could lose this thing.
3) Mess with their head. Video games tend to be very literal. Make a world where the gamer is not always sure that what they think they see is actually what they see. Don't let them ever become too comfortable with their perception of reality
4) Build things up. Good horror is like good foreplay. Take your time.

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