Irrational Games Interview July 2006

Posted by David - August 1st 2006

Earlier in the year one of Irrational's PR guys contacted me wondering if we'd like to send a few interview questions to Irrational.

After emailing back HELL YES the TTLG staff started coming up with some questions. We also solicited questions from our forum readers too.

We whittled the submissions down to 13 questions, getting rid of anything that vaguely resembled "ru putting monkies in bioshock lol" as, let's face it, they're a) probably not terribly interesting and b) Irrational won't be giving any specific details about BioShock out for quite a while.

The thirteen questions were further slimmed down to six as Irrational are 'super busy'.

Today I received the response, so without further blabbering, here is the interview, as written by Ken Levine:

Ken Levine: First of all, let me say I'm sorry this took so long to do. We're just really getting our community management going here at Irrational and we're in the process of hiring a full-time community manager.

We've brought on Tom Ohle (formerly of BioWare) to lead our community effort and we wanted to get the ball rolling on that before we started doing a lot of community interviews.

With that said, let's get rolling on the very first BioShock community interview!

TTLG: In the first BioShock previews in 2004, we heard all about an abandoned WWII Nazi base with genetic experiments gone awry. Now we're hearing about an "art deco underwater utopia participant-evolution inspired civil war".

Were early reports massively wrong? Was the game just kinda sketchy on the setting and story at that point? Or did someone wake up one day and say "Man, that's a bit of a lame idea, I know we can come up with something fresher than THAT"?

Ken Levine: They weren't wrong; I was! You pretty much hit the nail on the head here. When we did the first piece, it was really early on in game development, and I hadn't had a chance to give a huge amount of thought to the story. As time went on, our vision of the story evolved and we ended up where we are now.

TTLG: What were the artistic decisions behind to using lots of lovely art deco... There are three games off the top of my head that structured the visuals strongly and deliberately on art deco motifs and those would be Grim Fandango, Thief 2, and (to a degree) Stubbs the Zombie.

Grim Fandango used it to create a sort of surreal afterlife world that was simultaneously foreign and familiar, Thief 2 used art deco to represent burgeoning industrialism and a sense of encroaching menace to an otherwise simple (if unhappy) sort of life, and Stubbs the Zombie... well, that was also a tale of a wide-eyed utopian city gone horribly awry due to an inability to cope with the most basic of threats we face in our day-to-day lives. Only in that case it was Zombie Invasion.

Basically, what were the decisions about the visual style like that? It's a really powerful and evocative thing for North Americans in particular.

Ken Levine: One, I've always loved art deco. I was born in New York, and it had an impact on me from an early age. There are also not a lot of games that have leveraged the look, and it looks really great in polygonal forms. Good video game art is all about shape and silhouette. A lot of games get caught up in texture detail, but shape reads a lot better at the relatively low resolution of modern games (compared to, say, movies).

The other great thing about deco is that it looks like somebody's vision of the future, but it's so firmly rooted in the past, which is exactly the vibe we were going for in BioShock.

TTLG: What's next after the current paradigm of "mutants and stuff gone genetically awry" in horror, do you think?

Are we going to drift back into Alien Menace? Or is a smaller step backwards into Technology Is Not Your Friend on the horizon? Or something totally different?

There are very strong themes in what frightens or concerns us at particular stages in our history. Killer robots, Alien Menace, Atomic Monsters, Dehumanization, the Random Assailant, Technology Is Not Your Friend, and most recently Genetic Horror -- these all tended to follow the deeply unsettling misgivings we've had about new developments in science, social structure, and technology.

Ken Levine: That's a good analysis of themes in horror. The trouble is, I have no idea how to answer this question. I'm not really afraid of genetic technology, atomic weapons or killer robots. I'm afraid of ideology, and the dangers of extreme ideology. In a lot of the games I've worked on, I've tried to put the player in the role of the guy stuck in the middle.

When I did the original plot for Thief, I tried to make Garrett (or Palmer, as he was originally known) a guy with no ideology except himself. He got stuck in the middle of larger forces, each driven by a strong and opposing ideological bent (the Hammers and the Trickster).

In Shock 2, I did something similar with SHODAN and the Many. In BioShock, you're really caught between ideological extremes.

I guess the historical basis for this really is the greatest horror of all time: The Eastern Front of World War 2. On one side you have Hitler and the other have Stalin, two extreme murdering ideologically driven scumbags. Everybody else was caught in the middle.

TTLG: One of your primary goals has been to design a game "where a walkthrough would be useless". How much of that goal has been achieved, what were/are your major problems in that regard, and what did you learn for future games?

Ken Levine: It's a process. Right now the biggest hurdle to this is story. We can use the microprocessor to spawn in bad guys, randomize loot, give the player a huge range of tools to choose from and have the AI interact with each other in groundbreaking ways. We can make a really emergent world that feels different to every player. What the microprocessor can't do is write a single line of interesting story. It can't create a single compelling character. It wouldn't know a plot twist if it woke up in bed with one.

TTLG: How do you induce players to reflect upon the morality of their own actions in an environment where survival overrides other goals? Is the existence of a Higher Authority passing judgment necessary for a system of morality?

Ken Levine: No, you just have to put the moral choice right in the player's nose. There have been lots of games where you make moral choices as follows:

Lord Doofus: So, Paladin, tell me this: Will you join the forces of light, or will you side with King Demonik's infernal army?

You: 1) Hook me up with that shiny plate mail! I'm your man, Doofus! Now can I have that scroll of Seraphic Summoning?

2) Screw you Doofus! I want me some of that hellfire? Now can you point me to the helpless widows and orphans?

What always bugs me about this is that it ignores the key component of what compels people to do nasty things: need. In BioShock, we put you in a terrible world that has exploited the weakest members of that world in horrible ways. Then we put you in a situation in which, in order to survive, it's pretty damn tempting to exploit the weak yourself. And there's no moral authority telling you what to do, what's right and wrong.

The people who exploited the Little Sisters in Rapture were motivated by ideology and their survival instincts. Any player who plays BioShock is going to be very tempted to exploit the Little Sisters, too, because now it's their life on the line. That's going to lead, I hope, to an understanding of how terrible things happen. It brings the player into the process of evil, and maybe makes them understand how terrible things happen, even when basically good people are involved.

This is going to sound quaint in the world of Grand Theft Auto, but I remember back when we were working on Thief…the original version of the mission where you're supposed to kill a local crime boss had you being hired by a bunch of merchants to assassinate the guy. They didn't like him because he was shaking them down and they wanted him dead. So your mission was to go into the guy's home and murder him, taking what you will along the way.

There were a lot of people at Looking Glass who were uncomfortable with this. So they insisted that the mission be rewritten that Ramirez tried to kill you first. I thought it was a cop out. Garrett wouldn't need to be motivated in self defense. He was motivated by money. That's what defined him.

TTLG: Developers and fans lament that in recent game history, the same few genres are produced over and over again. What is the innovation in BioShock you are most proud of?

Ken Levine: No doubt, it's the AI. Our goal with BioShock was to make a game where the AIs have interesting and meaningful relationships with one another…in ways that really impact on the gameplay. The Big Daddys and Little Sisters are real to me, and they're real to the team. They're the moral and technological center of the game.

So there we go! I'd like to thank Ken Levine and Joe McDonagh of Irrational and Tom Ohle of evolve, who have all been great!
If you want to chat about this interview you can do so in our forums!