But the status quo is not a stream, let alone a 'mainstream'. It is a stagnant swamp.
It is the innovators who carry mankind forward." -- Ayn Rand
BioShock will be Ken Levine's magnum opus. It will be his career defining game. It's ambitious, unusual and aggressive, mixing the high polish expected of a "next generation" shooter, with equal parts storytelling, politics, and philosophy, all wrapped up in a bloody, underwater, 1940's bow.
Some months ago, I spent a day with Levine and his team at Irrational Games in Quincy, MA. It was a chance to see the game first hand before they were really ready to do any "hands-on" with the press, but mostly it was a chance to talk to one of the industry's more interesting developers. See, Ken Levine believes he's blowing the doors off the first person shooter genre, and he's daring you to prove him wrong. But mostly, he's asking you to think.
Ken Levine, the creative director at Irrational Games, is one of those storied industry personalities like a CliffyB or a John Carmack. The difference is, he doesn't really make anything normal, nor does he have weird hair or an attitude. He makes, well, irrational games. Games that don't make a lot of commercial sense.
Our Story so Far
After years of working BioShock in his head, Levine brought the idea to publisher 2K Games. "We basically had nothing," says Levine. "We had 'Dude, this is gonna be awesome!'" There was no logical reason for 2K to fund BioShock, but they did, and ended up acquiring Irrational in the fall of 2005. "They made a leap of faith. They said 'yeah Levine, go ahead and try and reinvigorate the first person shooter genre in an underwater utopia set in 1960 with little girls walking around.'"
That leap wasn't entirely into the dark. Levine entered the gamer lexicon with Thief: The Dark Project and System Shock 2. The former arguably created the stealth-shooter genre (albeit with bows, not sniper rifles). System Shock 2, released in 1999, brought players into a freaky horror-movie plot with twists and turns that puts "Aliens" to shame.
He and his team at Irrational went on to make Freedom Force, and it's sequel, Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich -- a franchise the smart money said could never make it. A quasi-turn based 3/4 view super hero game without a Marvel or DC license? Impossible! Of course, the Freedom Force franchise turned out to be finely crafted, excellent games, even if they didn't buy Levine a new Ferrari.
But after Freedom Force, Levine realized to make the game he really wanted to make -- his game -- his team needed to get their shooter chops back. 2007 is a very, very different world than 1999. So they took on S.W.A.T. 4, a completely traditional (and largely forgettable) first person shooter. "It was an interesting title for us," acknowledges Levine. It was finely tuned, very pretty, had good AI, and was fun. It was good, but it was also completely un-extraordinary. If you believe him (which he makes it hard not to do), this was all according to Ken Levine's secret-master-of-the-universe plan. "It was about training our craft, and getting really good at making a first person shooter." How to make shooter interfaces. How to use the Unreal 2 engine. How to balance weapons and levels and information flow.
All along, deep inside the insidious mind of Levine, the goal seems always to have been BioShock, the "spiritual successor" to System Shock 2. "If you're going to play your genre-reinvigorating-title, you better make sure you know all your notes and all your chords. That's why SWAT was really good for us."
Levine (like, I would imagine, most gamers) had grown frustrated with the sameness of the shooter world in the waning years of the 20th century. "I love shooters, I love Half Life," he admits. But as a player, he was getting bored. "Think of a ball of string," he says, calling on a signature metaphor he's used repeatedly in the last 5 years. "Most shooters are a ball of string you unroll. You follow a path ... there's only one way to go, there's only one thing to do."
Not so with BioShock. The intent of BioShock is to give the player free will. Rather than running through corridors, the player will explore a city. Not a wide-open Grand Theft Auto city, to be sure, but a city nonetheless. And the physical environment you explore, and the story it tells, will be unique. At least, it won't look like one you've seen in any other game.
"It's a castaway story," explains Levine, trying his best to boil down what is an expansive, layered plot to four words. "You're a guy in a plane crash, you end up on the surface of the ocean. There's a lighthouse in the distance, you swim to it, and it takes you to this strange city that nobody's ever heard of."
The city is Rapture.
Rapture: Plot by Architecture
In the 1940s, one Andrew Ryan, fed up with the world around him sucking the life, money, and art from the brightest minds of his age, creates Rapture: an underwater utopia. As Ryan describes it in one of many in-game soliloquies:
"Build a city on the bottom of the ocean? Impossible. But on the surface, all the parasites and hangers on would have taken this from us. So the ONLY place to build the city I wanted to build was at the bottom of the ocean."
Descending into Rapture, the player is indoctrinated into Ryan's vision of the world. Disneyesque, this "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" ride comes with a theme park voice over. But on entering Rapture, the theme park ends.
Rapture was, for a time, the shining utopia Ryan hoped for -- a world of unfettered capitalism, science, art, and luxury. But somewhere along the way it all goes wrong. Rapture's scientists discover the Sea Slug, a miraculous creature that oozes raw stem cells (and, like virtually every signature creation of BioShock, named in a ham-handed fashion that you can either consider endearing or lazy). The gooey stem-cell stuff -- called Adam (see what I mean) -- is the nectar of the gods. With it, the citizens of Rapture can transform themselves, they can mutate, they can become more than human.
And of course, this kind of power causes all sorts of problems, especially in a flaccid, unregulated utopia. The economy changes. People get greedy. The struggle for this limited resource presses the city into civil war. The haves and have-nots clash. After all, someone has to clean the toilets, and nobody wants it to be them. A mysterious man named "Atlas" leads a rebellion against Ryan, and the war rages, fueled by genetically modified (and insane) warriors called splicers.
As the player enters this world, the civil war has taken a harsh toll. At every corner, the ocean is trying to take the city back, seeping in over windows and around doors. And nearly everyone you meet is either mutated, crazy, or both.
It's built into seven distinct areas -- industrial centers, medical facilities, residential housing -- each designed to take hours for the player to explore, and it is a place worthy of exploration. Rapture is bizarre and unsettling. It's an underwater art-deco nightmare of neon lights, brass railing, leaking pressure seals and the garbage of a thousand dead. It screams -- aggressively -- its 1940s pulp inspiration. "It's always a challenge when you start on a game, how do you make something that's familiar yet fresh," says Levine. "The music, and the clothes, the look of the advertising, we're always trying to put it in a real place."
Sitting next to the artists and designers, there's little question that every corner of BioShock has been lovingly crafted. Irrational licensed the Unreal 3 engine from Epic, the visual supercharger behind the hit Xbox 360 title Gears of War. Like most developers, Irrational has taken this engine and tortured it until it bleeds a gritty reality full of fire, water, and dust. From the few hours I spent touring the game's architecture (alas, over the shoulder, as my day at Irrational was before the game went "hands on" to the press) they've succeeded on at least a few levels. Everything in the game feels both organic and polished at the same time. And the environment is extremely interactive. "Everything is searchable," explains Levine. His goal was to make the world of BioShock work correctly, like a simulation. "If the user expects to be able to do something, they can do it in this world. So you can freeze something and then shatter it, fire spreads correctly, and so on."
So far, the team has succeeded. In the chaos of a fire fight, everything moves. Bottles shatter and fly, oil slicks spread across the floor and can catch fire. Flammable objects (including stuffed animals) can be ignited and thrown. If you throw an object into a pool of water, it floats, and the surface of the water ripples. It simply feels real. That feel carries over in a dozen subtle ways: wind, smoke, ricochets, the dirt on an old machine, the worn corners of the windows. That finely crafted feel carries over into the players actions.
If It Moves, Kill It
BioShock is (as both Levine, the PR people, and the designers reminded me every 20 minutes), a first person shooter. You move smoothly, you duck behind corners, you collect weapons and ammo, and, of course, you shoot stuff.
The stuff you shoot depends largely on how you chose to play the game, and that's where things get interesting. The primary conceit of the game is the stem-cell mutating goo called Adam. Adam is first and foremost a plot device. It makes people super-human, and the citizens of Rapture who are addicted to the power it provides can't get any more. That's the hook. "Things just started to go really, horribly wrong a few months ago," Levine explains, setting up the world as the player enters it. Civil war breaks out, and "it's like Baghdad." A Baghdad where the weapon of choice is biological mutations: plasmids. The "Bio" in BioShock comes from these plasmids. They let the bad guys alter themselves in dozens of ways to become Splicers: uber-guerrillas. "The effect of taking all these genetic modifications is it drives everyone crazy," Ken explains. And these Splicers are everywhere. "They're like all these crazy homeless people with superpowers."
Because they killed off all the Sea Slugs, the only place the combatants can get the raw material for these modifications -- the Adam -- is from the dead. This sets up the most horrific act of the game -- one you will see right away and witness many times in your journey through Rapture. A little, bobble headed girl -- a "Little Sister" genetically engineered by unscrupulous scientists -- approaches a corpse, extracts blood from it with a heart-needle syringe and then swallows it down like a shot of tequila. She's not alone. She's never alone. She always has her protector: a deep-sea-diver-suited, well-armed and lumbering monstrosity. A "Big Daddy." He's very protective, and designed to be very hard to kill.
This set piece of the game succeeds in being horrifying and stomach turning, two reactions difficult to achieve in any medium. If it succeeds for you, it sets up the story by forcing you to make a choice -- a moral choice -- about how you are going to interact with these little girls. "You come up to one of these Little Sisters and you immediately have a choice. And it has immediate gameplay implications," Levine says. And those implications are very real. Kill a splicer? Well a little sister may come along and leech him dry. Exploit a Little Sister? You've chosen a dark path that nets you immediate resources. Protected her? Well, that's a different path, with different rewards, different payback.
Either path has implications for the kinds of battles you will fight, how your character will develop, and how the story will go. Of course, exactly how this plays out is a secret Levine's holding close to the vest until the game launches, and how much you care about these role playing elements depends on both the kind of player you are, and how compelling you find the game's fundamental Little Sister set piece.
And how successful the game is as an RPG is perhaps in conflict with the constant refrain that the game is a shooter. Because no matter what path you take, you're going to have to mow down bad guys to progress through the game.
Not satisfied with the standard handful of weapons provided by most shooters, the team at Irrational tries to drown players with choices. Yes, you can access all your weapons with the number keys at the top of your keyboard (or through mashing buttons on your controller). But most weapons can be modified in different ways and take multiple kinds of (scarce) ammo. Even more shocking for a shooter, you can actually (gasp) engage in a little crafting and make modifications yourself, or trade with other characters in game for that extra something special for the discriminating rocket-whore.
This customizable weapon system has a parallel in the personal augmentation available through plasmids. With over 60 kinds available for your limited slots, building out your character becomes a kind of "what's your MMO build" mini-game in its own right. Like the naming conventions, the plasmid system borders on the goofy; they're available through vending machines like soda and candy. But their easy availability means that the main enemies, the Splicers, can be just as hopped up as the player. Given that they represent the primary mob in the game -- the equivalent to Doom's demons -- they need this diversity or they could become boring enemies very, very quickly. Instead, you never know what capabilities that freaked out woman with the glowing eyes may bring to bear.
These plasmids let you modify and slowly build your character in a way not-dissimilar to an RPG. But don't tell Ken that. "This is not an RPG," he demands. "It's not about stats. This is about huge amounts of dynamic exciting player expression ... thousands of ways to exploit the environment, take control of things and use the world to your advantage." He's passionate about this to the point of hyperbole and hand-waving.
And when he talks about using the world to your advantage, he's not talking about hiding behind counters or flinging toilets with a gravity gun. He's talking about artificial intelligence.
Artificial intelligence is rarely intelligent. In most first person shooters, AI boils down to how good the bad guys are at finding you, killing you, and defending themselves. In BioShock, AI gets a little more complicated. Here's a typical gameplay moment from a day of watching encounter after encounter.
You enter a burned out bar. There's a Big Daddy and a Little Sister. You need an ammo can you can just see under the cash register. You try and sneak in, but you walk too close to the Big Daddy and he starts unloading lead at you. He moves between you and the Little Sister, holding her with one hand, shooting with the other. As you back up, you come in range of a security camera. Alarms sound and two helicopter drones swoop in on you. You run to a security console and quickly hack in, taking control of the bots. They switch targets and now shoot at the Big Daddy. A Splicer hears the ruckus and joins the fight. You throw chemical goo at the Big Daddy, convincing the Splicer to change targets. But as the Splicer (now your ally) attacks, he stumbles into a fire started by all the weapon blasts. Screaming, he runs from the room, puts himself out in a pool of water, finds a health station, recharges, and comes back pissed.
The interactions happening in this fight are blisteringly complex and unscripted. The Big Daddy has to constantly evaluate the biggest threat in the room, which is changing for him by the moment. He also has to find the best position in the room from which protect the Little Sister. The bots have to evaluate whom to attack on entering, and then whom to attack once you hack them. The splicer has to make a choice of whom to attack, and then needs to decide whether to save his skin or fight, and choosing wisely, how to get back in the fight.
After witnessing encounters like this one a few times, it's extremely clear that there is no script. Everything that happens during this fight is a result of the players actions. You could have chosen to run, to use a plasmid to make the Big Daddy think you were a Little Sister, to use one of dozens of weapon and plasmid combinations. Your choices make the script frame by frame. Even the presence of the Little Sister in the room at all is dictated by your actions long before you arrived for the fight.
If these cause and effect reactions within a complex AI system bear fruit throughout the arc of the game, it should make for a very, very good straight-up first person shooter. The more effective the AI and the more interactive the world, the more interesting the game will be to play. Playing puppet master to the designer running my preview, I tried anything I could think of, and I ran out of ideas. You can grab a child's teddy bear, set it on fire, and ignite the oil-stained suit of a Big Daddy. You can kill distant enemies by electrifying the water in which they stand. You can catch, throw, and break things telekinetically to have Darth Vader style junk fights. And my personal favorite, you can freeze a bad guy with an ice plasmid, then shatter them into a million pieces with a wrench.
None of This Really Matters
If the game succeeds in half of it's Icarian goals, BioShock should be an excellent game. And while you could play it only focusing on the weapons, the combat and the environment, and have a hell of a good time while making fireworks-audience noises at the pretty water and fire effects, you'd be missing the point.
All of this talk of AI, graphics, gameplay and design -- this was the main reason to spend the day at Irrational. It was the gig. Sit in a conference room, walk through wire frames and concept art and interface design. Guide as many hours of painfully hands-off puppeteering game play as I can get away with. Challenge the developers where I can, try to circumnavigate PR and step outside the demo-levels and well-rehearsed gameplay vignettes. Ask them to stop, go back, turn left, pick up this, throw that, show me what's broken, show me what's around that corner. That's the reason why PR people drag journalists in off the street.
By the end of the day, I've exhausted Levine. I've run through all of their plans of what to show me, checked off all the boxes on my internal checklist. My voice recorder is nearly full. Time to change hats.
"I really appreciate all the time you've given me today. I think I have a good feel for the game, and what your trying to accomplish. If you don't mind, I just have a few more questions for Ken." The PR rep dismisses the rest of the crew from the conference room. The PCs are turned off, the sound system stuck back in the corner. Ken eats another muffin top and I grab a coke.
"OK I get it. It's a kick-ass shooter."
This is PR code. 2KGames, Irrational-the-company's owner and publisher of BioShock, has mixed feelings about the game's place in genre-space. Early on, the press pigeonholed BioShock as a "hybrid RPG/Shooter." This scared the crap out of them, and for understandable reasons -- shooters sell, especially pretty shooters. And in a pre-Oblivion world, there was little evidence that a flashy RPG designed for both the PC and Xbox had a shot. So they've established an inviolable PR hook -- it's a kick-ass shooter.
But that's not really the point. It's not why the game is interesting, or dare I say, important. So I spent another hour talking with Levine about story, philosophy, politics, literature and the nature of being human.
The point of BioShock, the raison d'etre, is really the story, and the messages and intellectual content that Levine tries to deliver as a payload. "Look at Lord of the Rings," he challenges. "Why is Lord of the Rings more interesting than random RPG story number 507? They're exactly the same thing. They have orcs and goblins and demons and trolls. But Lord of the Rings is a meditation on power. And it's really interesting because of that. It's what gives it it's heart." And with undenied hubris, Levine's trying to do the same thing with BioShock, while still delivering a game 16-year-old cheese eating high school students will want to play. "We have these philosophical notions, but you've got to deliver. You gotta bring home the monsters. You gotta bring home the superpowers." In short, he's become a commercial realist.
But he's still determined to get the ideas across. "Even as we live in a country divided, I feel that most of us are sort of in the middle. And I think there are some really interesting themes to play on there." The most prominent character in BioShock -- Andrew Ryan, Rapture's founder -- is an embodiment of a self-centered, free-will political ideology called Objectivism. Objectivism is the brainchild of 1960s author Ayn (rhymes with mine) Rand. She defined it thus: "Man as a Heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity and reason his only absolute." Put more simply, an Objectivist says "the world is what it is, my place in it is important, the only way to know anything is to use your own head, and the best political system is one that leaves me the hell alone. "Andrew Ryan is Ayn Rand meets Howard Hughes," explains Levine.
The initial plot of BioShock -- the founding of this utopia -- mirrors the plot (albeit through a glass darkly) of Rand's 1960's epic book "Atlas Shrugged." In "Atlas Shrugged" the worlds elite -- the "atlases" -- stage a minor rebellion and remove themselves to a better place: a valley where they can be free of the eye and hand of the world's governments and those who would leech off their talents. While the rhetoric of Rapture's founder, Andrew Ryan (an anagram of Ayn Rand with an extra "rew" thrown in for obfuscation) sounds like a Randian polemic, his nemesis is ambiguously named "Atlas." To figure out which one is really the good guy or the bad guy, we'll all have to play the game.
BioShock's story -- for those who wish to stop blowing things up to delve into it -- is about translating this Objectivist ideology into the real world. "One of the things that's very appealing about Rand to me, and about Rapture, is at least in the beginning they're driven by reason." Indeed, this is what attracts most people to Objectivism: it's based on rationality above all else. By both highlighting and skewering Objectivism, Levine's on the warpath against zealots. "I'm trying to write about what happens when real people try to do things," he explains. "The characters in Ayn Rand's books are paragons." But paragons aren't real people, and Levine has written his characters to be as real as possible. They may be drawn in broad strokes, but they're human. "Real people aren't perfect. That's the problem with ideologies. Real people carry out ideologies. So even the best of intentions gets screwed up."
To attempt to do this in a game -- not a college art project, but an actual commercial blockbuster game -- is phenomenally ambitious. "You don't elevate the discussion by saying 'listen to me!'" says Levine. "You get it by saying 'look this is awesome, oh and by the way we're also talking about being a human being. We're also talking about power.'" So knowing the story he wanted to tell, he spent most of his time and resources on making the awesome, and thus, that's what we hear about. "To get the themes I wanted to get in the game and make sure it wasn't blah blah blah, that was the hardest challenge as a writer." A writer. At the end of the day, that's what Ken Levine's Matrix-level residual self image is. He slips that title in when his guard drops, when he's tired, when he's sure I've absorbed 'the awesome' and that I've got the PR hook. He's writing a story. He's just showing it, not telling it. "If you know the Little Sisters are carrying the most important resource in the world, they're these little girls going around taking the resource from dead bodies. That's telling you something about the economy of this world. It tells you something about how f*cked up it is." It's clear that when Levine talks about 'this world' he means not just the world of Rapture, but the world currently revolving around his Quincy, MA office. And games are the medium he's chosen to make his point.
"If people take anything intellectual away from this game, I hope it's just 'here some new ideas, think about them.' But there's no polemic in this except think for yourself. And watch out if someone is telling you that something is absolutely true." It's anti-zealotry, pure and simple. "That's a message I think Rand would be very comfortable with. You have your own reason. All human systems are fallible."
In another world, Ken Levine might have been a novelist, and his team at Irrational his writers group, meeting around a dusty table in a Parisian cafe. Like Ayn Rand, he might have written a 1,000 page opus on power, free will, and human fallibility.
Instead he's making BioShock.