BioShock: Ken Levine talks morality, System Shock 3 possibilities

Gamepro sits down with Ken Levine to discuss the Empire State Building, interoperability, and BioShock.

GamePro: Bioshock is the sort of game with a clear commentary from its main evil doers making blatant ideological statements. Can you make a comment on the game's social commentary?

Ken Levine: A lot of people ask me, "Are you pro this?" or "Are you pro that?" on genetic research, etc., but I think the game is about, from a social commentary standpoint, the value of skepticism, the value of looking at any ideology, and going...huh. Because Andrew Ryan believes strongly in certain ideas, and I believe in some of the things he says, but the question is what happens when you stop questioning people. At the core, I'm a skeptic deep down, and that's what it's about. And in these times, it benefits everyone to be skeptics of people in power.

GP: Another obvious element of Bioshock is the stunning Art-Deco style. Is there some sort of inspiration that you've taken from or drawn you towards using that?

LEVINE: Just walk along the streets of New York. I grew up near there. Where are you from?

GP: I'm from the Bay Area.

LEVINE: Well going to the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center, I don't know if you've ever been there, but how can you not fall in love with those buildings? To me they said, when you have this ideology Ryan has, it feels like those buildings. You know, it says, "Man can do anything". And I also think they work really well in a 3D environment and no one has seen it in games, so the artists and I fell in love with that style.

GP: Bioshock has shown to be a complex game; just playing the first two levels shows a lot of its depth. Is there something about the game in particular that gave you the most trouble with content?

LEVINE: The very nature of what someone called the interoperability -- that anything can be used as a weapon, that any object can be used -- makes for a challenging game to balance and tune. But it also makes the game really awesome, like when a tester comes back and tells you " You know you can do this, right?" and we say, "No!" We found out a few weeks ago that the bots that follow you around once you hack them; if you stick a proximity mine on them they'll kamikaze the target. That just happened. Or when you use telekinesis on a tripwire. Of course a lot of unintentional things happen also that we have to fix. But when you build an underlying simulation like we did, these situations come out and it creates more and more gameplay. The creative director of 2K has a good saying: "Say yes to the player. When you expect something to work a certain way, whenever you can, say yes to him."

GP: So Bioshock has a lot of open-endedness to it. It clearly doesn't follow a set path. Those games all too often seem to be hard sells to publishers, for whatever reason. Did you find Bioshock to be a hard sell?

LEVINE: I am...very adept sexually and that's how we pitched the game (laughs). I had actually pitched the game for a couple of years; basic concepts of it before 2K took it. What happened was I mentioned the game to one of the big game websites and when that story ran and everyone saw the attention it got, this hunger for something new, all of a sudden they were there. But I'll tell you about 2K, as the game got more different and unique, like when I introduced the Big Daddy and Little Sister, they didn't tell us to turn it into a World War II shooter or anything like that. And I'll never forget that.

GP: Speaking of the Little Sister, that's a strong moral dilemma, one of the key features in the game you mentioned. Are there any other instances like that where you need to make a similar choice?

LEVINE: I think that's the heart of moral choice in the game, and we built a lot of game systems around that, and the character growth happens quite different depending on which way you go, and the story begins to change. But that's the primary moral choice in the game, but the whole world and milieu is people making very complicated moral choices, and that's your central moral choice.

GP: So we have to touch on the subject of multiplayer. It's becoming pretty common to expect multiplayer in games as a standard. Is there multiplayer in Bioshock?

LEVINE: No.

GP: Microsoft pushes the idea of downloadable content and Xbox Live on the 360, so could we see downloadable content for Bioshock?

LEVINE: I can't talk about that. But I'll just say, personally, I love downloadable content, and that's all I'll say.

GP: Also, another comment you might not be too open to talking about, but will we be seeing or hearing anything about Bioshock on the PS3 down the road?

LEVINE: Right now we're totally focused on making the game for Xbox 360. Microsoft has been a great partner, we love the platform, and we get to make a PC game as well. That's great because we come from the PC side, but right now we're focused on getting the game out the door on the platform that we're on and that we love.

GP: Are you using the Unreal 3 engine for Bioshock?

LEVINE: Yes, it's a modified, heavily modified, engine. It's kind of a hybrid.

GP: You worked on other great games like Thief and System Shock, where there was either a focus or option of using stealth. Will that be similar with Bioshock?

LEVINE: Since we've done System Shock 2 we've leveraged the Dark Engine, like how people hear things, light having an effect, or crouching making less noise. That all works in Bioshock and there are key tonics that affect that, but it's not a stealth game. But those elements naturally work, just as they worked in System Shock 2.

GP: Lastly, is there ever a chance we might see you at the helm of System Shock 3?

LEVINE: Man, that question is completely out of the hands of a little man like me. But we took the core principles from the last game and weaved them into Bioshock. To me the game principles are more important than what fictional universe the game exists in.

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