The following interview has been taken verbatim from EGM November 2007 issue 221, PP. 44-46
Going deep with the game's creator
Ken Levine's resume is as elite as it gets--at fabled developer Looking Glass, he worked on Thief and Ultima Underworld. At Irrational, he's been behind Sysem Shock 2, Freedom Force, and SWAT 4. And he kills at gin rummy.
KEN LEVINE MIGHT HAVE NITROGEN NARCOSIS, aka "rapture of the deep," a deep-sea sickness that causes your brain to go fuzzy. The creative director of critically acclaimed 360 shooter BioShock and president of developer 2k Boston (previously Irrational Games) actually--gasp--admittted to his game's problems during our recent interview. Rather unusual when most people would prefer to put a positive, sales-salvaging spin on any negativity. Bubbleheaded developer? Or a true industry luminary who really gets it?***WARNING:REALLY, REALLY BIG SPOILERS AHEAD!***
EGM: We have a theory we want to run by you. It wasn't the Adam that caused the downfall of Rapture--it's all the booze that's lying around
Ken Levine: [Laughs] Whenever there's trouble, having enough alcohol around always acts as a little bit of an accelerant. But hey, this is a very free society. It also probably got a little dull down there at the bottom of the ocean. People need something to occupy their time. But yeah, they had a fair amount of booze down there. And booze stays a long time.
EGM: Harvesting all the Little Sisters yields a very unfulfilling ending. Did you purposely punish the player for being a jerk with that ending?
KL: I would blame that on sucky writing, not on any intention. At the end of the day, there's a lot more interesting things to say about participating in a society rather than destroying it. I think the endings, to some degree, reflect that. One ending is about a guy who's interested in exploiting and controlling, and the other one's more interested in building.
EGM: Do you think the good ending's too brief?
KL: I think it's a little brief. That was a function of production resources. We actually realized we wanted to have two endings really late in the [development process]. I'd never done multiple endings before--we used to have one twice-as-long ending, because you build those things based on the time you have. If it's twice as long, it generally costs
>I'd always rather piss off the gamer than the character.
-BioShock Creative Director Ken Levine
AFTERTHOUGHTS: BIOSHOCK (cont.)
twice as much to build those pre-rendered sequences. The very end isn't my favorite thing. But I like where [the good ending] ends up. I like that you end up becoming a family with [the Little Sisters]; there's a meaning to you saving them beyond just "you rescue the princess" and that's it. You actually are a part of their lives forever. I like the emotion. I just think we could have spent a little more time on it if we had the resources.
EGM: And the last boss was a little bit too easy...
KL: Honestly, I don't think the final boss battle was necessarily the best call on our part. It was our first console game; we felt like we had to have a big boss battle at the end, you know? Because that's just what you do. I don't think we even really needed it, necessarily. I think the escorting the Little Sister sequence is a lot more emotionally powerful. Going back to it, I'm not sure I would have done it the same way.
EGM: How did you research the music? We assume you don't have a bunch of 70-year-olds on staff to consult...
KL: I called my dad, who was a young man in the '40s and '50s. It's not Elvis Presley and stuff I became familiar with in the early stages of rock--this is really pre-rock; Johnnie Ray. Rosemary Clooney, Patti Page, Django Reinhardt, Billie Holiday... We mixed some of the really classic stuff with the sort of crap pop of the time, what we consider pop music, like Patti Page, which holds up more for its nostalgic value than for being great music. I did a bunch of my own research, and thank god for iTunes, that's all I'll say, because you can go listen to 30 seconds of pretty much any song ever made. Or I would research on Wikipedia or talk to my dad, and then I would go and listen to little snipets, and I'dd ask myself, "Does this feel like it belongs in Rapture?" [Dealing with this era of] licensed music... is a very complicated process, because generally you're dealing with people who are dead and their lawyers are dead. The rights are often very complicated, and so a lot of times we'd want a song and we wouldn't get it. We'd have to find another person who performed it, or another version of the recording or something like that. We had to be fairly flexible.
EGM: At the beginning of the game, you havve no idea who your character is or what his motivations are, and as you get closer to the end you find out that you're really nothing more than a puppet. Was that a commentary on the current state of player/character interactions in games in general?
KL: You know, there is a notion of free will in games--but you don't really have a lot of free will in games. You get quests. Somebody tells you to go do this thing, and if you want to succeed in the game, we very naturally give up free will [ to do so]. That's what a quest is. I thought it would be really interesting to play on the very notion of what it is to be a gamer, to go through this experience, that when you were going about these quests your character, and by extension you, was already being deprived of the free will to do those things. In retrospect, you are a little puppet in videogames. I said, "Well, let's turn that into the narrative." Because I'd always rather piss of the gamer than the character. I'd always rather insult the gamer directly. If you have a villain, make it personal, make the gamer fell like the villain's *****, not the character. When we came up with this notion, that you can sort of have the villain manipulationg the player to a degree that when the player finally realizes it, he's already been manipulated for quite a long time, and then sort of realizes that this is what happens in every game... I thought it was a nice little way to comment, not just on BioShock, but to make gamers think twice about the experience of freewill when they play games.
BioShock Creative Director Ken Levine's top 5 cultural references that helped him shape the world of Rapture...
The Shining"No doubt, the most influential work of horror fiction on me in my lifetime. It's impossible to walk the ahlls of Rapture without getting a bit of the overlook Hotel. Though he's become an icon, It's easy to forget that Stephen King completely redefined horor fiction in the modern age.
Miller's Crossing"The Coen Brothers' best film and my favorite piece of moviemaking. You can watch it 20 times--and I have!--and still not pick up all of its nuances. The unique cant of their crime world inspired me when I was trying to construct the Rapturian dialgue of the game."
The Fountainhead"Many of [ingame Rapture founder] Andrew Ryan's big ideas are inspried directly by Ayn Rand. It's easy to hate her, but it's impossible to deny that Rand's ideas about freedom and the power of humans have changed the nature of dialogue about people and their governments."
New York City"The visual direction in Rapture started with the day my wife and I spent at Rockfeller Center in New York City, disposable cameras in hand . We took photos of everything: floor tiles, lightning fixtures, door handles... We ended the day at the Empire State Building. There's something about the look of art deco that always fascinated me."
La Mer"The music in the Lighthouse is Django Reinhardt's 'La Mer.' I first [learned of] Reinhardt in a Woody Allen film called Sweet and Lowdown and I also grew an attachment to the style while listening to the car radio in Illusion Softworks' Mafia. That song became the audio touchstone of the world of Rapture for me."