In the five years between 2007's BioShock and BioShock Infinite the creator of the series, Ken Levine, became the ambassador for video games to mainstream culture. He was profiled in Wired and The New York Times. The Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic, Michael Dirda, took the time to play BioShock. Guillermo del Toro raved about it. Even the London Review of Books mused about this odd but wildly successful game, which might as well have been called Atlantis Shrugged: a gorgeous, underwater Art Deco dystopia that seriously grappled with the consequences of libertarianism run amok while letting players kill zombies with their lightning fingers.
BioShock is considered one of the best video games ever made. BioShock Infinite, when it was finally released in 2013, received gushing reviews and sold more than 10 million copies. (The underrated BioShock 2 was made by another studio, 2K Marin.)
Yet instead of beginning work on another sequel, Levine announced in 2014 that Irrational Games, the company he'd founded in 1997 and where he'd served as creative director on the BioShock games, was closing. He formed a small studio within Take-Two Interactive, Irrational's parent company, and went to work on a project he called "Narrative Legos," a quest to make a story-driven video game that's endlessly replayable. Late last year he revealed that this would be a sci-fi themed single player game, but he has yet to reveal when it may actually be released.
The man who was once everywhere hasn't been seen much since. But with the release this week of BioShock: The Collection, a package of the three BioShock games remastered for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, Levine agreed to talk to Glixel about his best-known games. We met at his new studio, south of Boston.
Do you ever get tired of talking about BioShock?
You have to remind yourself how fortunate you are that anybody cares at all what you do. Part of you feels a bit fraudulent.
Were you involved in remastering the game for BioShock: The Collection?
No. They didn't ask.
When you started your new, unnamed studio, I assume you knew that someone else at Take-Two was going to make BioShock games?
Never say never, but I didn't want to make another one. Initially, I told them I was leaving the company. I said I wanted to do a much smaller thing. It's very experimental. They asked me to stay. I figured they would keep Irrational for the next BioShock. That's not what happened.
On one of the interviews on BioShock: The Collection, you describe watching a focus group play the first game without understanding it or even liking it.
The focus test guy sort of patted me on the back and said, "Sorry, this game is going to be a failure." That was one of those moments where you either accept the fact that somebody tells you you're a loser, or you double down and say, "The fight's not over yet."
Before that focus test, did you regard the game as finished?
It was essentially done. We thought it was good. We thought it was cool. We thought it was BioShock. Ninety-nine percent of what you see was already there.
We came in on a Saturday. It was Friday night, this focus test. There were eight of us, sitting around a table. We were all fucking miserable.
We were like, "Well, what do we do? What do we think is missing? Because we can't make something new. What is already there that they're not connecting to?" We decided it was who they were. What their identity was.
We came up with a very cheap way to add the opening scene with the plane crash. I wrote one line. We had this idea that you'd be smoking a cigarette on a plane, which to me set the time period really well. We wanted something right away that would not just say it with text but would put it in your soul.
Have you played BioShock since then?
I played Burial at Sea, the DLC for BioShock Infinite, the other day, mostly to see what it looked like on my new 4K television. I don't really enjoy playing my own games. If I could still get paid, I would make games and never ship them. I don't enjoy shipping games. I think it's kind of dreadful.
You're exposing yourself in a very real way. You're saying, "This is what I worked on, now go make a judgment about me and my work." That's not always fun. The real, warm experience is being with the team and making it.
If you were still making BioShock and you hadn't shipped it, what would you be working on?
I wouldn't work on it forever. I would have finished it and then put it in a box. BioShock probably could have used another six months to a year to make it perfect. But eventually you have to stop.
The gunplay was good but not great. We didn't have a ton of experience with that. And the ending lagged a little bit.
Everyone loves the game. Almost no one likes that boss battle.
It's terrible. You have this great game, and then you end up fighting this giant nude dude. We didn't have a better idea.
Another criticism of BioShock was that, when you choose to save or to harvest the Little Sisters, there were no systemic consequences for the choice.
We didn't have a lot of debates with the publisher, but that was one. I thought the reward structure for saving should be very minimal. You should really feel it in the gameplay: "Fuck, how am I going to get through this if I don't harvest?"
Why were they opposed to that?
It's sort of anathema to game design, where you have a path for the player that is just harder – where it's worse for the player. The conventional wisdom was on their side. It was not like I could say to them, "Oh, you're just absolutely wrong. Here are 15 examples."
There was also a lot of concern that people would always harvest. They would look at it from a numerical standpoint, an optimization standpoint. I actually think that people approach harvesting and saving almost entirely from an emotional standpoint.
I have a friend who harvested one Little Sister and was so horrified by it that he never did it again. And then he resented the game for judging him at the end by giving him the "bad" ending. There are people who say the fact that there are two endings contradicts the game's central theme, about the illusion of choice in video games.
That was the other debate we had with the publisher. I thought there should be one ending.
What was it?
I never got to write it. It would be much more ambiguous. Although I did enjoy the "good" ending. I thought it was kind of nice.
BioShock feels like it comes from the end of the era of the personal blockbuster, alongside games like Far Cry 2, Fable 2, Portal. The big games that are made now do not feel like they are authored by a person or even by a small group of people.
I played The Division, and I just walked around New York, thinking, "How many people had to make just the garbage bags in this game?" They probably have teams of people, working around the globe, who are making street signs. That's a proposition that requires an intense amount of oversight and hierarchies that are sort of antithetical, not to great games, but to these personal, weird things.
Why was BioShock Infinite was so hard to make?
The studio was split up. My business partner, Jon Chey, ran the Australian part of our group. He and I were the yin and yang of the organization, the creative side and the production side. Jon and some people from my team were moved to 2K Marin for BioShock 2. It was hard enough to build Irrational the first time. We had to rebuild it while making this big follow-up. The culture got so shattered, it was never properly rebuilt. I don't think Irrational ever recovered from that schism. I don't think it could have. It made me have to wear both hats. That's not my training.
I love BioShock Infinite. But to what extent is it the game you saw in your mind?
For you, it's an experience that you play. For me, it's the five years making it, and all the things that happened while making it, and the health problems I had during it. I saw a picture of me when we first announced it. That was 2010. And then I saw a picture of me after I did an interview on NPR when we shipped it in 2013. And I look 10 years older.
It changed my life in terms of what it did to my health, and what it did to my view of making games, and my relationships with people.
Managing 30 or 40 people where you know everybody's name is a very different process than managing 150 people. You walk by people in the studio and you don't know who they are.
There's a certain kind of person, man or woman, who thrives in that situation, who are a captain of industry. I'm a creative. I'm a writer, basically. More like a showrunner on TV.
I think the natural expectation was that I would go and do the next bigger and better BioShock game. And I felt, "I think I'll fail if I do that. I think I'll lose my mind, and my marriage." And so my solution was to quit.
I know there are people – and in some ways, you addressed this in Burial at Sea – who are bothered by what happens to Daisy Fitzroy, the African-American Vox Populi leader, in BioShock Infinite. They basically think, if I can use a 2016 metaphor, that you created a game in which Donald Trump founded a xenophobic colony in the sky, only to learn that the Mexicans really are rapists.
Here's what I'd say. BioShock 1 is about Jews. I'm a Jew. If you think about it, Andrew Ryan, Sander Cohen, Tenenbaum, they're all Jews. Suchong is Korean. During World War II, Korea was brutally occupied by Japan. He's a guy who survived.
They're all survivors of oppression. And they don't come out of it heroes. Oppression turns them into oppressors. And that's the cruelest aspect of oppression. If you look at Andrew Ryan and Daisy Fitzroy, they're not that far apart.
Maybe people wanted me to write about a hero who rose above that. Elizabeth is the character I invented who does sacrifice herself to break the cycle. But I think most people are destroyed by oppression. I could tell a fairy tale about people who are ennobled by it. But in my experience, as a student of history, that's rare.
If you pretend there are a lot of happy endings for those stories, in some ways it elevates the oppression to something it's not.
People also know or suspect that you're a liberal.
I'm not in this to make people feel good about their political beliefs. If anything, I'm there to mostly challenge my own beliefs. The reason Andrew Ryan is a better character than Comstock is I understood the appeal of Andrew Ryan. I don't get the appeal of the Donald Trumps of the world. I don't fear the things he fears.
I understood Ryan better. He was a bourgeois Jew during the Bolshevik Revolution. The Bolsheviks came and destroyed his family, destroyed everything in his life. That maps Ayn Rand. She's a refugee who came to America because her family was destroyed by the Bolsheviks. It's not really super surprising she became the person she did. Spider-Man was made by Uncle Ben being shot. Ayn Rand was made by her family being destroyed by the Bolsheviks.
I hope if anyone takes anything away from BioShock, it's about how oppression just goes on and on and on, and how ideology can get very muddy once the real world mixes with it.
John Lanchester, who wrote about BioShock for the London Review of Books, told me it was the first game he played that had the ambitions of a novel.
One thing BioShock did for people was it became that thing that people could point to and say, "See, Mom! It's serious!"
I guess I always thought video games had weight and meaning, even when I was playing Castle Wolfenstein on the Apple II, or System Shock. I was never ashamed to play video games. I never needed something to point to, to say, "This is why I do it." I just assumed that it was always going to be something that was out there, and outré, and never part of the mainstream.
But you did crave mainstream acceptance before the release of BioShock Infinite. Maybe you're past that now.
From a marketing perspective, I felt we had a limitation on our ability to reach a broad audience. You can't promote your game in the same way if you can't go on Colbert.
I think if anything it's worse now, the perception that gamers are some disgusting, gross little thing. The last few years haven't helped with that situation. If you look at Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, they would be first in line to say, "Video games are bad." There's nobody to vote for who's going to say that what we do is valid.
Unfortunately, it's Ted Cruz. He plays.
Oh, does he? So there you go. I think you can't look to other people for validation. I just turned 50. Life's too short for pretending you're something you're not. The truth is that video games are nerdy. They're also beautiful.
If you let somebody else tell you that what you like is invalid, and you listen to them, you're sacrificing a part of yourself.
Is there anything you regret about either of these games?
I'm not a happy person. I have crushing anxiety all the time. Which is crazy, because I wake up and I look at my beautiful wife and my beautiful dog and my beautiful home and the beautiful people I work with and these things I've created and these fans, and I say, "How the fuck can you be unhappy?"
Well, we're a miserable species. I am born with a depressive, anxious brain. So I'm full of regret. I use regret to say, "How can I do it better in the future?"
If you were satisfied, you would never create anything. Creation comes from a sense of dissatisfaction with the world as it is.
If I was sane, I would just go and live on an island. You have a passion to make things that, quite often, are going to make you unhappy, that are going to put you into situations that are stressful, that are going to separate you from your family at times, that are going to open you up to criticism. You could fail.
I have a pretty good track record so far. I don't have any giant disasters. Outside of one, but we buried it because we didn't want to release it to the public. We actually bought it back and buried it because we weren't happy with the product.
What was that?
It was a game called The Lost. We made it right after System Shock 2. It was a game about a woman. Her daughter dies, and she makes a deal with the devil to go to hell to try to get her back. What it's really about is the process of accepting loss. It's a game about mourning. It reflects some things that I had seen in my own life at that point.
Is it a whole game?
It's a finished game, for PS2 and original Xbox. It exists somewhere. We never released it because it wasn't up to our standards of quality. The game just wasn't good. I think it would have really hurt us.
It was a Zelda-style, third-person action game. We had never made a game like that. Zelda is genius, Mozart-level stuff, how you find these tools that are both useful gameplay items but also essentially keys. You go through a dungeon and you get the bomb. All of a sudden you look around and see the cracks all over the walls. He's seeded in all this brilliant opportunity for me! The overworld/underworld structure is brilliant.
We tried to create a game like that and we very quickly realized it wasn't a game I was really cut out to design.
Getting back to BioShock, did you initially not open with a cut scene because you wanted the "Would you kindly?" scene to be the only one in the game?
It was philosophical. Whether anybody gives a shit is another question, but I have a deep philosophical aversion to cut scenes.
The cute thing to say, then, is that BioShock, a game about ideology, was almost brought down by your ideological opposition to cut scenes.
Yeah. That is part of my game design ideology, and like all ideologies, I'm sure it is deeply questionable.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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