Game designer Ken Levine is making "BioShock," the next big shooter for the Xbox 360. But he wouldn't make the last big one, "Gears of War."
"It doesn't come out of me to make guys in big suits of armor like that and talking tough like that. It's just not my thing," he said in a recent interview with MTV News. "But hey, it would make my life easier if I could."
"BioShock" — which has steadily built hype since last year's E3 and is veering toward a June release on 360 and PC — will cast its players in Rapture, a creepy, art-deco-style undersea city that is slowly flooding. The game will also pit players against foes like the lumbering Big Daddies, grunting men in bulky diving suits who collect bodily fluids from corpses. He hopes "BioShock" will change what people expect from every first-person shooter that follows it. He promises a game that mixes heaps of bullets, guns and blood with dashes of philosophy, economics and architecture.
"My parents have been saying since I graduated from college, 'When is any of this going to pay off?' " The answer wasn't "SWAT 4," "Freedom Force" or any other projects he and his company, Irrational Games, have developed. It's "BioShock."
Levine knows he isn't creating a pop song. He respects people who provide a beat for the mainstream. But he isn't one of those people. Take Epic Games' Cliff Bleszinski, the maker of "Gears of War," for example. Ken's not like him. "Cliffy has got a sensibility and understanding — and I mean this in the best possible way, because 'Gears of War' is a 3 million [unit] selling game — he has an ability to punch the audience in the nose and say, 'This is what you want, damn it, and it's awesome.' That is something I could never do. I just make what I think is cool." And he hopes people will catch on.
A few years ago, Levine thought it would be cool to create a first-person shooter that might have the impact of "Gran Turismo" and "The Matrix." In terms of the former, he wanted something that shook up a genre. "They changed the definition of what you want in a racing game," he said. "People now expect that you can tune your car when you get a racing game. And if not, you're just not satisfied anymore."
Levine says he thought shooter games needed a similar kick. The genre had progressed surely but slowly, and he wanted "BioShock" to lurch things forward. Conventional shorts had linear layouts. A player could map them, he said, by "unrolling a ball of string." He wanted to build Rapture as a city to explore in any direction, to wander in and crisscross. Typical shooters locked players in a room for shootouts with level-ending boss characters. The "BioShock" Big Daddies will roam, and the player hunts the bosses and picks the fight. "You decide where [the fight] happens," he said. "You set up the ambush. It's a tough fight. ... These are bosses that just live in the world. You determine the rules of engagement." He says there's more.
As for the "Matrix" touch, well, he wants to add flavor that most game designers neglect. "Most video game people have read one book and seen one movie in their life, which is 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Aliens' or variations of that. There's great things in that, but you need some variety." He's drawing from elsewhere. "Look, I just steal from other sources," he freely admitted.
Levine describes himself as "half total freaking computer video game nerd and half pretentious, boring, Vassar-educated twit." He's read up on Ayn Rand and studied art history. Certainly that can fit into a video game. "You could take a bunch of liberal-arts courses and find 'The Matrix' all throughout it. What they did is they basically said, 'Let's take a tiny bit of this and sprinkle it on top of our action movie. Because it makes our action movie seem cooler.' That's what 'BioShock' is. The architecture ... [and] the Ayn Rand philosophy and the economic theory sprinkled on top. My challenge as a writer is to make this a nice flavor, but never forget this is a first-person shooter. Never."
While he certainly downplays the more artsy and intellectual aspects of the game — "At the end of the day frankly gamers don't give a crap," he said — he's clearly proud to have it in the game. "BioShock," after all, has built its reputation as a 360 title to be watched because of how unusual it looks. It doesn't include the typical space-station corridors or alien enemies. Its soundtrack plays from in-game phonographs; its wall-crawling enemies wear the green dresses they wore as belles of a 1940s ball. Levine wrote his first play when he was 14 and kept at it throughout college, learning the craft of stage production and reaching an audience. He said he's always wanted to write a dystopian story, the kind where the perfect world goes wrong.
So mixed in with gameplay that empowers players to genetically enhance their character and trick security robots to turn fire onto Big Daddies will be the game's philosophy — or rather, it's warning about philosophies. "You can take any philosophy to the extreme," Levine said. "It becomes dangerous if you can't ever look at what you're doing and say, 'Hey wait a minute, is this going too far?' And I think if you look at the current world situation, you have a lot of extreme philosophies and a lot of people who don't question what they're doing."
Rapture was founded by people who wanted to be, in Levine's words, "free of government taking all their money or religion trying to tell them what to do and how to run their business." Their perfect society literally mutates and begins to drown.
That heady context, mixed with the unconventional gameplay dynamics, could have long ago confined "BioShock" to a niche product. Instead it's the star of gaming-magazine covers and a candidate in many gaming outlets' lists of most-anticipated 2007 games — at least a moderate version of the kind of treatment "Gears of War" got last year. It hasn't exactly made Levine a Cliffy B celebrity yet, though. "I went to a GameStop a few weeks ago when I was trying to get a Wii. Somebody recognized me from a picture in Game Informer ... I figured hey, might as well try to cash it in a little bit. I said, 'Can you hook me up?' And he said, 'No.' "
Still, Levine says he's enjoying the opportunity to once again do his own thing. A few years ago he had the chance to choose a different future: After making "SWAT 4," his team could have gone and made game number five. "We sort of felt we had already gone down that road," he said. "We wanted to come up with a cool utopia, not model an AK-47." Then he wanted to be able to flood that utopia and make players think about it — just a little — as they blast a Big Daddy away. It can't always be pop tunes, can it?
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