Interviews

Irrational man: Ken Levine

The Bioshock boss talks next-gen storytelling, sacking designers and why he skips cut-scenes

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What's Bioshock's story then?

Ken Levine: I haven't finished the story to Bioshock yet - I know the thrust of it, but I'm getting a hard time from our producers because I haven't written all the dialogue yet. Ask everyone who's ever worked with me, they hate me because I take forever with that stuff. I let the game tell me, as it develops, what to do. Some things are accidents - you see something in the game world and can create a hook from that.

Games are huge now - isn't it hard to write that much plot?

Ken Levine: It's a lot of work, but the hardest part is making sure the story is in line with the game action. We don't have 10 minute cut-scenes - it'd be a lot easier if I did. You've got to keep it close to the game, keep it short.

Lots of gamers skip through the story bits - is that like a dagger to your heart?

Ken Levine: No, no, I skip stuff. It's a rare game when I don't skip something. We try to make our cut-scenes stylistically bold enough to be watchable. I don't hate skippers, as I do it too. My job is to keep it short enough and interesting enough that people watch. If they don't, I have to make sure if you hit 'X' it skips the cut-scenes. I don't want to force the player to do anything.

Your games are always set in fantasy worlds - what do you think of all the 'realistic' war and gangster games around these days?

Ken Levine: When we started Bioshock, the designers were trying to be realistic, trying to make a real underwater base. I said 'look, the people who live here are not realists, they're people who want to build something extraordinary'. They're saying we can beat the ocean, we can beat God, and in order to do that we had to create a stunning underwater environment. And really show this conflict between the ocean and the people that live under the sea. We made a lot of adjustments to the team to make sure we were building something that people would see and say 'wow!'.

You had to sack your artists who wanted to make everything brown?

Ken Levine: We changed some personnel around, and it was really good because people had to buy into the fact that this is going to be a fantastic place. Fantastic in the dictionary sense, that this is not a place people have seen before. If you can't see that it used to be a fantastic world, then the tragedy of what happened to it is lost.

Why have you gone for the Art Deco style?

Ken Levine: It always looked to me like the style of the future. Like the people who were making it thought that's what the future would look like. Also you're making a game out of polygons, and the elements in a 3D game stand out because they're bold shapes. This style has great curves and silhouettes - the characters in the game have to be visible. You can see them in the hallway, watch them coming - silhouettes are very important.

There are some great shadows in Bioshock...

Ken Levine: I'm a big fan of the Free Radical guys. You know them?

TimeSplitters? Yeah, they rock

Ken Levine: Look at their modelling. Their characters are very exaggerated. You look at their trousers and you see a huge hand coming off it, sticking right out, because they care about the silhouette. You have to exaggerate things and make design choices about shape.

What did you think about Microsoft's E3 showing?

Ken Levine: Oh man, I totally missed out on getting here. I was late and couldn't go. What did you think of it?

It was cool. The GTA IV announcement went down really well. Is GTA the sort of game you play?

Ken Levine: Yeah, I love GTA. People always used to talk about open-ended games, and GTA was the first popular example. When I used to talk about choice, and immersion and open-endedness, people used to think I was crazy. Then GTA comes out and they really figured out how to popularise that. It's been a lot easier for guys like me since then, as everyone understands open-ended themes because of Grand Theft Auto.

How does the sense of humour go down with you Americans?

Ken Levine: It's so funny. The sense of humour is so sophisticated and so lost on many people. The radio stations are a comment on society, consumer culture, violence, but without looking down on it. I love it.

What do you think about all the gang games and GTA clones around at the moment?

Ken Levine: They all miss GTA's humour. They don't understand what's funny. What's so funny is that GTA's a satire, and... I don't think it's cool to run around shooting people, and I don't think GTA says it's cool to run around shooting people. They're laughing at the culture, not just individuals, and I think the other games are all wall-to-wall gangster and they miss the part where there's satirical context.

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