"There's nothing like an immolated monster flailing around, screaming and setting nearby objects on fire in panic." Ken Levine, creative director of Irrational Games, loves his job. In an industry that often seems packed with cynical, ageing individuals who have lost their gaming mojo, Levine is a refreshingly enthusiastic and passionate developer.
Having worked on such titles as Thief: The Dark Project and System Shock 2, the ex-Hollywood scriptwriter knows a thing or two about making a game that's fun to play, but also a darker, dare we say it, more 'mature' experience.
Bioshock could be Levine's greatest game yet - a frightening shooter set in a submerged art deco utopia called Rapture, once populated by the world's great minds, but now perverted into a diseased, deadly ecosystem where genetic mutation has spun wildly out of control.
"We wanted to build a place that said 'There's no easy escape'," begins Levine. "That's what always bothered me about a lot of shooters - the artificiality of it all. You think, 'Why can't I just run that way and get out of here? Because that car is in the way?' The sad truth is that games are a bit of a fib. I want to make games that minimise the fib."
What we've seen of Bioshock is no lie - the last presentation in September showed an uncompromisingly brutal FPS, where you must use every aspect of the environment, weapons and special 'Plasmid' bio-skills to negotiate the nightmarish underwater city. But how are Levine and his team going to introduce the player into this horrific reality and explain the detailed back-story of Rapture's demise?
"Well, I'm not a fan of the tutorial - we're trying to avoid tutorial-itis," laughs Levine. "The dynamic training system is our version of having a buddy who's already played the game sitting with you, giving you a nudge in the right direction if you get lost. As for the story, there's about a zillion ways we tell it..."
SHOW DON'T TELL
Most obviously, Bioshock is littered with visual clues, as no two places in Rapture promise to look the same. "We use a device called 'mise en scène': which loosely translates to 'Levine's a pretentious twit'." What it really means, if you're not a regular Late Review viewer, is that the developers set up visual scenes so you can, perhaps, identify what happened. For example, you might stumble upon a bedroom with the corpses of a man and woman on a bed, with a photo of a young woman between them, and several bottle of pills on the bedside table.
More disturbingly, you could find an audio log of a cop who was forced to murder someone, describing the apartment of the person he killed just before you discover the eerie location, complete with a ghost-like resonance of the victim's last moments.
Levine continues: "You could even encounter desperate survivors, wheeling and dealing with you for one last chance to make it out of the city. We've got no shortage of story-telling devices."
Bioshock has been described as 'freeform', in the sense that the levels are fairly open and sprawling in comparison with your usual shooter. Plus, according to Levine, you can freely travel back to any area you've visited before.
"The traditional mission structure is used to prevent players from travelling to overly dangerous areas, but there might be cases where the player is like, 'This spot is too hot, I'm going back to build myself up a bit'."
This said, the game will be split into seven distinct areas (we'll call them levels, for simplicity's sake), and each will have its own themes and internal storylines beneath the vast canopy of the Bioshock narrative arc. One, for example, is called Hephaestus (that's the Greek god of blacksmiths, technology and fire, fact fans), which deals with what fuels Rapture: extremely hot steam produced from volcanic vents that lie at the very bottom of Davy Jones' Locker.