Levine On… Bias, Trust, SWAT & Tennis

Elizabeth is very sad because she won't get to play any tennis today

Yesterday, we brought you Ken Levine’s explanation of BioShock: Infinite’s 1999 mode. The response was, perhaps inevitably, divided. Here’s the second part of my chat with him, in which he anticipates that, as well as addressing the fact he can only offer a biased opinion of his game, the problem with out of context headlines, tennis in BioShock, why SWAT 4 would have been a very different game under his stewardship and, yes, why “if you’re a reader on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, you are sophisticated enough to not listen to what Ken Levine says.”

When we left off, Ken Levine was talking about his desire to achieve greater clarity in what he says in interviews…

RPS: It must be extra-tough to try and be completely clear in what you’re saying in this age of the out of context headline, where in a moment some site might take something you said off the cuff and change its meaning by having it stand alone or be put in proximity to something else.

Ken Levine: Oh yeah, that happens all the time. That comes with the territory, but what those headlines do… There is a good thing and a bad thing about those headlines. The worst kind is when it’s “Levine says so-and-so” and someone’s even put it in quotes, but they’re actually not quotes. They’re a summation. I had this happen yesterday; somebody took something out of the [1999 mode] press release and they read the word ‘permanence’ and the word ‘death’ as to mean an Iron Man mode – where if you die, you can’t continue. So it said “Levine said this”, and it’s actually not what we said in the press release, but it sort of conflated things.

So what that kind of experience has me do, especially being more in the public eye in the past few years… and when you’re just talking to somebody, like we’re just having this conversation Alec, you want to just have a conversation, you just want to talk about things. But then you realise that you have this responsibility, because people are going to be reading and people are going to be analysing, to make sure that the things you say are very difficult to misinterpret or – not even misinterpretation, because that’s putting the onus on the reader rather than me – that I don’t say anything that lacks clarity.

So I try to be as clear as I possibly can, because people will read things and maybe they misinterpret or maybe I’ve misspoken, I haven’t be clear enough. Not misspoken actually – misspoken is a word politicians use when they lie [laughs]. Or, when I spoke about System Shock 2 on BioShock 1, that was a completely honest thought, I really thought at the time that that was what that game was. I actually still very much feel that; I think there is a very large number of people, especially on sites on RPS, that disagree with that, so that is one of the reasons that we’re thinking about this mode – to look at that audience and say ‘what were they dissatisfied about?’

And let me tell you something, I can guarantee you that somewhere in the comments section on RPS, there’ll be [adopts forceful tone] ‘Levine has no idea what we were dissatisfied about! This idiot thinks that the problem in BioShock was permanence, but the problem was this’ That’s going to happen, and we’re doing our best to look at our work, and this is not is just an external thing. When that guy said about the permanence thing, I was “oh my god, that makes total sense to me as a gamer, that is exactly something I would have liked to have played”, and the problem I’d had before was nobody had said something to me that resonated as a gamer.

Whereas people would say “oh, I hate Rapture, I hate the Little Sisters” – that doesn’t resonate with me, because obviously I don’t hate Rapture. It’s a much harder thing to argue with: “I hate Andrew Ryan, I hate Big Daddies.” I like those things, and we can’t make a game we don’t like. It’s much easier when someone comes to me and says “I miss permanence”, then I’m “oh, testify brother, I also miss that.” You can only make games that you want to make – you can’t make a game for somebody else.

RPS: Plus, when people are disagreeing with you on something, there’s the issue of presenting interviews and quotes in plain text, like you’ve stood on top of mountain and declared them like a commandment, as opposed to part of a discussion where there’s a back and forth and the other party can seek more clarity.

Ken Levine: Yeah. I tend to read comments sections on RPS more than on a more general place, because I am that kind of gamer. There’s all this weird crazy shit that I never would have heard of otherwise, all these PC games that I want to play, and that and Quarter To Three are my go-to sites for finding out about weird PC games. In comments sections, I feel a lot of the things that people feel there because I am that kind of gamer. But [sometimes] I am also being interviewed in the body of text and that’s being interpreted in a certain way, and that’s completely valid. I am definitely a ‘customer is always right’ kind of guy: they’ve given us their 50 bucks, we have a responsibility to give them something they’re going to enjoy. So we do the best we can when we talk about the game, we do the best we can when we design the game, but there’s never a time where we make a game for somebody – we have to make a game for ourselves. If you’re trying to chase some demographic that you’re not part of, you’re really going to fail.

RPS: That’s how you end up with stuff like CityVille…

Ken Levine: Yeah… although maybe the guy who designed CityVille, maybe that was exactly the kind of game he wanted to play, I can’t speak for him. But we only make games that we wanna play; when I look at the games that Irrational has made, specifically the games that are nearest and dearest to my heart, System Shock and BioShock and Freedom Force, because those are the games that as a gamer I want to play.. But then the guys on the team who made SWAT 4, I had very little to do with that, they had a passion for that experience, and I think they knocked it out the park.

RPS: Yeah, that’s quietly an amazing game.

Ken Levine: Yeah, they were making the game they wanted to make. Guys like Bill Gardner, Chris Klein, Sean Robertson, they really love that game, and they wanted to make that kind of game. I think if I was leading that kind of game it wouldn’t be very good: I liked SWAT 3, I played it and enjoyed it, but it wasn’t one of my huge passions. These guys, they did a great job with it – if I had lead that project it wouldn’t have been nearly as good.

RPS: It might have been, but in a very different way. Probably with monsters in.

Ken Levine: Yeah, after it when they turned to me and said “okay, what are we doing next?” and Vivendi wanted another SWAT game and it was my turn to lead, I was like “I can’t do that. Let’s make a zombie SWAT game!” We talked about that on our website; that was something I was much more interested in, but that would probably have very much disappointed the hardcore SWAT fans because that’s not what they’re interested in. So you do the best you can, but at the end of the day if you’re making a game for somebody else it’s really asking for failure.

RPS: I think the world still wants to see that zombie SWAT game, you should make it sometime.

Ken Levine: [laughs] I was watching 28 Days Later recently and I was like “ah, man – there’s really a great game there.” So yeah – look, we’re only human, we do the best we can, when we make the game and when we talk about the game and I just want to make sure, especially in this mode that I’m speaking with incredible clarity.

RPS: Something else that’s maybe got in a way with that in the past is the conflict between this perception that Irrational, and often you specifically, are the smartest guys in the room for mainstream games, so everyone wants to ask you about philosophy and literature, but actually you’re also making a game about shooting guys in the face and that doesn’t always get conveyed.

Ken Levine: Yeah, certainly often when a journalist comes to us to talk about BioShock there’s a disparity between… They want to talk about deeper philosophical issues, and they’re less interested in the game systems – but there’s a large section of the audience that just wants to shoot stuff. And I’m of two minds about this myself – I love, obviously, some of the philosophical underpinnings, and I’m certainly very interested in the historical setting, but I’m also really interested in all the game system stuff. So what’s been fun, especially in the 1999 mode, is it really asks us to go back and dig into that old school gamer systems head, deeply into that space and say ‘what is the delta between BioShock and a game we would have made in 1999?’

That’s been a really interesting design challenge, because it eluded me for a long time – and again I guarantee there’ll be someone in the comments section saying “Levine it’s still eluding you, trust me, you’re an idiot.” And that may very well be true, but for me as a gamer this is the piece that was missing. I’m never going to chase [i.e. design the game towards] some gamer who’s unhappy with our game, because the only gamer I can chase who’s not happy with our game is myself.

People on the team, the only people they can chase is themselves. If I start reading comments section and then start chasing every single person there and it’s an opinion that I don’t share… maybe it’ll be the right thing to do in a business sense, but I won’t be able to make that game, the team won’t be able to make that game, because it’s not in our DNA.

If someone says “you know what your game really needs? It needs tennis, a tennis simulation.” If someone came down from the heavens and said [boomy god voice] “Levine, if you make this game and you put a tennis simulation in, you will sell ten million units”, that’d be great if I could make that, but I would fail – unless there was somebody on the team who just loves tennis, but as a creative director I would not be able to sit in level reviews and say “let’s talk about the tennis section.” It would just be terrible, you can only make what you love.

RPS: Although you’ve got to admit, playing tennis on those skyrail things in Infinite would be a lot of fun…

Ken Levine: [laughs] That’d be pretty good. Actually, I just realised, we do have a tennis thing in BioShock – when you first get telekinesis, you have that whole little tennis room. Maybe I have a weird fetish for tennis I never thought about…

RPS: Do you think, given your urge for clarity, the world does have a clear sense of what BioShock: Infinite is yet? Having presumably seen the reportage and reader feedback around it, has the message been conveyed properly, or are people seeing it through the prism of BioShock 1 and the hype around it too much?

Ken Levine: Well, we’ve only talked about a segment of it, there’s a percentage we haven’t talked about yet. What I would say to the audience is, if you’re reading Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the last thing I think you should do is buy any game based upon what the spokesperson for that game says. What you should do is wait for the game to come out, read a bunch of reviews that you trust, talk to your friends that you trust, and make your purchasing decision based on that. Not because I think anything we’re saying isn’t accurate or true, but because boy, you’re going to get a much better opinion from the people you trust. They’ll be able to give you a much better sense of what the game is, because they’ve played the game through, they can tell you every single thing about it.

I’m only talking right now about a segment of the game, and I’m obviously biased towards liking this game because it’s towards my tastes as a gamer. There’s no denying that. If you’re a reader on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, you are sophisticated enough to not listen to what Ken Levine says, or not listen to what any [developer] says about any game: go to the reviews, go to the people you trust, because you know they’re going be completely unbiased. This is my baby, I spent five years on this thing – you think I’m not biased? Of course I’m biased.

RPS: There’s a terrible part of me that wants to use “Levine: RPS readers are too sophisticated for me” as a headline. But I won’t. Or… will I?

Ken Levine: [chuckles] It’s true though, your audience is very capable of following their truth about the game. They don’t need me for that. I think, I hope the preview process is going to be very entertaining for them, but if they’re making careful purchasing decisions, never rely on a preview process for that, because they don’t need to. I’m 45, I’ve come to a point in my life where I can afford to buy almost any game I want, so I don’t need to dig that deep into reviews – time is more of an issue for me – so I can really just try things, and if I don’t like them I can just say ‘I’m not going to play that any more’, and I’m very, very fortunate to be able to do that. But not everybody’s in that situation, either financially or time-wise, so they should not rely on any preview process. Ever. Not because it’s dishonest, but because they don’t need to: they can go to a much deeper source.

RPS: Yeah, we often feel uncomfortable about writing and calling things ‘previews’ on RPS, because we know to some extent it’s guided by marketing, by being shown controlled elements of the game in a certain way, and need to make sure that whatever we say about it doesn’t come off as though it’s a review.

Ken Levine: Yeah, because how can you [the developer] be objective? It’s impossible. I love this. It’s our baby. If you’re looking to me to give you an objective opinion, boy you’re looking in the wrong place.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

BioShock: Infinite will be released… well, we don’t know that yet. But hopefully soon.


  1. AmateurScience says:

    I really enjoyed reading that.

    Back to the lab!

  2. CMaster says:

    The actual gameplay video of Swat4Dead was a little ropey, still using far too much of SWAT’s UI and assets. However, the concept was great (helps that SWAT 4 is an amazing, amazing game if played coop – true “deep” cooperative play). What they outlined is exactly what the new XCOM should be, not the mass-effect inspired thing that we’re going to get.

    • Nick says:

      Exactly, I had always hoped if they did another shooter X-com it would be kind of like SWAT4 for the crash sites/terror missions. So very sad that they aren’t.

  3. McCool says:


    Feminism/the de-sexualisation of children marches on!

    Seriously though, does anyone else still feel uncomfortable about this? Something just seems really, really wrong with her appearance, like they honestly stuck boobs and proper make-up on a Little Sister (and put her on stilts or something..).

    Actually I’m being disingenuous. These are smart guys. I’m pretty damn sure that the sexualistation of this character who is clearly meant to look like a child is something they are going to deal with in the plot. Already we’ve seen the character’s relationship to boobgirl shown to be closer to the Freeman-Alyx relationship than your standard reliance. I’m guessing the fact that she looks like a pre-teen prostitute from the middle-ages is something they are more than aware of, and this is going to have relevance in the plot later. What we’ve seen is only a snapshot of the game as a whole, after all. Bioshock trailers hardly included “A man chooses” did they?

    • yutt says:

      I’m okay both with women being attractive, and men being attracted to women. So nope, I don’t have any desire to in-aptly attempt to turn a video game character into a platform for my personal political views.

    • McCool says:

      I’m sorry RPS but what? I pointed out that the major issue a lot of us are feeling with this game was not brought up in an otherwise extremely interesting, illuminating interview, and that post gets deleted? This is the wrong sort of censorship. It was a comment that regarded the interview directly, and the game, and was written in good humour. People are going to mention this, so it might as well be in one “thread” not dominating the whole comments section. Bringing up points that an interviewer might have missed out on is one of the elements of free-speech most vital to any comments page. RPS, I am severely (and for one of the first times in nearly five years) disapoint.

      Attractive women are great! Attractive men are great! Attractive women drawn as children are, well, It’s unclear at this point. I’m not so cynical as to think Irrational are not aware of this – she is clearly an expanded upon Little Sister (expanded upon in the breast department). They have something in mind, but in the meantime I am seriously creeped out.

    • Alec Meer says:

      What you might not have seen was that the initial comment devolved into a stream of people making breast gags and openly salacious comments. So yes, censorship, because we don’t want RPS to be That Kind Of Site. Disappointed? Oh yes, yes we are. We’ve always wiped unpleasant comments/arguments and we always will; sometimes more innocent comments get caught in the For The Greater Good crossfire.

    • Miltrivd says:

      From what I’ve seen in some trailers, the relationship between the characters is that of a protector, closer to an uncle than to any kind of sentimental partner. She acts at times like a lost puppy and at times like a spoiled child, and others like a teenager struggling with measuring her own capabilities.

      I think her looks reflect that, the mix between growing up and still being stuck in immaturity.

      It is rather common for players to put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist and expect to “get the girl” tho, so that could make the “possible” message not to get across entirely.

    • bill says:

      She doesn’t look particularly childish to me.

    • McCool says:

      Is it that hard to just delete the breast-gags? It might well be, I have no idea of the magnitude of these gags. To be honest I never intended for my comment to be the first on the list, though when the matter in question is as potentially risible as this one, the developers in question probably should be hounded. Might have gotten a bit excited about all the talk of reading RPS comments threads. We are people who care, care deeply about games like this. We don’t get many, not from the indies, not from the mainstream. Also, thanks for the subtle rewording of your reply (and for leaving these posts up). RPS remain the Good Guys.

      EDIT: Personally I’m hoping they go full-on Old Boy with the plot of this game. Everyone who knows what I mean will groan. Come on, let’s keep things SHOCKING!

    • Alec Meer says:

      Trust me – the gags would have kept on coming, if a comment about breasts had been the first comment. The first comment can often define the whole thread.

    • mentor07825 says:

      If I remember correctly the developers were told to watch their (female) other halfs and see their posture, their body language and so on, and then try to adapt that into the game.

      Also there is a video on PCGamer on making the voice actress cry. It could be this game. I cannot remember as I was just coming out of a depressing lab and high on caffeine and chocolate.

    • Jamesworkshop says:

      I think there is a plot infused design but i’m not getting a expressly sexualised slant from the character more of a in someways this is a grown woman in all the ways that that implys(sex is part of adult life but not the only part of adult life)
      But also a child/maybe slightly post-pubesent(not quite an adult like 13 or 14 rather than 7 to 9 years old) the top image which is more in game gives me the 13/14 imperssion whereas the artist non game representation gives me the 7 to 9 child vibe

      Still images can give a certain impression, in animation and voice I find I have a different reading of the character than just from the images above.

      Considering the themes as we know them so far, exceptionalism (America as a nation is still relativly young compared to most nations) does gel quite well with youthfull dynamism.
      Puberty might be used in a thematic bridge between two points, she seems to be a product of the conflicts of Colombia, I’ve certainly got the impression that she was not a totally naturally born at any rate, and very sheltered.

      Going beyond that would become even more speculative
      (I find the lack of freedom being enforced by a winged animal often ascribed an element of freedom to be interesting along with the protective don’t want to leave the children to flee the nest)
      On a personal level I can’t find myself feeling that this character had been intended to inspire any kind of lust on my part but in saying that

      ;) that emoticon is enough for my brain to take it as a human face when it looks nothing like what an actual human face looks like. So the personal note is subjective

    • asshibbitty says:

      Nothing happens by itself in game development, if their female sidekick has her boobs out and a babyface, then someone decided it should be this way. Plus, on the last image her face is badly drawn. blurry and lopsided, and lighting is all over the place. The irises are the same weird thing flipped horizontally. All of these things add to the uncanniness.

      e: the last image got changed? idk

    • Dasos says:


    • Kieron Gillen says:

      I’ll be a little harsher than Alec here: If the first comment in a thread is not related to something in the article, it needs to be deleted, because it derails the comment thread. People scrolling past dozens of posts arguing an old, not-immediately-relevant issue before they can actually talk about what the article is about, is a disservice to them.

      You want to talk about something like that? Wait.


    • McCool says:

      The comment was related in that I was actually shocked this point wasn’t brought up -just as a review of a game can comment on a feature sorely lacking, I was commenting on something conspicuously absent in the interview. I scrolled up, reread the article and it really wasn’t mentioned, then I replied. I’m sort of amazed I got the first comment, it really wasn’t my intention.

      I think at the very least it’d be interesting to hear Levine’s thoughts on this again, when he is in such a lucid mode as he was during this interview. It fits with the theme of how small things in even the art design of a game can detract massively from the more formal (gamey) aspects in people’s eyes. In a world where people are obsessed with graphics (or feminism) in the end of the day it’s the gameplay of Infinite that will make it a great game or a poor one -communicating that side of things is basically Levine’s job right now.

    • AmateurScience says:

      See the problem is now *I’m* at the top, I feel exposed.

      I’m also half tempted to go back and edit it into something more than ‘that was good, ps I do science’

    • mentor07825 says:

      We all feel exposed at times. I suggest a hot cup of cocoa and a blanket, with choice of music playing in the background, reasuringly.

      I do science, somewhat. It says Computer Science in the type of degree, so I guess it is. I’m comforted with the knowledge though that I am the clown of science degrees. Rather then seeing the clown and know that no one else has it worse than you, I see myself and my fellow clowns in the course and know that at least I’m not alone. Which offers its own security.

      One day though I will be part of the living collective known as the “crowd” and on that day my pants won’t be filled with custard.

      Perhaps an edit and say “Fail reply” will save you, and offer you infinite security!!

    • sneetch says:

      I don’t think she looks like a child. I think she looks young yes, but not childish, she does look vulnerable and slightly lost in a lot of the material I’ve seen so far which makes me more inclined towards sympathy and a desire to protect than anything else. Maybe it’s just my creaky old age, but I doubt it.

    • RagingLion says:

      Some real life late teens or young/middle 20s women/girls genuinely have such figures/faces. I know some. That ends the matter for me.

      Also good to hear Levine talk. I wonder how big that unseen percentage is that will have big differences to what we’ve seen so far?

    • DrGonzo says:

      She looks like Christina Ricci to me. Not a child, but a porcelain doll. Very bland yes. And unfortunately sexualised.

      I would absolutely love a game to have a female strong hero character but one that was ugly.

      If your comment caused a bunch of innapropriate comments, then unfortunately they have to get rid of it, even though it was a reasonable point.

    • 2late2die says:

      I disagree about Elizabeth looking like a child. To me she looks like she’s in her late teens or early twenties, more of a young woman, than a girl. She is slender and petite however (for the most part) and I think that’s meant to convey her vulnerability. (Also, DrGonzo’s point about Christian Ricci is pretty good.) There’s also an element of design aesthetic here, as in, they probably wanted to make her silhouette unique and appear very distinct from every other character on the screen.
      I do agree though that her, let’s say dimensions to put it delicately, are somewhat at odds with the rest of her appearance. She is wearing a corsage, which would emphasize that, however even taking that into account it still comes off as a bit too much. It doesn’t bother me all that much although I am curious why they decided to design her that way, because I’m sure it wasn’t just some artist getting overly excited or something, there’s a reason behind it.

      Incidentally RPS, I am a bit disappointed that you didn’t ask him about it. You’re one of the few publications I would think of as having cojones big enough to be able to ask that question straight up, and it’s a shame to see you waste this opportunity.

    • Alec Meer says:

      I just don’t care about it personally, is the thing. It seems like outrage for the sake of outrage and I’m sick and tired of seeing it immediately raised whenever BSI is mentioned. If I ask about it, I’m making an issue of it despite not caring, and the entire conversation becomes, well, not a conversation. It becomes me as mouthpiece for other people’s agendas. What RPS *does* do differently than a lot of other sites is that almost everything we do here is guided by our own personal interests – it’s an honest document of a bunch of folks’ gaming adventures and thoughts. If we compromise that the site loses its soul. We go to far down the path of following every contentious or theoretically newsworthy issue and we’ll end up doing 24/7 posting about DRM.

      Which is not to say our readers don’t up come up with tons of interesting subjects that does capture our own interest and passion and thus drive us to more coverage, because they do, we’re very glad of it and the site’s a better one for it: but it isn’t always the case.

    • mentor07825 says:

      And this is why we love you all the more for it, and why I keep coming back. I make a habit of not commenting. But today I’m bored and so I am.

      Used to go to NowGamer a lot. But after my favourite journalist left to pursue his own things it just didn’t suit me anymore.

      Never stop posting.

    • mentor07825 says:

      And, dude, I wore a corsage. It’s not big deal. A female artist working on Skull Girls, a console only game, mostly concentrates on the above waist area. She enjoys doing that and for her and the characters it suits the game. Sometimes there are no reasons for everything, and we just have to accept that.

      Lazy, I think….nevermind. Doesn’t matter.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      I think what Alec is saying is:
      You can only make interviews that you want to make – you can’t make an interview for somebody else.

      P.S: I think that some people are confusing corsage and corset.

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      Why do people see [petite woman] and think [child]? That’s what I want to know. Being Dutch, I’m one of a mythical race of titans, and even I can tell the difference.

  4. Yargh says:

    “What I would say to the audience is, if you’re reading Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the last thing I think you should do is buy any game based upon what the spokesperson for that game says. What you should do is wait for the game to come out, read a bunch of reviews that you trust, talk to your friends that you trust, and make your purchasing decision based on that.”

    I bet Ken’s marketing team hate him for this right about now.

    • Okami says:

      I don’t think they hate him. In fact, I’m pretty sure, they rather like him for saying that.

    • Lewie Procter says:

      Certainly seems like preorder exclusive DLC is out of the window at least.

    • Cooper says:

      Yeah, I was wondering this. Is there going to be a special bit of exclusive DLC for RPS readers and others who avoided pre-ordering and waited for the reviews?

    • DickSocrates says:

      Pre-Order DLC is a 3Mb avi of Ken Levine mocking you for pre-ordering the game. While wearing tennis gear.

    • mentor07825 says:

      I’d buy that for a dollar!

    • jonfitt says:

      Ken Levine says: “Do not pre-order my game”
      No problem there, I hate pre-ordering. But I do hope, like you say, there is no pre-order DLC.

  5. Neurotic says:

    I love this man. Truly one of the great spielers of our day. :)

  6. the_p says:

    I was going to post some mean things about Ken Levine, but now that he’s said he reads the comments, I’d better not.

    • Diogo Ribeiro says:

      Do it, maybe we’ll get an Angry Internet Man mode. Or Rubbish Bloke on the Ether, as they’re called in English.

    • Wizardry says:

      I’m not either. The only developers that I feel I should be nasty towards are those working for BioWare and Bethesda. Having said that…

      BioShock was one of the worst games I’ve ever played. There was nothing redeeming about it at all. This would normally be fine because I’ve played some other terrible games in my time, but the difference is that BioShock was universally praised.

      Will this game be better? It doesn’t look like it. The whole 1999 mode thing is kind of interesting in that it demonstrates the thoughts of game developers today. However, from what I’ve read so far it won’t actually address what made games in 1999 better than games today.

    • mentor07825 says:

      Colour me curious, what made the game bad for you?

      Also, I just want to point out Wizardry, I asked RPS Holdings in Eve Online and posed them a question, “Wouldn’t it be great if Wizardry played Eve Online?” I think so. I’d hot drop you any day :3

      Going slightly off topic, what are your thoughts on RPG MMOs. Eve Online doesn’t really constitute as such, but the likes of WoW and Knights of the Old Republic, whereby BioWare went on to say that it’s several of their single player Star Wars RPG games all rolled into one, must be interesting? I’m curious because I like to hear your opinion on these things.

    • bill says:

      It’s not really your kind of game though is it, so you can hardly be surprised. It’s all about story and atmosphere.. and if you wanted that you’d go read a book. ;-)

    • mentor07825 says:

      I’ve always thought those qualities in a game is what Wizardry is interested in, that and the RPG mechanics ala gameplay.

      However, the best person to answer this question is Wizardry. My two cents on the matter though.

    • InternetBatman says:

      @Wizardry That is such obvious hyperbole. The atmosphere of Bioshock was awesome. The two-handed gunplay was pretty fun, especially if you didn’t use vita chambers, and their relative inaccuracies made sense given the steampunk setting. The writing was far better than most shooters, even if it faltered at the end. I’m curious, what shooters did you like more than it and why?

    • Wizardry says:

      @mentor07825: What made it bad? I think what made it good would be a better question to ask. Nothing. And that was the game’s biggest problem. It was an on rails shooter with a story. There were something like 4 different enemies in the whole game, none of the weapons were interesting in the slightest, the game was way too easy, the environments were highly repetitive, the character customisation aspect was incredibly shallow, the hacking mini-game was excruciating and the apparent moral choices just weren’t interesting at all. The plasmids were pretty good I guess, but that’s the standard normal weapons should have been at. If they took out standard guns and focused the game on plasmid combat it could have been more interesting, but then you’d end up switching between a couple of plasmids making them nothing more than a gimmick, which they kind of were anyway.

      And the game was all about combat. They could have done so much more with the concept. I’m still kind of shocked at how they could take a concept like they had and turn it into one of the worst FPSs I’ve ever played.

      I haven’t played TOR but considering Knights of the Old Republic was a terrible game I’m sure I’m not missing much. MMOs are generally bad games and have the worst good to bad ratio out of any gaming genre.

    • mentor07825 says:

      “It was an on rails shooter with a story.” While I can see where you’re coming from, I think it would’ve been more apt to say it was more of a corridor based shooter. Id games of old, almost. However I do disagree. I think it inspired exploration, limited as it was, by finding the audio logs of various areas. While I don’t approve the method of figuring out story elements through exploration alone, it did provide an incentive.
      On that note, there are similarities on how Half-Life 2 and Bioshock handled their story. However, unlike Bioshock, Half-Life 2 brought the story to you without the player searching for it.

      “There were something like 4 different enemies in the whole game, none of the weapons were interesting in the slightest, the game was way too easy, the environments were highly repetitive, the character customisation aspect was incredibly shallow, the hacking mini-game was excruciating and the apparent moral choices just weren’t interesting at all. The plasmids were pretty good I guess, but that’s the standard normal weapons should have been at. If they took out standard guns and focused the game on plasmid combat it could have been more interesting, but then you’d end up switching between a couple of plasmids making them nothing more than a gimmick, which they kind of were anyway.”

      I absolutely agree with you here. None of the weapons interested me, and I didn’t care which ones I was using. I had fun, don’t get me wrong, but what you said pretty much sums up my feelings on the fighting mechanics of the game.

      “And the game was all about combat.” Agreed. While this was no bad thing, I tried to play the game using stealth and found it very difficult. Not in the sense that it was impossible, but that the game did not encourage such behaviour much in terms of level layout and the Big Daddies.

      “I haven’t played TOR but considering Knights of the Old Republic was a terrible game I’m sure I’m not missing much. MMOs are generally bad games and have the worst good to bad ratio out of any gaming genre.”

      I find that MMOs are what you make of them. Many people would say Eve Online is a great game, others would be terrible. Our own RPS journalist here was an avid player in the game for a few years. I myself was too, cancelled my subscription last week and, I believe, for good.

      But you make an interesting point, when you said that KOTOR was a terrible game. A lot of people praised it as being a rather good game. What made it bad for you? As in was it the gameplay or the story elements or untapped potential of the IP Bioware had access to?

    • Treymoney says:

      The thing I’ve noticed about Wizardry is that he only likes one game.

    • DrGonzo says:

      It wasn’t universally praised. And you obviously haven’t played that many games.

      Oh who am I kidding, you know what comes out of your mouth is bullshit, but you love the attention don’t you?

      Edit- I know I do!

    • ffordesoon says:

      Hey Wizardry, I found a version of Skyrim you’ll actually enjoy!

    • Wizardry says:

      My reply keeps getting flagged up as spam. Perhaps it’ll appear one day.

    • Gira says:

      I’m really tired of this idea of corridor shooters somehow harking back to the days of yore. Prior to Half-Life, the whole corridor paradigm didn’t really exist – well, not on such an all-encompassing scale, anyway. Games like DOOM (and the many shooters that aped it) had quite non-linear levels in which the player was free to roam and fight and explore and find secrets. Many levels were like big puzzles the player needed to solve to varying degrees in order to not only find/unlock the exit, but also the sometimes massive amount of “secret” areas available.

      DOOM’s level design was really special, basically. The “corridor” thing emerged after the growing prominence/cancer of “narrative” in shooters, when play-spaces were no longer designed for play but for rapid procession through storytelling assets, and level design was consigned to history, basically. Now it’s all about setpiece design.

      To tie this back into BioShock, I think it is a little excessive to describe it as a corridor shooter in the truest (Call of Duty-esque) sense, but it’s not far from it. It’s surprising, really, because having both interviewed Levine quite a few times and just having seen his commentary in the past, the guy is definitely dedicated to the concepts of player agency and ludonarrative. So how did BioShock end up being so rigidly tied to its “story assets”? BioShock Infinite doesn’t foster much hope, either – I mean, everything I’ve seen in the trailer looks far too scripted and Emotionally Cinematic to really allow much room for player agency. Maybe these things were just cherry-picked for their visual impact, but it’s still a shame to see the guy who (to varying degrees) gave us System Shock 2 and SWAT 4 making games built around setpieces.

    • DocSeuss says:

      @Wizardry: I wouldn’t call it an on-rails shooter with a story. Those hubs were fairly large and free-form, and to call it on-rails either makes you ignorant or hyperbolic.

      I would call it an on-rails story with a shooter, though.

      @Gira: This isn’t even remotely true (even discounting your weird obsession with games being nothing more than rules-driven experiences). Games like Serious Sam and Half-Life–games without stories, in other words–put you in a linear corridor because searching for keys in mazes can be boring. It’s quite fun to constantly move down a line of increasingly complex puzzles (Blast Pit is a level-as-puzzle and I love it for that) or to more guided/thoughtfully planned encounters.

      Your oddly-rigid approach to how games ought to be designed could stand to be… well, not. It could be a bit more flexible. You can totally have games with story, and you can totally have storyless games with linearity.

      Furthermore, if linearity were the result of story-driven games, then one would think some of the most story-driven games of all, like System Shock 2, would feature the most linearity.

      …but they don’t. System Shock 2 has, as far as I can tell, the most open levels of any shooter from 1999 or earlier.

    • John P says:

      It wasn’t universally praised.

      A 96 metacritic ranking isn’t universal? Players have criticised a little more thoughtfully than the hyped up critic reviews, I guess.

      I mostly agree with Wizardry. While I wouldn’t call it absolutely the worst shooter I’ve played, it’s one of the most boring. It had such a mindnumbing structure, mainly ‘go here and do a boring thing, now go here and do a boring thing, now go here …’ It was far more directed than, say, System Shock 2, to the point of having boo scares. I can only imagine how Bioshock would have been improved if you could roam the maps freely. Mechanically there was some interesting stuff in the game, but it seemed to get lost in the focus on Hard Moral Choices and Dramatic Plot Twists.

      Since this 1999 mode basically only gives you fewer resources, I’m expecting Infinite to be structured similarly. It’s like these big developers really believe you need to hold the player’s hand to stop them getting bored. You need a big floating arrow telling them where to go, you need frequent plot reminders to keep them Emotionally Invested, you need a more linear level design so they don’t get lost. Maybe they’re right. It’s amazing how many people try to play Deus Ex, arrive on the Liberty Island dock, and go ‘wot am i supposd 2 do?’ Player freedom is a foreign concept to these creatures.

    • Tubbins says:


      > “but I think part of the issue might have to do with the game’s… lack of a really simple objective within the massive complexity.”

      > “So, um, yeah, I’m going to go with Liberty Island just being a shit level following a shit infodump, rather than an issue of freedom.”

      What the hell

      The objective is the Statue of Liberty you can see it from every single point on the map; how you approach the objective is totally up to you

      The fact that there are no breadcrumb trails or waypoint markers or highlighted doors or a big stupid arrow to guide you to the objective is and can only ever be a good thing

    • John P says:

      Deus Ex infodumps? There’s one conversation where you’re told to get inside the statue and interrogate the leader. You can see the statue from the very spot you spawn into. I mean seriously, you don’t even need to turn the camera to see your destination. How this confuses people I cannot understand. Fallout 3 and Stalker both have objective markers, so maybe the lack of a blinking dot threw you, I dunno.

      the most story-driven games of all, like System Shock 2

      System Shock 2 is not story-driven. Its play spaces are strung together with a plot, as in Deus Ex, but that is not, in any way, the same thing as story-driven. If you cannot see that these two games are driven, first and foremost, by their gameplay, and if you cannot see the difference between that and Bioshock, that and Call of Duty, that and To The Moon, that and whatever, there is no hope for you.

  7. Diogo Ribeiro says:

    actually, i really enjoyed the daddies and sisters, especially their interplay and dynamics. but eventually they lost appeal – a good concept repeated too long for its own good. I always wished the game had been about one daddy and one sister, and how you interacted with them along the game determined the outcome of the story. this could also tie into much more specific and stronger events, but ended up being tripping on yet another couple along its corridors.

    gleefully ignorant of most things bioshock infinite (tired of sites spoiling everything), i hope that the relationship with elizabeth actually plays out more like this.

    also, lolicon.

    • Infinitron says:

      Diogo: The game you’re looking for is called “Bioshock 2” and it’s severely underrated (and it also had a much more tastefully dressed loli character).

    • Diogo Ribeiro says:

      I played Bio2. I think that it was a better experience in that regard but suffered in other areas. All in all, I guess i’m looking for a game that combines both Bioshocks. Maybe Infinite will be that one; I’ll have to get back to you on that, of course.

    • Jamesworkshop says:

      I found bioshock 2 handling of all the stuff the player actually does in game to be better than bioshock, big sisters/big daddies included, I considered Bioshock to be in my personal top ten list at the time but now after Bioshock 2 I simply can’t go back and play through bioshock, as good as the story was it was ultimatly a history lesson where all the interesting things happen to other people, l didn’t feel any player agency in what I was doing.

      The plasmids for me took on a whole new purpose which was simply to abuse the splicers, I found a similar enjoyment after having completed Batman Arkham city on my PS3 (boo and hisses from the RPS crowd) forgive me the PC delay was simply too long for me to wait.

      I had great fun not knocking out the henchmen but instead stealing their gun, frezzeing their feet to the floor, then knocking them down with a battarang, before letting them get up again for more.

      Once I got telekensis level 3 and found I could pick up living splicers, the first thing i did was go to a part of the level deep with water and held a splicer facedown to see if the game would let me drown them, sadly it didn’t.
      However throwing them did make them glide across the surface of the water
      (was trying to make them skip like a stone)
      which by the time they stood up I had switched to the electrobolt plasmid.
      The cyclone trap made a great impromptu clay pigeon shooting game.

      I probably need help.

      As for what I did in [Prototype]……I don’t think I could recount

    • DrGonzo says:

      Bioshock 2s gameplay was better and more interesting than the first. But the gameplay was by far the least interesting part of Bioshock.

    • Infinitron says:

      No, that’s the myth that everybody keeps repeating. Not just the gameplay was better – the writing and storytelling were better too. Sure, it didn’t have that “Will You Kindly” mindfuck of a twist – you can only do that once – but otherwise, it was better. Bioshock 2 is to Bioshock what KOTOR2 is to KOTOR.

    • KenTWOu says:

      @DrGonzo says:
      But the gameplay was by far the least interesting part of Bioshock.

      This is also the biggest myth that everyone keeps repeating.

  8. InternetBatman says:

    The poor guy seemed a little gunshy after the comments in the last interview. It’s obvious he has a huge respect for RPS, he might even regard the commentariat as his peers, and I think he came expecting an enthusiastic reaction for this mode because he is so clearly enthusiastic about it. It does sound really cool. The game looks really cool. Sometimes being negative is more interesting than being positive, even when your impressions are mostly positive.

    • ffordesoon says:

      You, uh, you do realize both parts of this interview were conducted at the same time, as one longer interview, right? He wasn’t “reacting” to anything; he just happened to be prescient.

  9. bill says:

    I can guarantee you that somewhere in the comments section on RPS, there’ll be [adopts forceful tone] ‘Levine has no idea what we were dissatisfied about! This idiot thinks that the problem in BioShock was permanence, but the problem was this’

    Yeah. That was me.

    I’m right though.

    But if he’s reading this time then I also want to say that Bioshock was awesome, and I like the way he’s honest and interesting in interviews. I hope he doesn’t change and BS:I is awesome.

    PS/ Ken: being able to change your powers etc was a good part of Bioshock. The problem was it didn’t really matter. 100 ways to shoot 4 enemies, and maxed out ammo for every weapon doesn’t lead to many challenging gameplay decisions.

    • McCool says:

      Those do sound rather like the issues 1999 mode is dealing with -limited ammo, possibly untenable situations. System Shock rather than Bioshock. At least that was the vibe I got from the last part of the interview. It sounds to me like he really is aware of one of the things wrong with Bioshock, whether 1999 mode will deal with this is another matter.

    • Urthman says:

      No, see what I would’ve liked in Bioshock is not fewer weapons and plasmids but more enemies and more various situations to use all the nifty plasmids.

      Forcing me to switch to that other plasmid or that little-used gun by restricting ammo is the laziest and least-interesting way to do it. Create challenges that make me want to use the other plasmids or the other weapons.

      I don’t want to play the whole game fighting 3 kinds of splicers with fire and a shotgun, then go back and fight the same 3 splicers in the same environments all over again only this time with lightning and a melee weapon.

  10. McDan says:

    Excellent words from both sides in both of the articles. I like this Levine chap, and his games. He’s gone up a notch for reading RPS as well. “We have to make a game for ourselves” – This is the kind of thing that should be happening more often, they make they game they want to play. And even after working on it for years they still want to play it? Well it must be pretty damn good then. Why don’t more games developers think like this? Some probably do, but more should.

    • Skabooga says:

      I’m with you on that. If nothing else, this

      . . .you can only make what you love.

      makes me respect Levine.

  11. woodsey says:

    A really interesting read, and I can’t wait for the game. If I had a complaint, its that they announced it two years before their release date! If it slips into 2013….

    “If you’re trying to chase some demographic that you’re not part of, you’re really going to fail.”

    First thing that popped into my head? Hitman: Absolution. I can’t remember the last time I was this nervous about a game.

    (And now I’ve got Splinter Cell and Dragon Age flashing before my eyes.)

  12. Miltrivd says:

    As a player that didn’t like Bioshock and didn’t touch Bioshock 2, this game looks extremely appealing to me (1999 mode as default, probably).

    Why? Because the game looks like it’s taking precise amounts of storyline, character development and action, it’s stirring but not melding them. In the trailers I like the pacing and narrative, I don’t see action or storytelling taking over the other, not taking turns, but interacting at every moment, making it more real, more human-like, making it easier to relate to the characters, the story and the development of both.

  13. asshibbitty says:

    A man being interviewed about how he likes to be interviewed.

    • Heliocentric says:

      I like to make metacommentary.

    • asshibbitty says:

      Can I interview you? Then the guy being interviewed will read the reader of the interview getting interviewed about the interview in which he was interviewed about the interviews.

    • Cooper says:

      Yo dawg, I herd u like…

  14. Heliocentric says:

    Oh my god I love SWAT 4.

    I mean Bioshock was “fun”, except the ransom plasmid thing, that was awesome, my favourite bit.

    Ken Levine about multi player, if you bother making MP for this game (that should be called Aeroshock or something) then don’t use GFWL, don’t be peer to peer (idiotic move that) and *do not* mandate matchmaking, we want a server browser damn it.

    If you don’t make mp that’s fine, but Bioshock 2 multiplayer was almost excellent, instead it’s crap.

    • DocSeuss says:

      I quite like the actual GAMEPLAY in Bioshock 2’s MP. I can’t comment on server browsers and things because I don’t really know what’s good or bad in that regard, not being much of an MP guy, but the only thing I did dislike was the excessively narrow FOV.

  15. ResonanceCascade says:

    While I’m glad Levine acknowledged how smart and discerning we are, I’m disappointed that he didn’t point out our immense sexual charisma and biting wit.

    • Milky1985 says:

      And our ability to turn pretty much anything into a long string of puns.

      I feel this is an integral part of RPS! Shouldn’t cause anyone to be bioshocked…


  16. Meneldil says:

    People who didn’t like Bioshock aren’t worthy of

  17. int says:

    Great interview.

    I’m so glad Irrational are still one of the companies who really care about PC games.

  18. LennyLeonardo says:

    Alternative headlines:

    Ken Levine in Bioshock Bias Shock!
    Swat 4? What for?
    Tennis Simulation to Sell Ten Million Units Sensation!
    “I’m 45!” Reveals Old Man.

    Stopping now.

  19. zoombapup says:

    As long as it isn’t basically just a console QTE fest like almost every shooter is these days.

    I wasn’t a fan of bioshock 1, because while the world was interesting, the actual gameplay wasn’t so much. They used manhack like floating enemies (never fun) and too many enemies that just randomly thrashed around the level in order to be a better target range.

    The main issue I have with almost every FPS and this one might have addressed this, is that I don’t want to have to play “inside the head” of the designer. I want the design to enable my own mental map of how I should play. So many AAA games follow the current trend of “you must think like me to make the experience enjoyable” and I hate that. It feels minorly acceptable in puzzle games, but for FPS games it just feels wrong.

    Examples of what I mean? hiding vents in unusual places when you have never used a vent before. Having certain ladders climbable but ones near them not. Things where one thing of a type works, but other things that aren’t “plot important” don’t. Simple really.

    I hope the rails in infinite are freely changeable and rideable. That would be a good start.

  20. Cooper says:


    Please, please make the games fov on the PC wider than that for consoles, preferably even add it as a setting in the options.

    Playing Bioshock felt like I was wandering around this lovingly, wonderfully put together environment wearing a cardboard box with a hole the size of a postcard to look at it through whilst holding my hands at shoulder height.

    • DocSeuss says:

      I want to second, third, fourth, and fifth this. Adjustable FOVs are a MUST. I cannot stand games at less than 90 on my widescreen monitor. I just can’t. Old games were often 90, and they were narrow. Why are widescreen games using SMALLER FOVs with larger, frame-filling guns? :(

    • johnpeat says:

      I didn”t notice the FoV issue as I was too busy trying to figure out which type of ammo I needed most/least/never/ever and how much I’d need and – all the other things which made the game dull as fuck for me…

  21. DocSeuss says:

    Well, I guess I’ll be THAT GUY then and talk about System Shock 2. What could it hurt, after all? System Shock 2 is great.

    I don’t actually care about permanence. It’s unimportant. In real life, I can often improvise my way around situations, even if I’ve made a decision people would think is permanent. I don’t want a Biowaresque “no choice has consequence” feeling; I want a feeling of “heh. I made that choice, but I just beat the system and figured out how to get out of it.”

    Far more important to me (and, judging by random polls of people I’ve done, even though they often fail to realize it) is vulnerability. My favorite games–Half-Life, Aliens vs Predator 2, STALKER, System Shock 2, and so forth, are all games where there’s a significant amount of vulnerability you have as a player.

    Overcoming that feeling is what makes it great. I love destroying the Pit Worm in Half-Life. It’s an amazing experience to finally overcome to level and go “HAH, MONSTER, I JUST DESTROYED YOU!” Loneliness (when polled, most people have told me that their favorite levels in Half-Life are not the ones where you play with Alyx–as much as they claim to like Alyx, they’ll almost never admit to enjoying a level with her in it) is another contributing factor, as are limited resources.

    The reason Bioshock didn’t impact me quite as much as System Shock 2 did (I actually played SS2 post-Bioshock, fwiw) is because I never thought anything like “oh god, I don’t have enough ammo!” or “why are there so many enemies?!?!” or “damn, my gun’s about to break! I need to find another!” Games like STALKER, in contrast, took this to the next level.

    It’s not just about overcoming overwhelming odds, however. It’s also about lateral thinking.

    One thing I like about System Shock 2 and STALKER is that these games make me use tactics I wouldn’t normally try. They put me in situations, due to broken guns or a lack of ammo or whatever, that require me to think differently. Permanence, if anything, actually clashes with that. If I choose a skill tree that means I can’t choose another, then I’ve locked myself out of a skill, and that means that I might start lazily relying on certain tactics to see my way through the game. That kind of design could go so far as to turn me, as a player, into some sort of terrible min-maxer who gets no fun out of actually playing the game because he’s too busy figuring out how to do things optimally (as opposed to “oh my god this gun or power is so fun I want to keep using it!”).

    I look forward to 1999 mode, but permanence, to me, isn’t nearly as important as vulnerability. Going “ohshithohshitohshit, I’m out of ammo and I can’t use the gun I’m comfortable with so I’ll have to use a tonic!” is what’s truly important to me as a gamer.

    • kyrieee says:

      I sort of agree, I also played SS2 after BioShock (or right around that time anyway) and I thought SS2 was scarier. I actually put it down :P. STALKER and AvP, like you mentioned, are good comparisons.

      It’s definitely about feeling vulnerable, not being empowered. Personally I don’t think weapon degrading adds much to that though, either it’s not much of an issue (STALKER) or way too annoying (SS2). AvP is scary as hell even without it.

      I don’t know that having a vulnerable player is something you could integrate in a game that’s about combat, like Infinite looks like it is. If you have combat all the time you won’t creep around for 15 minutes anxious about your ammo, you’ll run into enemies and just be out of ammo. There’s no room for tension then.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      There’s a youtube reviewer called Antisocialfatman (RIP) who did a very in depth analysis of why he prefers System Shock 2 over Bioshock, and one thing he pointed out that I hadn’t noticed, but instantly recognized when I heard it, is that Bioshock completely shrunk the tactical possibilities, since most plasmids more or less do the same thing and interact with the environment in the same way, just reskinned from one another.

      The “emergent” gameplay in Bioshock is usually either “shoot the fire at the conveniently placed oil puddle” or “shoot the electricity at the conveniently placed water puddle” rather than the genuine on-the-fly ingenuity that you had to resort to in more granular games like System Shock 2 and Deus Ex.

      (granted, that’s not quite fair, I recall having several awesome emergent scenarios come about in Bioshock, but compared to the other ‘Shocks, it felt limited.)

      Now, I still love me some Bioshock. I think it was a great shooter that did a ton of stuff extremely well. But it lacked the complex interaction of systems that made the games I mentioned earlier (and even games like Thief) so special.

    • dogsolitude_uk says:

      I love that feeling of “Oh my God… I am *sooooo* dead…” when I accidentally set an alarm off , the area fills with ten thousand enemy goons armed with scimitars and me with a small knife for peeling fruit.

      I got that kind of thing a lot in Thief, a game which made good use of player vulnerability. Let’s hope Thi4f doesn’t arm the protagonist too well…

    • Cooper says:

      Yes. Forcing players outside of their comfort zone is an essential part of that ‘1999’ spirit.

      In the Bioshocks, it was fairly easy to decide upon your prefered play style and choice of weapons, and stick to that. Immobilisation (a number of options here) plus the shotgun was my favourtie. I kept clear of explosive weapons. That was fine.

      The only thing that got you working outside that box on harder difficulties were that enemies soaked up the ammunition far faster, so you ran out sooner. But ammunition was still so generous that it just meant switching to your next fully stocked weapon, and then filling up your favourite at the next opportunity.

      I’m not saying ammo scarcity is the best way to do this (it’s not) but forcing players to improvise and to be unsure / uncomfortable with what they were doing was a major feature of what makes SS2 great.

    • kyrieee says:

      I didn’t know he died
      That’s sad

    • buzzmong says:


      That feeling of vulnerability is one of the reasons why I hate the current modern trend for regenerating health systems (well, fully regenerating health at least).

      It’s that very feeling that draws you into games. Not many games caputure it, but those that do tend to be great ie; Thief 1/2, SS1/2, Stalker….

      I still think the first level on AVP 2000 is one of the most brilliant examples of that feeling. You’re a squishy Marine. You know you’re a squishy Marine, and after taking a small ride up a lift to a dark corridor with a pulsating light, your motion tracker reminds you that you’re a squishy Marine :D

    • DocSeuss says:

      First, holy shit, I’m a terrible writer when I just wake up and race to school only to discover I’m early! So, corrections in grammar have been made.

      Three MAJOR points I forgot:

      1. The game should encourage players to try things they wouldn’t before. A scarcity of ammo for a favored weapon is one way to do this–just don’t spawn, say, the rifle ammo for a while (thus not encouraging hoarding) and let the players go “damn, now I’ve got to try this gun that looks bo–HOLY CRAP THIS IS AMAZING!”

      2. People don’t talk about Bioshock mechanically that often because it’s not a particularly good shooter.

      3. One way to add depth and choice to the game beyond permanent decisions and vulnerability is in crafting/maintenance/etc. I was sad that Bioshock 2 (which I felt was a better way than Bioshock in every way except for Level design–I really valued its “point,” that people can influence others through their actions, a lot more than Bioshock’s, particularly in terms of how it told a story only games could–MY actions affected Eleanor) removed the crafting system.


      Also, I just want to get this out there: my favorite level was Arcadia and the markets. Loved ’em. Don’t know why. Just did.

      @kyrieee: Serious Sam makes me feel incredibly vulnerable. Combat-focused games can do that in a lot of ways. If a developer spaces the health packs right and offers a sufficient amount of enemies (with dodgeable attacks) while keeping the game fast, you can ABSOLUTELY make a player feel simultaneously vulnerable and… uh… fighty.

      Also, I think weapon degradation was done best in Far Cry 2 (though it was neutered wholly by the game’s constant case of multiple personality disorder–it didn’t know if it wanted to be an immersive sim or a video game–which led the game to go “here! ANY GUN YOU WANT FOR FREE IN THIS BUILDING OVER THERE!”). It didn’t have a way of instantly telling how good or bad a gun was (aside from what it looked like), most of the weapons found in the field were of a low quality (meaning you had to spend precious diamonds to get them), and you had no way of knowing when a gun would jam and/or explode in your face, which could help increase the tension of firefights.

      That said, I like the idea of weapon degradation more than the implementation I’ve seen in past games. Most people do it too quickly (System Shock 2, the Bethesda-published Fallout games), and others don’t make it a very serious issue or spam you with so many weapons that it’s irrelevant (STALKER).

      @ResonanceCascade: I think one of the things System Shock 2 did poorly was its psi-power things. It was obviously limited by tech, but it wasn’t quite as fun as it was in Bioshock. Granted, many of the powers in Bioshock are just elemental attacks (or they behave oddly, like the tornado traps), but actually USING them was a lot more fun. It looks like Bioshock Infinite will be taking this and running with it–that crow attack tonic looked really cool.

      @dogsolitude_uk: the only reason I didn’t mention Thief is that I just got it to run on my computer. When I have finished Serious Sam 3, I will begin playing the Thief games.

      @Cooper: I found I had more fun with Bioshock when I made myself try new tactics. I had no idea that the chemical thrower was such a fun weapon, for instance! Scarcity of ammo is one of the many ways to make a player feel vulnerable. I’m not sure saying “you will die” is a good thing. In fact, I think Death should be the primary punishment. I did not die a lot in Half-Life or AvP2 or System Shock 2, but I still felt vulnerable. 1999 mode seems to be saying “YOU WILL DIE,” and I’m not sure that means “if you play smartly, you won’t,” which is what I want.

      @buzzmong: It depends on the game. It works great in Call of Duty and Gears of War because it’s trying to make you feel like you’re in a war zone. The game wants you to think “OH NO! I NEED TO DUCK!” A lot of other games–Resistance 2 and Halo 2 come to mind–do it without really understanding why this is important. They seem to do it for the sake of just doing it. This is why the CoD games (NOT counting Treyarch, who implement it terribly) and Gears of War are vastly better than the games I just mentioned. It’s really all about making a game the best it is at what it does.

      You brought up a good point about how to convey vulnerability without necessarily killing or even touching the player, though. AvP2 (never played AvP; not sure I want to, given Rebellion’s awful track record; I think maybe the love for that game may stem from it being the first AvP game and thus a unique experience) has this amazing intro to the marine campaign. It takes 20-30 minutes to meet your first xeno, and there are several events that occur, like your motion tracker spiking, the whole “is that a boot? Oh god, tell me that’s just a boot!” bit (that ends differently than you’d expect), and a mysterious explosion that destroys a bridge in a massive open outdoor area. It’s amazing how that opening crafts the feeling of vulnerability without ever once actually putting you in danger.


      I just totally rewrote my first post too. Go me.

      Ken Levine is one of …ffff…four? Five. He’s one of five game designers/directors/developers I REALLY wish I could talk to for a couple hours (the others being Greg Kirkpatrick, Warren Spector, whoeverdidDarksiders, and Cliff Bleszinski). There are other designers, like Jason Jones and Sam Lake, that interest me, but those are the guys I would really like to talk to. One thing I’d particularly like to do is tell them why I, personally, value their games and how they’ve influenced me as a (WANNABE) designer. And then when I make the best game ever they will all love meeeeeeeee…

      Right. >_>

    • buzzmong says:


      I urge you to try AVP1 (aka Classic 2000) as you haven’t. It’s quite different from AVP2, in that it has no real story and the pacing is dramatically different, but it’s balls scary at times and has loads of neat touches.
      I would say dig out the old demo, but I suspect it won’t work without patching, so Steam is probably your best bet.

      I also disagree with you on Regenerating Health. They’re a bane of the current games as it’s a watered down Godmode, even Deus Ex:HR suffered because of it in my eyes.
      Partially regenerating health (to say 25%) is the best of both worlds however, both conveying vulnerability to the player, while also generally giving them enough health to continue (at a slower and more careful pace) and not letting people find themselves in totally impossible situations.
      See Max Payne and AVP2010 for examples of that type of system.

    • DocSeuss says:

      Buzzmong, I may very well check it out at some point. It is, after all, a shooter, and I try to play all of them, because I enjoy the genre, but I do have a ~100 game backlog.

      I fully disagree with the regenerating health thing, particularly in regards to Human Revolution. All they did there was basically make sure that, once you’d gotten out of a tight spot, you wouldn’t have to bother with getting more health. Because you could die in just one or two hits from a shotgun blast, the regenerating health was actually better than a healthkit. I mean… bam, one or two hits and you’d be totally dead.

      The game had to honor the player’s decision to play how they wanted (if a bit grudgingly), and keeping that feeling of mortality (of being only able to take a few hits) would have been impossible with a health pack system. Some of those firefights could get pretty intense, and when all attention is on gunplay, tracking enemies, AND having to use a health kit whenever you got shot, people would get frustrated. They’d have to use a health kit literally every time they got hit.

      The best possible compromise was an INCREDIBLY slow health system that takes quite a while to kick back in, offsetting the consequenceless nature of a bad regenerating health implementation while maintaining the advantage of the system, which is the feeling of mortality (if you pay attention, you’ll notice that a good implementation of regenerating health actually keeps your health cap much lower than a regular health system, which means it takes fewer hits to kill you, which can help fights feel more immersive than a silly “I AM AN INVINCIBLE GOD!” feeling that a healthkit game will encourage).

      That said, I like Halo: Reach’s health system. Basically, the top 25% of your health is what recharges, and below that is when you take punishment. It effectively appeals to my OCD nature. I hate constantly running around with just a little bit of health. It means I resort to quick hit and run attacks no matter what. Knowing the top 25% of my health is going to regenerate means I’m a bit more willing to take risks, because I can get THAT back.

      But yeah, I maintain that the health system depends on the kind of game you want to make. STALKER’s health kits and bandages are fantastic. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth does it pretty cool too. I think regenerating health is perfect for Call of Duty, and I wouldn’t want anything but a healthkit system for Serious Sam or Unreal Tournament.

      You may not like it, any more than I might like turn-based games (they’re so stupid! They pull you out of the game and make you wait for something that could be simulated in real-time!), but they work for some games. They really do.

    • Josh W says:

      There’s another secret in there, making you feel vulnerable but actually giving you a perfectly good “out” in another form.
      Guns with different ammo is the easy version, but there are all kinds of slightly more subtle versions like having a stealth system and precision melee system that allows you to go round with a rifle butt when your out of ammo, knocking people out on the back of their heads, or target acquisition AI that allows you to set up diversions with local foes, or emergent interactions of the environment that allow you to disable things, or clever routes round something using the physics, or sneaking up on people relaxing and taking their guns before they get to them, or who knows what else.

      If you have a few ways to competently play the game built in that operate at 90degrees to each other, then you can put players in cliffhanger situations where they try something else out of desperation and find that it works.

      Course, I like to improv the first few levels and see all the different ways I can do stuff, then play the later levels very flexibly, as I’m not so interested in feeling vulnerable, but still, it works for both!

  22. kyrieee says:

    Ken is reading your comments, so shape up!

  23. Beelzebud says:

    Ken Levine: “The next thing we’re working on is a 28 Days Later game!”

    You heard it here first, folks! Stop the presses, we have a new headline!


  24. Jetsetlemming says:

    My problem with Bioshock wasn’t the lack of permanent decisions. Yes, that you could swap tonics and plasmids freely by going to a wall booth made the system more boring than it could’ve been otherwise (it’s pretty amazing how big a difference there is in the feel of death going from SS2 to Bioshock, where literally the only difference is that you no longer have to pay a meaninglessly small fee to respawn), but even the existing permanent decision, with the little sisters, was boring, because it’s really only ONE decision: “Do I want to get the bad ending, or do I want to intuitively do the obvious thing and save all the child because I am not a monster”. You either save every single little girl because that’s just what you do as a human being, or you force yourself to harvest them because you want to see where that leads on a second play.

    No, my problem with Bioshock was the level design. It actually started GREAT: The first few areas, up till about Fort Frolic, had that System Shock 2-esque Deck design, with each level being little open world environments that you had to explore and investigate to find the stuff you needed to progress. This was awesome. That freedom, or at least that illusion of self determinate exploration in System Shock 2 is a big part of why the game was fun, and a big part of how it could be very scary for some people- an event that happens to happen due to procedural elements and player input is a lot different from a scripted jump scare or unavoidable fight scene.

    But around the middle of the game, the levels suddenly became linear paths from A to B, or at most linear paths from A to B back to A. I stopped exploring, and started just following the path I was supposed to, encountering the enemies I was supposed to, picking up the loot I was supposed to. And then, after two levels or so of that, I quit. I’ve never beaten Bioshock because of how poorly the game falls apart at that point.

    I have no idea how Bioshock: Infinite is going to be on this aspect, “level linearity” is pretty hard to tell from action trailers. Bioshock 2 was a complete failure in this aspect, being linear paths right from the start, but then that was a different team. Hopefully Irrational does good for Infinite.

  25. Vinraith says:

    This interview nicely encapsulates why, while I don’t always like the games he makes, I can’t help but like Ken Levine (hell, his appearances on 3MA alone would ensure that!). I sometimes wonder what kind of game we’d get out of Irrational if they weren’t saddled with and supported by a major publisher. That is, what they would make if they had a much smaller budget, but were free of the publisher constraints that come with a large one. I suspect it might be something I’d be more interested in, honestly.

  26. JBantha says:

    Omg! @IGLevine call me sophisticated. Now seriously, I’m glad that he’s thinking in making a game that get good reviews so we the poor fellows form the third world would buy for recommendations, instead of a game it’s gonna sell tons of copies just for the hype.

  27. MichaelPalin says:

    Dear Ken,

    I write you a little bit as a last, desperate try to make an AAA developer understand what’s the problem with Bioshock and modern gaming for long-time gamers. Maybe this is personal and it’s not what most of such gamers feel, but I think many of us share.

    Do you know what is the most advanced game I have played in many, many time? Deus Ex. I played it last year and God it felt good. My problem with modern gaming is that in the late 90s and early 00s games were continuously becoming more complex, more expansive, more interactive. Games like Outcast, System Shock 2, Gothic, Morrowind, Thief allowed us to really feel like we were there, those gameworlds felt like infinite, because there usually was a lot of was to do things, you always had freedom to go wherever you wanted, you could interact with everything. Do you know why Skyrim is so damn popular? Because it recovers that feeling. Now every game is a succession of rooms, developers have forgotten about physics or they pretend they never existed, everything is super scripted, etc. I want games to start being simulators of whatever world is created for them, not just a small, linear and scripted fraction of them. You created a wonderful concept for Bioshock, I wanted to explore that world, but it was completely void and even if you could explore each level a bit, it was completely pointless.

    That and the fact that every game is made for everyone at the same time. Yes, I know I have to push ‘f’ or ‘e’ to interact with the world, I’ve been playing games for 20 years. And I would like to handle saves myself, thank you. You get the idea.

    Thanks for your closeness.

    • distantlurker says:

      I certainly can’t put into words why I feel about the older games as I do, though your comments of simulating freedom ring very true.

      All I know is that when I played the original Bioshock I kept thinking to myself, no matter how much fun I was having, I wished they’d made System Shock 3 instead; it would have been even better.

      I yearn for the day.

  28. LazyAssMF says:

    I just want to say: Levine, you’re a legend. I fckin looooooove Bioshock. I think it’s the best game ever made and I can’t wait for Infinite. And it’s great that you didn’t made Bioshock 2, because it sucks. :D Peace!

  29. dogsolitude_uk says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and the last. Regardless of Levine’s advice to listen to friends and read reviews of games before purchasing, I’m afraid I’m going to buy it purely on the strength of that video clip in the last article. Ha! That’ll teach him to dispense unsolicited advice regarding my Game Purchase Decision Making Process.

    And I’ll be hacking out 1999 mode too. Oddly I was having a conversation with a friend a while back about the permanence of choices, limited resources and having to make decisions about mutually exclusive options.

    We agreed that permanent, un-undoable (reloading aside) mutually-exclusive choices make for a real ‘game’ rather than a sort of interactive experience. You can’t take moves back in chess, for example. The game involves a larger degree of committment.

    Better still it adds to replayability. I find myself wondering: “what would happen if I went for the Disappear-O-Matic upgrade and played using Stealth?” and digging it out again.

    [One small thing I’d ask for if this kind of thing surfaces in future games: the ability to name and label saves with something other than location and date/time with something that will help me remember what I’ve done…]

  30. best_jeppe says:

    Great interview. And I must say that Ken Levine seems to be a really humble and good guy and based on the interview alone I now respect him as much as Gabe Newell…which is to say a lot! In all honesty I didn’t think Bioshock was superawesome. It was ok and had a lovely atmosphere but for some reason it didn’t really reasonated with me. I don’t know if Bioshock Infinte will do that either but I will probably buy it just to support Ken Levine.

  31. hosndosn says:

    Levine has no idea what we were dissatisfied about! This idiot thinks that the problem in BioShock was permanence, but the problem was that it wasn’t an FPS/RPG hybrid like SS2, it was a pure FPS. ;)

    Honestly, though, I appreciated that Bioshock was described as a pure FPS from the beginning so I never felt like it took a dump on the System Shock brand. It’s a great FPS. I missed the additional layer of managing an inventory, resources beyond ammo, a skill tree, etc. Games like DX3 show that it’s not unthinkable to bring that back in the 10s. I assume Infinite will be a “pure” FPS again and that’s OK, I guess. It will also probably be an amazing sequel (the “true” Bioshock 2, if you ask me). It’s just a pity that the mere name, “Bioshock”, is holding one of the best AAA studios in the industry back from doing something truly new.

  32. povu says:

    I actually had a lot of fun playing tennis in Bioshock 1 with telekinesis, the tennis racket, and the ball machine. :P

  33. shivars says:

    I would just like to say that this interview (both parts), and specifically the part about “dont buy until you’ve read reviews” just make me even more keen to preorder it as soon as it’s available to buy on Steam!

    Of course the fact I played and loved System Shock 2 and both Bioshock games has nothing to do with it.

    Seriously though – excellent interview, excellent bloke, and his whole attitude just makes me respect him, his team and his approach even more – these are the kind of game designers I want to buy games from!

    Ok that ended up a bit fanboi-ish…but I meant it…

  34. Oddness says:

    I stopped giving a damn about anything Irrational does after reading the Bioshock postmortem where they talk about changing course and deliberately dumbing the game down to appeal to the console crowd, removing “nerdy RPG stats” so it would be more competetive as a FPS, etc…

    link to gamasutra.com

    So they add a hardcore mode for Inifinite and try to sucker old fans by calling it “1999”, the game is still just a continuation of the same watered-down mechanics from Bioshock.

  35. SamNM says:

    I would just like to point out that on a good day Cityville makes upwards of a million dollars. In one day! It’s clearly a few peoples’ type of game.

  36. BreadBitten says:

    The one criticism I have towards BioShock is that the game felt somewhat weightless. It’s hard for me to properly express it, but it was a culmination of the core mechanics, the controls, the choices and, to some extent, the pace of the narrative…if that makes any sense.

    • best_jeppe says:

      I would describe the game the same way so I know what you mean.

      I also think that Levine probably are doing some reverse psychology on us but heck I am willing to take a chance on him and give him the benefit of a doubt :)

  37. Captain Hijinx says:

    Another fantastic interview, Levine is always interesting to read. I know next to nothing about Infinite save for what i saw of the initial launch trailer, i think i’ll keep it that way until i pick it up and play it. I think the experience will be all the richer for it.

  38. Tyrone Slothrop. says:

    I think Ken Levine is a genius, I mean his writing on System Shock 2, Bioshock and even the very concept of Infinite is uniformly astounding. What other game let’s you be an Ex-Pinkerton Strikebreaker on a floating manifestation of American Empire in 1912, caught in a civil war between Carnegie-esque Aristocrats and Emma Goldman-inspired anarchists? Like I said in the last comments, I loved both SS2 and Bioshock and see no reason why Infinite won’t be a masterpiece.

    I do wish express disappoint in people dismissing Bioshock due to perceived and real simplifications. I mean I’m sensitive to the concern and still wish the game was more difficult and challenging to survive but I think it’s hyperbolic to marginalise the game entirely, because of this. The combat, while too easy, provided far, far more emergence than System Shock 2 (though the latter provided far more sophistication and character customisation) and the art design, music storytelling, characters and atmosphere are superlative achievements.

    For instance, I not the biggest fan of Inception, preferring Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and Momento as I find the narratives and writing far more engaging in both but I still really enjoyed the film and feel the aesthetic, visual and sound design, music and many scenes to be utterly masterful. I always try to be nuanced with my critique.

    What’s worse though has been the seeming insult that an entirely conciliatory, earnest and well-meaning Mr. Levine has caused by attempting to listen and respond to the more, reactionary among us, leading to an airing of grievances, both nonsensical and legitimate, unseen since Festivus. And he’s attempting to rectify it with a mode I shall certainly utilise.

  39. matrices says:

    Levine seems like a fantastic guy all around. Only the most jaded or cynical person can fail to appreciate the brilliance of Bioshock’s conceit as a Randian underwater dystopia suspended in the mid 20th century – pure brilliance in imagination and execution of that environment. The opening sequence in particular serves as a classic example of Doing It Right.

    That said, I bored of the gunplay in Bioshock fairly quickly – the weapons just didn’t sound right, which is a really underestimated factor when it comes to “feel” and “heft” of shooting mechanics, possibly because of the reverb provided by a good sub when the bass is there. (FEAR and RAGE are the only two games I know of that nailed this perfectly.) The lackluster variety in enemies and enemy behavior patterns also contributed to the malaise. I even started the game over again at some later point, only to end up quitting around the same spot, for the same reasons.

  40. El_Emmental says:

    What I miss from older games is the curious feeling we were going toward deeper gameplay innovative specialization.

    Game A : Shooting guys in the face.

    Expected Game B : Shooting guys in the face, but this it’s really different : it’s much more shocking, or much more gore, or much more funny (humour), or much more weird, or much faster, or much more slow&detailed.

    Today, pick any shooter (FPS or TPS), shooting guys in the face ends up the same :
    – shoot at guy with generic weapon (smg/pistol/assault rifle/sniper)
    – guy gets hit, plays “hit” animation (“ouch I’ve been hit”)
    – guy has blood decals or play “hurt” animation
    – shoot and hit the guy head or enough time, guy plays “dying” animation

    In late 90s/early 2000s, I thought we would soon have some extremely gory/violent man-shooters, some super hi-speed sci-fi man-shooters, some really scary/psycho man-shooters, some creepily disturbing man-shooters, some very poetic and soft man-shooters, etc.

    With stronger technology it would be possible to make such games, while with more players there would be room for such games. Very naive point of view indeed, I was young of course.

    That feeling disappeared : nowadays, I know it’s pointless to expect something really surprising, there’s so many “rules” game devs have to follow (even indies), it became extremely hard to not define your game by these rules.

    And even when you break these rules, you break like, 5 or 10 of them, but the other 30 or 50 others rules stay untouched.

    And when you break them, it’s black and white, on/off, 0 or 1 value.

    These rules go from having autoheal, checkpoint saves, perma-death, to more global rules like the game-player relation (does the game revolves around you, without you, against you) or the way the game deals with your ingame and IRL ego.

    On these rules, you can comply with the majority/maximum compatibility (“boooh ! mainstream casual! when I was your age!”), or join the “resistance” and refuse to comply (“yea we’re rebels ! keep fighting the Man!”). There’s no third way, no alternatives.

    You’re in the middle of a Cold War, and even if you pretend to be “non-aligned”, you’re either received support/threats from the US or the USSR power bloc.

    I miss that feeling videogames could still create genre, sub-genre, sub-sub-genre and so on.

  41. kzrkp says:

    SWAT 4 deserves a sequel so bad. The market is totally devoid of tactical shooters after Rainbow 6 3 and SWAT 4.
    SWAT4 woooo link to youtu.be

  42. mbourgon says:

    Thanks for this. I love that Ken’s a fan of RPS. Heck, that’s how I found out about RPS – Ken’s interview with Kieron, about some gaming website I’d somehow never heard of before. Got home and put it in google – now a die-hard RPS fan.