Shock: Levine’s New Game Is Open Worldish Sci-Fiish RPG

Sometime BioShock boss Ken Levine has opened the first tears to his new development dimension. He effectively closed his long-time studio Irrational last year in favour of working on smaller-scale projects, but still within the protective fortress of 2K. At the time he talked about making narrative-led games with more replayability, and while last night’s sudden flurry of updates is nothing like a reveal, he has a least given out a few big hints, together with a pledge for more open development than was the case on the spoiler-vulnerable BioShocks. What he’s got planned is a open worldish (“but not necessarily outdoors”) RPG, sci-fi, PC, probably first-person, chapter-like structure, brand new setting, add “ins” rather than add-ons, and a Passion System. Missus.

OK, this is going to be a bit of a messy read I’m afraid, as Ken Levine decided to give away the first details of his new thing on Twitter, and his, ah, unusual reply formatting doesn’t help matters, but let’s just do the blast first of all:

Not sure how clear a picture that paints, though on paper it’s an exciting approach. And perhaps a necessary one, in terms of kicking against the rigidity of BioShock Infinite and Burial At Sea. The add-in/Legos talk suggests to me that in-game conversation, choice and consequence could expand in scope as more is added to the game. He references Civ repeatedly, and that’s a game in which the expansion pack model is to still be playing essentially the same game but with more possible things to do within it. I’m definitely interested in an RPG which takes that approach: different quests, different conversations and different outcomes from the same places. But I doubt the game I’m forming a nebulous idea of in my head will be anything like whatever this actually is. Love, hate or be a well-adjusted human being and have mixed feelings about the BioShock games, it was usually very hard to know exactly what they were going to be until they were right in front us.

Also: it’s hard not to let the mind wander towards System Shock at talk of “not necessarily outdoors” sci-fi roleplaying, isn’t? I am probably entirely wrong-headed here.

A little more can be gleaned from his earlier GDC talk about ‘narrative Legos’ as an approach to systemic world design:

Header photo by Dan Griliopoulos. See his collection of game dev portraits here.


  1. skyturnedred says:

    I don’t know what to make of this, but I like it. Hope something good comes out of it.

  2. Orija says:

    Let’s hope it doesn’t involve selling a mediocre product based on hype, like what happened with Bioshock Infinite.

    • Heretic7 says:

      Infinite was my favorite Bioshock game by far. To each his own I guess.

      • JiminyJickers says:

        System Shock 2 was my favourite by far in this genre, but I agree that Infinite was pretty good. I much preferred Infinite to the other Bioshocks.

      • drewski says:

        Mine too! Only one I’ve played more than once.

    • LexW1 says:

      The extreme vague-ness of the concept, in that they seem more sure of certain mechanics than, y’know, the setting or the like suggests to me that they don’t have a really strong idea, here, which is rather worrying.

      My big concern is that we basically get another re-run of Bioshock (not either System Shock), with a different setting, but one that is every bit as overly mannered, pompous (and maybe pretentious) and self-regarding as Infinite (and to a lesser but significant extent the original Bioshock), and just some other slightly off-the-wall (but not, er, shocking) mechanic to spice things up instead of “Helpful Magic Lady”.

      It really does worry me that he’s talking Formalism, and specifically referencing Wes Anderson and Kubrick. I love their work, both of them but good god, I wouldn’t want to be trapped in a lengthy first-person shooter-RPG based on it. Nor do Formalist artistic principles necessarily seem to apply well to a computer game (I could be wrong).

      • woodsey says:

        Nothing wrong with starting with a mechanic rather than a setting or narrative.

    • gunny1993 says:

      You mean like every single AAA product for the last 4 years?

    • pasports31 says:

      I really enjoyed Infinite. One of the few games I pre ordered, and for me, at least, I didn’t regret it. Really liked it.

      • Orija says:

        It was the same with me for the pc-port of Dark Souls. But coming back to what I said above, my opinion of Bioshock 3 is based on, what I think are, objective parameters – like the superficial combat mechanics, the cynical implementation of player choice, the rather hollow plot and characterization. None of the (attempted) nuance of the first Bioshock, which didn’t impress me much anyway, was present. And, yet, there are people including critics who love it. Hmm.

        • Darth Gangrel says:

          The minds of other people move in mysterious ways, indeed. I might like what you dislike and be unbothered by the things you call out as major flaws.

          I like what I’m hearing about this game, but I feel like this Twitter Ask Me Anything is a bit too much at once and the format of the reveal of is far from optimal. The only thing worse than not knowing anything about a game, is knowing too much about it or getting too much info at once that don’t have much solid facts in it.

    • MikoSquiz says:

      I think he was just all out of good ideas for Bioshock. B:I was very very sequely, just do the same thing again but paint it a different colour, sand down some of the rough edges (which leaves a little less texture to the whole experience) and throw more money at making it big and shiny.

      It showed worst in the story, which seemed to have as its primary concern hilariously transparent handwaving to explain why they were giving you a worse version of the same game with a worse version of the same plot. There were some passable-seeming unsprouted idea seeds in there, but they were so submerged in the recycled guff they couldn’t get out.

      It was also not a good shooter game, since the mechanics were still set up for narrow confined spaces and the game was set in huge outdoor areas.

    • lordfrikk says:

      Suggestion: avoid the hype.

  3. welverin says:

    I think it’s wrong to say he closed Irrational, 2k owned the studio and I just can’t see them letting some employee making such a major decision for himself.

    • drewski says:

      I guess the studio was built around him and his ideas, so when he told 2K he didn’t want to do that any more, there was only one realistic option for them.

      I don’t know if it’s quite fair to say he closed it down personally, but it does seem like his personal decision not to continue with that style of game is what caused Irrational to be shut down.

  4. Dorga says:

    Seems like a lot of molyneux to me.

    • FreeTom says:

      I got molyneux on my good brogues on the way home last night. Had to leave them in the porch in a plastic bag.

      • Shadowcat says:

        You should be able to wash that off with the tears of molyneux.

  5. aldo_14 says:

    I’m guessing narrative lego is a lot like deterministic planning; basically you have an operator specification with some set of precondition states, and some set of posteffect states that result, and you achieve the goal (desired end states) by ‘chaining’ activities so effects establish preconditions of subsequent activities, etc. All you have to do is define operators to represent some narrative event ‘block’ and bingo – you can have an automated system for forming narratives (it’s possible use a pseudo-random method to ensure variety in selecting operators).

    Which would be fun, if it works cohesively. I suspect it’s a modelling issue rather than a technical one.

    • Questionable says:

      It’s not a trivial problem and has been worked on for a while. If your “lego blocks” (actions) are narrative fragments then this paper has a good overview: link to

      If your blocks are actions by characters then a good introduction to “intentional” planning: link to

      In both cases finding useful metrics for a “good” narrative is still pretty open. There’s stuff about tension arcs and measuring conflict out there but no consensus on the best approach. It’s definitely more than just reaching an end state though.

      I’m guessing Levine will end up with an ad-hoc approximation of one of these. There’s no reason an ad-hoc approach wouldn’t work in the constraints of a specific game, of course.

      • aldo_14 says:

        Well, that paper is sort of exactly what I was intuiting.

        Representing metrics / decision heuristics / etc is a modelling issue rather than a technical one – by which I mean we have established algorithms for chaining actions (whatever an action equates to), but the thing is how to actually model narrative concepts. i mean, from a quick skim, that papers’ novelty is not from the planning algorithm, but from the modelling of narrative elements in order to use a planner.

        • Questionable says:

          Except that the paper only addresses part of the puzzle. Classical planning aims to find the chain of events to reach a specific (partial) state. You could set up a goal like “tragedy” that requires all characters to be dead at the end, but there’s no guarantee that the sequence to get there won’t be a rubbish story (e.g. filled with deus ex machina, 90% of characters dying at the start etc).

          Tricks in modelling actions could get you so far, but it’s not easy to turn constraints on links in the chain of events in to nice global properties or long-range effects. You can see some of that in the second paper — they’ve had to modify standard planning to ensure that not only are the actions *possible* in a given state, but also that each one is *reasonable* at that point in time for the character that does it.

          Maybe it isn’t impossible to find some way to model narrative chunks so they always compose nicely, but it isn’t obvious and noone’s found a final solution using classical planning in the last 15 years.

          There’s more stuff out there using databases of example narratives / sub-plots that then get adapted and thrown together. I don’t know as much about that but I think it probably works better, but can’t fulfil the promise of flexibility and novelty that the planning approaches do.

  6. Wizardry says:


  7. rustybroomhandle says:



    1. It’s what happens when you pee on an electric fence.

    • Vandelay says:

      2. A surprise orgasm from a bisexual.

      • Shazbut says:

        3. A type of German wine made through a firmware that is used during the booting process of personal computers.

  8. Jakkar says:

    Levine and Schafer, two men who seemed to accidentally make magic, along with their crew, in the late nineties, and then lost their minds and their standards…

    I can muster no interest.

    Don’t even mention Molyneux – that arse wasn’t responsible for the creativity or humour, the *fun* of Bullfrog’s games, he was always simply a liar and a hogger of the limelight. Levine and Schafer did, seemingly, have a strong influence upon the nineties masterworks associated with their names – which makes their output in the interim all the more disappointing.

    • jezcentral says:

      When did this rot set in? Or is it just the last game he made you didn’t like?

      • Jakkar says:

        Hello jezcentral.

        In Levine’s case? We had System Shock 2. My god, System Shock 2. Then there was a long period of silly bits and pieces (and an unexpectedly technically excellent Swat 4, IIRC, though proficient tasers and good level designs do not a great ‘whole’ game make), but nothing in this period afaik involved Levine in a very influential design role, and none had the signature qualities of Thief or ‘Shock.

        … then Bioshock. What was Bioshock? System Shock 2 without effective horror, with writing made entirely of tropes and contrary metacommentary on those tropes, without any degree of challenge, with a backwards control scheme, with the inventory removed, and with almost all of its ambitious and interesting planned features scaled back in favour of a game chiefly made of scripted content, interspersed with faux-free loot arenas containing splicer-spawning alarms and Big Daddy pseudobosses. That said, it wasn’t a very bad game, until ‘that plot event’ which shifted the latter third of the game into a pure shooter of poor quality leading to an end boss so bad I was convinced it was a parody til the killing blow. All the while on this misguided Randian Objectivist fantasy theme which seemed to make no coherent commentary on, for, against, or.. Well, anything, other than golden statues with huge shoulders, businessmen being unscrupulous, and scientists being ‘Mad!!!’. Largely subjective criticism, yes – but what cannot be denied is that the game was a straight ripoff of 1999s System Shock 2 without adding anything new, but while removing a great, great deal of depth, and cutting every corner it could.

        All I’ll say about Bioshock Infinite is that it may be the worst shooter I’ve played in the last ten years, woefully outdated engine, and has an utterly asinine plot. It was a drastically worse game in design, technical features, scope, art direction and plot than Bioshock – power and cash went to Levine’s head, and it deflated with a wet noise and an unpleasant smell, leaving Bioshock Infinite collapsed behind it as it flew out of the window.

        … but if you mean Schafer, I just really disliked Brutal Legend. Simplistic, irritating, repetitive and unfinished third person button masher in an open world that contained nothing living or interesting… Fool me for high hopes based upon my adoration of Grim Fandango and Full Throttle in my childhood and early teens.

        • Turkey says:

          So pretty much the second they entered into AAA development and had to appeal to the masses.

        • Orija says:

          While everything that you’ve said here is congruent to my own views, I can’t figure why most people, including pretty much every critic, thinks of this game to be the groundbreaking marvel that is among the best video game ever made. What does it say about the video game industry that mediocrity is enough to wow and excite enthusiasts?

          • bobbiy58 says:

            well for someone new to gaming and old to boot I loved this game as opposed to some so called great games That suck hard to play and confusing what they want you to do so opinions are like a holes everyone has one and we really don’t care want yours is!

        • magogjack says:

          Did you just call the Bioshock Infinite engine outdated??? Its like the nicest looking game I’ve ever played….

          Also you seem like the most fussy person in the world, have you even enjoyed a video game since the 90’s?

          • Vandelay says:

            Calling the combat the worst in 10 years is just baffling to me too. It is the best that the series has offered and easily is better than any modern warfare shooter.

            Sometimes I wonder if I was lucky enough to get the special good game edition, whilst others picked up the shit in a box collector’s pack. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but I thought it was definitely the best in the series.

          • KenTWOu says:

            I’ve got all blue ribbons in Clash in the Clouds DLC. While doing that it was pretty obvious that BioShock:Infinite is a very unbalanced game, I mean, it’s a bad shooter. Not the worst in 10 years, though. That said, I think Infinite is a good game.

    • Steve Catens says:

      All these “Shock” games, System or otherwise, are lesser entries in the resume of the studio that gave me the magnificent Freedom Force, and that didn’t happen until 2002.

      It seems to me they “accidentally” made games that a lot of people enjoyed on a fairly regular basis.

      • Shadowcat says:

        God, the Freedom Force games were so good.

        I’m not entirely surprised that the second game (presumably) didn’t sell well enough — I thought the choice of setting (which was contrary to what people had been looking forward to) and the advertising campaign were both woefully misjudged. The game itself was fantastic, though, just like its predecessor.

        I’m so gutted that the series ended.

  9. Goodtwist says:

    My god, my iphone almost died loading up this page.

  10. Crafter says:

    Ok, Bioshock Infinite was a disappointment for me, especially in the storytelling department, but this is itching me in the right way.
    I will have to keep an eye out for this.

  11. karnak says:

    Why do these game gurus keep talking about their new theories in game making, and keep delivering mediocre games?
    Back when they were just kids they would just keep their mouths shut and employ the time making great games.

    Man, getting old really fucks your brain good.

    • Jakkar says:


      What this archetype has in common is charisma and positive energy. They’re cheerful, creative, imaginative, eager. They reach positions of influence, work with a good team, with good luck, and make a great game, and then… Everyone lauds *them* for it, the individual, the talker, the smiley-face-man who somehow became the face, who wore the ‘lead design’ or ‘director’ badge.

      Suddenly they’re marooned on a large desk afloat upon an ocean of expectations, buoyed up on tanks of unstable ego-gas, and try to make a game alone – now they’re not running with a team, they’re telling people what to do, and the media *screams* about how amazing it will be, because that individual is an AUTEUR, a GENIUS, a master of the craft.

      The outcome is predictable but no less tragic for it :<

      • karnak says:

        You raise some good points.
        But I think biology is also to blame.

        I take it from my own experience.
        I knew plenty of dudes. Who were once young. Vibrant with hopes. Ideas. Full of energy.
        These dudes are now old (40+). They’re bitter. Frustrated. They say young people are stupid. Have no ideas. “We used to create great things back in the days – young people only make shit now”.
        Unfortunately I’m one of those bitter old men too.

        We get old and frail. Our brain cells die and we become stupid and stale.

        Hooray for the young generations and the new indie games industry.
        Nature always need young blood.

        It’s no wonder the world is a mess. I suspect 85% of the world’s ruling class is 60+ years old.

      • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

        How the internets were taken by just one poster.

    • Splattercakez says:

      In Ken’s case breaking away from 2K probably gives him a lot more freedom to do what he actually wants to do, but just in general I think a lot of people within the industry can see problems like this, and often have incredible ideas about how to go about solving them, but aren’t always capable of putting them into practice.

      I mean just looking at Ken’s idea here, very few games do anything like this and especially not within the AAA sphere which means most publishers are going to rule out funding something like this, they want things they -know- will sell or they think are clearly worth taking a risk on but when you present an idea that’s so untested they aren’t going to bite on a risky venture, so it’s either make what they want you to make; something tried and tested, or go off and try to fund such a game by yourself, or find someone that will fund it. I think as I said already that’s pretty much reflected perfectly in this turn of events, Ken makes a presentation talking about ideas and criticizing elements of game design that Bioshock is practically the poster trope of, and it turns out his new game about this idea is a PC-exclusive which certainly makes it sound like it’s not got a publisher backing it currently. Or maybe he pulled a SEGA with Bayo 2 and actually found a pub willing to invest, who knows.

      Also as an aside, publisher’s are not always unjustified in how safe they play it; look at dear old Peter Molyneux or perhaps more recently Warren Spector; people have very genuine insight into the industry and really important things to say who very clear have ambition and want to do amazing things but when it comes to actually delivering on those promises… well you get stuff like Fable or Epic Mickey. Some would simply dismiss them as liars or delusional, but honestly I think it’s more just a case that it’s one thing to come up with an idea, and a very different and very expensive endeavor to actually bring those ideas to life.

    • montorsi says:

      When you are young and have done nothing there is no reason to stick a mic in your face. What a weird comment.

      • karnak says:

        Justin Bieber is young. He only does rubbish and thousands pay to see him stick a mic on his face.

        Stupid jokes aside, I think guys like Ken Levine should talk less and create more.

        I don’t remember Warren Spector talking much to the press when he was involved in making good games. When Looking Glass Studios closed its doors he started theorising about games, and what makes games good and what makes them bad. Some time later we see “Epic Mickey”. And much else aftarwards.

        I’m honestly starting to get a bit worried now that Paul Neurath is also “theorising” to the gaming press about what it means to make a good “Ultima Underworld 3”.
        As most readers probably now know, I’m a bitter old man. I assume it. Old enough to remember the time when Richard Garriott started to tell every gaming magazine in the world how technology now allowed him to make the best Ultima game ever. And how the new Ultima would be the fulfilment of his ideas as a developper.

        The result was Ultima 8. And I’m not gonna even write about Ultima 9. Because yes, even Garriott admitted that 8 was flawed. But Ultima 9 would be “the game”, according to his ideas.

        Sid Meier, at least, doesn’t give a lot of statements.

        Sad. Yes, sad.
        Because frauds like Ken Levine and Peter Molyneux get the limelight and the cash to create trash; and guys like Jullian Gollop usually have to sit in corner and beg for some change in Kickstarter, in order to create anything.

        Come on, kids. You can kick the old man, now.

  12. Ejia says:

    But will it have fish? A fish dish? A fish dish that’s delish? Vicious, delicious dishes with fishes?

    Coming soon: Bioshock Ish. With fishing.

  13. Penguin_Factory says:

    I’ve been saying for years we need more RPGs with quest structure coming from passion system. Good on Levine for stepping up to the plate.

    I kid. Looking forward to whatever this is, even though it will probably get panned for not being System Shock 2.

  14. Senethro says:

    Why do people need to believe in heroes and that if their heroes ever fail, they were fake all along?

    Comments thread is hella bitter.

    • Turkey says:

      Cause we’re slaves to pattern-recognition and everything has to fit in our dumb little narrative of how the world works.

      • BooleanBob says:

        It’s so silly. Individually, we might know a lot about something, or a little about everything. But there’s no way for us to learn a lot about everything before we die of old age.

        Clearly we need to build some kind of intelligent machine and have it learn everything for us, then put it in charge.

        • Gyro says:

          You likely made this comment in jest, but I for one welcome our new robot overlord.

  15. teije says:

    Hmm, this is all so vague I’m not sure whether to be interested or not, since I’m not sure what to be interested in.

  16. Premium User Badge

    Qazinsky says:

    Just based on what he has said, I’m gonna go ahead and hope for a sci-fi Ultima Underworld-esque game, like underground and in bases on a planet where you only possibly traverse the surface in short bursts with heavy protection. More cave spelunking for the people!

  17. Gordon Shock says:

    Mr Levine can serve me a big pile of doo-doo on a platter and I would eat it up with a spoon.

  18. Shazbut says:

    Ken, you totally said “RPG” here. Don’t let us down, man.

  19. Spacewalk says:

    Love it or Levine it.

  20. death_au says:

    If the LEGO trademark is used at all, it should always be used as an adjective, not as a noun. For example, say “MODELS BUILT OF LEGO BRICKS”.

    link to

  21. drewski says:

    I think I’d be pretty wary of reading too much into a very early Twitter Q&A with Ken, given how much even the best deliverers of game design change it a lot as they go through development.

    And, much as I love his work, I don’t think anyone would put Mr. Levine in the “best deliverers of game design” category. Even if he can deliver what he’s talking about now, there’s no guarantee that’s even what he’ll want to deliver by the time the game comes out…

  22. ivanfyodor says:

    Well, being a few days old I doubt anyone will read this but, let me sum up the “Civ 5 model” he wants to emulate: Create a great game, then strip out parts of it and release, then sell the stripped out parts as DLC.

  23. Dolgoch2 says:

    If it’s by Ken Levine, I’m in. Bioshock 1 and Infinite are the two greatest games I’ve ever played.