Late last week, Irrational announced 1999 mode for BioShock: Infinite - an attempt to recapture the sense of binding decisions, permanent consequences and hard-as-nails challenge that we perhaps associate with a lost era of gaming. In this first of a two-part interview, I nattered to avuncular Irrational bossman Ken Levine about why they came up with 1999 Mode, what it entails, why it's a very different prospect to simply a 'hard' difficulty setting, why he doesn't want non-hardcore gamers playing that mode, and whether or not it's a reaction to disappointment about BioShock from System Shock fans.
RPS: So, 1999 mode. Bit of a surprise, that one. Why do it?
Ken Levine: Primarily, I think after we finished BioShock, we tend to be a company that does a lot of self-review and soul-searching, and we had made this game that was very popular, but there was a segment of the audience, and also a segment I think of people at Irrational, who felt there was something there that wasn't at the level they wanted it. There was a sort of dissatisfaction, from the hardcore, old school gamer audience.
So recently I talked at my old college and feeling like Mr Successful, then this guy says "I've got a bone to pick with you, Levine!" He's giving me a hard time, he says "the problem was none of the decisions I made had any permanence to them. I didn't have to commit to any decisions." And I was like "oh!" The clouds parted for me. Except for the Little Sisters, there's no permanence in your choices. It hadn't really crystallised for me before, the difference between games we had made before, like System Shock 2, and BioShock.
In System Shock 2 it was the OS upgrades, this sort of this perk system, and you made these choices; I remember staring at it even as I played it and agonising over that decision, worrying that if I made bad decisions I was going to get screwed. And I kind of miss that. Last night I woke up and couldn't get back to sleep, so I went and played Deus Ex: Human Revolution for a while, then I went back to bed. And I still couldn't get to sleep, so I picked up my iPhone and started playing Bejewelled. People often ask me "what kind of gamer is your game for?” but I think there are different kinds of gamer in all of us, especially in old-school gamers. There are things we like in modern games, and things we miss from games of yore.
It is tough to have your cake and eat it too, but it occurred to us that there was a real opportunity here to address that old school gamer in a way that was not going to break the bank. I don't want to oversell what this is, I don't want "oh my god, it's two games in one!" because it's not. It's a bunch of very carefully, I think pretty well thought-out changes to the way the game is played that is going to make a real difference to how it feels.
RPS: It's very interesting that it came about from talking directly to a fan - is that the only way a voice can be actually heard from all the noise of online feedback and criticism?
Ken Levine: Yeah, for some reason this guy was able to articulate the dissatisfaction in a way that… I won't say that nobody had done it before, but maybe they hadn't said it so clearly or maybe I didn't hear it or understand it. But I made a connection during this conversation that I hadn't made before, and it was really exciting to do that. I'm sure there were many other things that gamer A, B or C may not have liked, but this was something that I as a gamer really tuned into. Because at the end of the day game developers make games that they want to play, so BioShock was very much a game that I wanted to play, but when it occurred to me that this element was missing, I realised that was the kind of game I liked to play as well, where you make these permanent decisions.
So even in vanilla BioShock: Infinite there are some permanent decisions - the Nostrums, which are very similar to the gene tonics in BioShock 1, the decisions you make about those are permanent. You make those decisions and you live with those decisions. But the difference in 1999 mode is that there are decisions which become quite mutually exclusive. You tend to specialise. If you're really taking a lot of Nostrums that are designed to improve your pistol skill, you're really going to suffer in other areas - other weapons, hacking… You're going to have times in the game where the thing that you're really good at isn't that relevant.
You're not going to have the ammo for it, or there won't be much hacking you can do in that area, the opportunities for [your skills] aren't going to be very present, and you're going to be struggling, really struggling to progress. You'll have to count every bullet and think very deeply about every encounter, because if you just run into things you're going to find yourself really in a bad place that's going to be very hard to get yourself out of.
RPS: Are you guys at Irrational going go through the entire game and see where those kinds of situations occur, and whether there's ever a point where it's impossible to progress if the player has made certain choices?
Ken Levine: The goal is never to have an absolute brick wall, but I think there has to be places where some gamers will be "oh, guess I'm going back to the savegame" because they really put themselves in an untenable situation. I think that's okay, because this is not a mode for a guy who only plays two or three games a year, who goes home in the evening and wants to unwind and play for half an hour, shoot a bunch of stuff and forget about it.
Our goal with BioShock: Infinite was always a way to bring those people into this kind of game, but I think the plan right now - my thinking, anyway - is we're going to hide this mode behind an old-school up, down, left, right, left, right, start button combination on the console to unlock it. You're not going to have to finish the game to unlock it, but we're going to hide it because the last thing I want is some guy who's not an old-school gamer stumbling into this thing, because he's going to think "alright, this game sucks, I'm never getting into this because it's so brutal and so punishing - forget it!"
RPS: On PC, instead of the up down left right thing it should be the old Looking Glass, Deus Ex keycode...
Ken Levine: Oh, 0451? Yeah. Or we could put a codewheel into the box, or a cloth map...
RPS: Heh, but what about the guys on Steam? They'll have to print out a PDF or something.
Ken Levine: Remember when you had to go find five words in the manual? And then you'd lose the manual… Yeah, I don't want non-old school gamers finding this, or they'll take the game right back to the store.
RPS: Why are you calling it 1999 Mode instead of simply 'hard' or 'ultra' or something like that?
Ken Levine: In terms of figuring out the name of the mode, we already had difficulty levels in there, but they don't really change the way you play the game. That's more how committed are you and what level of challenge you want. This, you really have to play the game differently - but again, the last thing I want to do is oversell this, because I don't want people thinking "oh my god, two games in one, Irrational spent 40 years making this…"
It is a difference in balance, a difference in specialisation, a difference in how you die, and there are a few new Nostrums to support it, and really does make a profoundly different experience. If someone selected it expecting a traditional BioShock experience, I think they'd be surprised and confused and dismayed, because they're going to have to make decisions. They might get really stuck and have to go back to a savegame.
RPS: You keep mentioning that you don't want to oversell 1999 mode - how much is that a reaction to perhaps getting a bit burned with the BioShock 1 'spiritual successor to System Shock' hype?
Ken Levine: Something I've learned is that I shouldn't let my enthusiasm for something overwhelm me when I talk about it. When Irrational makes a game, I'm absolutely convinced that we're doing the thing that we want to make and everyone's going to be really excited about it. It's very easy to get excited about what you're doing; the thing with making BioShock is you often have to step back, look at it and be careful about what you're saying, because either you might be speaking in a way that will be misinterpreted or is unintentionally confusing, muddies the water a bit. So I'm really trying to step back when I talk about Infinite, as often as I can, and say "how can I speak about this as objectively as I possibly can?" And it's a challenge, because you obviously have a lot of emotion tied up in what you're doing. It's very hard to talk about our baby objectively.
But I think that I feel a responsibility to speak as objectively about the game as I can - which is a weird thing for a guy who is out to sell something. I mean, that's why I'm having these kinds of conversations, trying to get people excited about the game. But I'm trying not to set expectations that are going to end up being confusing or people are going to be disappointed. This [1999 mode] specifically, because the audience is specifically a group of people who are extremely discriminating, and will read every word very carefully, and say 'okay - I want to understand what I'm getting.'
So I want to make sure that those people get a very specific understanding of what's on offer here. I'm not speaking to a general audience, I'm speaking to a very specific audience that is going to take a real deep dive in thinking about this. It's an audience that thinks very carefully about their purchasing decisions, and I don't want that audience to ever open up one of our games and think 'this isn't what I thought it was going to be.'
So this mode especially, I want to be careful about how we talk about it: because this audience is so attuned to thinking about games on such a deep level, I feel like I can talk to that audience in a way that you can't really talk to a more general audience. I can use a certain kind of lingo, I can use design concepts that I can't use for a general audience.
Tomorrow: Ken Levine on the importance of clarity, why you shouldn't trust previews, why "If you're a reader on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, you are sophisticated enough to not listen to what Ken Levine says" and on the problem with out of context quotes just like that one was.