Q&A: Diving deeper into BioShock's story
2K Boston creative director Ken Levine explains the meaning behind the madness of Rapture in a spoiler-ridden interview about his underwater first-person shooter.
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Shortly after 2K Boston's first-person shooter BioShock launched on the Xbox 360 and PC in August, GameSpot spoke to studio head Ken Levine about the myriad launch headaches associated with the game, from downed servers that kept gamers from playing the PC edition of the game to broken collector's edition bonuses.
That discussion was primarily centered around Levine's responsibilities as 2K Boston's president, but this week, GameSpot was more interested in his role as the studio's creative director. BioShock certainly attempts to tell a more elaborate, thoughtful tale than most mass-market titles, and Levine was game to help get beneath the surface of the story. The chief storyteller behind BioShock elaborated on the game's intended themes, dispelled an erroneous interpretation or two, addressed the game's unusual endings, and talked about how they don't represent his original vision.
Gamers who haven't played through BioShock yet are advised to stop reading here, however. Beyond assuming a certain level of familiarity with the game, the discussion that follows contains plenty of spoilers.
GameSpot: Andrew Ryan is a tremendous hypocrite. He's a complete free-market capitalist, but the first thing he does is dictate that citizens of Rapture cannot bring their religion to his world. Then he closes the theater "because there's a war on" and assumes control of Fontaine's business. He's all about individual determination but eventually embraces mind control. What is it about his character that makes him seem so idealistic and adamant on the surface, but allows him to embrace such brazen hypocrisy?
Ken Levine: It's less interesting whether he's a parasite, or whether he's a hypocrite or not. In a general sense, the more affirmative we are with our statements, and the more unyielding we are with our philosophy, the more hypocritical we're all bound to become. In any ideological argument, the closer it gets to your backyard, the tougher it gets to stay in the argument. My discomfort with extreme ideology tends to focus around [the fact] that often when the ideology meets reality, people don't turn out as well as they might hope. And that tells you a lot about ideologies. I'm certainly not defending any of those actions that he took because I think they're all pretty reprehensible from an objective standard. But I think a lot of actions all of us take aren't up to what we ideally might want to do. And it's interesting to have a character who is so clear in the abstract about what he believes. Then when it's tested, it becomes a lot trickier.
GS: For a utopia free from religion, there are a lot of Christian religious overtones to the game (Adam, Eve, Rapture, smuggled crucifixes and bibles), but only one non-Christian thing I spotted: the Epstein the Swami machines. Were you intending to make any commentary specific to Christianity, or was that just what you thought would be most recognizable to your audience?
KL: The game is full of examples of people who have strong ideologies, whether it's Ryan or Cohen or Steinman. They all have their own religions in a way, right? Steinman's got his church of the beautiful and he said he talks to a goddess. Cohen's got his church of the aesthetic. And Ryan's got his own set of precepts that are pretty unyielding. I think that the first thing any strong ideology does, by necessity, is to crush all other ideologies and remove them because they tend to be incompatible. That is one of the reasons that religion was pushed out of Rapture.
But I think conversely, if you look at the history of a lot of religion, you see a similar approach taken there. One religion tends to take hold in a nonpluralistic society. They tend to try to push out other religions. You see that the different belief systems having incompatibilities, and if you really adhere 100 percent to any belief system without question, it's very difficult for you to accept incompatibilities of that belief system.
GS: Are people inevitably drawn to strong ideologies? Is there something about having a black and a white, a right and wrong, and one way to do things, that is just naturally comforting?
KL: I think it's pretty clear from any viewing of history or current events that people find truisms very comforting. And especially in times of strife, I think that people are drawn to things that they can hold on to. When you looked at our country after 9/11, you saw the dialogue. There was a real interest in having the dialogue becoming a little simpler and a little more straightforward. And that was really comforting to a lot of people. That's why you have things. Religion is a form of that, ideologies are a form of that, nationalism is a form of that. Anything that answers a bunch of questions for you, that removes the gray area, especially in times of strife, is very comforting for people.
GS: Rapture was founded on November 5, 1946. Was there any particular significance to the date of its founding?
KL: I think there is a significance to the period of the founding, that Andrew Ryan, built the city as a response to the Depression and the New Deal, and World War II, and very recently before that, the detonation of the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
GS: Between early audio files, dated decorations in Rapture and the fact that so many splicers walk around wearing festive masks, it appears the disintegration of Rapture's utopian society hit a tipping point on New Year's Eve of 1959. Why draw the line at the turn of that decade in particular? Are you suggesting the repressive '50s were preferable to the amoral '60s?
KL: Oh, man. No, I think it was strictly a matter of narrative and backstory. Rapture needed time to come into its own before it fell apart. I wanted to give the society a reasonable amount of time to start spreading its wings a little bit before the cracks appeared. And knowing where I wanted to start, knowing where I wanted Ryan to come from, post-WWII was the right time for him to build the city. And I wanted to give it 10 or 15 years to work. It gives it some time for that experiment to sort of percolate.
GS: Rapture is supposed to be populated with the best and the brightest, but even that selected subset is apparently highly susceptible to the ham-handed advertising that saturates Rapture. Is that a comment on the power of advertising, or the shortcomings of people regardless of intelligence or achievement?
KL: I have a friend of a friend who's a media critic named Doug Rushkoff. And he had written something about The Simpsons 15 years ago, saying that the show was a signal that we have all moved beyond the ability to be affected by media because of this postmodern thing that constantly made fun of media, constantly made fun of how people were duped by advertising and duped by the news and everything.
And Doug's a really smart guy, but I had a bit of a different take on it, that The Simpsons were just the next brilliant evolution of that [influence]. Because look, you're still watching the TV. You're still viewing the advertisements. It's just that now they're telling you, "It's OK. You know you're smart. You 'get it.' Now drink that Coke." And I think that's a natural evolution. We look back on advertisements in the '50s of cigarettes hitting your T-zone and [think] people must have been stupid, or people must have been naïve. But it was just a new medium and the medium has had to be wily and very smart to stay ahead of us.
When I was a kid and I watched Logan's Run in the theater, and I was blown away by the special effects. Now those same special effects [don't cut it]. I've become more sophisticated as a viewer. But that doesn't mean when I see great effects now I think they exist any more than they actually do. I've just become more sophisticated so it takes more to sort of fool me and then lull me into my suspension of disbelief.
And I think the same with advertising. It was just sort of a crude time. I'm sure you bought something today and I bought something today, some partially based on advertisements we saw for it. And those advertisements are just more sophisticated. Hopefully we're some of the best and the brightest, but we get taken in by it. And it's the same way those people were taken in by the advertising of their time.
GS: BioShock has antagonists, but the horror that Rapture became seems to lack a clear villainous architect. Ryan enables Rapture to happen, but he would have been perfectly happy without the mind control, plasmid research, and Little Sisters. Fontaine was evil, but he just took advantage of the worst aspects of Rapture that were already under way. Suchong is irredeemably evil, but he was entirely dependent on other people to approve and fund his research. With the bad ending, the player is potentially the biggest villain of all. Ryan himself even says that it's not his hands alone pulling the chain of endeavor. So who's to blame for what happens in Rapture?
KL: I don't know that's a question I can answer. It's a collection of all the above. Look at Tenenbaum. What is she? Is she a hero or a villain? She creates the Little Sisters then she has a change of heart. Where does that put her on the map, morally? She obviously did some pretty atrocious things. So I don't know if there is a singular villain of the piece or a singular hero of the piece. Like life, there are a lot of people, some of whom try to do their best, some of them not trying to do their best.
There are some people who sort of stand out as a little above the others, like McDonagh who is Ryan's conscience in a way, who at least is very true to what his beliefs are. But on the other hand, staying true to your beliefs may not necessarily be a good thing. So I don't know. I don't have the answer to that question.
GS: About the chain tattoo on the main character's wrist... Other than cluing the player in that the protagonist is already related to Rapture somehow, given Ryan's recurring rhetoric about the "chain of endeavor," is there any special significance to it?
KL: In general, I don't like to talk about things that we don't address in the story, because I think the right place to answer questions like that is within the gameworld. If we don't answer them, that means we didn't intend to answer it. That's one of those things that I want to leave blank for now, because I just want people to put their own meaning on it. We haven't expressed any meaning on that and I don't think I'm going to right now.
GS: For a game built on a moral choice about harvesting or rescuing the Little Sisters, there's very little consequence to the player's actions. The moral decision about harvesting or saving Little Sisters winds up being relatively inconsequential since if you save them all, then in the end you do wind up with enough ADAM to purchase all the plasmids and upgrades you could need, and you get some free ones on top of that from their gifts. Do you think it's important that all moral choices have clear rewards? Aren't there things that we should do simply because it's right?
KL: I guess the question is sort of along two lines: How consequential is it from a gameplay standpoint, and how consequential is it from a story standpoint? A third level is how consequential it is from the actual gamer's experience standpoint.
My favorite story about people saving and harvesting is when a journalist that told me he started harvesting and his fiancé saw him do it, and he slept on the couch for two days. She found it awful. Certainly I think that people who encounter the game think about it not just a [minimum and maximum benefit], Diablo-skill-tree kind of way, but they think about it in terms of what am I as a character or a person, a saver or a harvester. And I think you see a fair amount of consistency.
I heard a lot on threads about this, and I think that there are definitely some legitimate complaints that this story doesn't reflect those choices enough. And I think it's something that was pretty experimental for us in this game, and something we definitely want to explore further, and take to a deeper level. But my favorite notion--the thing I'm most happy about--is that people think about it generally outside of [minimum and maximum benefit], and from the actual moral choice aspect of it.
GS: How many Little Sisters can the player kill and still get the good ending?
KL: We went back and forth on that a lot, but we want to leave that up for people to do themselves. I'm sure it's out there somewhere, but we're sort of uncomfortable about revealing that number because we don't want people to game the system that way.
GS: Considering that the plot inhabits the gray areas of morality and you've included general condemnation of taking things to extremes, why give the player two endings that are on ridiculously opposite ends of the spectrum?
KL: I think that's a fair question and honestly, it was never my intention to do two endings for the game. It sort of came very late and it was something that was requested by somebody up the food chain from me. It was a reasonable request because I think people want to just have a sense of the different consequences from doing that path.
But you notice, whenever I do my interviews about the game, I never want to talk about the good and the evil choice. When we were developing the game, originally the icons about harvest and save had a neat little angel and a little devil, and I cut that out because I didn't want that to be clear to the player when he did it in the sequence where Atlas and Tenenbaum are telling the player very different but equally compelling things. And it wasn't clear what the morally right thing to do was.
I wanted to leave it more ambiguous. But I'm not sure if that would have been the right thing. At the end of the day, there are [aspects of games] that you collaborate on and agree upon.
One of the reasons I was opposed to multiple endings is I never want to do things that have multiple digital outcomes, versus analog outcomes. I want to do it like the weapons system in the combat in BioShock. There are a million different things you can do in every combat; you can play it a million different ways. Looking into the future for the franchise, that's something I want to [figure out], that by the time you get to the ending of that choice path, you have a sense of your impact on the world through lots of little permutations rather than like a giant ending piece, if you follow my meaning.
And I think we did a reasonably good job with [the endings], but there are just two of them. And this is not a game about A and B. This is a game about one through 1 million, and all those permutations of choice. And as I think about the future of the franchise, that's where I want to take that.
GS: BioShock creates a wonderful atmosphere for Rapture, but it seems to unravel when one stops to wonder why an underwater utopia would need ammunition vending machines and resurrection chambers every few yards apart, weapon upgrading stations forever inoperable after one free use, a handful of toilets for an entire society, no apparent place to sleep. It seems like there were a lot of choices made for the sake of a better game, rather than like a more convincing, fully realized and fleshed-out world. Can a cohesive universe in a good game be made right now, or are the two things mutually exclusive?
KL: So, we clearly make a lot of concessions to actually being a game. Now I'll put some defense into some of those things, like the ammo machines. Of course there would be a lot of other vending machines around the world but in a society like Rapture, they might very well sell weapon ammunition, especially if there's a civil war going on. It is a completely deregulated society, so why wouldn't you be able to buy ammunition from vending machines? Now certainly you'd have vending machines that sell other items, but that would be a hot commodity in the same way that we see people come out selling umbrellas in New York when the rain comes down. When the war is on, people would be making a killing selling ammunition.
But yeah, there's certainly concessions, like with how many toilets there are. We had this discussion when we did System Shock 2 because we were making the whole starship. Should there be a bed for everybody? How many bathrooms should there be? And frankly, I don't give a ****. Because even in the most realistic television show you've ever seen... You see Battlestar Galactica taking sci-fi to a much more realistic place, but you never see characters take a dump. And frankly, do you want to see them take a dump? I don't, because it's not about dragging over the coals of realism in every aspect. It's enough to make you feel that I buy into this, that suspension of disbelief I talked about.
And our goal with Rapture is not to re-create a city in its reality, but to re-create a city in the expectation where you can suspend your disbelief. Now clearly you hit some speed bumps along the way with those elements. And maybe we didn't calibrate 100 percent for the audience, or for you obviously in this case. But I think that's a fine line to walk.
GS: Is it possible for a game completely addressing all these issues to get made in the current market, or do we first need more titles like BioShock to take steps toward that in order to show publishers that more thoughtful game experiences can still sell millions of copies?
KL: If the sales success of BioShock means anything, it means that we can trust our audience a little more. With the themes--both from a gameplay standpoint and especially from a theme standpoint, a story standpoint--if you told anybody including myself that BioShock was going to be the kind of commercial success it's been, they would have done a double take. I knew there'd be an audience that got into it, and fortunately, it wasn't my money going into making it. So, I didn't really have to care; I got to make what I wanted to make. But the fact that such a large audience responded to it the way it has, especially on the 360 [indiscernible] when people say console gamers are mouth breathers who don't care about story, deep gameplay, and stuff like that, I think that puts a lie to that. And I think it's told the publishers to some degree, I hope, that maybe the audience is ready for a little more. Maybe you should trust them a little more.