Download the full video interview.
During E3, Xbox 360 Editor in Chief Sascha Lichtenstein and Senior News Editor Eric Topf had the honor of sitting down with the creators of the highly anticipated PC and Xbox 360 game BioShock, considered to be the spiritual successor of the classic hit System Shock 2. Creative Director Ken Levine and Lead Designer Paul Hellquest plainly answered all questions asked of them regarding this most ambitious title of theirs. The complete transcript of the video interview can be read below, but it must be noted that due to the loud ambient noise in the background, some questions and words were unable to be coherently heard and we have had to improvise or paraphrase certain things, but rest assured, that the quality of the notes are as accurate as can be had.
There were other members of the press present at this meeting, so all questions asked by our group have been indicated as such.
AMN: How long has it been in development from conceptual stages to now?
Ken Levine (Creative Director): I'd say really around 4 to 5 years from conceptualization I mean just like we've been kicking around the design team and artists, programming at irrational for years and I think it really started to heat up, I donâ€™t know about 2 years ago? A year and a half ago?
Paul Hellquest (Lead Designer): Yeah about a year and a half ago, we had been sorta bouncing things off of each other all through development of SWAT 4 and after that sorta started wrapping up we really started focusing on it.
Ken: And we designed it about, I think January of 05, with the design document which was pretty solid, with the core design, then I think conceiving the AI in the world. The big step up from Shock 2, is your relationship with the AI's and the AI's relationship with each other. We'd just done SWAT 4, we should have done the thing, and Paul's the designer on that of AI's that outflank each other and take cover and, everybody's done that and what's next? And a big part of BioShock became this "AI ecology" and that was a big step in development for it and that was about a year and a half ago, two years ago, and then, the aesthetic component, was the final big step of getting this whole look, I donâ€™t know if you've seen the screenshots.....it's a really unique look, and once we got that it was just "boom, boom, boom" (pounds table for emphasis, shaking the camera)
Question: What was your inspiration for the strange meld of style of art? (paraphrased questioner here)
Ken: Go to New York, go to the Empire State building, go to Rockefeller Center. Visually it's a very art deco feel and I think that translates really well into polygons, it's very boldly shaped silhouettes...they're really bold, and we're a big believer in silhouettes and shapes. Both the AI's in the world - you see really interesting silhouettes - and with the architecture really stands out. The texture is still fairly low resolution, and you have to sort of make a statement from "macro standpoint" and nothing does that like art deco. And also you have that feeling of oldness, you know, going back to a place that, where time is like a dream almost in the world of BioShock and you have to declare that back in that time where it felt like the future, when art deco felt like the future of man, and...going back to a vision of their future. It always says futuristic, no matter what time period.
Paul: The other thing thatâ€™s great about the aesthetic is it sort of wraps the world in this feeling of innocence, when everything you see around you is not innocent at all anymore. And that advertising style that was popular in the late 1940's and 50's is in the game sort of talking about this happy time, but the game is showing something very different.
AMN: How much influence do the System Shock games have on the design of this game?
Ken: Well it's funny, we actually started System Shock 2, before it was System Shock 2, we were designing a game that was just called Shock, before we had any license to System Shock 2, and then we got the license and we sort of applied the license to what we were doing. And, my point is that, not that System Shock 1 wasn't an inspiration but so was Ultima Underworld and all the games of that ilk, because I...when I played Ultima Underworld 1 I was a civilian, and I was like "AAAAAAAAH THIS IS AMAZING!", and I always wanted to make games with "Emergence". Until Grand Theft Auto came out most of the time you talked about "Emergence" most people didn't know what the hell you were talking about. And now those games are really coming to the fore. And I remember back in the days when we were playing those games like Shock 1 and Ultima Underworld, and then those FMV games came out, everybody said those games are the future and I'm like "Please don't let those be the future!", let the emergent games be the future. And it really shows that in time those games have really come around, and when you can get a big company like Take 2 to give us a lot of money, spend a lot of risk on a game like this. And it's because, these games have come in. People understand what we are doing.
Question: *Hard to understand the questioner, but it seems like he is asking how the music in the game will complement the ambiance and style of the environment.*
Ken: Well, a lot of music in the game is actually period music from the time. If you see the demo....really creepy....if you've seen the Shining and you hear that music playing, echoing in the hotel hallway, that old music, its a really eerie feeling and we actually have that in the demo, hearing this music from the period endlessly playing on the "gramophone" in this world that has died already, but this love song is still playing. I remember playing a game called Uninvited many many years ago, and it was the first game that had audio sampling and it had a old really loud record on the gramophone. And you're in this haunted house and you play this loud record and all of a sudden...it's back and white on the Macintosh...and here comes this fully realized audio out of my speaker, 100% authentic unlike the visuals and I was all "Whoa thatâ€™s so creepy!" and it really gave me an emotional feeling. And thatâ€™s an important part of this game is that music. And while there's some music we create, a lot of it is ambient background, the music that the people of rapture were playing that you still hear.AMN: How far along in development is the game at this point?
Ken: We're pre-Alpha.
AMN: In terms of the gameplay, what exactly is the player...yes its emergent gameplay...so they have some options, like in System Shock 2, it was broken down into hacker, soldier, clear paths of what you wanted to be. Is it worked the same way or are there are more options?
Paul: We have a very different sort of RPG system than we did in Shock 2. It's got some similarities to Shock 2, there's definitely some different tracks you take. But you don't at the beginning choose "Iâ€™m going to be a marine" like you did in Shock 2. And it's also very flexible. Once you get into the game, you can put in different powers and take out different powers and really re-arrange yourself as the game goes on so that...so hopefully it'll get rid of the RPG character "woes"...if you're not sure what your doing and you make bad decisions.
AMN: The environment of the game takes place in an Underwater City, and I was just wondering about the level structure. Is it more like System Shock 2 where it's exploration, or is it linear-based?
Ken: Very very much like System Shock 2. I think one of the things that made that game feel so "emergent" in combat was inter-connectivity. I mean a lot of shooters are just one long corridor; they may hide it very well, but its just one long corridor. To me whenever I feel that I'm in a "game" world. We always say that we want this world to feel that it doesn't care about you. What we mean by that is that it doesn't exist for you, it exists on its own, and you're just visiting. And real spaces are not long corridors. And we talk a lot about how buildings are structured and we're much more of the thing that like "make a space that feels believable and gameplay will feel natural", now System Shock 2 was a lot of corridors and rooms coming off of it...it's very naturally laid out like a real space would be and that really helped it. And...think about it if you're walking down a corridor, and there's only one path, you've seen everything coming down this way and you can see what's coming here. But using inter-connectivity with rooms, all of a sudden a guy comes around here down another direction...that sort of emergence can happen much easier using inter-connectivity.
Paul: And having inter-connected spaces like Ken just described also allows us to ramp up the suspense because you're never quite sure where AI's are going to be coming from, they could be coming from any direction because you go off on side-paths and you come back and don't know where they'll be coming from.
Question: *Again, another hard to understand European dude. But he's asking about you as the player in the game and "who you are"*
Ken: Well, at the beginning you're just you, I mean when you (addressing the journalist) woke up this morning and nobody said "Hey you're a game journalist and you're at E3, Go!". You know, you start the game, and you wake up submerged in water - water is a big theme of this game obviously - and you've been in a plane crash, you come to the surface - all the while wreckage is shooting down the water...the ocean's on fire - and in the distance you see this lighthouse, this gorgeous art deco constructed in the middle of the ocean, and you swim over there, and in that lighthouse, you find this submersible and it takes you down to the city of Rapture and you're just like....you know...you encounter it as you would encounter it. The story goes on and you learn more about Rapture and maybe more about yourself, but in the beginning, you're just a guy in a plane crash.
Paul: We really want to make it feel like you, the user, got thrusted into this situation, and not say, you're Sam Fisher or whoever. We're trying to make it be you down there.
AMN: How many gameplay hours are you shooting for?
Ken: I always answer this question the same way, "Hell if I know!". Basically we're making it, and if any developer ever answers that question this early on, he's lyyyying to you - you never know - he's a filthy stinking liar. Um, if it's too short, we'll make it longer, if it's too long, we'll make it shorter.
Paul: Yep, we're not done building it yet so we don't how long its going to take to play.
AMN: Um, in terms of the AI, what kind of things can we expect to see that shows off the AI ecology. Like the interactions between the characters and NPC's, enemies and NPC's, enemies together?
Ken: One of the things great about the demo - the demo is really focused on that - because, we showed in System shock 2 all the RPG stuff and hacking, we know how to do all that stuff. We really wanted to show in the demo was how the AI's were involved in this world. There's essentially three classes of AI's, there's the Splicers, sort of the standard monsters, the mutants of the world who have mutated themselves just like you, and you can fight them, you can take over security systems and those systems will fight them, you can control some of them and have them fight each other. Then I think, one of the key innovations in this game...you've seen the big guy in the diving suit and the little girl... thatâ€™s the "Big Daddy" and "Little Sister"... and they're a pair, and they just emerge in the world - he comes up to a vent and knocks on it, she comes out and scampers down his head and shoulders to the ground, and she says "Come on! Come on!". She walks around the world looking for bodies to harvest the genetic material from, she recycles the genetic material herself, and he protects her, he's like almost a father figure to her, a big silent creature in a diving suit. And if you threaten her, watch out for Big Daddy, but if you leave them alone, they leave you alone. However, you have powers in the game that can trick them and manipulate them making...him think you're a little sister and he'll follow you around and protect you and leave his charge alone, or make her think you're a big daddy and she'll be like to you "Come on! Come on!". And they have this whole relationship where if one of them gets killed...if Big Daddy gets killed she kneels down and cries in front of him, and when she tries to get back into her little hole at the end, he's gone, she's leaping up and trying to catch on to the bars and pull herself up. And that relationship...build a relationship between the AI's not just between you and the AI's, that isn't just about "boom boom boom", a relationship between them in this horrible world. This is the closest thing to love in this world between these two characters, a father/daughter relationship. And you impact upon their relationship, and thatâ€™s my thing that I'm most excited about this game.
AMN: One thing I didn't understand is who are they harvesting it for? Themselves or for others?
Ken: That you'll find out.
Paul: It's one of the mysteries.
Question: She drinks it right?
Ken: Her body, cause it's inert when she harvests it, in order to bring it back, she has to drink it, and her body recycles it and then itâ€™s taken from her.
AMN: Obviously the relationship...I donâ€™t know if you thought up the relationship first and then made the look of the characters fit that or the other way around. Because, that to me...just this idea of a little girl essentially eating dead corpses to harvest matter, protected by this hulking silent guy. Thatâ€™s a lot scarier than some monster jumping out of the dark, just cause its got this, sense of creepiness to it thatâ€™s hard to explain. So one, where the hell did you think of that? And two, is that the kind of horror, or scares that you're going for, an overarching sense of creepiness or are players going to be jumping out of their seats?
Ken: If you got to scare the player, you have to connect the player first emotionally I think. You know, just like reading the Shining, he spends the first 200 pages bringing you into these characters, and then stuff happens to them. But I want you to have a connection to the characters first. There's this archetypal relationship there - maybe a sick twisted version of it - but there's a relationship there. And so you make choices on how you interact with these characters, and it gives an emotional state to whatâ€™s going on. And the scene goes, she turns to you and she goes "Come on! Come on!" and you're father....that gets you here (*Ken points at his chest for emphasis*) you know, more than any monster dog jumping through a window. And the cues are all there, and you know, I've always said like a movie like Alien. The reason that monster is effective is not because it has spines on it. It's because it rapes the victim, and then it's born out of the victim, it ties the primal things that people understand. The vampire is also a great monster, also the same thing, there's a violation and then a rebirth. And, the more you get closer to things you understand, the more horror works, and thatâ€™s why the world of BioShock or System Shock 2, we made it feel like a real place where there's a whorehouse and a mall and bathrooms, because how can you be scared in a generic industrial environment? That was the revelation of horror movies in the 70's, put it in a real house, don't put in a haunted house. Put it in a place where people understand it and connect to it. Cause when you own that dining room and you look in your living room and bedroom, it connects....look at your daughter....you connect to it.Question: *Again, another hard to make out question, but it sounds like a query about the weapons in the game*
Ken: Well, we do have weapons - just if you like guns - we have 9 different weapons with how many modifications to them? (asks Paul)
Paul: We've filled the game system with hundreds of combinations of weapon upgrades, mods, ammo types. So yeah, anyone who enjoys just going around blasting stuff has more than enough tools to have a really great time, and we hope that those players who pick up BioShock will have fun with that and then start exploring some of the more interesting and more innovative areas of the game and, so we think we'll be able to get both crowds, so the people who don't like the shooting very much, they have lots of other things to play with as well. We don't really care how you play it, find whatever you think is fun, and run with it.
Ken: Yeah, BioShock more than anything is about choice and there are players like in System Shock 2 who will choose to play very much the shooter and the problem Shock 2 had was a very limited budget and time so we didn't compete visually with the other shooters. You've seen Shock 2 I think we have more than competed with any shooter out there, it's a bigger shooter even more so, but you know, I think they're missing out a little bit if they aren't a little more eclectic than that. But that's their choice.
AMN: Speaking of the graphics engine, it's running on Unreal 2.5 right?
Ken: No, we've moved to Unreal 3, we've done a lot of modifications on top of it, all the water effects we've added, and we've added a lot of features like water....again we don't build features just to have them, we build them to have an emotional resonance. The AI relationship with the characters is an emotional thing and with the gameplay, the water, we want to make you feel like the ocean is about to drown you, it's drowning Rapture and as you'll see in the demo, water is just coming into this place so we've hired a water programmer and water artist, just for this game, and they're kicking ass and you've never seen water like this.
AMN: When did the change happen, the switch to UE3 happen?
Ken: A few months ago, I mean, technically, I think you misunderstand me on how this works, basically, we translated systems over and ported more systems over, but Unreal 3 has a lot of elements that 2.5 has, there's a lot of marketing there, but we had a lot of benefits to that and we're not using all of it, we're using our own things, but we have a lot of benefits too.
AMN: In regards to the believability of the environment, how much interactivity is there for the playerâ€¦since this is a while underwater worldâ€¦how much will he be able to look at things, examine things?
Ken: Can I say unprecedented? Pretty much everything, you know just like in System Shock 2, just like, you want that? Pick it up, use it you know? The thing thatâ€™s very important, you know, physics was a part of this game, not because of a gravity gun but because we want things to behave in a way that you would expect them too otherwiseâ€¦itâ€™s all about not brining the player out of it. The reason Shock 2 and the reason BioShock is not placed in a real city, Iâ€™d rather do a game and you (motions to Paul) would rather do a game where weâ€™d do everything 100% rather than a game where thereâ€™s like, a game that takes place in a major city, but thereâ€™s barriers at the end of every street. And that takes me out of it like a dialog tree where I canâ€™t say something I want to say and Iâ€™d rather have no dialog tree. And I donâ€™t need dialog trees to for and simulate everything 100%, and our goal in this game is, if you see it, generally thereâ€™s some way to interact with it.
AMN: Obviously itâ€™s primarily a single-player experience, do you have any plans for Xbox Live?
Ken: Itâ€™s going to be a single-player game, we may have some support for Xbox Live features but weâ€™re not discussing that right now.
AMN: Are the two versions (PC and Xbox 360) identical to each other?
Ken: Weâ€™re not going into the differences on that right now.
Question: Which physics engine are you using for the game?
Ken: Havok 3.0
Question: Any vehicles in the game
Ken: No, um, no, you know, the pace for this game, is not going to be about that, so weâ€™ll leave that to UT, and I love vehicles but not for this game.
AMN: In terms of the physics engine, you know aside from, you know, everyone loves watching bodies crumple and fall down stairs. And maybe Iâ€™m just high on it but Iâ€™ve been playing Tomb Raider recently and they have a lot if physics-based puzzles and stuff where you have to work with the environment and manipulate the environment to move on. Will there be anything like that in BioShock where you have to use the physics to progress?
Ken: Where we stopâ€¦once the gamer goes â€œOh those clever designers!â€ we stop. We want to make this place feel like, if thereâ€™s a physics trap in the game, itâ€™s because thereâ€™s a war going on and people booby-trap things, I like that in Oblivion a lot, when they do that. But we really want to feel like this is a placeâ€¦this is not a tribe environment and thatâ€™s great for Tomb Raider, Iâ€™m not bitching on Tomb Raider here, but itâ€™s a very different experience, itâ€™s supposed to be an Indiana Jones style setup, thatâ€™s not our thing. Physicsâ€™ primary role is to reinforce players view and in this one part of the scene where youâ€™re in this room full of bottles and glass is shattering and bottles are flying around and a wine rack collapses and all the bottles are on the floor, and it all just says, hey youâ€™re really in a wine cellar, youâ€™re really in Rapture.
Paul: Another thing that weâ€™re doing thatâ€™s interesting with the physics, is we have these security robots that fly around the world and theyâ€™re completely controlled by Havok impulses so they fly around and bash into things andâ€¦
Ken: Theyâ€™re helicopters in a way and when they turn a cornerâ€¦whoa!! (Ken almost falls of his chair at this point) like I just did! Exactly like I just did! They turn a corner and their bottom swings out and, say they hit a sign and the sign is on a hinge and that moves.
Paul: Theyâ€™re sort of jury-rigged and they donâ€™t control themselves very well, they smash into walls, they right themselves and they keep going, and all thatâ€™s Havok.
Ken: And, all the tech in the game really feels likeâ€¦well, there wasnâ€™t a weapons industry out there so all the security weapons are all hand-crafted and you know, sort of jury-rigged together, so this thing (the security flyer) is an outboard motor with a propeller put on it and a machine gun strapped to it and itâ€™s sort of clumsy but thatâ€™s what we want to get across and the physics really help with that.
Question: *Incoherent, but apparently asks about â€œthe lookâ€ of the game and if people donâ€™t like it*
Ken: Um, well you said they like this, and they like that, but they didnâ€™t like the look, well, obviously the feature that wouldnâ€™t sell it would be the look of the game for them. So far, I think there areâ€¦you know, whenever you try something different you take a risk, on something, so far I think that peopleâ€™s feedback has been really positive on the look. There are people who are going to like different things and you canâ€™t please everybody, so, is everyone in the universe going to buy and love every feature of this game? No. But one of the great things about the games we make â€“ take a tennis game for example, and you get the swing wrong, well, youâ€™re going to hate the entire game â€“ this is a game with a lot of systems in it, like in Shock 2, some people hated the weapons breaking, fair enough, but they still love the game because there was still enough to balance it out, but if you hate the swing of a tennis game well then youâ€™re really screwed, so I would say there would be enough to counter-balance them not liking that (the look).
Question: Same guy says he does actually love the look of the game.
Ken: Oh no no, Iâ€™m sure thereâ€™s going to be people out there who donâ€™t like it, people who want or like this thing or that thing, but thatâ€™s what makes horseracing.
Paul: Iâ€™m very excited that the look is very different, and I think thatâ€™s helped us during the show that people are coming and looking at the demo and saying â€œHey I donâ€™t see anything out there that looks like this game.â€
Ken: I also think people misunderstand what technology and what art does for you. Technology is an enabler but deep down, all the rendering out there is relatively similar to one another. Thereâ€™s not really that much unique things going on in rendering, a lot of it, and thereâ€™s the water effects which are pretty unique, but thatâ€™s really the only unique rendering technology, the rest of it is art design and aesthetic choices and you know, and thatâ€™s why we likeâ€¦look whenever you go in a different direction, either people are really going to like it and itâ€™s a real benefit or theyâ€™re going to hate it and its going to be negative, and I think weâ€™ve been lucky so far, but you know, not everybodyâ€™s going to like it.
AMN: So youâ€™re not going to rely on nice normal maps?
Ken: We have all those
Paul: We have all those things and they go a long way to making the world real.
AMN: But it seems that a lot of Unreal 3 games seem to emphasize the normal mapping and not emphasize the artâ€¦
Ken: Well, one of the great things about Art Deco is it is all about the silhouette and whenever we design monsters and spacesâ€¦when you see a monster â€“ and a lot of monsters these days have detailed textures â€“ when youâ€™re fighting a monster in a dark hallway what do you see? You see the silhouette, guys like Free Radical really get this, and guys like Blizzard really get this. The silhouette, the shape of the character is more important than the texture on the character.
We would like to extend our most gracious thanks to both Ken and Paul for taking the time out to talk with us about what is certain to be a top contender for game of the year in 2007. Advanced Media will bring you more information on BioShock as soon as we receive it, so stay tuned.