How one man and his studio made us feel differently about the decisions we make in video games.
“I am winding down Irrational Games as you know it.”
I don’t think anyone was expecting this. As Thumbsticks editor Daniel New has already covered though, we are all waiting in anticipation for what we can expect next from Ken Levine and the remaining team going with him.
This article isn’t to speculate on that or make any suggestions about where they can go next but, instead, to reflect on the significance of their legacy.
Irrational Games isn’t really a development studio known for its impressive numbers – unless you’re talking awards. In the space of the last seven years, we’ve seen exactly two video games from them.
Both games have been financial successes, although not on the same scale as the record-breaking Grand Theft Auto entries from Rockstar North, which have released just as many main games in the same period.
But, despite this, the studio has made a mark on gaming history. How? By pushing the boundaries.
Irrational Games and Ken Levine, one of its founders when it was created in 1997, have quickly shown us that the experiences they create can have a lasting impact on the industry.
Soon after its inception, the studio went on to unleash their vision with System Shock 2. The game was an early insight into the ideas that would later form the studio’s greatest achievement. But, on its own, it was hailed as ahead of its time and quickly established a cult following.
What’s also interesting is how this focus on first-person combat, unique (psionic) abilities and a beautifully imaginative setting continued to be a part of the studio’s style, right down to the audio and email logs. This isn’t to say that only Levine and his studio came up with these ideas but, rather, it was the way they used them to craft such unique and engaging worlds.
Not all of their games that followed were as ambitious – but they were memorable. Freedom Force, which was a unique effort in a niche genre, and Tribes and SWAT 4 were released, the latter two which were continuations of others’ work rather than freshly produced from the studio’s own best minds. Tribes wouldn’t get the attention it may have deserved, mainly because its release was badly timed (around Halo 2 and Half-Life 2).
But through these efforts, it was evident that the studio would try something different even when tethered to the constructs of existing intellectual property.
And so, BioShock would be the game with which Levine and the studio make the biggest impact. Unleashed in 2007, at a time when many other publishers were playing it safe, BioShock would introduce us to a whole new experience that would define the seventh-generation of home consoles.
As the player (Jack), you inadvertently discover Rapture, an enchanting underwater utopia built for the world’s greatest minds but doomed by the time you arrive.
This part, the atmosphere of the game, impressed me the most.
Its art deco style visible within the massive structures under the sea and the political rhetoric spitting at you through every radio (Levine cited 1984 and Logan’s Run as an influence throughout)
“When I play an ultra-patriotic game, I’m not comfortable unquestioningly accepting what authorities say.” Levine’s thought process is clear in the design of the game, through the main antagonist Andrew Ryan as well as some of the other characters in the game. As an art form, we often see games focusing on fascism.
But not many have seriously treaded on ideological grounds in this way. I didn’t know that Levine took some inspiration from Objectivism in creating Rapture, but I now realise that such ideas, whether rational, ethical or moral, do seep through. There was some continuation of this in Levine’s next game BioShock Infinite but other titles like Journey and even Papers, Please seem to delve into philosophy and make us think deeper about our actions.
Eventually in BioShock, moral dilemmas arise when you encounter Little Sisters, girls conditioned (see the trend?) to locate energy in the form of ADAM which powers your abilities. The game quickly presents the player with an uncomfortable choice.
Do you decide to free these…children, essentially, or sacrifice their lives to salvage something for your own benefit? As Levine puts it, “that’s the best Bioshock we can make … being a game which forces you to make the moral choice of whether to exploit the children or help them”.
For me, the contemplation before acting wasn’t always one-sided. And for many others, these options invoked moments of indecisiveness and head-scratching, repeated save loading and, perhaps, an emotional reaction.
Such choices had some consequence in the ending for BioShock (something not decided by Levine, interestingly) but they didn’t really affect the gameplay or storyline in a major way.
Nevertheless, it arguably served as inspiration for later games and provoked developers to push gamers into difficult, thought-inducing situations. This influence can be seen in the likes of Infamous and Heavy Rain.
The former provided a clear, simpler choice between good and evil and the decisions made often had real consequences in the open world. The latter was a very different game from BioShock but its purely choices based gameplay was clearly an evolution of what Levine started.
Yet, no game has subtly, but so powerfully, evoked serious considerations about choice and free will. There may not be a game that portrays the Orwellian situation in 1984 but this is as close as you’ll get.
As well as this, the game allowed you to use special abilities (plasmids) through upgrades, flirting with ideas of transhumanism, something which became a central part of Square Enix’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Again, this isn’t to claim that BioShock came up with these ideas first but it’s something else that left many pondering.
Now memorialised in artistic recreations of it and commonly seen as the target of increasingly realistic cosplay, was the Big Daddy. These were seriously messed up characters psychologically. Focused, or rather conditioned, to carry out a specific purpose. An allegory of the conditioning that occurs in real life during both war and peace time? Perhaps.
The final way in which this idea of ‘conditioning’ was portrayed is in, probably, the most repeated phrase (and the title of this article) following the game’s release: “would you kindly?”.
Without giving away the plot of the game (there are still some who need to play this game without having it ruined), this, for me, was the most powerful idea within BioShock. It made me think about everything I had done up to that point, every action committed, every button press and what really caused me to do so.
I understand when people say three words can have an impact on people. But these were new.
In summary, BioShock was a milestone in gaming and Levine (along with the rest of the studio) deserved all the credit due. Of course, it wasn’t perfect and, at times, the gameplay fell short. But if that was the trade off for making a persuasive argument that gaming is an art, then I think that’s worth it.
If that was all Levine contributed to the last generation then I’m sure we would rest easy. But it wasn’t. With the reveal and release of BioShock: Infinite, Levine would end up almost replicating the glory of BioShock.
- to be continued -