Irrational man: Ken Levine

The Bioshock boss talks next-gen storytelling, sacking designers and why he skips cut-scenes

When we say Ken Levine is the Irrational boss, it's not because he sacks his employees on a whim and outlaws tea breaks because they breed laziness. We mean he's the bloke in charge of revolutionary dev studio Irrational Games, the team behind such PC titles as System Shock 2, Freedom Force Vs The Third Reich and Tribes: Vengeance.

He's also the man in charge of bringing Bioshock - the spiritual successor to System Shock 2 - to the Xbox 360 next year. As a free-roaming adventure set in an underwater city torn apart by biological warfare, it's the heir apparent to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion's next-gen RPG crown and you can read our first impressions of the game by checking out our splendid E3 Bioshock 360 preview. However we also had a chance to sit down and pow wow with Ken Levine himself at last week's E3 to talk Bioshock, next-gen storytelling, the pain of binning ideas and why Grand Theft Auto made everyone just that little bit smarter.


As a special bonus you should cast your eyes right to feast on our exclusive video interview, where we locked Mr Levine in a darkened room for a couple of minutes and subjected him to an on-the-spot E3 question salvo. But here comes the beef, take it away Ken...

Is it getting harder to make games these days? They seem much more complicated than they used to be?

Ken Levine: It's easier for me, because I learn. When I was a designer on System Shock 2, I'd never made a game before, so it was total guesswork. People like that game, and I think part of the thing people liked about it is that it was made by someone who didn't know the rules. Now we have the money to make mistakes. Bioshock's a game of experimentation, we've been making it for five years now, thinking about it, coming up with concepts, finding out they're stupid and restarting.

How do you stay motivated when you're working on something for five years?

Ken Levine: When we were first working on Bioshock, we didn't have the feel for the game. It wasn't right. So I said 'Right, let's stop, we're not going to carry on with this until I feel it's right'.

So you just threw stuff away?

Ken Levine: I think we've thrown more stuff away in Bioshock than we actually built in System Shock 2. Because we can. Real great developers become great because of their ability to throw stuff away, to throw whole games away. It's not about genius, it's a question of time.

What do you do with your ideas? Have you ever had to bin an idea you've really, really loved?

Ken Levine: Ideas aren't the problem. I don't write them down, if you can't remember something it's probably not good enough to bother bringing back. My ideas are usually weird anyway, really game-designery. I'm like 'here's a game world' but no one else gets it. Ideas also change over time. If you read some previews of Bioshock from a couple of years ago, it was set on a science base. Things change.

Would you like to make a simple game, a 2D puzzle game or something?

Ken Levine: I like games you can complete, something more like a simulation. I don't play abstract concepts. I think it's because I don't have the imagination to do that.

Your games always have plots - ever want to make a dumb shooter like Quake?

Ken Levine: I want to create a feel, a vibe, that's really important to me. I'm more interested in feel and story.

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