Looking Glass Studios was one of the most influential developers of the 1990s, and even if you didn’t play Thief, you’ve played one of the titles from Looking Glass’ roster of distinguished alumni. I spoke with Ken Levine, formerly of Looking Glass and currently one of the founders of Irrational Games, about the influential studio and his upcoming game BioShock, which some are calling the spiritual successor to Looking Glass and Irrational’s cult favorite System Shock 2.
The Escapist: Tell us about your background and how you wound up at Looking Glass. Did you have a favorite project while you were there? What was the most important thing you picked up while you were there?
Ken Levine: I started out as a screenwriter in LA. I made some money and then flamed out, unspectacularly. I think Looking Glass hired me because it was 1995 and gaming/Hollywood convergence was the big thing, and they thought, “Hey, he’s a gamer! He’s been to Hollywood! He’ll help us converge!” My favorite project there was certainly Thief. It was the first project I got to help start, and I got to work with some great people. The most important thing I picked up while I was there was a fundamental education in how games were built, and how to problem solve game design issues.
TE: How and why did you wind up leaving to form Irrational? You wound up working together further down the road, so I assume it was an amicable departure. What opportunities did Irrational present that staying at Looking Glass didn’t offer?
KL: It was an amicable departure. I was pretty ambitious, and Looking Glass, while a great company, wasn’t exactly the right spot for a very ambitious person. There was no clear growth path for a guy like me, and their business future had some issues. But it was hard to leave despite that because of the people there and the gaming culture they had.
TE: Again, since you worked with them after you left, I assume you stayed in close contact with them. What would you say lead to the demise of the studio? What do you think could’ve saved it, if anything?
KL: I know that at Irrational, the hardest thing to do has been to maintain a balance between creative freedom and a successful business venture. It’s very, very difficult to do. I would say the difference between us and Looking Glass is A) we were able to take what we learned there from an outside neutral perspective and apply it to our business, and B) (far more importantly) luck.
TE: A lot of Looking Glass people wound up at Irrational. Do you think of yourselves as their successors in some way? Was there a certain quality to a Looking Glass employee that you looked for in making your own company?
KL: No, I think Irrational is Irrational. We have a lot of the same people, because those people are our friends and colleagues, and we all tend to like working on and playing the same kind of games. The primary things we look for in an IG employee are intelligence and talent. Experience is good, education is good, but intelligence and talent are hard to replace.
TE: Shifting gears, you’re promoting BioShock as the “spiritual successor” to System Shock. What would you say is the “spirit” of System Shock? What are you trying to capture?
KL: I think the game’s grown a bit since we first started talking about it, but that spirit is still strong. The spirit of System Shock is player-powered gameplay: the spirit of letting the player drive the game, not the game designer. And I believe that’s the spirit of Irrational. Not all of our games succeed at this, but that’s always the game we ideally want to make. I think BioShock is the first time we really have the proper time and funding to do it.
TE: Why not make System Shock 3? Are you looking to explore new territory or is it a rights/legal issue?
KL: Because we’re making BioShock. It’s not about a franchise, or a brand. It’s about a style of gameplay. If somebody took away BioShock, we would make another franchise that continued the spirit of player-powered gameplay.
TE: The System Shock series was a PC-based series. Why go to the 360 for the successor? What about the 360 appeals to you as a developer?
KL: If BioShock was an RTS, I think this would be an important question. But there really aren’t substantial interface barriers to putting an FPS on a console these days, even one with one as expressive as BioShock‘s. The 360 appeals to us because it helps us reach and even broader audience. Broader audience is a good thing, presuming you don’t preemptively panic and dumb you game down to the lowest common denominator. We won’t do that. That’s not to say BioShock won’t be accessible. That’s one of the huge areas of work of making this game: keeping it hugely expressive and hugely accessible.
TE: One of the points that seems to keep coming up regarding BioShock is the focus on AI. So few developers seem interested in cutting-edge AI that I have to ask why you’d focus your efforts there. Part of what made the System Shock games scary was the feeling of being hunted by the AI. Is that what you’re trying to do with Bioshock?
KL: The AI sells the world. When I play BioShock, I really feel Rapture (the location of the game) as a space, as a place where people once lived normal lives). The AIs have to sell that. A huge part of our game is the player’s ability to use the AIs in interesting ways against one another. First you have to believe the AIs in their natural state.
TE: BioShock seems like one of your games (like Freedom Force), rather than something brought to you (along the lines of Tribes: Vengeance). What does it mean for you personally, and what does it mean for Irrational as a company?
KL: It just means I’m more personally interested. Now that we sold the company to Take 2, I can now spend the time in development that I used to. I’m working with the team in the trenches on the game in a way I haven’t been able to do since Shock 2. I’m crunching along with the team. It’s hard work, but it’s the only way to really feel like part of the project, compared to something like Tribes where I just wrote the story. And it’s been a blast.