With many alumni from Looking Glass Studios, game designer Ken Levine founded Irrational Games in 1997. Their first game was System Shock 2. Released in 1999, it was a sequel to System Shock, a first-person shooter released five years prior. Despite gaining a following, it fell by the wayside in favor of the more popular Doom. This seemed to foreshadow the fate of System Shock 2, as it had been released in the wake of Half-Life, causing it to disappear from the public consciousness rather quickly. Mr. Levine attempted to pitch a sequel to System Shock 2 to the game’s publisher, Electronic Arts, but they were ultimately rejected due to its poor sales performance. The subsequent dissolution of Looking Glass Studios in 2000 all but ensured the series’ abrupt end as the rights were acquired by Electronic Arts.
Irrational Games would go on to develop other titles such as Freedom Force, Tribes: Vengeance, and SWAT 4. Though these titles were modest successes, Mr. Levine desired to create another game similar to that of System Shock 2 – one with a free form and a strong narrative. In 2002, his team came up with a gameplay mechanic centered on three factions: drones, protectors, and harvesters. Guarded by protectors, drones would carry a desirable resource while harvesters attempted take it away from them. With a rough outline of what this hypothetical game entailed, all they needed was a setting.
The team unveiled a demonstration in 2002 built on the second Unreal Engine for the Xbox. This demo was set on a space station overtaken by genetically altered monsters. The protagonist was named Carlos Cuello, who worked as a cult deprogrammer – that is, someone charged with rescuing people from a cult, readjusting them to a normal life. They could be hired for much more nefarious purposes as well. As an example Mr. Levine gave, parents could use their services to deprogram their daughter who was in a lesbian relationship. The narrative was also intended to be political in nature with the main character having been hired by a senator. Unfortunately, the team ran into a twofold problem with this concept. They collectively agreed it was not what they set out to make and were having difficulties finding a publisher. They considered scrapping the project, but once their efforts to make a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 began appearing in various gaming publications, they decided to go forward and fully revamp the concept.
In a stroke of good fortune, 2K Games, a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive, offered to publish the game based on the core drone/protector/harvester concept in 2004. Even better, the team was allowed freedom to develop both the story and the setting. Both had changed considerably since the project’s inception. By the time Mr. Levine and his team found a willing publisher, they contemplated setting the game in an abandoned World War II-era Nazi laboratory unearthed by twenty-first century scientists. The experiments then formed the ecosystem centered on the three aforementioned factions. Many elements from System Shock 2 found their way into this project including psychic powers, a character relaying important information to the protagonist over a radio, and story elements delivered through scattered audio recordings.
Internal strife and communication problems brought about due to the team expanding from six to sixty people wound up making for a somewhat troubled production. To make matters worse, the environments they came up with were considered bland. Fortunately, these issues were resolved when the team’s artists realized the true importance of coming up with visions to meet the goals of the level designers.
This wasn’t the end of the team’s production woes, however. According to level designer Jean Paul LeBreton, Mr. Levine was distrustful of the more egotistical new hires. He often got into arguments with them to enforce his vision. Moreover, the executives of 2K Games were concerned with the project’s growing budget. As the mid-2000s saw an increase in popularity for the first-person shooter genre thanks to Halo and Call of Duty, they requested that Mr. Levine market the game in a way so as to compete directly with those franchises. This meant having to shift away from the first-person shooter/role-playing hybrid they set out to create in favor of placing more of an emphasis on the former half of that equation. As the targeted release date drew near, Mr. Levine ordered the team into round-the-clock development, only exacerbating the strife among themselves. Thankfully, 2K Games granted Mr. Levine’s team an extra three months, allowing them to fix programming errors that were otherwise difficult to catch.
January of 2007 marked a crucial moment for playtesting. Damningly, the feedback they received from players was mostly negative, as they believed the game to be too dark to see, causing them to get lost. They couldn’t even trust the man on the other side of the protagonist’s radio feed, describing him as a “lecherous Colonel Sanders”. Taking these criticisms to heart, the team addressed the problems. In a second late-stage playtesting session with the game being described as being ninety-nine percent complete, the feedback was still negative with the audience feeling no connection to the protagonist. The next day, Mr. Levine and his team decided to add an introductory cutscene to the game. He originally opted not to include any cutscenes, feeling ideologically opposed to them, but he and his team felt it was a good, quick way to respond to the criticism.
At long last, the game was released in August of 2007 under the name BioShock. While System Shock and its sequel wallowed away in obscurity for the longest time before receiving retroactive vindication, BioShock was a commercial success upon release. The Xbox 360 version sold nearly 500,000 copies. Meanwhile, critics adored the game, believing it to be a significant step forward in storytelling for the medium. On the subject of the best years in gaming, 2007 is popular choice with the release of BioShock being a common reason to cite for holding such a belief. Despite all of this, the game’s hellish production cycle ended up causing many members of the team to leave Irrational Games to pursue other projects once it was finished. Whenever one wished to extol the medium’s artistic qualities, BioShock was quick to be mentioned. Does it stand to this day as one of the medium’s greatest story-driven experiences?