„The interactions set Bioshock apart from all other games“
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Everyone knows Irrational Games’ president and lead designer Ken Levine, who’s been heading the Xbox 360 version of Bioshock. Close to no one knows Joe McDonagh, who is a Senior Designer on the PC version. With his colleagues at Irrational Games Australia, he has applied many changes to the PC version. Jörg Langer talked to Joe in Munich after playing the nearly finished game.
Jörg: I’ve just reached the second level of Bioshock. I’d like to congratulate you on how good the water looks and feels, and on the atmosphere in general. But so far, the game looks extremely linear to me.
Joe McDonagh: That’s true. We want the game to be linear in the beginning, because we don’t want to set too high of a threshold for beginners, and we want to have the time to introduce key gameplay elements, to show the player what’s Rapture all about. But now you are on level 2, in the medical facilities, from level 3 onwards, we leave linear gameplay behind, you need to find your way yourself, and you also need to return to earlier levels sometimes, or go there to collect resources, just like in System Shock. And the game’s open ended.
Jörg: 70 percent of the Bioshock team have been part of the System Shock 2 team. Of course, they plan to make Bioshock even better, but doesn’t this also limit them in some way?
Joe McDonagh: I guess that many in the team just wanted to make System Shock 2 again. And we really have to challenge that, that’s not enough. System Shock 2 is nine years old, we needed to do something new. What we really concentrated on was what scared the team the most: To create an environment that was essentially living and breathing, which you can interact with in any number of interesting ways. From a sort of basic interaction like setting fire to an oil slick or melting a lump of ice, to the more sophisticated interactions. Say, you hide behind a Big Daddy, and a sentry gun shoots at you and hits the Big Daddy, and Big Daddy attacks it. That sort of interactions is where we really set a distance to System Shock 2. And that’s the single hardest thing for the team. And, personally, having played it through just last week, I think it’s by far the most interesting thing about the game, what sets Bioshock apart from all the other games.
Jörg: Still, the underwater scenario reminds me of the old Space scenario. It’s got a similar feeling of confinement. So, where’s Shodan in Bioshock?
Joe McDonagh: All I can tell you is that story has always been a huge part of our games. Take the second level as an example: You meet a guy called Dr. Steinman. He’s a plastic surgeon whose mind has been corrupted by plasmid. I think he’s one of the best characters in the game, We have put as much love in this character as we did with Shodan in the first two games.
Jörg: Having a story on the one side and to be open ended on the other usually is very diffcult. You need certain key points or focus points where both meet again.
Joe McDonagh: It’s a real challenge. It’s a real delicate balance between making the story central to the game but also giving the player the ability to ignore large chunks of the story. As in System Shock 2, we use logs to tell our story, and we use events. Of course, you can’t avoid events, but you can ignore he logs. Take Steinman. When you walk through Medical, you find his logs, and you can hear how he explains his descent into madness. He starts out quite normal, like “We found this, and that allows us to do that. We were so limited before.” But then, with every new log, he gets madder and madder and madder. In the end, he thinks he’s Picasso, he thinks he’s an artist. He tries to do Cubism with human faces. He’s hideous. And here is my point: Steinman is the boss of the level, you need to kill him, you can’t avoid that. But you don’t have to read all of his logs, they just help to create a fantastic character and give you a good reason to kill him when you finally meet.
Jörg: So I can get through the game without reading a single log?
Joe McDonagh: Absolutely. Well, some will tell you the code for a door. But you can just follow the game, if you want, without knowing the reasons for things or the logic of your quests.
Jörg: So again, Bioshock is quite similar to System Shock 2 in that respect.
Joe McDonagh: Yes. I think that’s why people love System Shock 2 – because of the atmosphere and the background of the fiction. If you look at that game today, it looks terrible. But it still has that believable world. And I think we have done something similar here.
Jörg: In the game world, there are reactions to your actions, and reactions to the reactions. Big Daddys coming to the rescue of Little Sisters, the automated defense systems, and so on. But will all that not be a problem for new players, who have never played a complex shooter? Won’t they say, “why am I pushing a needle in my handwrist all he time, and what are those plasmids, anyway?”
Joe McDonagh: No, because we realized that Bioshock had to work just as a shooter. If you never want to use the plasmids, you should still be able to play to the end. I’ve had a very interesting experience recently. I was playing Bioshock by just running and gunning. But at a certain point in the game, you are restricted in the plasmids you can use. And when it happened to me, I felt completely naked. I realised that, over time, I had become very dependend on some of those tools, and shooting just felt very limited. We hope that after Bioshock, all shooters will do this. That designers think creatively about how they can give players more sophisticated tools to interact with the game world.
Jörg: In System Shock 2, there was a patch where you could play the whole game in coop mode. Do you plan something similar for Bioshock?
Joe McDonagh: No. We’ve spent a huge amount of effort on that multiplayer mode, and I think hardly anyone ever played it.
Jörg: Well, I did.
Joe McDonagh: Thanks for saying that! But I think that, at the time Quake 3 and Half-Life came out, the shooter genre really split into one half which put emphasis on the solo part, and the other which tries to be great at Multiplayer. You need to deliver a really great singleplayer experience or a fantastic multiplayer experience. But you can’t have both, or you need two separate teams. Which gets more and more common, by the way, if I think of Castle Wolvenstein, for example. With Bioshock, we wanted to concentrate all our energies on a great singleplayer mode. That has attracted some critizism, but we’re very comfortable with that decision.
Jörg: Concerning the two versions of the game, for Xbox 360 and PC: With console shooters, you always have the issue of being limited in your aiming, because pointing with a game pad just doesn’t equal pointing with a mouse. So have you (that is: Ken Levine’s team in USA) made the game easier for the Xbox 360, are there less opponents, or are they weaker, slower?
Joe McDonagh: There are very substantial gameplay differences between the two versions. Look, our heritage is PC. We’ve taken the differences between the two platforms very seriously. We look at history, we look at other PC/console games like Deus Ex 2. We realized that you need to treat them differently. Not only in terms of the balance, but also in the interface. We have a very different interface for the PC version of Bioshock, using much more drag and drop functionality. In terms of the gameplay, we’ve rebalanced all of the enemies to make the PC version harder. We’ve taken Softlock out of the PC version. You need this “locking on” with a console, because it’s so much harder to aim at something with a game pad, but you don’t need it on a PC. But of course, the Xbox 360 version still is the lead version of Bioshock.
Jörg: You might be aware that Xbox 360 is tiny in Germany, with estimated 230.000 sold consoles so far.
Joe McDonagh: Yes, but it’s completely different in the US market, so we can’t lead on the PC. But we have a dedicated team for the PC version, it’s basically the Tribes: Vengeance team.
Jörg: My last question: Bioshock has this nice-but-perverted 50ies style. Do you think this could appeal to Asian gamers, too?
Joe McDonagh: I really have no idea. Creatively, you have follow your own guide. We wanted to make something which wasn’t just a ripoff of the military industrial complex which pretty much every other shooter seems to use nowadays. We wanted to do something which looks very beautiful. With dystopias it’s always very interesting to contrast what could have been with what is. In Bioshock, you can see the contradiction of the initial beauty of Rapture with the hellhole it has become.
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Interview © 2007 Jörg Langer
(Deutsche Version: hier)