Rapture leaked: The true story behind the making of BioShock

Now that BioShock: The Collection is here, we thought it might be interesting to revisit the original game’s troubled development. Enjoy!

25th January 2007 was a cold day, even by the harsh standards of a Boston winter. That morning, a dozen senior members of BioShock’s beleaguered development team shuffled into a hidden room in the centre of the city, and stood to face a pane of one-way glass. As a huddle of strangers entered the adjacent room, unaware that they were being watched, the team from Irrational Games fell silent. After five years of arduous development, during which time the game’s setting had shifted from an abandoned space station overrun with alien eels to a deep sea utopia project gone wrong, the team was about to see whether all of the toil, all of the late nights and all of the seven-day weeks had been worth the effort.

Ken Levine, the game’s creative director, held a clipboard that listed the strangers’ names and their vocations (all of whom were in their twenties). Security guard, construction contractor: these were blue-collar video game players. Through the glass, Levine and his team watched as each person sat down at one of the various television sets arranged around the room and played the game. They began at the very start: a plane crash over the ocean. The character, a lone survivor, swam to a nearby lighthouse where he discovered an elevator that dropped him into the oppressive splendour of the ruined city of Rapture.

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The early days of Irrational, around the time of System Shock 2. Photo from irrationalgames.com.

After an hour or so, the men put down the controllers and gathered for a Q&A session to answer questions about what they’d seen and played. The players spoke candidly, not knowing that the developers could see and hear everything. The feedback was brutal. The game was too dark. They didn’t know where they were supposed to go. They had grown weary of collecting all that loot. Nobody trusted Atlas, the disembodied voice who acted as both welcoming party and guide to Rapture. One attendee described Atlas, who at the time spoke in a Morgan Freeman-esque Southern drawl, as a “lecherous Colonel Sanders”. Another player somehow missed the fact that Rapture was an underwater city. Most of the group found the story entirely confusing.

The feedback was direct. It hurt. With only a few months to go before the game’s release, the temptation for the designers was to criticise the players, rather than listen. Someone pointed out that one of the players didn’t seem to know how to hold the controller properly. Someone else cast aspersions on the players’ literacy: perhaps these people lacked the education to catch the game’s highbrow references? Someone else suggested that they had perhaps shown off the wrong sections of the game. Jonathan Chey, one of Irrational Games’ three co-founders, suggested the way that the session had been organised was as much of a problem as the game itself. But behind the carapace of bargaining, everybody knew there was truth to what had been said.

“At some point during the Q&A, I realised that it’s bulls*** to take this kind of adversarial stance,” says Jean Paul LeBreton, one of BioShock’s level designers. “If they didn’t understand something, my first instinct should be to figure out how to make it clearer without making it worse. Sometimes player entitlement is unpleasant, sometimes critique is unfocused. There is almost always truth hidden in it, though.” Levine, the weight of a $25m underwater world on his shoulders, agreed. “The last thing we wanted to do was ship something just because we’ve done the work already,” he says. “Looking back at it, you think of those days as some of the high points, because those are the ingredients for making something special. They are the price that you pay.”

Paul Hellquist was fired on his first day at Irrational Games. “It was a running gag that Ken Levine had at the time just to freak out the new guys,” he recalls. “It worked.” It’s an unusual way to welcome a new staff member to any company, the sort of mild hazing usually meted out in college fraternities. But it was perhaps indicative of the studio’s small size and lack of experience at the time. Hellquist, who had no previous experience in the industry, joined Irrational in September 1999 when the company was run out of a four-room office with vast windows and exposed brick that had previously housed a school.

“Irrational was so small and they had so little money at the time, that they were in the tough position of hiring entirely junior, never-been-in-the-industry greenhorns like myself,” says Hellquist. “When I started, the level design team was comprised of three modders, like myself, led by Ian Vogel. I was not qualified, but they needed to take fliers on rookies with the limited budget they had at the time.”

Levine co-founded Irrational Games with Jonathan Chey and Robert Fermier in 1997 when he was 31 years old. The team was comprised of former employees from Looking Glass, another Massachusetts-based game developer, and initially the Irrational team worked out of the Looking Glass office. “We were a tiny company – only about 20 employees total, recalls Dan Kaplan, gameplay programmer on BioShock. “Any time someone came up with something cool, the entire company would quickly know about it and would be riffing off it – it made for a great sense of accomplishment with even the smallest creative efforts. There was a real sense of unity.”

“I think that the pressure Ken felt to deliver a successful blockbuster corresponded, at many points on the project, to his unpleasantness with the team.”

JP LeBreton