The impending closure of Irrational Games and Ken Levine’s plans to create a studio for digitally released, narrative-driven games came as a surprise this week, but the writing was already on the wall.
When the first BioShock came out, beloved almost everywhere at the time, Levine got to play the part of the auteur, discussing the themes of objectivism and extremism, rarely finding himself back in a corner, needing to defend his vision.
Not so with Infinite. Despite its initial critical success, post-release it was called out for its reliance on slightly mundane combat and its tackling of racism. Internally, Irrational was in a bit of a mess too. Before announcing the end of Irrational, Levine spoke with IGN about the future, and with the gift of hindsight, it’s not hard to see why events played out the way they did.
Levine was frustrated with the criticisms at how Infinite tackled racism. To him, it wasn’t a dominant theme of the game so much as it was a pervasive thing in the era. Irrational wasn’t making a point about racism, it was merely presenting the attitudes of the time, Levine says. “Until fairly recently it was that society was just openly, and broadly, and depressingly, bitterly exclusionary and racist… People are people of their times. To deny that - to make a game in that time period and not reflect that - was just weird to me.”
Infinite’s development was a difficult one. Early looks were not reflective of the finished game, huge chunks of content were thrown out and replaced with something else, people argued, people left.
“The only reason I’ve ever been scared to discard something is, do I have time to replace it? Time is always a constant pressure,” said Levine. “The clock is always the hardest thing for me now as a games developer.”
His reasoning for scrapping so much content and trying something new with Burial at Sea - which brought with it a new batch of problems that he had to defend - now provides some insight into why he decided to move on from BioShock and Irrational. “You only have so many years on this planet, so to spend a ton of time going back and trying to polish a particular apple... I don’t think that’s necessarily healthy.”