Books: the history of the BioShock trilogy was published in Russian. We publish an excerpt

The Bombora publishing house has a replenishment in the collection of game works. The book “The Creation of the Bioshock trilogy. From Delight to Colombia.” It not only gives an excursion into the history of the development of the famous franchise, but also tells in detail about the details of the BioShock universe and the meaning inherent in them.

The authors of the book are game journalists Nicolas Courcier, Mehdi El Kanafi and Raphael Lucas.


It is not necessary to build a city,
to be worshipped… Simply
make these nobodies believe,
as if they were worth something.

Frank Fontaine

Creating the first and second parts of BioShock, the developers struggled to perfection. They fervently wanted to immerse the player in an unusual, whimsical and attractive world. In this chapter, we will look at all the stages of the work they have done — from the first ideas to the final implementation.


Irrational Games Studio was founded in 1997. The founders were Ken Levine, Jonathan Chay and Robert Fermier, who came from the Looking Glass studio. Their professional past almost immediately brought them their first contract: for the continuation of the first System Shock — a mixture of RPG and shooter, which was released in 1994 and won critical acclaim. The sequel was released in 1999 and reached the heights of the original. Then in 2002 Irrational Games released Freedom Force, and in 2005 ‑ SWAT 4. The only pitfall they stumbled upon was the cancellation of the development of he Lost, whose script was inspired by Dante’s Hell and relied on the emotions of the player. In 2000, the studio, located in Boston, opened a branch in Canberra (Australia), and Jonathan Chay took over as director there. In 2006, both studios were bought out by Take‑Two Interactive — two years later, it will change their names to 2K Boston and 2K Australia. These two branches will be united by a common publishing label 2K Games.

Ken Levine soon became a prominent figure in the Boston studio. In the old days, he happened to work as a screenwriter at Paramount (where, according to him, he rewrote the script of a “very bad romantic comedy”), then as an IT consultant on Wall Street, and finally responded to an ad and got a job in the Looking Glass Studios team. He started by writing all the dialogues for the future Star Trek game, but after a while the project was closed. Then he worked on the design and plotthief: he Dark Project — a three‑dimensional stealth game in medieval fantasy scenery, centered on a thief known as Garrett, and which will leave a mark on the history of the industry. Unfortunately, Ken’s work was interrupted, and he himself was fired — but he did not give up. He founded his own studio and took up System Shock 2. The design of the game, its plot and most of the dialogues fell on his shoulders. After System Shock 2 achieved success, the inspired Ken Levin took on several more projects, and in the early 2000s began developing a game called BioShock.


Ken Levine’s first memories of video games go back to 1976, when he was visiting his sister in college. There he discovered the Star Trek game: its field was divided into one hundred squares—ten by ten—which had to be filled in as the action progressed. The computer didn’t have a screen—only a printer that displayed a sequence of actions. Ken spent long hours collecting the printed sheets in order to study them properly at home. The game had so engrossed him that he couldn’t think of anything else. I didn’t even want to leave the room.

Ken did not immediately find his way in life. Once he was on his way to a graduation meeting for the umpteenth time and thought that all the former nerds had probably achieved a lot, but the fate of the athletes did not go well. That’s how it usually happens, right? Alas, fate decreed otherwise. Nerd Ken worked as an IT consultant on Wall Street and lived with a girl he didn’t love‑simply put, he wasn’t very happy. But the footballer could boast of a beautiful wife and a thriving business. Ken thought: “Wait a minute, it shouldn’t be like this!” And I decided to find my true path.

Another famous Ken Levin lived in the USA — an actor, screenwriter, producer and director on television. One day, our Levin from Irrational Games received a message from a stranger on his answering machine. He called himself Frank and said he was going to commit suicide. Ken didn’t know any Frank at the time and quickly realized that the guy had confused him with his namesake. Then he called another Ken Levin, told him what had happened, and left everything to sort out.


When Ken Levine talks about the emergence of BioShock, he does not hesitate to say that this project has “always flowed through the veins” of his studio, that it was the very game that he and his team have always dreamed of making. BioShock is the first Irrational Games* project designed for both PC and console. The Boston studio took over most of the game design and visual design, and the 2K Australia team focused on the technical part, the game engine, as well as various tools and rendering techniques. In addition, they were constantly optimizing what was already ready. From the very beginning, BioShock looked like the spiritual heir of System Shock 2. Their names are so similar that there is no doubt about the relationship. Levin and his comrades wanted to give the player a certain freedom and allow him to pass the game at the speed that he chooses. According to his plan, BioShock should also refresh the gaming experience, as Half‑Life did at the time. As for the technical side, the engine of both parts of BioShock is a heavily redesigned version of Unreal Engine 2 from Epic Games, into which some elements of Unreal Engine 3 were transferred.

The entire design of BioShock was built around the gameplay: the rules were dictated by the game itself, and development began even before the script appeared. The main idea came almost immediately, the genre was also chosen quickly enough. Soon BioShock began to gradually retreat from the foundations laid by System Shock 2. The new game was supposed to be easier to learn and at the same time more advanced than its predecessor. Levin wanted to move away from the concept of gameplay, which would focus on RPG and be based on the characteristics of the character. He wanted to create a world in which you can go headlong. But the first prototypes posed too many tasks for the player. He was forced to look for objects that bestowed the necessary abilities, he had to open doors that led to the next levels — and all this only in order to advance through the plot and finally enjoy the game. Therefore, the developers decided to simplify everything in the most radical way and began to gradually get rid of all these mandatory stages. After a lot of trial and error, the team realized that BioShock was confidently moving towards a fairly simple first‑person shooter structure. Well, if the game is destined to become a shooter, then at least it should be different from all the others and ennoble the genre — bring something new to it.

* Ken Levine’s studio is currently called Ghost Story Games. — Approx. trans.


Levin faced a very important task: to create a believable, holistic world into which one could immerse oneself. Irrational Games immediately wanted the action to unfold in a place cut off from the whole world. Levin understood: in no case should they violate what the British call the willing suspension of disbelief — “deliberate suspension of disbelief.” This concept of literary origin was formulated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It is a mental effort that the reader (or in our case, the player) agrees to make if he wants to believe the story, especially if it is implausible or includes fantastic details. “Intentional suspension of disbelief” is a conscious willingness to ignore the limitations imposed by the environment and accept all assumptions. The reader or player tacitly agrees not to judge the story too harshly and just immerse themselves in the process. However, the voluntary rejection of unbelief has its limits. Tolerance for internal contradictions or deviations from reality is different for everyone. Even the tiniest “wrong” detail can unsettle some.

Levin is familiar with this firsthand — he himself is one of such “some”. In games, he often caught the eye of various unpleasant elements — for example, a tiny barrier that could not be overcome in any way, or a merchant with whom one could exchange only one phrase. All these seemingly insignificant oddities do not help to immerse yourself in a fictional universe and irritate the player. Levin saw a worthy solution to this problem in creating a complete simulation of reality. To do this, it was necessary to find a place where all the limitations of the game environment would look natural. Irrational Games settled on a city cut off from the rest of the world. So from the very beginning they left the player no choice — he could only move along the plot. He had no thought of leaving the city. Following the same principle, the designers made enemies of the main character creatures that were subjected to genetic manipulation and brutalized. Now the player will not have a question why it is impossible to chat with them, even if they are the only creatures with whom you can interact. So, the issue with the place of action was resolved by itself — in favor of one global location. Now designers could work out the game world as a whole — and they had to make it authentic, breathe life into it, create history, culture of the past, give it special features. Levin decided that it was not worth taking a universe that already existed: it would impose a number of restrictions and would rather hinder than help. However, the world of the future did not suit him either — yes, there was a place for imagination to run wild, but it would not be easy for a player to get used to such a revelry.

Keep one story that shows with what attention Levin and his team looked at every detail. When the work on System Shock 2 was in full swing, the designers at some point got to the point where they thought about how many toilets or beds there should be on the spaceship where the action takes place. Take at least bathrooms — perhaps it is worth giving one to each passenger? Or not? Levin soon realized that it was better not to overdo things with such details. After all, they don’t play a big role when it comes to the connectivity of the game world — and all thanks to the cherished suspension of disbelief.


So, the basics were over. Now the Irrational Games team had to develop a scenario that would convincingly explain how a person could end up in a city cut off from the whole world. Earlier we said that Levin and his colleagues put game design at the forefront, so they had already approved many elements, and everything was clear with the basis of the gameplay. But the script was still in the process. Moreover, it has been radically changed several times to adapt to new mechanics. This fact perfectly illustrates the train of thought of Levin, who was just waiting for “the game itself to tell what the plot should be.” When the developers needed to make it so that the player, in principle, could not talk to the characters, gene experiments appeared in the script — we have already told about this. Around then, the developers had a new idea: let the player think about how flirting with science can affect the fate of humanity. To begin with, they created several prototypes. The very first of them described a closed city inhabited by Luminaries — that’s how the creators called the genetically modified creatures, which were “brains in flasks”*. At the end of each level, the player would have to fight one of the Luminaries. However, as the developers admitted, it was somewhat difficult for them to realize the battle between the hero and the brain in a flask. The idea was abandoned. In one of the interviews that Ken Levin gave at a time when, in all likelihood, he had not yet decided on the script, he hinted that the game would unfold on an island occupied by the Nazis.

Irrational Games documents, dated 2002 and made public in 2010, describe a prototype that doesn’t look at all like the game we know. It was intended for PC and the first Xbox and was supposed to be a first‑person action horror with RPG elements. The plot looked quite finished. We were supposed to play for Carlos Cuello, a former military man who was kicked out of the service because he couldn’t control himself. He takes an order from a major industrialist whose daughter was taken to a sect called “Serene Dawn”. Carlos Cuello is a “deprogrammer”, his task is to set people’s brains, that is, to find them and return them to the “true path”. But as soon as Carlos infiltrates the ranks of the sectarians and boards a plane to their headquarters, he is exposed. Crowds of genetically modified creatures are waiting for him on Salvacion Island. The story becomes clearer as Carlos finds audio recordings left by other survivors. Soon the plot leads him to an underwater complex, where they hide the girl he has to save.

As for the gameplay, then first of all it is necessary to mention the weapon assembly system: according to the developers, it was limited “only by the imagination of the player himself.” Here Irrational Games was inspired by Freedom Force. In addition, they planned a multiplayer mode, quite original: it was possible to play for monsters and prevent others from passing the game. And finally, the hero had powers that allowed him to control the environment — a kind of legacy of System Shock 2. It was possible to increase or decrease the oxygen level, electrify the floor, flood the rooms, change the temperature and much more. In a way, such mechanics anticipated plasmids from BioShock.

* “Brain in a flask”, also “brain in a barrel”, is a classic philosophical thought experiment, dating back to the ideas of Rene Descartes and described by Hilary Putnam. Illustrates the dependence of a person’s perception of the surrounding reality on his subjective feelings. If a living brain is placed in a flask with a nutrient solution and connected to a computer that generates false signals from supposedly sensory organs (which, of course, it does not have), will it be able to distinguish illusory reality from reality — that is, realize that it is actually a “brain in a flask”? — Editor’s note.


The plot of BioShock has been changed and redone more than once, the action was transferred to the recent past, then to the distant future. This continued until the developers decided to tie the game environment to the Art Deco style. This choice determined the historical epoch: now the game unfolded in the period after the Second World War. In addition, he gave the Irrational Games artists complete freedom of expression, and they began to draw one sketch after another. Of course, Art Deco might seem a somewhat unusual style for a computer game, but it was not by chance that they stopped at it: it was to him that BioShock owes much of its originality, which immediately made it unlike other shooters.

In 2003, the prototypes developed for the first Xbox already took into account that the action would take place at the bottom of the ocean. But the whole environment resembled a space station rather than a city. Art Deco could be traced only at the level of architecture, other elements looked bland, polished and resembled the expressionless scenery for some sci‑fi movie in the spirit of “Star Trek”. Everything here was extremely convenient and practical. Realizing this, the artists focused on the decorative and aesthetic aspect: for example, floor tiles were replaced with parquet, and bare concrete walls with upholstery. Now Art Deco has fully manifested itself. He contributed to the atmosphere of BioShock not only through the exterior of the buildings, but also through their interior decoration. The final touch was the water that seeped into the Delight here and there. Endless leaks, wet textures and corresponding sounds plunge the player into the oceanic depths and cause a feeling of isolation and loneliness that literally permeates this unusual place.

Despite the fact that the panorama of Delight can only be glimpsed in the prologue, everything was thought out to the smallest detail. Next to modest buildings there are magnificent skyscrapers — just like in any modern metropolis. Although the city is under water, this in no way affected its structure. A somewhat non-standard solution, of course, but the developers from Irrational Games did not take it from the ceiling, but came to it after much thought. Of course, in reality, no underwater city could look exactly the same as a land—based city – this is simply impossible. At best, a city like Rapture could grow under a dome that could withstand enormous pressure. Despite the care with which Ken Levin and his colleagues avoided all sorts of inconsistencies and improbability, they still decided to forget about realism for a while and deliberately created Delight exactly as if it stood on the surface, not at the bottom. Thanks to this decision, the city appears before us in all its glory — and at the same time looks slightly ridiculous. So, already in the prologue we see all the pride and vanity of Andrew Ryan, who naively believed that his plan could come to life in its original form.


Many things have changed more than once during the development of BioShock, and the concepts of the characters are no exception. The most ambiguous of them were the Little Sisters. At first, an entire ecosystem was created for ADAM’s gatherers. At that time, they were not girls yet, but slugs. We worked with this idea for a long time and hard enough, even animation appeared at different stages. However, as the script began to take shape, the creators had to puzzle over how to portray a plausible connection between slugs and Big Daddies. It was not possible to solve this problem. Is it possible to have warm feelings for slugs? They did not cause the players a drop of compassion, they did not want to deal with them. Therefore, they decided to abandon slugs. The Irrational Games team came to a dead end — but did not get confused. Now they accepted ideas from every employee and considered any clue. There were a lot of ideas, one more interesting than the other: there were squirrel people, crabs, monkeys, and even dogs in strollers that moved with the help of their front paws. More and more concepts appeared, the employees did not suffer from a lack of imagination, but, alas, none of them fit. But gradually the designers noticed that the more the collector resembled a person, the more likely he evoked the feelings they were looking for. One fine day, artist Robb Waters painted a creepy little girl with an unhealthy appearance, whose face, however, still remained cute and alive. The solution was found.

As for mutants, in the first sketches they appeared in the form of classic monsters. However, over time, the script changed, and with it the artistic style, and the designers realized that the enemies also should not keep their old look. Now they wandered through the luxurious corridors in the spirit of Art Deco and could not remain simple monsters ‑ they had to match the Delight, which became more “residential” (as the development team likes to say about it). Now their bodies told the story of the city—just like the interior around them. These people, who, because of Adam, had lost both reason and human appearance, should have acquired a more “civilized” appearance, which would speak about their past. When the developers created their appearance, they took as a basis the features of an ordinary person and added to them the deformities that actually existed. The source of inspiration for them was the site found by Ken Levin — Project Facade. Here were collected photos of the first attempts at plastic surgery, which were supposed to ease the fate of soldiers of the First World War who suffered in battle. Mutants owe their frightening but realistic facial defects to this site. In addition, the developers turned to the police archives of the 1940s. Portraits of criminals, their appearance and facial expressions showed all the severity of that era.

Despite the fact that the style of the game has undergone several radical changes, one thing has remained unchanged in it — the appearance of Big Daddy. From the very beginning, everyone liked the image of a huge man in a spacesuit. No wonder Daddy has become a cult character. He decorated the covers of games and acted as the face of advertising campaigns. Initially, the developers created four models of Daddies, but only two of them were included in the final version of the first part.

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