Judas First Details: How Ken Levine Is Building on BioShock With ‘Narrative LEGOs’

Judas First Details: How Ken Levine Is Building on BioShock With ‘Narrative LEGOs’

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By sheer coincidence, today marks exactly 11 years since BioShock Infinite was released. It was by all accounts a masterpiece – a worthy follow-up to 2007’s landmark narrative-driven first-person shooter BioShock. But after two excellent DLC episodes were released, creative director Ken Levine resigned and parent company Take-Two closed Irrational Games. Levine started a new, smaller studio for Take-Two called Campfire Games, later renamed to Ghost Story Games. And then everything went quiet, with Levine rarely speaking publicly outside of a GDC talk about “narrative LEGOs” in 2014.

That all changed at the 2022 Game Awards, where Levine and Ghost Story’s first project, Judas, was officially announced. Its only other public appearance since then was at Sony’s most recent State of Play, where we got a new trailer.

Until now. Levine invited me and The Game Awards creator Geoff Keighley to Ghost Story Games in Boston, where we spent six hours playing a recent build of Judas, followed by a lengthy conversation with the renowned game designer to discuss the long wait since BioShock Infinite, bringing the “narrative LEGOs” concept to life in Judas, what the game is all about, and much more. You can watch the entire interview in the video at the top of this page.

But speaking of what the game is all about, I figured you might want to know a little bit about that before watching the interview. So let me tell you the basics, without spoiling anything: Judas is a first-person narrative-driven shooter that, from a moment-to-moment gameplay perspective, will feel familiar to BioShock fans. You have a gun in your right hand and various organic powers on your left hand.

Story-wise, you play as Judas, a young woman aboard the Mayflower, a city-sized spaceship on a multi-generational mission to save humanity by transporting what’s left of it from Earth to a new planet, called Proxima Centauri. You start the game having been reprinted (yes, meaning you were dead), where you’ll wake up and begin interacting with the holographic projections of the three leaders who run the ship: Tom, the ship’s head of security who wants to protect all of humanity by ensuring that the Mayflower’s original mission stays on course; Nefertiti, the ship’s Nobel Prize-winning doctor who wants to create a civilization of full robots with no human flaws; and Hope, who wants your help deleting herself because the existential crisis of her existence leads her to the conclusion that deletion is the only way to end her suffering. Further complicating matters is that the three of them are a family: Tom and Nefertiti were married, and Hope was their adopted daughter. It’s up to you to side with whomever you feel like, but whatever choice you make has consequences. Doing a favor for Tom might piss off Hope and/or Nefertiti, and vice versa.

This constant push and pull is at the heart of Judas’s player-driven narrative, and it means that no two playthroughs are ever likely to be the same. That’s the “narrative LEGOs” in action, and what we talk a lot about in the course of the interview. Watch it above or read a transcription below. Enjoy!

(Editor’s note: this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Please forgive any leftover transcription wonkiness.)

IGN: Ken, thanks for inviting us down to play the game and let’s talk about this thing. Let’s talk about Judas, shall we? Yep. So I want to start with the macro here. Video games, especially the bigger blockbuster games that you are known for making. They take a long time to make. They take longer than ever, but [with] this game we’re past the 10-year mark since BioShock Infinite. So can you tell what’s taken so long? And I mean that with all due respect because it’s totally a valid question. Have you started and scrapped a couple times or has it been trying to crack this big idea that I know we’re going to talk a lot about here over that time? Talk to us about this journey.

Levine: Well, yeah, you would know probably more than most people. I remember I showed you the game on the whiteboard [many years ago], sort of like my whiteboard drawing of it, and it’s evolved a bunch since then, but the core ideas have really fundamentally remained the same. And that gives you a sense of the genesis and then I could take you through the why of the time period. And so a lot of it came with all of our games. I think we’re trying to solve the thing that we wanted in the previous game but weren’t able to do. So for Ghost Story, what I’ve always liked to do was create characters and worlds. Even going back to Thief, when I worked on Thief, the first thing I started with was this film noir kind of character and that setting, that fantasy noir setting. So I’ve always been very interested in characters, but characters are really hard to do in games because of all the things that games do.

Characters are really tough. You could write it as cutscenes, but those are sort of rigid and you sort of get what you get and the player doesn’t get to interact with it much. So a lot of games have most of their storytelling happening in non-interactive cutscenes. That’s never really been my thing. But then you’ve left to these challenges of how do you convey a character if you’re not cut into these big dramatic scenes. So one of the reasons I was so excited about getting the opportunity to do System Shock 2 is, I think at that point went the best characters in video gaming in SHODAN. So when I got my opportunity to dig my claws into that character, I was like, I need to bring her more to the forefront. I need to get the player to have a direct relationship with it. And we moved from an enemy in System Shock 1 to a sort of a frenemy relationship in System Shock 2. And that was super fun. And I had Terri [Brosius] who’s an amazing actress, and so we’re really able to make that relationship core. But still, she was essentially a bunch of audio files in the game and you didn’t really see her and she was just talking to you through very fixed bits and there was only one choice you really made with her. I think she tells you not to go into a room at some point and you can or you can’t even discover some horrible things she did if you do go in and she punishes you for that. And gamers loved that moment.

So the next game I was like, okay, well how do we bring more character? The next sort of big first-person environmental game we did was BioShock, and graphics had a evolved at that point enough where the world could be a character, but also we could bring Atlas, we could bring Andrew Ryan in, we could bring Tannenbaum, but they were all pretty much behind the glass. The most developed characters in that game were Big Daddy and Little Sister, but they weren’t like dialogue characters, but you saw them in the world in their ambient place and they feel like they live there and belong there. But we were still like, well, you don’t really have a character that you interact with who’s not really effectively in a cutscene. So with Infinite, Elizabeth was the big push. How do we get you to have a companion character who you really feel like you’re going on this journey with?

You’re seeing her evolve, you’re seeing her change. And I remember we got to this point on the gain development, which was fairly late in the development, and I was like, I said something really dumb, the kind of thing that everybody would groan at when you’re late in development. I was like, ‘It’d be really cool guys. What if Elizabeth could get mad at you?’ And she could say, ‘Well, screw you Booker. I hate all this stuff you’ve done and I’m going to bail.’ And it came out of my mouth and I was like, ‘Oh my God, we can’t do any of that’ because BioShock Infinite was basically a fairly linear, pretty almost entirely linear experience, in which we try to tell a great story. You were on Rails. They were nice. They were super nice rails, I think. I hope people think they were nice rails, but we didn’t have that opportunity too. You knew Elizabeth, but she didn’t really know you. She knew Booker, but she didn’t know you. So the next question was, and the biggest problem is like, well, if you do something different, how does the world heal itself if the player takes a radically different path and the levels were all handcrafted and pre constructive. So I was like, well, how do you solve that problem? And I went and I had to think about it and I ended up doing a talk at GDC in I think 2014.

Keighley: The narrative LEGO thing, right?

Levine: Yeah, that was what it was called. And the metaphor is basically like LEGO, it’s you’ve got a bunch of these pre-crafted bricks and they’re really well designed and the bricks know how to communicate with each other. They know how to interface with each other and this is the genius, but you can build, how many things can you build out of those bricks? So you have a bunch of handcrafted elements, but they come with them a set of rules based upon how they combine. So you can make almost anything.

So taking the LEGO metaphor, we started thinking, well, could we use handcrafted elements that are not huge entire levels, but sub-elements like lines of speech, pieces of art, texture, maps, encounters, loot, even the layout of the whole experience and make those out of modular chunks and then teach the game. We call it pseudo-procedural because it’s not like Minecraft where everything’s being generated off a set of pure mathematical heuristics. You build all these smaller piece elements in the game and then you teach the game how to make good levels essentially, and good story, and most importantly, reactive to what you do. So when you decide to go, I’m not doing that, I’m going all the way over here, then the game knows what to do because in BioShock Infinite, the gamers just went over here, and it panicked and said, I can’t do that, I can’t do any of that. But that was a major R&D task because again, the gamer may not care about the sort of, there’s some gamers I think are super interested in that low level of detail, but the gamer just wants the great experience. Of course for us, the goal is how do you give the gamer a game that knows them as well as they know the game?

IGN: So I’m guessing that cracking that new problem, I don’t think anybody’s really done that, at least on the scale and the way in which you’re attempting to do it. I’m guessing that took longer than you thought it was going to take.

Keighley: I think for a while the perception was that, oh, Ken’s not going to make big blockbuster AAA stuff anymore. He is going to scale way down into something smaller. Was that a correct perception?

Levine: So I definitely didn’t want to do another Infinite. I think I had this idea that I want to make this massive thing that appealed to a huge audience. So we made it much more action-oriented and the scale got huge and the team got huge and I wanted to make something that wasn’t as blockbuster. I didn’t want to do another huge action movie. I did it and it was exciting, but then I’m like, okay, I did that and I wanted to turn more back into the player interaction, the player having more of a voice in it. And at first I thought, like you said, it was going to be like, oh, we’ll do this sort of AA thing. It’ll be kind of experimental. But then I guess I don’t know myself very well because as we started to develop the world and the setting, well, first of all, the technical problem, I don’t know if I was surprised by the challenge of the technical point.

Actually we had certain things very early on, you probably recognize how the lines of speech are strung together. You saw a version of that very, very early on, this sort of LEGO of the dialogue and the environment saw a very early version of this. So those serious tests came out very early about how the LEGO pieces were going to come together. But then as I started thinking about who is Judas, what is this ship she’s on, who were the characters? And at first we had very, very different takes on all those characters. What Judas was was more consistent. I started falling in love with the world and I started seeing more and more opportunity to tell a bigger story, not a rollercoaster ride in the same way as before, but more of a player, a deeper player, interaction-driven world. But yeah, I guess it kind of scaled.

IGN: I mean to me having played it, I mean it feels like it’s as big or bigger than infinite in terms of some of the, it does seem like it’s going to be longer than the 15-ish hours that Infinite was for sure.,

Levine: I remember when I was young and I didn’t have any money. I remember when I buy a game and I would spend, especially back then, you spend $50 on a Nintendo cartridge or something like that and that was, I dunno what $50 is now. Back then it was a lot of money and I’m working an eight hour an dollar an hour job. It mattered to me that that game had a lot of heft to it. Another thing that I think I was frustrated with my own work was that the limited amount of play time you got out of those games too. Now, you could pad something out forever. I could have made “collect a million shot glasses” or something throughout it, but that’s not really an organic way to manage that. I did want give the player an experience of an entirely single player oriented game. Kind of like the games I came up with, where you’d buy a game, you’d get the game and you’d play the game and…not be dependent upon needing online revenue and all those things.

IGN: Well, I’ve got to ask on that note, I know some people probably don’t super care about the business side of things, but Geoff, you and I have been doing this for a while. I’m fascinated by the fact that Take Two has completely left you alone for a decade. I think a lot of developers, a lot of companies would have been canceled three, four years ago at this point. And actually you’re not under the 2K banner. You’re not under the Private Division banner. You’re not under the Rockstar banner. You’re like your own little satellite.

Levine: Like the Pipsqueak of Take Two. We’re one game, one label basically.

IGN: How have you gotten Take two to just kind of let you do your thing uninterrupted for this long?

Levine: Take Two as an org, I think, has a long vision. They know that new IP is really important. You can only ride on existing IP for so long. They’ve got some amazing IP. You saw the GTA trailer completely blew up and people are still super excited, but eventually a company needs to be producing the new stuff and it’s really hard, especially in AAA space with that kind of money to do that. And so I think I had done enough, I’d been with the company long enough, I had built up enough trust by shipping a couple of big games for them that, and also I have a good enough relationship with the management that I’m extremely transparent about expectations and sure, but they probably have liked it that go faster. It’s totally understandable. I’m sure they would’ve, but I just keep them in the loop. I say, you guys want to come play the game? You guys want to see any documents? And generally they take a more hands-off approach, but we do regular meetings with them going to financials and all that stuff. So we’re extremely transparent and I think that really helps and they value transparency and I think they also know what they’re good at and they know what I’m good at and so they put a lot of faith in me. I don’t know if anybody else, even with my reasonably good track record. It’s still a lot of trust and I deeply appreciate that.

IGN: I mean, they must believe that you’ve got something here. If it’s been this long and they’re still fully behind you, they clearly believe in you at this point.

Levine: Yeah, I think they not only know the game, but they know what I’m trying to do with this LEGO thing and it’s a model. It’s a different model of how to build these types of games on top of that. So I’m sure they see that potentially it’s not just this game. We can also use that technology. We sort of built an engine of how to generate content and populate content in a game in a very different way than anybody said it before.

Keighley: It’s your personal experience, but also I imagine it’s going to be something that’s even more replayable as a single player game. And that’s thing that I get excited about. We play a lot of these amazing single player games like, oh, I’m done. Do you imagine this is the kind of thing where when it’s done is the kind of thing you’re going to go through the experience, Ryan and I will have a different experience that we’ll talk about, but then do you imagine people wanting to go back and replay and have different experiences?

Levine: We probably should talk about it in the context of the experience you guys had. We can talk about your relationship with these characters. The big three.

Keighley: Yeah, we should probably

IGN: You set it up about these trailers.

Keighley: There’s a lot in those trailers. And the funny thing was when I had come a couple years ago and seen him played some of it before we did the trailer, people saw it and they’re like, oh, it looks cool, looks high production value. We said BioShock in space. That’s a great thing. We showed at Game Awards to the creator of BioShock, everyone went crazy. But in that trailer, there are characters. And it’s so interesting you said how this plays out. So maybe, yeah, I mean I don’t think you’ve had a chance to even just say what is the setting of this game? Who is Judas? Give us a little bit of a preview then I think we can get into our experience. And it all ties into the narrative LEGO thing too.

Levine: We try to do things a little differently. In Infinite, we rolled it out with this huge event in New York and it was just me showing video and we had to put a lot of faith in me. And I think we listened to your audience that are like, we don’t want the flash, we don’t want the bombast, we just want to see the game. So as you guys know better than anybody, when I started talking to you about this, I’m like, I don’t want to tell you about the game. I want you guys to come play the game. And we gave you a build in progress. It’s not an E3 demo, we just a giant chunk of the game, warts and all because you just want to see it’s not finished. And so you guys encountered your fair show of bugs and gray boxes and stuff like that.

Keighley: And this is it, not spoiling, but I don’t think it ties to the BioShock world. This is a new world.

Levine: It’s entirely a new world experience. And we knew what we showed the trailer at [the Game Awards] and we did the other trailer recently at the Sony thing that people are going to now see. Well, okay, we see it’s another cool world, hopefully cool world, cool characters, cool art style, but I guess we had to keep our mouth shut about what makes us so different.

Keighley: So who actually is Judas?

Levine: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. We want to do something a little different this time because in our previous games, Infinite and BioShock 1, you’re sort of a character who ends up in these places through happenstance and well, without too many spoilers, you think you’re a complete stranger to those places and you get the opportunity to learn about them at the same time the players learning about them. Whereas in Judas, you’re born on this colony ship that’s going from a dying earth to Proxima Centauri, which is a generational journey. It’s a multi-generational journey. And you’re actually born on the ship into the society. And so we have this interesting challenge of you’ve got a backstory in this place, you have a history in this place, the characters in the place, and you fall into the shoes of this person who’s completely central to the story and actually is the person who caused the events that caused the collapse of the ship as compared to Rapture where you’re coming into a place that’s already collapsed.

Keighley: The ship has collapsed or what’s the state of it?

Levine: Yeah, when you wake up, as you guys saw at the beginning of the game, the ship is in a state of collapse. You’re literally the last human being potentially alive in the universe. And you start the game and you are curious to your experience, you start the game.

Keighley: You said you were born on the ship and then one of the first things you see in the game is you look over and you’re sort of like a Westworld kind of thing where you’re being printed out or something like that. We’re talking, yeah, you say born on the ship, but you’re kind of reborn or what is, you said human, it’s like you’re a printed human.

Levine: Well, yeah. So there’s this technology called reprinting on the ship, and that’s the promise they have because it’s a generational journey. How do you get people on a generational journey if you’re going to die in a f—— spaceship, the middle of space because they have this technology which is untested until the very first moment of the game. It’s theoretical called reprinting now it’s basically you’ve seen 3D printers. Imagine if you could map the human body down to the molecular level. Now, human organs, they’re pretty, pretty simple organs because you’re basically making copies of organs, very rudimentary copies of organs. But you saw the crystal in Judas’ hand, right? That’s a recording device that’s recording your molecular state at every second of your life. It’s a huge data storage device. And they use that essentially the matrix to use sophisticated organic 3D printing to reprint you after you’ve died at any arbitrary moment in your history. Now we get into some philosophical stuff here because in an entirely materialistic universe, your memories, your personality, your experiences, they’re really just chemicals in your body, their proteins and their salts and the water, all those things. And if you could make a duplicate of that exactly, is the thing that’s being printed you?

Keighley: Or can you modify it?

Levine: Well, that’s another thing that happens in the game. You see, when you start, your crystal has been damaged, so you’re reprinted without certain of your memories. You may be experiencing severe loss of memory.

When you start the game, you know you died. You actually learned that right away. So you’re being printed back from the dead. So for a brief period of time, there was nobody alive on the ship. And then part of the journey is discovering what happened to you because you’re missing some of this. But most of your experience, most of your members, these characters, you’re interacting with the big three. You have a long and detailed history with them and a very contentious history with them. But you’ve also coming back and you need to get off the ship. As I said, the ship, it’s a sinking ship story. The ship is in an asteroid field, it’s orbiting Proxima. You can’t get down to Proxima. That’s all Judas wants. She needs to get off the ship before it sinks. And the ship is actually dynamically sinking through the course of the game based upon these asteroid fields that you have to deal with as you explore the surface of the ship and the ship’s getting more damaged and getting more dangerous over time. But every time you die, you can be reprinted.

IGN: Who’s reprinting you? Is that the ship reprinting you or someone is choosing to reprint you?

Levine: Well, I don’t want to do too many spoilers, but you’ll find out originally there is basically they have enough juice. It takes a very rare element, which only appeared as coming from meteorite on earth, but they think it’s abundant on Proxima to do that printing process. They had enough for one and for some reason, which you find out is Judas, and she’s called Judas for a reason on the ship. She is probably, as you can tell, the least popular, most hated person on the ship. You are the outcast, the Judas of the ship, the traitor to the mission as they call it, the mission to get on Proxima, who’s been the biggest problem in the ship for some reason, you think the most desirable person will be printed. For some reason, the ship printed the person who’s the biggest outcast on the ship to try to solve this problem.

Keighley: The tagline I remember in the first trailer was, fix what you broke.

Levine: So the inciting event, as you go through the experience early on, you probably have seen it. You can get hints that Judas is the one who caused the collapse of the ship and figure out why that is is part of the experiment. But very early on, I don’t want to stomp on your guys’ experience. You get a sense of who she is and her role in the ship and what people thought of her on the ship and why she’s called the Judas.

Keighley: But the narrative then really gets further driven by the big three, which were in that first trailer and we should talk about those characters and the actors and yeah, yeah. You’ve got this constant push and pull of make one happy to the other. Two, get mad side with one of them and one of them gets mad. One of ’em is saying, okay, cool, I’m glad you did that. So there’s this tug of war that’s going on that kind of ties into not kind of, it absolutely ties into the narrative LEGO thing you’re talking about. Yep. And they’re projected into the world, right?

Levine: Yep. Yeah. You find it early on, their physical bodies have been destroyed by an asteroid strike. You actually get to see that happening.

Keighley: But you got to start by just talking, who are they? Who they are, like I said, from the trailers, we don’t know who they are.

Levine:So you can see ’em up there. They were the people who were running the ship. They all sort of had a different department, which they ran. Tom on the left was responsible for safety and security on the ship and making sure everything went smoothly. Nefertiti, Dr. Okeke or Nefertiti was a famous biologist who is responsible for keeping people alive on the ship because life in space is really complicated. You may have heard of, I think there was a twin who was in the International Space Station and he came back from space with this genetics altered enough because being in space that he’s no longer effectively a twin with his twin really because his cells are mutated. I mean space, there’s a huge amount of problems. Also life. They don’t know exactly what life on Proxima is going to be like. Even now the sophisticated telescopes and everything, they have guesses about what planets are going to be like.

So she’s got to deal with the problems of keeping people alive in space, keeping people alive on Proxima. So she’s responsible for the health and welfare of people on the ship and Hope, Hope is responsible for sort of the, she’s everybody’s best friend, everybody’s counselor, everybody’s shrink. And she’s also the ship’s matchmaker because as you probably learned that family and matchmaking and romance is extremely different on this ship. And she takes a very heavy hand in that. And what happens, and Judas is involved in this, Judas reveals to them and then to everybody else that they’re not people, actually they’re robots. They didn’t know that. Nobody on the ship knew that. And that revelation causes them to all go through a different, each of them goes through a different kind of existential crisis. And the whole ship collapses because as the leader figures collapse with this new knowledge. Imagine being told none of your achievements are your own, none of your memories are your own. That just sends them down a crazy spiral, all three of them. And that’s Judas did that. She discovers what they are, she exposes to the world and to them what they are. And that is one of the things that causes the collapse of the ship.

And so you now have to, when you’re on the sinking ship, you also know that the only way down to Proxima is through this asteroid field. But a human can’t pilot that ship down to Proxima. So you need essentially one of your three worst enemies who have this, they’re machines. So they have Picosecond reflexes and ability to use lidar and all these other things to navigate the field. So they need you to get down to Proxima because they all have a different vision of what the future of the mission, what we call Capital-M Mission. The future of getting humanity to Proxima is they all have a different vision for it. Now, they used to, they were a family essentially Okeke and Tom were married and Hope was their adoptive daughter. So they have a family that used to be part of, and now they’re all broken up at a loggerheads with each other. And so you’re negotiating with the three of them. They serve a similar role in some ways to Elizabeth that they’re these companions, you interact with the world, but their opinions of you are constantly shifting and constantly changing. And the world is reconfiguring itself to account for your relationship with them.

Who are you helping? If every time you help Tom, you’re pissing off Nefertiti and you’re pissing off Hope but every time you help Hope you’re pissing off the other two. And they’re constantly in this conflict with the three of them. But also learning about them, building friendships and imagine being stuck in this situation in a lifeboat with your worst enemy and having to learn maybe the things you thought about them, the assumptions you made about them weren’t entirely true. Maybe you get to learn about what they had to go through, their challenges in life and how they became such a thorn in your side and you became a thorn in their side. And it’s really a journey of discovery. But you’re not going to have that relationship with all three of them in a single playthrough.

Keighley: That’s why I love that all those three storylines are running in parallel and then you’re interacting with ’em. When we see these moments when we’re playing, it’s like sometimes early on there’s that scene with the three of ’em in a family moment. So it’s like they know each other, but then they’re breaking off and they’re talking to you individually. And there are moments where they’ll project in. And I had one where I was trying to get fuel for the ship and then because Tom was upset with me, he pushed it away and I didn’t get it and things like that because he was upset that I was spending more time with one of the other characters. So these are sort of living dynamic relationships with all three of them, and that’s all the narrative LEGO stuff, right?

Levine: Absolutely. The moment he described, if they’re pissed at you, there’s a whole range of actions they can do to issue. They saw you were trying to get fuel to get around the surface. You have the ability to navigate the surface ship and choose where you go. It’s a very non-linear experience, but you’re trying to get fuel for your craft and Tom was pissed at you, and I’m sure he warned you ahead of time…

Keighley: I really needed that fuel. I went up to the station to get the fuel and then he literally knocked it away.

Levine: All those moments basically once you get past the first couple of hours or so, all that stuff is dynamic. Those scenes can happen anywhere and there’s tons of those different kinds of interactions. The dialogue can happen anywhere they appear to you, their physical bodies have been destroyed by an asteroid hit. And part of the challenge, you have to find backups of their physical body so they can pilot the ship and they’re appearing to you as holograms right now, but they can appear anywhere. They’re not in cutscenes. You don’t have to watch ’em in cutscenes. They’ll appear wherever you walk, wherever you look.

Keighley: I like that you’re not stuck [watching their dialogue]. You keep traveling through and they just project as you walk.

Levine: You don’t have to sit there and watch the scenes for the most part, they’re just appearing to you. They can even appear with each other and argue and argue or discuss things with each other. And again, because they’re not pure enemies, they still love each other, but they’re at loggerheads in this situation. They have sort of a broken family story. But to what you’re saying, the game, all those events, and then we have so many of these different types of events. I think of it as notes and courts. So these individual events, whether it’s Tom getting mad at you or sometimes you’ll be in a fight and Nefertiti will pop up and take over control of a turret and start destroying your enemies for you because you’ve been helping her out and she really appreciates that. Or you’re stealthing around and you think you’re being really stealthy and Hope’s mad at you and she’ll show up and say like, ‘Hey, hey, she’s over here!’ And that’s not a cutscene, that’s not a bespoke situation. Those are all dynamic moments. That’s a LEGO concept. Her breaking stealth for you or her helping you with stealth, all these things, depending on how they feel about you, those things can happen anywhere. And the whole world is seeded with basically sockets where all, whether it’s a piece of furniture, whether it’s a poster, whether it’s an encounter, whether it’s treasure, whether it’s a dialogue scene, these can happen anywhere. And the most interesting thing is they can combine in completely unique ways because all these things are like LEGO pieces. So they’re not a chunk of content we’re loading in. It is tiny little bits of things that can mix together. I remember I mentioned notes and chords a minute ago, so I think of these as notes, but what is a chord, right? A note in a series. Yeah, it’s a series of notes and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The word harmony is another thing like that. And we come back from the theme of harmony many times that when you have all these little LEGO pieces, they’re not very impressive. Our LEGO pieces are more impressive by Tom showing up and breaking any machine anywhere or doing one of his other things. But because they’re mixing with other things that are happening at the same time, which are created independent of each other, the system brings them together to make these larger chords that make unique moments. You didn’t have that moment and somebody else could have had that moment, but in a completely different context, at a different level with at a different state with the big three, a different standing state you can see you also track your relationships with them.

Keighley: Yeah, I was just saying because there’s almost like a reputation system for lack of a better term with each character. So is the goal as a player to keep everyone happier or eventually it feels like I’m going down one path, one character and someone else is trying to convince me to go down that path then? So that interplay between all of them, that’s kind of what you want is that it is not like you pick one path as you said, and then the other two characters disappear. It’s like they’re in your face, they’re trying to convince you. So it’s like are you trying to mean everyone will play differently? But is the idea that there’s going to be that constant back and forth that you have to sort of manage to sort an equilibrium? Or do you feel like eventually you’re going to go in one direction?

Levine: Well, eventually, I won’t say too much about what happens, but late in the game, you can’t keep that up forever. You can’t keep everybody happy, eventually make a choice. You’ve got to make a choice. But we want to give the player the opportunity to facilitate them taking their time with that, playing one off the other. And the game knows if you are really behind with Tom, he might show up and give you a bribe and say, Hey, if you go over this district, I’ll give you a great reward, but stop working for Nefertiti and he’ll also know what you’re doing for Nefertiti so he can reference the specific thing you’re doing.

Keighley: They do seem to all have total knowledge of what’s happening. So he knows what you’re doing with the other characters.

Levine: Yeah, they’re paying pretty close attention and they’re aware and they get frustrated in the same way. You’re still out there playing, you’re dating and somebody wants to get, they all want to get married and they’re getting frustrated with you and eventually people won’t wait forever and you’ll find out what happens for what happens is pretty intense down the road. But yeah, that’s something we want to save.

Keighley: When we were playing through, you kind of go through, not to spoil too much of it, but you sort of go through learning about Judas and then you start to meet these characters and you first meet Tom and you kind of introduce each character and their stories. But then very quickly, as you said, it starts to get more dynamic where we should probably talk about the map too, right?

IGN: We’ll get to that. What I’m hoping that we’re accomplishing here is trying to paint the picture for people of how this really kind of builds past BioShock.Because like you said, that’s more of a relatively on rails experience. And so we’ve been talking about these big three and the motivations and the sort of tug of war back and forth. We’ve seen procedurally generated levels. I’m a big Diablo fan and Diablo has been procedurally generating dungeons for 25 years. But what’s really interesting in Judas is that you’re procedurally or you’re narratively LEGO assembling the actual story as you go. Not the macro maybe, but the micro of the story. And I dunno, we were talking after our session yesterday, Geoff and I actually, and I’m not just saying this because you’re sitting here, I forgot that it was all sort of procedurally constructed as I went.

Levine: We didn’t want the audience to pay a price for the pseudo-procedural that they were getting a less interesting looking level or a very repetitive thing. And that’s why we sort use this hybrid model of we handcraft elements and then that are very handcrafted, but they’re small.

Keighley: And Judas memories. Those are the crystal. So there’s one mullet where you get some of her memories, you get to play those, which are the E-tickets sort of big crazy moments. But then as you said, with these moments of the big three, those levels as you said, feel handcrafted. And as you said, I think there are things where posters change and other things, but then the narrative also, as you said, I think…

Levine: It has to be like when I was talking about BioShock Infinite, the problem was the world couldn’t heal itself if we wanted the player to do something different. Oh, I don’t want to go down this corridor, I’m going to go over here. The game would be like, no, no, no. So we had to, I think if you’re actually to bullet point, the big differences I think in terms of the BioShock fans, they’re to get those big story moments. I’m sure you saw the dropship sequence and you try to go down to Proxima and you run to the asteroid field, the very big moments, and those are more bespoke. But then as you go onto the game, the story becomes massively reactive to you and massively dynamic. And you’re going to have a very different experience and you’re going to have, but I think that we didn’t want the player to pay the price ready.

So I think, what do people expect out of us? They expect a really detailed world that feels lived in, feels believable, feels purposeful, a society that’s thought through that. It’s not just like, oh, the evil empire overlords, but why did this sort of dark f—-d up world evolve? Was it just somebody was evil or was there a series of necessities about life in space that led to this kind of terrible situation where you’re at the bottom of the barrel of this culture? People expect that from us. And we wanted to do that in an environment where the player’s fingerprint had a massive imprint on their experience. And when you ask about why 10 years, that’s a large part of it. About four or five years of that was just R&D of the rudimentary technology to allow for that. I don’t want to ask the player, I was sort of like, well, it would be an experiment. But I was like, well, for our fans, they want to have one of our kinds of games, but I want to give them something where they’re a much greater driving factor. And that really, you can’t fake that. It really took us to go rethink how we make games. We have environmental decorations, a modular environmental decoration system, a spawning system, treasure loot, narrative beats, interactions with the leaders, how you generate the maps, how you generate the layout of the surface of the ship that you move around on the macro moving around the surface of the ship. That’s all being done through a bunch of heuristics, dynamically reactive to all the things you do. And it’s a huge amount of work. And I think why people, why you don’t see that a lot of this because most companies wouldn’t fund that. And I’m really lucky, and really I’m super lucky that I had somebody believe in that. I think it would’ve been probably, as you said most other companies, it would’ve been too much of a risk, especially when you’re talking about AAA production. Yes.

IGN: Yeah. I mean there’s a few more layers we’ve got to get into. You mentioned, Geoff, the ship layer. I mean the Mayflower is the size of a major American city, would you say? Right? It’s not just a little ship from Alien, right?

Levine: It’s a colony ship that had to carry a massive population. So it’s effectively a city. And unlike Rapture or Columbia, it’s not just a city where you’re sort of seeing the fake stuff in the distance. When you look out the windows and you see different districts out the window when you actually traverse the surface of the ship, those are all real and those are places you can go to. I wouldn’t say it’s an open world game in the sense that you don’t get in a 3D vehicle and drive around. You guys can tell me your impressions of how you travel around between.

IGN: I don’t think we should ruin how you get around. It’s really good.

Keighley: But I do think, as you said that part of what I love about is your other games have been amazing linear stories and you can move around the environments, but this, when you do get to sort of a little bit later in the game, you have choice in sort of where you go. So it’s not fully open world, but they’re definitely missions or opportunities with the big three or others where you can go off and you can play that in any order you want. And is this, it’s almost like it is kind of like a top down isometrics or strategy map almost that appears and allows you to navigate around, you have to think about how many steps do you have and you run out of fuel. And so that, I assume, even though we’ve only played four or five hours of it, I assume that becomes a big part of the game is deciding how you’re going to play and navigate through. So you’re moving around the ship, but it’s sort of a fast travel in a way, but it’s sort of done on this strategy layer.

Levine: Yeah. Do you want to go right to different districts? And when you arrive at a district, then you’re in a full sort of BioShock-style level where you can fully explore, but there’s resources on that traversal. What do you pick up? How do you spend your fuel? Do you want to get to this district or do you want to work for Tom over here? But he’s really far away and Hope’s offering you the special reward, but you really have a good relationship with Tom. You don’t want to piss him off. So you’re making all these choices about these relationships, but also about the needing resources because Judas is an engineer. She’s one of the things about her, you probably figure out early, she is sort of in a society where nobody’s allowed, I think one of the themes you can sense is that automation has taken over is a major component of the ship.

In fact, the ship is literally run by machines even though they didn’t know they were machines because the guy who created the ship knew people wouldn’t accept that. So he faked it and made machines that thought they were people. But Judas, nobody’s allowed to know about technology on the ship because they don’t want people to know about technology. They don’t want people to find out that the truth about the ship, they don’t want people to do exactly what Judas did, which just screw everything up. She’s sort of like the Newtons and the DaVincis of their time where there were no real colleges that taught these kinds of things. They had university and things, but these are really people in all the early inventors in it said were self-trained essentially. And Judas trains herself and becomes a brilliant engineer. And part of the game I think that’s really fun is that you get to see her get inspired. What do engineers do? Engineers solve problems. They see inefficiencies and they improve on things. And Judas is constantly seeing inefficiency, seeing problems, and then engineering solutions that eventually through a process of what we call brainstorming, she eventually gets the ability to actually use that 3D printer to make, well, you’ll see.

IGN: And on that note too, because we still haven’t even talked about the core gameplay, right?

Levine: The mechanics. Yeah, there’s a lot.

IGN: I know we’ve been showing the B-roll that people get a good sense of it as we’ve been talking. But the other sort of major differentiating factor I think compared to your previous games is without giving the details away, because the details in a Ken Levine game are best experienced yourself and not spoiled by us. But there is a roguelike loop to this game where you do improve yourself and you can improve between runs. There is health around, but it’s scarce and it’s not always easy to get to before expiring, before you keel over due to the enemies, which actually I really want to talk about. There’s the enemy design in this game too. But can you start by talking about the roguelike loop here?

Levine: Yeah, I think all things we never set out when we did System Shock 2, we never were like, let’s make an RPG to compete with Might & Magic or with Ultima. We think of game design elements as tools to help tell a story. It’s really refining, internally we call it a Judas Simulator. We’re not trying to make a first person shooter. We’re not trying to make a roguelite. We’re not trying to make, as you said, a strategy game. We use elements, and I’ve always done this. I’ve taken elements from different places. System Shock 2 was pulling RPGs and shooters together. I wasn’t trying to make the most RPG of RPGs of all time. I just want to give the players choices in how they grow. So yeah, as you said, when you die in this game, and I don’t want to talk super much about what that narrative experience is, people are going to be pretty surprised by it about what that is. But yes, you do have the opportunity when you die to go change yourself, improve yourself, change your tool chest, which is a pretty broad and variable tool chest and change the Mayflower itself. And I won’t get a ton of details, but you’re going through the game, there’s a lot, I won’t say too much, but there’s a bit of game development in the game. There’s a bit of that vibe in the game, and I don’t want to say too much with the modifiers.

Keighley: They said when you basically can reprint yourself back in the Mayflower, but you can modify elements of you and other things as you sort of go back into that next run.

Levine: So we use a term here at Ghost Story, we try to fail forward. So you’re learning death is not the end in Judas. You get reprinted and you get reprinted better and you’re earning resources as you play to do that reprinting. And it’s not like everybody does the same thing. How you improve yourself is you have resources you can spend.

And I think we want to, we’re going to push further in allowing players to really, because like our other games, there’s stealth components, there’s sort of a left hand power component, there’s the weapons, there’s environmental interactions, and we’re all sort new and improved versions of all those things.

Keighley: That’s also what we said Ryan, we’ll talk about though, that’s the very BioShock nature of the hand powers and I mean the combat feels great and that’s all what we would expect, which is probably why the trailer had a lot of people thinking it was BioShock in space because the moment to moment combat is going to look fairly familiar. There’s fire power, ice power mean, it’s like all that stuff.

IGN: There might be oil on the ground that’s leaked from a barrel that if you’ve got the firepower, the literal firepower, you can ignite that.

Levine: And now we have this new hacking system in the game. In BioShock, we had hacking, but basically it was a pipe, it was a mini game where we now have a system in Judas, you sort of have the left hand powers and the right hand powers, and now we have an additional system: Judas is a hacker. And so she has this sort of fairly dynamic system where she could mix nouns and verbs to create effects. For instance, oil like in BioShock, you find all, you can make an enemy leak oil, create dynamic oil puddles on the ground as they’re leaking around and you can infect them with viruses. I dunno if we have that part in the game yet, but you can infect them with viruses and they will socialize with each other. You can instruct them and they’ll go play cards with each other.

Keighley: When you find ’em all you want to hack and then just describe to people, you sort of hack in and sort of pauses the game and you get to kind of put together your mixture hack,

IGN: Whether it’s aggressive or passive.

Levine: And they can do things like terrify each other. One robot walking around. The other ones would be terrified and running away or be terrified of their enemies. And you’re using that. What we try to do is keep giving the player control over the environment so they can see an encounter that kind of looks overwhelming at first. They look at their tool chest. I’m like, okay, how am I going to go about this? Hacking is just another tool for that. But like you said, I’m not going to pretend like we are not doubling on things we’ve done before because I think, no, that stuff works.

IGN: I think for people like that played BioShock, the moment to moment is going to feel familiar.

Keighley: Also I think as you said with the hacking everything, it feels like it’s progressed from the familiar that we like, but then it’s just adding a new element in the mix with the hacking and then obviously the powers and the upgrades of Judas. I mean, there’s a lot going on.

IGN: What’s your favorite go-to power right now that you’re willing to reveal?

Levine: I can’t reveal the one I’m most favorite about, but what I keep pushing for and the team keeps pushing for is how do we put more elements in the environment that allow you to take control of the environment? That feels really powerful when you take control of the environment. You make an oil leak on of guy…Because we don’t want to dictate how to play any encounter. We want people to. Some people are going to either tune that all those rewards and punishment leaders give you that. Those can happen more frequently. So you’re then depending more upon them. But of course then if you’re spending points on that, you’re not spending on points of something for yourself. So we really want the encounters to be able to playable from a variety of different approaches. But I’ve always liked the combinatorial nature of things. So having your weapons, having your left hand hours, having your hacking, having the environment now being able to take control because Judas is an engineer. We knew she has to control machines. She is super powerful when it comes to controlling machines, even though they’re her worst enemies, giving them viruses, having them socialize to each other.

If you want to get through an area, you’re being stealthy, have an enemy terrified the other enemy, so they all clear out of the door you’re trying to get through or go in guns blazing, go in using your left hand powers and altering the environment. Some more of the hazards or fewer, the hazards show up through the sort of rogue loop system where you’re modifying the Mayflower. We want to get the player tons of inputs into the experience. So it doesn’t ever feel like you’re playing the same game Geoff’s playing, right?

Keighley: You know what I had, I mean then I said layer in the big three, and then you have moments where even I was in a Nefertiti level and then Tom pops up and tries to bribe me to come over because he is going to give me a shotgun and this other, so it’s like they’re trying to convince you where you’re going to go next. So that’s what I love is that it’s not just sort of, there’s a gameplay level and then the narrative happens. It’s like you’re blending that all, as you said, even in combat. And then after that combat on one level, it’s like one of the big three shows up. So I love that the narratives getting layered into these sort of gameplay skirmishes.

Levine: Yeah, we try not to alternate between gameplay and narrative sequences.

IGN: I wanted to get into enemies, because I love the creature design in this game. I want to ask Geoff what your favorites are. For me it’s the deputy and the dentist. The deputy is like a malevolent Bojack Horseman that’s coming after you with a long rifle and gets real mad and will charge. And then the dentist is probably more of a disturbing character in that it’s a dentist chair person that’s sentient, a robot, but it’s got a person in it, like a body in it. So can you kind of talk about you and the design team, the art team, you talk about some of the either inspirations or just what is the fiction behind these?

Keighley: People see these enemies and sort of like they’re on the ship, but what are they protecting? How are they antagonistic

Levine: So the backstory is that they, as the ship got more and more automated and all human roles started getting replaced by machine roles, they focused, tested to what would be in the same way like Siri or Alexa, it’s an interface, right? I mean underneath the hood, she’s not a warm sounding human being. She’s a bunch of bits and bytes. They wanted to put a happy face on these things on the ship back when the ship was normal, these were all serving humans. The dentist chair was a chair that had legs basically that would walk around and show up when it’s time to get your dental work done and you’d get your dental work done. The deputy, what would the deputy do? Yeah. Well you’ll find out later, there are some elements on the ship – revolutionary elements and elements that weren’t happy and some other strange, more terrifying elements that became a threat to the society. And the deputies were sort of both police force but also kind of personal security. You may have seen them, they’re not functioning yet, but there you can actually rent a deputy at places.

IGN: I did see that.

Levine: Yeah. And basically it’s sort of very similar to hacking them, but instead of using hacking, you’re using the money system. So they become a companion to you and they’ll hang with you and protect you for a period of time. And so you’ll have that with different types of enemies who you can use as bodyguard. That was part of the ship. But they were all trying to be a friendly face on machines. They didn’t want people to be alienated by machines. That’s what you see now. Sometimes it gets really creepy. It acts human. It’s so weird when it apologizes. I’m like, dude, don’t apologize to me. Just be a machine. So originally I think the first idea I had, we had more just traditional robots at one point in the game and they were just very robotic looking. And you’ll actually see those old designs as designs they threw away on the ship. You’ll actually come across labs and I think you may have seen some of that. We have some of those old characters. And that sort of got incorporated to the backstory of they kissed a bunch of frogs along the way and they put those out and people were like, oh, they’re weird. I don’t like them. And so they had the idea of what if we made them more friendly and more fun? And so the deputies, even though they are basically a security police force who is, when they have to put the smackdown on, they’re kind of these adorable country bumpkins who now since Judas broke the ship, they’ve now become psychotic and hostile to you. Where before they were the friendly face of the ship. Now you have this interesting tension of, and I remember when I first came up with the idea for the deputy, people are like, what’s the horse dude doing there?

But then as the aesthetic evolved and the world became more colorful and more, it all started making more sense to people. I dunno how you felt about them, but you saw them. But we’ve had that experience at first when I showed people the design like, well why is there a horse dude as this deputy? And we see this with machine design all the time of trying to make it seem like a human, trying to make it seem much more accessible to people and minimize the sort of computer interface.

IGN: So what ultimately do you want players to take away from this thing? I mean on Infinite and BioShock 1, it’s like you said, a pretty linear situation. Most people are probably going to take away a similar thing. Wow, I’ve just got taken on this cool story ride. There were some big narrative moments that may have surprised me, but this time around you’ve given so much more player agency. So what are you hoping that the player takes away this time around?

Levine: I think at heart it’s that water cooler moment where you’re talking about, because as you work with one or more of the big three, it’s not just you’re building cred with them, you’re also going through a story with them and you’re learning about them and they’re learning about you. They all have, and you’re learning about their backstory and you’re getting to know them in a way, I dunno if you’ve ever had the experience for somebody you’ve been hostile with in the past, you sort get thrown into a situation with them and often you overcome those. There’s a lot of suppositions you made about people and even especially when you’ve been through a really bad thing with somebody, if you ever had that experience, it’s really tough. You’re angry and Judas and these people have a long history with each other. Judas was their biggest pain in the ass and a threat to the entire survival in their eyes of the mission. And literally if the mission fails, it’s the end of human civilization. That’s it. If earth is dead and this mission fails, it’s game over. So there’s a lot of tension. The stakes are incredibly high. I think that’s the first game we made where really the sort of fate of the universe hangs in the balance. We don’t tend to make games like that, but we also at the same time want to make it an incredibly personal story. So not only do I want you to have those divergent gameplay experiences you described, but he’ll be talking about Tom, but he hasn’t played much with Tom and you’ll have gone to the end of him and I want to be, he’ll say something about making certain assumptions not knowing him that well.

Keighley: That to me, even the old harvesting Little Sisters back in BioShock. It’s like that idea is very linear, but to me now you’ve taken that to another level where it’s you’re going to, it’s make choices that I think will impact say a little bit about you as a player, but also impact the narrative, which I get excited about that as someone that loves story-based games. They’ve always been incredibly rich and detailed but somewhat linear. And to me it’s like the idea that I would, I don’t typically replay single player games. Yeah, people do do new game plus and all that, but to me it’s like, hey, I’ve had that experience. I kind of know that story and it’s done. And to me it’s like the idea that I’m going to play this but have a richly detailed narrative experience, but I could go down a path then obviously there’ve been branching games where it’s like, oh, you can make a choice and see what happens with BioShock. It’s like, oh, what if I go into do something different? Little how does that impact the story and different endings. But it’s like to me the idea that there’s not just branches but said, it’s those, how do you build those LEGOs in different ways? And even me and Ryan can have a different experience when we play through, but I can have a different experience if I play through three times and do different things. And it is vastly different.

Levine: You’re not going to know that much about Tom if you kind of ignore him the first time or don’t do that much.

Keighley: And it’s not that linear where it’s like, I can go look up a walkthrough. It’s like, oh, I make these three choices. This is ending B versus ending A. And I feel like so many of those games always been like, oh, there are five endings of this game.

Levine: And it’s not even one story. You may have had the experience of this concept called mudslinging where if you’re working too much with somebody, another one of the big three is going to come in and say, let me tell you something about them. And you go through a whole journey and you wouldn’t necessarily learn that you don’t have to do that.

Keighley: No, I guess I think I dropped an audio log that was against someone else and it’s like, yeah, they’re trying to convince you. So that interplay, one question for you is, and not to spoil it, but obviously it goes in a bunch of directions. Is it the kind of game where then it comes together and it’s like, oh, there’s ending A, B, C because you as a storyteller, you obviously it’s more open-ended, but you do have a narrative you want to tell. So it can’t just be so divergent that anything can happen. How do you write a really compelling story?

Levine: So we started this game, I remember I’ve talked about this before on BioShock. I didn’t really want the two different endings and that was one of the few concessions. The publisher didn’t make too many demands on us, so I don’t want to say they were overbearing, but that was one thing they really wanted and I didn’t really have my heart in. I don’t think those endings were super great. They wanted the two endings and I wanted a much more ambiguous ending and let the player do a lot of the work in their head.

IGN: Wait, what would your ending to BioShock be?

Levine: I never wrote it, but I kind of felt I wanted to, I mean it’s tricky. BioShock is a complicated world. You are harvesting, potentially harvesting Little Sisters and we’re not really trying to say this is how you should think about the things. Our games, we tend to make games that don’t answer questions for people who would ask questions. We’re just trying to stay objective in BioShock.

Here’s an honest telling. I think if you brought this into the real world, even as fantastical as BioShock is for real human beings, you’re trying to hold up these ideologies. It gets much trickier. Same as in Infinite, where here there are, I won’t go into any detail, but you can end up in pretty different places depending on your choice, you end up in pretty different places. Okay.

Keighley: Right. It’s divergent. But obviously, I mean, because that’s the thing is it’s not fully on rails, but you obviously have a story you want to tell and kind of bring it to some conclusion. But in this way it’s less linear about there’s three endings to this game, but there are multiple endings.

Levine: And depending on what you do in the endings can be quite, I mean I’m not giving away too much. There are some substantial differences.

Keighley: A lot of single player games now, publishers also say like, oh well people play through it once and they’re done. And that’s why everything has to be service.

That to me, in some ways this concept, can it reinvent the single player in a way where it is? And I could buy a single player game, say, oh, I’m going to play this five times this year. I have a different experience. No game really hit that bar for me yet.

Levine: Some of my favorite single player games, XCOM I’m obviously a huge fan of both the original and Jake Solomon’s redesign, and Civilization. Those are huge games to me. And those are also built actually modularly and they don’t have a discrete narrative like we do. But I took a lot of inspiration for those games because their map is being constructed at runtime and our maps are largely being constructed or put together from individual elements at runtime. The ship is different every time you die and come back, the ship layout can be different. And so we withdrew a lot of inspiration from those types of single player games. But nobody’s had to put it into narrative as you can see, because that’s why it took so long. Because how do you do that with a coherent narrative game that feels like it’s from the same people?

Keighley: That’s why it becomes, it’s still a sweeping epic and not just sort of a generated story to you. Right? That’s hard. And you being such a good writer and all these characters and stuff, it’s like that. There’s life to it. So that’s what I get excited about.

IGN: Selfishly as a player, it’s been a bummer not having a Ken Levine game to play for the last 10 years, but after having the privilege to play a bunch of Judas yesterday, we’ve already experienced things that we talked about where, well, we don’t want to reveal it. Definitely Ken Levine things are happening in this game plus a lot more we haven’t even seen yet. So it is good to have you back. I know there’s no release date yet. Still working on the game.

Keighley: There’s a lot there though. I mean because we played four or five hours and it’s like, there’s clearly a lot. And I will say even though the fact it’s been in development for as long as it has, it feels very modern. And I mean people see the footage, I mean the visual fidelity and the gameplay. It plays really well. And then yeah, the stuff that is there is incredible. And just to know that we talked a little bit like the Judas quest line, which is another whole thing and we got a little bit of a hint of that, but I think, I feel like even though we played five hours, we have just scratched the surface of what this game has. That’s why I think it’s got to be your biggest game ever, right?

Levine: Oh yeah. I mean the content pool is massively large. But also testing a game where that’s not linear that has so many states it can be in is incredibly difficult. So that’s another challenge of the game is how do you test it when the sort of different LEGO pieces are coming together differently for everybody. So it is quite tricky. But yeah, ideally I would’ve for many reasons, would’ve liked to ship more games. Ten years is a very long time. It’s a big chunk of my life. It was 10 years ago, I got my dog 10 years ago, I’d had that dog for 10 years. And at the end of the day, we can’t make something that feels old, especially at the price point. We have to make something that feels modern, it feels fresh, feels new, delivers on new things, but also delivers on what our audience expects of an Irrational or Ghost Story game.

IGN: I know we should let you go, but you just touched on something that I’ve asked a few developers this and I think the gaming industry is such a young industry. You’ve been in it for a while and you’re still a relatively young man, but you’ve also been doing this for a long time. Do you think about your sort of game development mortality in a sense of how many more games it has taken a while on this one? Do you think about how many more games you have in you and whether you ever want to retire, if you’re just going to keep making your art until you physically or mentally can’t do it anymore? Do you think about that at all at this point in your career?

Levine: I have no interest in retiring. So as long as people continue to give me money to make games, I think I’m going to make them. And maybe one day I’ll have a change of heart. But it’s so central to my life. Outside of my family and my wife and my dog and my friends, it is really where I find meaning and it’s how I express myself. I’m not like a guy on Twitter with all my opinions and things like that. I express myself and I’m very fortunate that I have, and the team has a venue of expression and that as an artist and having been for a long period of time until I got lucky, a not very successful artist. Most artists struggle in complete isolation and nobody’s aware of the work. So I’m always grateful I come to work, grateful every day that I get to do this, that I get to make games, that I get to work with creative people who inspire me and surprise me and amaze me. It’s hard. Making games is really hard and as you get older it doesn’t get easier. And yeah, 10 years I’m looking at my life and I’m looking at my age and I am aware of that, but in the end, you can’t let fear drive you. I think as an artist you just gotta make the right thing. But yeah, it’s a long time. I do think that we have the system. The next game hopefully would be a much more truncated period.

IGN: I was going to say, can you do 10 years again?

Levine: I’d certainly rather not.

Keighley: Like you have this thing and that’s the system. To me it’s like if this works, I think you but also other developers like this concept I think could be really, if it really works and it as resonant to players as it could be, that’s really exciting that I think in some ways birth a whole new sort of genre of single player games, which is what’s cool.

IGN: Do you think you could have even attempted Judas 20 years ago? Probably not. Right?

Levine: I’m like an infant who staggers around with incredible confidence and will walk into chainsaws. When I did System Shock 2, I’d never shipped a game before and I was the president of the company and the lead designer and the writer, I just like, oh yeah, I can do this. And I had no idea.

IGN: Irrational confidence guy!

Levine: Yeah, there’s a bit of irrational confidence I think you have to have. But I also have a huge amount of confidence in failing forward that I’m going to make mistakes. I know I’m going to make mistakes. You guys have seen things in the game that we tried. We kissed the frog if the frog didn’t turn into a prince and we battled it. And that’s how I work quite often. And unfortunately I’m in a place where I can do that and find the right thing. But generally, look, everybody has those dark nights in the soul where you’re like, oh my God, what am I doing? This thing’s a mess is a disaster at points. Every creative work anybody’s ever made, you have those moments when you do it for this long, you eventually try to say, if I beat on this problem going to, if the team beats on this problem, we’re going to solve it.

Because generally if you have smart people and you have a reasonable period of time, you have solved most problems. But yeah, there were definitely times where you get overwhelmed and you just have to sort of go back and say, look, let me talk to the Ken who was in the middle of System Shock 2. And it was freaking out at four in the morning because the whole thing wasn’t working. And the journalists, we did E3 and the mouse was inverted and the framerate was terrible and we had to take out the guns at the last minute because Columbine had happened. And you’re at that show floor and everybody’s coming up and nobody likes the game and you feel like a loser. And sometimes that’s going to happen. Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you. But I find that as long as you keep your wits about you, you can solve most problems.

Keighley: In this 10 years, has it been sort of a sense for you that you’re always moving in the right direction? You said some dark days, but I was really, when I came up here a couple of years ago and you said, I am finally ready to do a trailer, finally announce it. That to me it was a great sense of confidence from you that you kind of knew you had sort of cracked it, right? But did you always feel like you said with enough time and resources you can eventually get there?

Levine: I had that bump on Infinite. Absolutely. I had a moment. I had many dark nights of the soul where it was a very tough development, much tougher development than this game. And where I was like, I don’t know if I can land this thing. And of course you can’t tell anybody that when you’re in that experience, the boss comes in and says, I dunno how we going to land this thing? What’s the team going to do? So to some degree that’s useful though because you then have to convince yourself that you can land it and then you convince other people. And we landed it with this game because of the process, because of the slow ramp up band ecause we have a core team of genius creatives. I have a lot of confidence in them and I never had any doubt we would land it. The question was how long it was going to take. And I didn’t think it was going to take this long. But the reason we’re now we get to the point where we can show the trailer, show the look of the game, right? Show the characters. We knew we were confident that was going to be pretty solid when you guys played the game. There’s a lot of tuning, tweaking content, pacing, all those things that we’re still continuing to work on. But we have a system that allows us to tweak that stuff infinitely.

IGN: I mean for me, again, since you explained this game to me on a whiteboard so long ago, I remember thinking if this works, this narrative LEGO thing, it’s going to be awesome, but if it doesn’t work, it’s going to be not so awesome. It’s not going to be good. Yeah,

Keighley: Yeah, or it works in a way, but it’s not sort of a really resonant, high fidelity experience or something that’s becomes too computerized for lack of a better term. And it’s generated, right? And it’s like do generated content that has the heart and meaning of what you’ve done and the living world. And I feel like having played it, I’m like, yeah, this has all of that. Absolutely.

Levine: When you guys told me yesterday, I couldn’t tell when the sort of pre-baked linear stuff stopped and the other stuff began. That’s the goal. We don’t want to put the burden on the audience now. We want it just to be a benefit for the gamer and that’s what is the majority of the work. But then once you have it and it works, you can tune things like pacing on a global level using numbers and variables and collecting tons of data from players. And we do a lot of, we’ve been testing the game with friends and family and behind closed doors for a long time, getting that kind of feedback. And every route of testing the games gets better and that. So I think what I am proudest of is the team is making the right decision.

A, they’re willing to listen to that feedback, especially early on. That feedback could really hurt. It always hurts, but I’ve always believed in user feedback. And you’re not going to take user feedback. No user’s going to tell you what to do. They’re going to tell you what they don’t like. And then you have to figure out if you get enough of people saying they don’t like something, okay, then what’s the cause of this problem? That’s the tricky part. And then you try things and then you test it again. And I think we’ve had a very good rate of clearing problems. But then you unveil a new layer of problems and you test again and then you tweak things around. But because we’re not have to go into, everything’s not built as a one-off, you can tweak things like the rate of Tom’s appearance, the rate of encounters, the rate of how mad they get at you for what you do. That’s all incredibly tuneable from central values. And so we can retune the game, retune the dramatic arc. We were talking about pacing last night, tweaking pacing, thinking about what events feel like big events, what events feel like smaller events and looking at pacings from other forms of net.

Keighley: That’s actually an interesting thing I was thinking about in this day and age of, even though it’s on a live service game, patching things, updating things, do you imagine that you’re going to be tweaking values of the overall experience? How do you look at that?

Levine: That? Yeah, I don’t want to make any promise at post-launch updates, but certainly as we lead up to launch, we’re going to be looking at using a combination – I don’t want to bore your audience – we use a combination of qualitative and quantitative testing. So we have all these analytics that we can look at. But then you have people talking about their experience like, well, I got bored here and it felt very samey here. And then you sort of look at your LEGO pieces, you say, well, what’s going to make it feel less samey? And making sure what the movies, almost all movies have the same structure, like a three act structure. If you look at the pacing intensity, it’s almost the same across all movies. And that’s what works. So we look at sort of traditional narrative forms and like, okay, what’s wrong with our pacing?

You have to peak your tension, then you have to slow things down for a bit. You can then heat it up again. And what element feels more intense than other elements? What element feels like comic relief? What element feels like these? And because we have a system, we know we build those elements and we know, we sort of tag them with how they fit into that rubric. And then we can tweak the game based upon user feedback. And look, ideally you’re doing A/B testing where you give one set of people a certain kind of pacing and another set a different kind of pacing, and then you see how they react and you interview them and you talk to them. You want to get something that feels really taught and really finally paced.

Ryan McCaffrey is IGN’s executive editor of previews and host of both IGN’s weekly Xbox show, Podcast Unlocked, as well as our monthly(-ish) interview show, IGN Unfiltered. He’s a North Jersey guy, so it’s “Taylor ham,” not “pork roll.” Debate it with him on Twitter at @DMC_Ryan.

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