What makes a truly scary story isn’t monsters or blood and guts, says BioShock creator Ken Levine. It’s the feeling that you might lose everything.
To celebrate the occasion of Halloween, Wired.com had the chance to speak with Levine about the horror films that inspired his work on BioShock, the landmark 2007 shooter that dropped players into a destroyed city filled with secrets. With the follow-up BioShock Infinite on the way in 2012, Levine has had a lot of time to think about better ways to connect players emotionally to the game’s story, truly raising the stakes.
“The truth is, most horror movies just aren’t very good,” Levine said. “And the ones that are good are exceptional films because they tap into things that are very scary. “If you have an expert working in that space, a Ridley Scott or a John Carpenter or a Stanley Kubrick, they have the potential to tap into certain kinds of emotions which are hard to tap into … the very human things that scare us. Fear of loss.”
“As somebody who has to write stories in this area, I have a responsibility to dig in a little deeper into what’s making these things tick,” he says. “As a viewer… you have to let things wash over you. It’s better just to go into these things like a child and let it take you emotionally and not try to overthink it. As a creator, I have to overthink it.”
As his first example, Levine pointed to The Shining, although he pointed out that these elements were more visible in Stephen King’s 1977 novel than in the 1980 film by Kubrick. The character of Jack Torrance slowly loses everything: his job, his family, his sanity.
You can’t just say, this is your wife, this is your daughter.
“The only thing we’re afraid of,” he said, “is losing things we have. You can’t be afraid of losing something you don’t have. If you don’t have a family, you don’t have any concern about losing them. You have to create a sense of stakes.”
In the first BioShock game, Levine attempted to make his game’s enemies something more than cannon fodder: Splicers, the demented humans that roamed the halls of the ruined city, had all suffered some great loss and talked and screamed about it as they set upon you. Similarly, the city of Rapture clearly used to be a beautiful place, a utopia.
“There’s the loss of the dream, the idealism that they brought to this place, that’s soured and dissipated. If you don’t create the sense of something positive and take that away, it’s very hard to create fear,” Levine said.
Ridley Scott’s Alien films have also made an impression on the game director.
“From a very strict archetype, Alien is a slasher movie,” he said, “a killer hiding in the dark taking them out one by one. But it’s done with a kind of expertise and care and art that puts most of those other movies to shame.”
Levine said that the iconic scenes in which the character Kane, played by actor John Hurt, is assaulted by the alien represent a different feeling of loss, one that can connect powerfully with a viewer.
“It starts with a rape moment, where John Hurt is first infected with this thing. It’s an invasive rape-style scene which taps into something terrifying, that sense of being violated.” When the alien later bursts forth from his stomach, it’s based on another deep-seated fear. “There’s a primal birth moment there … a fear we all have of blood and birth and that going terribly wrong.”
In between these two scenes, there’s a moment where Kane recovers and is sitting around eating dinner with his friends before he dies gruesomely. This, too, is important, Levine said.
“It’s probably worse to have somebody you love fall ill and then seem to recover and then die,” he said. “That’s terrifying to us because it plays on that sense of fragility we all have.”
In BioShock Infinite, the challenge that Levine has set himself and his team at Irrational Games has been to add a more human relationship. Instead of wandering around a dead city alone, you’re doing it with a companion. The relationship between your player character Booker and his friend Elizabeth has been the focal point of the team’s efforts thus far.
“The most important thing that we’ve learned from BioShock that we’re trying to put in Infinite is that you need to create stakes,” he says. “We’re trying to create a relationship between Booker and Elizabeth, and between the player and Elizabeth through the vehicle of Booker. … It’s more about the story of these two characters set against the backdrop of the city, whereas BioShock was more about the city itself.”
What many games and movies do wrong, Levine says, is mistaking form for function. “You have to do more things than outline, in a cursory sense, these relationships … You can’t just say, this is your wife, this is your daughter. That’s not enough.”
“You have to think of it as a seduction process,” he says. “You have to lower the lights, pour the wine. You have to bring the audience in with some degree of care, take the time to let them marinate in the environment and the characters before you bring out the big guns. … If you can’t get them to care, you really can’t scare them.”