BioShock creative lead Ken Levine is reportedly facing trouble. According to Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier, Levine’s studio Ghost Story Games and its long-awaited debut project have been plagued by shifting design goals and an overambitious vision. It’s not a new criticism of Levine, but it suggests that the game’s nearly eight-year waiting period might not end any time soon and hints at some details about what Ghost Story is actually doing.
Schreier’s story indicates that Ghost Story, a division of Take-Two Interactive staffed with former members of Levine’s old studio Irrational, was originally supposed to release a small game in 2017. The project was a sci-fi shooter set on a “mysterious space station” where three factions would respond to the player’s actions. (While Bloomberg compares it to BioShock, the setting sounds similar to Levine’s earlier space horror game System Shock 2.) But the project’s scope was seemingly bigger than the 30-person team could handle, including a “complicated dialogue system that would morph based on player choices.” As of 2022, the project has apparently been rebooted multiple times and still has no name or release date.
According to Bloomberg, part of the delay stems from Levine’s mercurial management style and perfectionism. Like previous reports from his time at Irrational, it describes a place where projects would get suddenly overhauled or scrapped after months of work. One anecdote describes studio members joking about convincing Levine to adopt their ideas via “Kenception,” a reference to the artificially planted thoughts in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. An open-ended release timeline has apparently been a double-edged sword, with Levine reportedly saying that the studio’s ongoing budget is a “rounding error” in Take-Two’s operation, which could give its game an indefinitely long development process.
But Ghost Story’s core mission also contains some built-in tension. The studio grew alongside Levine’s fascination with “narrative Legos,” his term for the kind of procedurally generated drama produced by Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system or some recent indie games. (The Bloomberg report also mentions the procedurally generated games Dead Cells and Void Bastards as potential influences.) At the same time, it’s apparently been pursuing the feel of a heavily scripted and polished big-budget 3D experience, something that’s difficult to produce with a highly variable story.
The BioShock franchise, meanwhile, has proceeded without Levine — although a new installment has also been in development for some time with no release in sight. An unrelated System Shock sequel has followed an even more tortured development roadmap.
System Shock 2 helped define the immersive sim, a genre that gave players a feeling of free choice through versatile but often painstakingly handcrafted systems. It’s a style that feels ripe for an experiment with infinitely generated conflict, especially paired with Levine’s love of lofty, clashing philosophical movements. But for now, those clashes are apparently happening inside the studio as well.