This article first appeared in PC Gamer Magazine Edition 354, as part of the “DNA Tracing” series, where every month we delve into the strains of popular games and studios.
Why choose the name illogical? Because, while it would someday be worth millions to a major American publisher, founding the studio was not a reasonable decision. John Che, Rob Vermeer, and Ken Levine have all left full-time jobs at Looking Glass Studios, and only one of them has shipped a game. The year was 1997, and so there was no way for a small studio to distribute games independently – they had to rely on the publishers’ blind faith.
It turned out as you’d expect: within three weeks, Irrational’s first deal was canceled. The game was FireTeam, a Counter-Strike-style tactical shooting game co-designed by Harvey Smith of Arkane. Irrational was tasked with developing a single player campaign, until the publisher decided that FireTeam simply didn’t need one.
Once they leave, the founders of Irrational are back on Looking Glass with their tails between their legs, their hats in their hands. Irrational’s old bosses allowed for a limited budget, one small room, and delivered System Shock 2 as their first project. It was the kind of dream management the Trio could not have hoped for if they had stayed. Irrational game.
System Shock 2, when it hatched, reflected the environment in which it was incubated. Looking Glass was a cerebral game design university – at some point literally, with short-lived internships. She rated first-person immersion, slow-burning atmosphere, and non-linear storytelling. And while making the System Shock 2, these also became illogical values.
Licensed to Kill
Ironically, Irrational turns out to be the most reasonable studio. When Looking Glass largely spanned the self-financed projects, Irrational took over the licensed work from the publishers. It learned to channel its values through the prism of mainstream shooters, turning multiplayer FPS Tribes into an exciting single-player story about a multi-generational revenge cycle. It’s a topic that will appear again in the Comstock family of Bioshock Infinite – who, as the central character Elizabeth concludes, are doomed to exploitation and exploitation by one another.
Even SWAT 4, the straight looking squad shooting sequel, was coded with Looking Glass DNA. Levine was a lead designer in the early development of Thief, who deprived players of information, forcing them to recline and enjoy the dense atmosphere. SWAT 4 was pretty much the same. Although it was an anti-stealth game – about checking dark corners rather than occupying them – incomplete miniature maps and limited visibility of separate homes and buildings left players tense and cautious. As with System Shock 2’s Von Braun, it felt like SWAT 4 levels lived in, and it turned home spaces into danger. It was a game that proved the FireTeam publisher was satisfactorily wrong – it could make for an irrational, single-player tactical shooter game, and make it essential. Land shooter as far as you can. Knowing that Thief’s Dark Engine could barely muster a submachine gun, let alone match Quake’s performance, Irrational stuffed its start with class and economy-based capabilities that prompted players to carefully manage their character development and resources. Arguably the result was the first FPS-RPG.
When it came time to pursue the shock, Irrational pushed in the opposite direction, avoiding D&D stats and ammo restrictions in favor of an easily accessible adventure. But Bioshock went harder than ever regarding the narrative ambitions of the studio. Levin had already established himself as a voice of skepticism against extremist ideology of all kinds. In System Shock 2, the target was The Many, a human atom that distorted the inhuman potential of the group.
For Bioshock, he took up the other end of the spectrum, exploring a version of free market freedom that glorifies individual projects. Called this miserable thought experiment Rapture, and the Irrational experiment paid off – Bioshock was a success that nearly anyone could pick up and play, yet it didn’t speak to its huge audience. It politicized a generation, and paid unprecedented traffic to Ayn Rand’s Wikipedia page.
Like many studios’ success stories, Bioshock’s irrational locked in a path that was ultimately judged. Bioshock Infinite proved divisive because it streamlined the formula even more – dashing systemic victories like Big Daddy fights in favor of more written shooting action. Immersive sim fans started grumbling, Irrational’s gauge of distance from Looking Glass’s values and voicing rejection.
Obviously, this nostalgia was also reflected internally. Infinite launched with “1999 Mode”, which recreated System Shock 2.’s harsh resource economy. And by Burial at Sea – Episode 2, Irrational rolled back all the way to 1998, building a Thief-style stealth game in a Bioshock drive. Levine drew on the same influence as the black movie that inspired his work with Garrett.
If the irrational seemed to have fallen in love with the mainstream, that was confirmed when Levine announced the end of the studio as we knew it. “It will be a return to the way we started,” he said. “A small team makes games for the primary gaming audience.” To Levine’s surprise, Take-Two Interactive, the company’s owner, decided not to retain the vast majority of employees who were redundant.
It was an Irrational story more than most people realize. John Che’s Canberra division, also called 2K Australia, has survived long enough to make Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! – Tribes’ jetpacks shooter: Vengeance – before succumbing to changing deployment winds. Half a decade later, Levin’s little new venture has yet to bear fruit. There are whispers about a small-scale open-world game, rooted in the idea of a “Lego narrative” – a repeatable, remixable story, designed to respect the player’s agency the way Looking Glass once did. Levin seems tired of asking this familiar question to us, “Would you please?”