Irrational Games, journalism, and airing dirty laundry

Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander looks back a few years to put the impending closure of Irrational Games into better context, from a game industry and journalism vantage point.
Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander looks back a few years to put the impending closure of Irrational Games into better context. I really loved BioShock. It was so atmospheric, so beautiful and so sad. It's set in this ruined, sunken city, where autocracy and excess had just driven happy people mad, and where you as the main character grapple with questions about your own agency. Surrounded by lonesome, low whale sighs and sweet, lurid little-girl patter, you as the player character make choices and study whether you think they mattered. No matter what you do along the way, the way it ends is basically determined by one question: Did you want a lot of power or not? I think for some people that wasn't really as much agency as they were promised. But I thought it was just perfect. People usually have a lot of power, or none. No matter how interested we are in the spaces in between, in the nuances of power structures, you usually end up at an extreme. I think that is probably something Ken Levine believes, as the games he's helmed are essays on the consequences of power disparity. The BioShock series in particular seems fascinated with contrasting the way the giddy aristocracy lives with the hidden human cost "below." If you wanted, you could make a thematic argument about why BioShock Infinite has cakes in every garbage can and glittering coins, baubles and sparkles begging to be strip-mined even in the urgent heat of battle. But I think you'd be giving it too much credit. Infinite is awful.

Dirty laundry

I mean, I hated it. But I might not be a very good journalist. The news that Irrational would effectively close, laying off its staff, leaving Levine to start a new endeavor with just 15 former Irrational members and a flat hierarchy, came as a surprise to me -- and that's even though someone told me it could happen, a year ago. I didn't report it. I don't report a lot of things people tell me in confidence about what goes on at their jobs. Digging around in dirty laundry and in open wounds is complicated. The value of the story to those who will read it has to be worth the net risk. There's the risk you're dead wrong: you can't just write an article based on what you heard from one friend or one colleague and present it as fact, just because you believe it. People have to be willing to corroborate, and they have to be willing to do it on the record. Otherwise it's not reporting, it's rumor-mongering. It's irresponsible. No one talks to the games press officially. I wish they did, but I get it. They want to keep their jobs. Let's just say multiple people within a studio were willing to risk their careers to confirm to me that yes, in fact, if their game didn't sell extremely well, like exponentially more than its predecessor or "well" according to a matrix of time and cost investment and desired profit, that their studio would be closed in a year.
Many game developers think they're the only ones feeling trapped at a studio that just isn't working well together.
What good does it do anyone, the story about the conditional but likely imminent closure? Who does it help and serve? What good does it do to risk my friends' jobs and their confidence to patch together the plausible but potentially biased story about all the extra unfinished or un-implemented content from the wildly over-budget and over-scope game? The story about the high stress, the high turnover, the difficult-to-work-with creative lead? The people whom it affects most -- the employees of that studio -- already know. Why drag their business out into the open, lathe the already-raw patches of their morale, risk their future investments, risk the health of their already-troubled project with a big, ugly news story so that We The Fans, We The Gamers, can get their hungrily-desired "full story"? I dunno. That never seemed worth it to me. This is a volatile entertainment business, not fucking Watergate. But someone I know who works in the industry -- yes, I'm sorry, all of my quotes come from "someone I know who works in the industry" today, since the industry is shocked into trepidation about its future by the failure of a successful publisher's boutique franchise -- says that airing the dirty laundry helps comfort the people stuck inside this place or that. Many game developers, he says, think they're the only ones feeling trapped at a studio that just isn't working well together, or that they're the only ones who "have to" crunch, even though they were promised they wouldn't "have to" crunch, because of some creative-guy type's pie-in-the-sky last-minute ideas. They think they're the only ones who've just been handed a time window from the corporate guys in which to sell or die. "Even the most seemingly well-run studios are actually just a collection of frustrated, dicked-around-with people," said someone I know, encouraging me not to give up on the dirty laundry. "A little blood in the water [puts] pressure on the management." The culture of silence that enshrouds game development allows poor quality of life at best, professional abuses at worst to continue. The good headlines are all some board member guy who checks in once a month ever sees. Silence is what preserves the dichotomy between the guys from the floating paradises Ken Levine imagines and the underclass he often depicted as both dangerously-furious and pitiful.

Meeting a bookish, thoughtful Levine in 2011

I was allowed to go inside Irrational once. I was in the area doing a profile of neighboring studio Harmonix for OXM, and I thought it'd be worth a shot to ask the PR if I could come and interview Ken about Infinite, which was being made at the time. It was 2011 and I hadn't gotten an interview about the game since it was announced the year before with a lot of pomp and glamour at an event in Manhattan's iconic, luminous Plaza Hotel (I was nervous, drank a lot and ate mini-hamburgers, I think). To my surprise, they told me I could come, and set up a roundtable for me not only with Ken, but also with three of the project leads: director of product development Tim Gerritsen, lead artist Shawn Robertson and art director Nate Wells. It was a very generous thing for Irrational to do with its time, especially considering Gamasutra is an industry publication mainly, and doesn't publish the kinds of hot previews that help publishers sell games. At the time we weren't even embedding pictures in our posts.
It was refreshing to go talk to a game developer who really understood literature, history, theater, who was so obviously fascinated by culture.
Before I sat down with them, the PR gave me a brisk but not too revealing walk around where all the team worked in their blocs and rows. She was much warmer to me than the especially media-shy nature of Take-Two and its studios would lead me to expect (Irrational's doorplate is blacked out; unless you knew what you were looking for, you'd never know there was a game studio there at all). I asked to be shown the desks of a couple of friends of mine who had recently gotten jobs working on Infinite, so that I could say hi to them. When I saw them we both negotiated the greeting a little bit uncomfortably, the same hesitance you show a one-night stand you run into on the street. You aren't supposed to show that you know each other that well. It's not good for anyone. I thanked her a lot for setting the appointments up for me, unplanned, unchoreographed and on short notice. "Of course!" she said. "Ken loves to talk." Ken did love to talk. He talked for long stretches of time, about Hitler and Goebbels, exceptionalism, art nouveau, theatre, fine arts, juxtaposition, and I had far more material than I could use. In my memory he was the only one who sat across the conference room table from me; I recall Gerritsen to my left and Wells and Robertson to my right, and him facing us all down, steeple-fingered like the father from Evangelion. The tanned, sculpted tight-t-shirt Levine we'd be seeing in the media by 2013, the "Hollywood" Levine as described in this lavish Polygon profile, wasn't quite present yet. This Levine seemed tousled, bookish, thoughtful. I was still intimidated by him, I admired his work so much. I felt it was refreshing to go talk to a game developer who really understood literature, history, theater, who was so obviously fascinated by culture. In my work I talk to man after man who loves to say "badass" or whose scope of references doesn't extend beyond the Aliens trilogy. It was -- it is -- easy to see him as someone who can make games that are better. And I was pretty certain at the time that I was going to love BioShock Infinite and was excited to have the opportunity to show other developers the philosophy of its making. That's another difficult thing about games journalism -- like, real capital-J journalism -- even when we do get unplanned access to people, we're in the position of having to ask tough questions of people who have a short fuse for media prying, who work in offices with blacked-out nameplates, who we admire. At the time, I had no tough questions to ask, besides, maybe, "are you difficult to work for, my friend who works here isn't allowed to talk to me about you, but he said you were difficult to work for." I didn't ask that one. Wells has the sort of feverish brightness that very good artists have, one minute restlessly eyeing the ceiling, the other talking evenly about studying historical engravings, and the influence of Irrational's historical Massachusetts location on Infinite's style and feel. At the time Gerritsen emphatically supported Levine's pleasantly rebellious-sounding attitude to traditionally-rigid internal process: that process itself "serves development -- it doesn't drive development." "This isn't a studio that says, 'we're going to make a design doc on day one and build that'," Gerritsen told me.

It does sound pretty liberating. They talked about finding the shape of the game by failing, by making everything, polishing things, and then throwing them away later if something changed, if those elements no longer worked. One of the earliest Infinite teaser trailers showed Elizabeth trying to revive a dead horse by opening one of her "tears" to another period in time and accidentally pulling open a window to a neon-80s future. Everyone thought it was awesome. The image helped sell excitement for the game, but it never made it in. The emotional challenge Elizabeth would have controlling her "tears" that Levine talked about was never in the final story, either. Elizabeth got a whole new face and body partway through the marketing campaign. I've never seen that happen before. The game was also supposed to have a Vita version, if you remember. Where did that go? Someone Else Who Works In The Industry told me that a lot of the Infinite content that was polished and then never implemented became the Burial at Sea DLC*. Someone Who Works In The Industry told me that thanks to Ken Levine's breadth of endless ideas and philosophy of fearlessness and un-planning, Infinite grew far, far over its budget and far, far beyond its scope. What I remember about meeting Wells and Gerritsen is that they liked to talk far less than Ken did. They looked to me very much like they wanted to be getting back to work. It's not that they weren't nice to me, they just seemed restless. I felt self-conscious, like I was imposing on their time. A year after I met them, Gerritsen and Wells left Irrational. Right after that, Epic heavyweight production director Rod Fergusson joined the studio, ostensibly to replace Gerritsen. People In The Industry said someone like Fergusson had to come in and pull the many-headed Irrational ouroboros into line, else Infinite would never ship.


The following spring, Levine was telling the media that his disinterest in traditional process meant his team just had to crunch. Around the same time, Nate Wells, who had become Naughty Dog's art director, marveled to the press about the ego-free process he enjoyed with The Last of Us' team. That was when I started to hear a lot from People In The Industry about how people at the studio were unhappy at work. I heard from People in the Industry that turnover at Irrational was very high. More than one Person in the Industry told me that almost no-one who made original BioShock stayed on to make Infinite. At the time, a year out from shipping, Someone Who Worked There told me they believed the studio would close if Infinite didn't sell very, very well. Someone Else Close To The Situation told me the same thing yesterday. That everyone in the studio probably knew. I don't know any of these things "for a fact." It's just things I was told. It's just things I could readily believe, based on what else was being reported at the time. It wasn't anything I had the aptitude to do capital-J Journalism about. I don't know how to factually present, for example, the churn rate over the studio's lifetime beyond "we heard it was high." We got a no comment even just for asking how many people were employed at Irrational at the time of its closing. But I often saw budget numbers like $200 million in the press. I think, logically, $200 million is probably not enough anymore for a full-size studio to work on a cutting-edge triple-A game for five years. I saw that BioShock Infinite sold around 4 million units as of mid-2013. I think that's about the same sales figures as original BioShock did several years prior against a much smaller console install base. I think probably investors wouldn't think that was good enough. This is just a hypothesis. Take it with a grain of BioShock Infinite Salt, please.
I think it's fair to speculate a smaller team would suit Ken's style the best.
At the end of 2013 Ken Levine told Giant Bomb about his top 10 games of 2013. None of them were the kinds of games he makes. His top three favorites were Wind Waker HD, Lego Marvel Super Heroes and the PC turn-based strategy game Unity of Command. Yesterday when Ken announced that Irrational would close, and he himself would work on narrative-driven games while preserving only 15 of his colleagues, there was a lot of speculation. How could Ken "do such a thing," people wondered. Why didn't he just leave and start his own studio? Surely his team would staff up again to triple-A size? None of it really makes a lot of sense, so we have to assume the decision wasn't entirely his. There are probably contracts and legal issues involved. It was probably the best bargain he could have struck with the publicly-traded company that has ownership over the work he's done for it thus far, and whose investors probably, rationally or otherwise, expected better numbers from Infinite after all the delays and the presumably-high budget. I mean, narrative-led games aren't being made in triple-A anymore, really. They're being made by small teams with nontraditional hierarchies. I think it's fair to speculate a smaller team would suit Ken's style the best.

A scary bellwether

Speculating is really all I can do. I'm not trying to kid anyone that I'm capable of any more than that. I thought a lot about whether I could have done better, as a journalist. What was my role, our role? Based on all the headlines I chronologically assembled here, and the things People In The Industry told me in private, when exhausted, when frustrated, when worried about their future, should I have seen this coming? Probably. What should I have done? Dug around in the wound? Would it have helped? I hope the people of Irrational will quickly move on to good positions. Yeah. I hated Infinite, so publicly and so virulently that I felt a twinge of guilt yesterday. I think all us game writers feel guilty, when bad things come to a team that made a game we pilloried. Of course my little blog posts and Tweets had nothing to do with their fortunes; I'm not even on Metacritic.
The spirit of the team and everything they wanted to say, and everything Ken wanted to say, is written all over the game.
But I wanted them to know I felt for them. That's not very journalistic of me, and sometimes I find the courage to say how I really feel about games and studios by reminding myself that they don't care what I think, nor should they. I think we've well established I'm not much of a capital-J Journalist. But their talent was obvious, and that based on what I believe they were up against, it's a miracle they shipped a game that was even abstractly cohesive. Even when I wrote about the game, I tried to express I think it's no coincidence that it's too extreme in its treatment of power structures, that it caricaturizes both the people with no power and those with all of it. That it's full of "tears," literally, in the fabric of its world, where you can see the ghosts of things that wanted to enter and instead flickered just beyond the curtain of the attainable. The spirit of the team and everything they wanted to say, and everything Ken wanted to say, is written all over the game. It's a scary bellwether for triple-A that not even a team like Irrational, not even someone like Ken Levine, could aim for creative breadth and narrative depth, be well-reviewed, sell millions and still be sustainable. BioShock as a series was always about showing the inevitable dark side of imagined paradises. This is another such story. That's really all I know. Update: After this article was published, level designer Shawn Elliott told people other than me that the sources' assertions about Burial at Sea were "categorically false." That is now officially the only official quote this article contains, so please remember that.

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