How BioShock developer Irrational Games continued what Looking Glass started.
As part of Polygon’s cover story on the history of developer Looking Glass, we’re looking at various projects and companies that spawned in Looking Glass’ wake. Here, we explore BioShock developer Irrational Games.
Despite its reputation today as the studio behind BioShock, Irrational Games was once a group of twenty-somethings working out of South Boston living rooms, with barely enough money to pay rent. They had as much experience as any other young developers in the '90s — which wasn’t much — and they got it all from Looking Glass.
It was here where they learned their craft and the lessons that led to their own studio.
When Ken Levine first applied to Looking Glass in 1995, designer Dorian Hart took him to dinner. They went to Bertucci’s at Alewife Station for brick oven pizza and bread rolls. Hart says Levine loved the bread rolls.
"Looking Glass and Irrational were teeming with geniuses and visionaries," Hart says today. "I was not one of those. Remembering that night at dinner with Ken, it’s still hard to believe what a rock star he’s become."
Although he would go on to design titles that garnered him fame and widespread acclaim, Levine came from a background devoid of other game enthusiasts where he spent his days in solitude, wandering in self-proclaimed "weirdness." But then he read a Looking Glass ad in Next Generation magazine.
"Every day [at Looking Glass] was class in something new," Levine says. "Logic, scientific method, Occam’s razor, tool usage, polygonal graphics, sound design. I learned more in my first six months there than I’ve learned in my life before or since."
After working extensively on Thief in 1997, Levine considered other options. He wasn’t keen on returning to Wall Street, where he installed Microsoft Office on stock brokers’ PCs, but he felt Looking Glass teetering on the edge after a stressful development period. He was eager to leave while there were still lifeboats left.
He decided to do freelance work. But this lasted only for a short while until he caught up with Jonathan Chey and Rob Fermier, two former Looking Glass employees who were also between jobs. The trio discussed ideas for a new venture. It would be a studio built on art, not programming, as Looking Glass had been.
"We were all very vocal, and I certainly came from loving movies and comics, so I always cared about composition and spaces," Levine says. "Our team knew how to research and how to build not just from the gut, but from traditional art principles."
"The whole team was in one oversized office, and we were packed in like sardines in there."
Levine, Fermier and Chey wanted more autonomy, and despite their continuing positive relationship with Looking Glass, they were eager to blaze their own trail. So with almost no money and a $50 gift card to Chili’s, they founded Irrational Games in South Boston living rooms and ad hoc design spaces. They were young, the future was ahead of them, and it held nothing but promise.
Looking Glass knew Irrational had potential. So the bigger company did the only thing it could: it approached the nascent studio with the intent to codevelop — not as a boss, but as a partner. Irrational, which had little funding of its own at the time, accepted. The prodigal sons returned, and they owed rent.
In a 900 square-foot office in the corner of Looking Glass, the small group of Irrational employees toiled away on "Junction Point," the title that would later become System Shock 2 when EA signed on as publisher.
"We were crammed into a very tiny space," Fermier says. "The whole team was in one oversized office, and we were packed in like sardines in there. And I remember there was always music playing. In retrospect, there’s kind of a charm to it."
Fermier says there was an undeniable focus in that room, something Looking Glass had lost to some extent by this point. Only feet away, the latter was struggling to keep its head above water, fighting debt, turnover and publisher turmoil.
But despite its troubles, Looking Glass continued lending developers to Irrational: Eric Brosius, the sound and music designer; Terri Brosius, a level designer and voice actor; and Randy Smith, who worked extensively on several Thief titles and then began development on "LMNO," the collaboration with Steven Spielberg that was later cancelled.
Looking Glass was sinking, but its members were still making games, continuing the legacy that threatened to vanish at any time.
Shawn Robertson, a former artist at Looking Glass, would often walk by Irrational’s office, casting sideways glances at System Shock 2.
So when Irrational moved into its own office in nearby Quincy, Robertson spent days compiling what he calls "the worst animation reel ever created by anyone, ever." But someone must have liked it, because Robertson landed an interview and prepared for the short trip to Quincy. He called in sick to Looking Glass, but it wouldn’t matter — that was the day the studio closed.
"My first thought was, ‘Well, shit, I hope that interview went well.’"
It did. He joined Irrational at a momentous time for the budding company, as it expanded into Australia with Irrational Canberra. Jonathan Chey, one of the original founders, would helm the new branch.
The expansion allowed Irrational to bring on even more people who were like-minded in their approach to game design, further cementing — perhaps inadvertently — Irrational as a creative child of Looking Glass.
Robb Waters is the artist who designed SHODAN. He also created characters for Thief. But he left Looking Glass because of that title’s stressful development period. His ubiquitous work at Looking Glass made him an obvious candidate for Irrational, considering the latter’s artistic inclinations.
"I think the mindset was different at Irrational," Waters says. "The culture was different from Looking Glass, and I fit in better now, especially since I had gotten away from the stress that pushed me away in the first place. But we were still doing work that would fit that Looking Glass philosophy with these immersive kinds of worlds."
"You would come into work one day and pass people you didn’t even know. I think around that time, that’s when the industry really became a business."
Waters worked side by side with a number of artists who would help shape Irrational’s identity through the art deco architecture of BioShock and the open-aired expanses of BioShock Infinite.
Scott Sinclair, another ex-Looking Glass artist, returned from a hiatus in 1999 to find that Looking Glass had changed since he was last there. Outside, employees had set up shop throughout the Cambridge office, developing completely different titles from one room to the next in what Sinclair calls a "campus within an office." He had returned to a place he hardly recognized.
"You would come into work one day and pass people you didn’t even know," he says. "I think around that time, that’s when the industry really became a business."
But for Sinclair, Irrational was different. It was fresh. As an artist, he felt at home with Irrational’s direction and the titles it worked on. They held many of the same design tenets as Looking Glass, but without the baggage of debt and publishing problems. So, like several before him, he joined the budding Irrational Games with ample experience from Looking Glass to get him started.
More than a decade later, in February 2014, Levine posted a letter to the studio’s website, revealing widespread layoffs. All but a select few employees were let go.
Later, though, in November of that year, the studio began hiring again. Levine said the developer would focus on crafting smaller, narrative-driven experiences. He said he wanted to explore new creative concepts with changing stories and intimate experiences.
He’s returning to the narrative focus that sparked his career. In its own way, Irrational is rising from its own ashes, and from the ashes of the studio that came before it.
"[Looking Glass] does not get nearly the credit it deserves," Levine says. "Without it, there was no Irrational."