Tales get told on the internet and not all of them are true, and a wild story about the development of Morrowind that recently popped up on 4chan definitely had a hard-to-believe ring to it. But it led someone claiming to be a former employee of 2K Marin to suggest that, based on his experiences while working on BioShock 2, the story was at least possible. When another commenter questioned the purported dev’s credentials, he proved it by revealing a hidden debug code that, he claimed, had never been seen before.
“In BioShock 1, go to the second half of Hephaestus where you first encounter Ryan in person. Use Incinerate to get you down to 1 HP, then use it again on the area where the cutscene triggers and walk into it. You’ll die right when the scene starts, but wind up in a Vita Chamber outside the map. Turn on Art Captions and you’ll see a developer message about Paul Hellquist not doing his job,” the mystery developer wrote. “No one has found this bug yet publicly, it’s in all versions.”
Lacking the time to install and power through BioShock myself to confirm the claim, I opted to reach out to Ken Levine, thinking (without really thinking) that “Kline” was some kind of hip developer street name—like K-Fed, but for videogames. Obviously, that is not the case.
“Kline would be Chris Kline, technical director/lead programmer of BioShock. But [the code] seems consistent with dev team jokes,” Levine gently informed me. “Programmers can be merciless on us designer when we do stupid stuff.”
He also helpfully shared a spot of Kline-related trivia: “When Chris (one of the nicest guys you’ll meet) would refuse a feature request due to time constraints, we would say we were ‘De-Klined’.”
Kline confirmed that the code was in fact the real deal, although somewhat disappointingly he pointed out that this isn’t actually the first time it’s been seen: A Twitter user shared the discovery with him in September 2016, although it doesn’t appear that very many people noticed.
“It was never supposed to be visible to end users. It’s there because some objects in the game were supposed to have descriptions when you put your cursor over them, but others were not, and therefore it wasn’t possible to write code to automatically validate all the content in the game for the proper presence or absence of descriptive text,” he explained.
“The lead designer (Paul Hellquist) and I spent a bunch of time trying to figure out how to make this less error prone, and in the end Paul just promised that his team would ‘take care of it.’ Being a skeptical programmer, I wanted to make sure that the QA team could easily identify objects that the design team missed, so I set the default object description to that cheeky message.”
“The message was embedded in the code in such a way that it should have been removed from the final build of the game, and I believe (though I haven’t personally confirmed) that in the original releases of BioShock it indeed was removed. However, it definitely appears in the Remastered edition of the game, so perhaps something changed in the build process for that version which prevented it from being stripped out.”
Despite the shade thrown, Kline echoed Levine in saying that the message was all in good fun. “Some people think it was some kind of insult to Paul, but far from it—it was an in-joke’ between us both. I always smile when I see people posting images with that message. It reminds me of all the amazing camaraderie and colleagues I had while working on BioShock. It was an amazing game made by fabulously talented people, and truly one of the greatest experiences of my working career.”
He also confirmed Levine’s story of “de-Klined” feature requests.
A video demonstrating another very tedious way to trigger the debug text is down below.
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