A chat with Ken Levine

Platforms: All

This place is a labyrinth. Stretched darkly lit corridor after infinitely repeating corridor, each littered with strange art deco motifs that somehow flow into more haphazard and unrefined leaky engineering blocks. This isn’t Rapture, I’m somewhere in central London, yet I still imagine that somewhere within these halls sits Ken Levine, he of System Shock 2 and Bioshock fame, pulling on his web like a maniacal spider waiting for me to break. He isn’t of course, when I eventually find him behind one of the many doors, he is just snacking waiting for the next in a long line of interviewers. Despite being weary from travelling and having dealt with several journalists already he seems still incredibly eager to chat about his studio Irrational’s next release Bioshock Infinite and, well, anything apparently.

He clearly likes to play games. Not just of the on screen video type, but with the mind of interviewers too so I’m slightly taken off guard by the curveball he sends out at the very start. Being the diligent reporter I’m mainly here to get details about Bioshock Infinite yet, as I’m about to dive into a relevant first question, he pipes up ‘You know, we can talk about whatever you want... your feelings your emotions...’. He’s probably had enough of his prepared scripts. and is clearly self assured, without merging into arrogance, about the undoubted success of Infinite. It’s hard to think otherwise as, from what I have seen of the game and the huge marketing budget publisher 2K have put towards the game, this will most likely be the case when it is finally released on the 26th of March. So we chat. Obviously a little about Bioshock Infinite but, as we shall see, the discussion takes a turn into the philosophy of Bioshock to the future of Irrational and then gaming in general where I try to squeeze out as much information as possible. It turns out Ken Levine has a lot to say.

So we start with Bioshock Infinite but it does not stay on topic for long. I ask him in a nervy roundabout way what is the most definitive design change between System Shock 2 and Bioshock and this latest release. There is almost a sigh, as if he did want to talk about my emotions after all (at this point they’re slightly confused and also rather unfocused filled with the disorientating phlegm of a recovering illness, thanks for asking), but he launches up the prepared script machine hidden in his brain and lets rip.

‘There is this continuum of change through from System Shock to Bioshock to Bioshock Infinite... the continuum for me is how do you make a player a participant in the narrative rather than the observer? We did not have cutscenes for example. In System Shock 2 we had this relationship with SHODAN, she was chiding you and rewarding you... do you have this term “frenemies” over here?...’ (we do but we try not to use it) ’...at the time this was fairly advanced. Then in Bioshock we had a huge jump in technology and could bring the visual space up several notches, but in terms of the narrative and relationships this remained fairly static. We had the Big Daddy and Little Sister, if there was no Little Sister he would just be a boss, his impact was the fact that you empathise with him...’

Personally I think the Big Daddy might be one of the best creations in gaming history, that relationship and his formidable yet understandable nature, there’s even one on my mantelpiece, so I decide to chip in here to see if I can learn something on their creation. Somehow we end up talking about Guillermo Del Toro.

‘...He [Del Toro] said “Great monsters are ones you can imagine in repose”... Obviously he works with monsters a lot. With the Big Daddy we can imagine him in repose, in fact you saw him in repose you didn’t need to imagine. A lot of people have asked me who the new Big Daddy is in this game [Infinite]? Is it the songbird? But really the Big Daddy in this game is Elizabeth, because it is about this relationship. This women is with you for most of the experience, and we had to make her a real person with a brain and a voice. That was the big advancement. There are a million other changes: the skyline, floating worlds, the scale of the space... All these things advance gameplay, but in terms of how we tell our story, well, we have all these living people, compared to Rapture which is essentially a graveyard, but having this alive person right with you and the interactions you have with her. That was our greatest challenge and reward.’

I cannot tell you if they’ve pulled it off just yet. My favourite essence instilled by the two previous games was that desperate feeling of loneliness and oppression, something that seems noticeably missing in Infinite’s floating city of Columbia, so I am in some sense worried about this character constantly breathing on you. So we go on to discuss Elizabeth and I try to get Ken to talk about the design changes of Elizabeth, I try not to mention the early outrage about that inappropriately tight corset, but I get the feeling he has already had someone, probably many ones, attempt this before. His response is actually fairly sensible.

‘There’s this misconception. People saw Elizabeth in that outfit...’ (he knows exactly what I’m talking about) ‘...wearing that collared shirt and say “oh you’ve changed her outfit”, and we say “no that’s just earlier in the game”. She changes throughout... There’s a reason she changes her clothes and her hair, I don’t want to ruin it but that’s an important moment in the game...’

We move on to discuss how Elizabeth relates to the gameplay of Infinite, again I find myself worrying that having this fragile girl around in combat will adversely affect the experience.

‘The first principle was never a hindrance always a help. Zero escort missions.’ He raises his hand to display a zero between his fingers just emphasise this point, as if I needed further reassurance. ‘You never have to worry about her health, you never have to worry about her surviving. She’s actively helping you in the combat. We set up this narrative for her that she is trapped in this tower for years with only books and songbird for company. So we really wanted to have this pay off. So she’s learned about first aid, lock picking and code breaking, all these things she has studied in the tower and so in combat she will be doing these things. Occasionally just when you need her most you will hear “Booker” [De Witt - your character’s name], and she is tossing you ammo or health packs or salts [similar to eve in Bioshock - the energy source of the game]. We brainstormed and asked how she can be your partner, not just a character for narrative and certainly not a character you have to protect... people like people who help them, that was a really important part that she would be your partner.’

My grievances possibly dissuaded, I decide to go on the attack and level my main criticism of the original Bioshock. In my opinion Bioshock was a great game despite the action element not because of it. I spent the game wishing I could avoid combat, not because of the fear of the enemy, but because I wanted to appreciate the gloriously dilapidated environment and intelligent narrative without the frustrating foes in the way. I suggest that this element was done better in System Shock 2, a game made eight years earlier, and am surprised when Ken acknowledges this. It is rare for developers to openly admit any failings and I find myself impressed by his honesty. I ask him whether Irrational improved this element of gameplay for Infinite.

‘I try not to make qualitative judgements‘ (remember to rephrase questions next time) ‘because, a) I’m too close to it and b) why should you believe anything I say?... I watch spokespeople on TV and I don’t like it... I don’t like to sell the game subjectively, I just like to tell you my views on it and what our goals were... I let the product speak for itself.’

I cannot tell whether he deliberately avoided the question, or whether he wanted to get across this point on subjectivity. From my short experience with the game I can tell you the action element is improved, the guns have more feedback, the skyline action entertaining and the powers less gimmicky, yet I’m still left with a niggling feeling that it has been done better in many other recent first-person shooters.

This is the point where the conversation begins to take a tumble away from Infinite like a runaway train disappearing into the meandering cave of unknown. I want to know how Ken works, what his motivations are and where he is heading, because, well, that would be a much better story. Acknowledging his almost deliberate avoidance of the previous question, I ask him whether he was forced to make a first person shooter and whether he would choose to make another if it was not dictated by the market.

‘No I certainly chose that. We chose to make a first person shooter, that was entirely up to us. However, I’m starting to think about whether there is FP [First Person] without the S [Shooter]... my challenge is that I do like gameplay. I’m a gamer, I’m not just an experiencer. We tend to make very dense experiences... Are there people who have more experience making gun feel and things like that? I would say “absolutely”... However in terms of making overall experiences we certainly have a lot of practise and we put a lot of energy and resources into creating that world and the characters.’

For some reason I interrupt him here. Listening over the recording I have no idea why. This sniffling voice pops up and begins to talk like a moaning fanboy and says something along the lines of ‘When I play Bioshock I find that I’m staring at the posters and the architecture and in the end I almost fear the combat because I don’t want to get involved. Interestingly [no it isn’t] I find the same in System Shock 2 not because the fighting was bad, but because everything else was so intense.’ Ken looks at me strangely, probably wondering what this strange English boy is blabbing on about, and for the first time in the interview the room remains quiet. There’s a few seconds silence.

I spot my chance to ask him the many questions I have about the future of Ken Levine and Irrational. First I ask him about his plans post Infinite.

‘All I know right now is that I am going home for the gold [release] party... We’ve got some DLC, which I think will be pretty cool... but then it’s a big grey bush’... A big grey bush? Perhaps that’s an Americanism.

I want to know whether he would be interested in tackling any other genres. In fact Irrational’s first game post System Shock 2 was a strategy game called Freedom Force and there is a surprisingly large fan base who would love a sequel. I ask him whether there would be room for another strategy game now Firaxis’ X-COM: Enemy Unknown has shown that there is potential in the market.

‘I tend to play mostly strategy games myself. I love the new X-COM, Jake [Soloman - lead designer] and his team knocked it out of the park. I play that when I come home at midnight after working on Bioshock and I have half an hour, so I play a mission or two. I love Civilisation and I play lots of weird turn-based stuff. I haven’t done a lot of low level system design, I’ll do things like come up with the idea for the big daddy and the little sister or Elizabeth or gun tossing or skylines or whatever... but on System Shock 2 I did the design doc. That is the last time I did that, and I enjoyed it alot. I grew up playing board games and systemic games, so I can see myself doing that at some point... I haven't demonstrated that I can do that per se, but it is something that interests me.’

It is no definitive answer but it is reassuring to know that the option might be open one day. We go on to discuss how great the old strategy games were: Master of Magic, the early Heroes of Might and Magic and King’s Bounty. There’s a moment of genuine reminiscing as if two gamers have found common ground. It doesn’t make interesting reading, so I’ll just point out here that Ken Levine recommends checking out King’s Bounty despite its age and, having given it a go, yes you should too.

But what of Bioshock for the Vita and that strange notion of a movie? Well there is predictably no news on the Vita version, Ken clearly does not want to talk about it and it seems like it is out of his hands. He does however have a lot to say about the, now defunct, movie.

‘Currently it is dead. We didn’t get to a place where we felt it worked after Gore [Verbinski Director of Pirates of the Caribbean and The Ring] left. He wanted a certain budget and Universal got cold feet about it, so we decided we didn’t want to do the “not as big version”. I put a lot of faith in Gore, and at the very least it would have been a stunning visual film and hopefully a very good film on top of it... if we were to do it now I probably would want to be more involved in it. At the end of the day I am the one who said “OK this is it”. Take 2 are really respectful of their talent pool and so they said to me “If you want to go forward with this version of this movie you can go forward with it, if you don’t then don’t.” So I was in this very weird position to say we’re not going to do this movie, where twenty years ago if someone had said “Do you want to make a movie?” There’s no way I could have said no... Now, it is really about whether we can make a great movie.’

So there you have it. No Bioshock movie. To be honest I breathed a sigh of relief here. With the prevalence of game spin-offs being towards the abominable, it may well be for the good of all.

We move on to the subject of philosophy and whether games will ever have the cultural impact and integrity that books or films enjoy currently. Games are getting the spotlight in national press and enjoying greater visibility, yet far too often it is for negative reasons and rarely, if ever, will a discussion on the philosophical themes of a game break out. Yet as Ken Levine is keen to express, times are a changin’, though perhaps not always in the right direction or particularly quickly.‘I had this tweet last night, something like “Until Levine came along nobody knew about this Ayn Rand person [a Russian-American post war novelist responsible for many of the themes found in Bioshock]. The Tea Party [a political movement in the US] and all that stuff is Levine’s fault”. I think there are some people in the gaming country that don’t have a very broad perspective on the universe. Rand was a very major figure in libertarian circles for many years, so what is innovative in gaming is not necessarily what is innovative in other forms of media... I grew up reading 1984 and Logan’s Run and these obviously have a huge influence on my work, they’re not new ideas however’

Yet will games ever dive into society to such depths and break into education as these literary classics? This is something that I am often worrying about, and I put such a question to Ken in the hopes that a man in his position may allay some of my fears.

‘I had a guy send me his lesson plans last week for Bioshock, a high school teacher, and I’ve read a couple of theses on it, so it has certainly penetrated the academic space, though I’m not sure how deeply. It is always funny reading these academic theses... on your own work and seeing the interpretations. What is great about it is that nobody really knows and it doesn’t really matter what my intention was. All that matters is how it impacts on the viewer...’

‘So people say “well... what Shakespeare meant, what Freud meant here...” but the truth is nobody fucking knows what they meant. It doesn’t matter. What matters is how does it impact on your retinas and your eardrums and how it gets to the brain. There are some very fanciful interpretations on things I wrote, and boy I wish I was that smart... For example this nomenclature of all the characters names [in Bioshock], but I pulled most of these names out of my butt.’

The discussion moves on to all the little naming nuances that Ken put into the game. He clearly put a lot of thought into much of the nomenclature, even if he protests otherwise. For example a particularly astute player may have related the Atlas character to that of Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged, but also that Andrew Ryan’s name was deliberately a ‘semi-anagram’ of Ayn Rand. The sunken underwater city named Rapture was also ‘Ryan’s little joke... because as an atheist... in his head he made people disappear and go to a better place, not because of God, but because of a piece of technology’

Despite his laid back and humble attitude, Ken Levine evidently possesses an intelligence and well rounded knowledge of academic subjects beyond what one might expect from a stereotypical and myopic viewpoint of game designers. The truth is, as Ken is keen to point out, there are many brilliant people working in the industry, particularly during the eruptious growth it has seen in the last decade.

‘You have some really smart people working in this space, Portal for example is clever in so many ways. It is very well written and very smart, but also the way of putting a weird puzzle game in this clinical trial, where you are a lab rat, is a really brilliant way of making this experience feel believable, even though it is completely weird and abstract... There are some really smart guys out there: Chris Avellone [designer on Fallout 2, Planescape Torment, Fallout: New-Vegas and the forthcoming kickstarters Wasteland 2 and Project Eternity], Greg Kasavin [writer and creative director of Bastion]. There is some good writing going on now, and there wasn’t really a few years ago.’

But what of the future of gaming? In a world where the best selling games tend to be rehashes and reiterations, and the casual market is brimming over with Farmville clones, is the room for intelligent games diminishing? I put this thought to Ken Levine hoping for some insider insight into the future.

‘If it wasn’t for digital distribution I’d get a lot more worried. Because the barrier of entry is lower and with Kickstarter and things like that. I’m a believer... and I’m paraphrasing Martin Luther King here and cheapening what he said, but he said “The arc of history leans towards the good”. In terms of games it is amazing to see all these great ideas appearing and so in general I tend to be optimistic about where the industry is going... all of a sudden we have digital distribution and Kickstarter and Unity [a game design engine] and the barrier for entry just gets very very low. It enables all these people without a lot of money and without a distribution channel to have all these things.’

‘The real problem is with curation. Like the iPhone market is a problem, the front page has been the same forever. It is self perpetuating, the big sellers stay at on the front page and therefore they sell more. You really have to dig to find some kind of curation. I mean how many titles come out a day?’

But what of the AAA market that Irrational themselves tend to target? With the market being squeezed at both ends by hardcore gamers delving into digital distribution and the casual side catered for with the growth of mobile and facebook games is there a future here? Ken’s response is appropriately quotable and a brilliant summary of his own work.

‘I try not to make a lot of predictions for the future. But quality will live. How people pay for their games, how they are distributed, what form they come in, episodic, whatever, I don’t really know. We used to be a PC only games developer that made these small one and two million dollar games but times change, and we change with it. But now that model exists again through Kickstarter... It’s a crazy old world!’

We just have to hope he is right. Few people have the resounding optimism of Ken Levine, but then few people have produced the quality of content that he has. The interview wraps up, and I reel at the flow of information that has passed through my brain, like flossing wire passing through the clogged up mucus of my mind. For some reason the corridors untangle on the way out of the building, as if they have had their fun and are happy to let me past. Levine’s web opens and I am free to go out into this crazy old world.

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