Ken Levine, the visionary creative director and lead writer at Boston-based game developer Irrational Games, has crafted some of the most interesting stories in video games.
Born in Flushing, New York, Levine cemented his place in the pantheon of game design auteurs with his work on critically acclaimed first-person shooters like Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite at Irrational Games. With these two games, Levine gave gamers shooters with soul, pushing narrative and storytelling to the forefront in order to transport them to an underwater dystopia built on the philosophy of Ayn Rand and a floating city buoyed by American exceptionalism, respectively. With more than 20 years of experience in the industry, Levine remains focused on telling interesting stories, asking provocative questions and challenging his audience.
“I think there’s a ton to learn for any game developer about how much information you actually need to share with the audience and how much power there is in lack of information. How much beauty there is in ambiguity,” said Levine.
Two Left Sticks’ Cody Mello-Klein sat down with Levine at his studio on Route 128 in Massachusetts to talk with him about the recent remaster of the Bioshock games, design philosophies, and how his upcoming project could change the future of narrative in games.
Two Left Sticks: The Bioshock Collection came out recently, meaning gamers can now replay your games. Do you enjoy replaying your own games, or do you try not to?
Ken Levine: I don’t really stay away from it. It’s just when you make a game you play it a lot. And you’ve played it in a wide range of forms, so playing the game for me is not so much playing the experience. It’s sort of remembering moments from the development.
TLS: You get caught up in the process and don’t really get to experience it as a whole?
KL: Well where you might play a room – you know like in the lighthouse in [Bioshock] Infinite at the beginning, you might spend four minutes in there. I spent four weeks in there, full time four weeks getting that right. And so you just have a totally different experience than I do.
TLS: The original Bioshock was released almost ten years ago. Is there anything you wish you could change or wish you had pushed for more?
KL: There were some things that I felt at the time – like I didn’t like having multiple endings for the game and I think the balance of the Big Daddy, Little Sister should have been much more different for harvesting than saving – but no. For the most part, that game is everything we wanted it to be.
TLS: Why would you prefer to have just one ending?
KL: Because I think that the choice there was really about the emotional moment of interacting with the Little Sisters. I was happy with the “nice ending.” I liked the emotions that were captured there. But it wasn’t really well suited for multiple endings.
TLS: Themes are extremely important in your games and there are some thematic through lines that run from Bioshock 1 and Bioshock Infinite. They both address very American ideas – the individual, the free market and American exceptionalism. What draws you to these ideas?
KL: I like studying history. Bioshock reflected a lot of history that I was already very familiar with, which is the World War II period and onwards in American history, which is a period I’m pretty familiar with. It’s the period my parents lived through. So I think I was drawn to that. I wasn’t as sort of tuned in to the America at the turn of the century (Bioshock Infinite takes place in 1912), but I ended up doing a lot of research.
TLS: Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite both deal with cycles of oppression and violence. What draws you to that idea?
KL: I think my view is that the worst gift of oppression is that it generally yields more oppression. Cultures that are oppressed can yield revolutions that sometimes yield more oppression. It’s very rare in history that people have broken the cycle of violence. It punishes the people that are oppressed and then it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
TLS: Is that the reason you decided to have Daisy Fitzroy’s [a character in Bioshock Infinite who leads a revolution of lower class citizens, that does yield more violence] arc develop the way it did?
KL: Yeah, I mean look it’s not an historical anomaly. Unfortunately, it’s the more well-represented arc in history… That was a reflection of the arc that Andrew Ryan had gone through in the first game. Rapture… is a response to oppression. It’s a response to the fear of future oppression because Ryan’s fear is that he came from this oppression, and he comes to America and all of sudden he sees it starting again. He sees threats to his kind. So his solution is a radical one. It’s extremely radical. But it’s not that different than starting a state in the Middle East, right? It’s a radical solution to a radical problem. And the question is now that you’re there, what do you do? How do you not become the very thing that you fled? I don’t really see them as any different in terms of responses to oppression. They tried to find another way and they don’t succeed.
TLS: Expanding the conversation, what place do you think narrative has in games today?
KL: I don’t think there’s an answer to that question. It’s sort of like, what place does cinematography have in film? It’s a tool. We have a skillset that relies on narrative. It relies on atmosphere and mood and sound and color especially. Narrative is a tool that we use mostly because you use everything in your toolbox and that’s one of the things in our toolbox.
TLS: You mentioned color. Your games have very specific color palettes. How do you use color in your design?
KL: Even in System Shock 2, which is our first game, we had a very small art team – like three or four people. And for first person shooters that’s not many. We used color for each of the decks, which differentiated the decks. The engineering deck had a certain brownish, mustardy color palette. Knowing by sight what part of the game you’re in is a very important thing. You need that refreshment of experience or you’re just going to feel like you’re on a treadmill.
TLS: Looping back around to narrative, how do you tell the story you want to tell while still letting players be active in the story?
KL: Player agency is one of those things that games do better than any medium– that’s our biggest strength. It runs counter to a lot of aspects of narrative that we know. I struggle with this. Because I think there are a lot of people who are perfectly happy to play games that are very narrative driven and therefore the power of the first playthrough is much greater than the power of later playthroughs. And we cheated a little bit with the fact that there are so many surprises and twists in the games that we make. That tends to make the secondary or tertiary playthroughs interesting too because you’re seeing things from a totally different perspective. And I’ve always loved that. Generally the story remains in a fairly static space…I think that this project we’re doing right now is trying to break that cycle a little bit, or a lot.
TLS: What can you say about the game you’re currently working on?
KL: The tricky part is that I don’t really want to talk about it mainly because it’s one of those things where I think we have to have people just play it rather than tell them about it. You tell them about it and you’re using all the same buzzwords that other people use. And I don’t want to do that. I kind of think we have to just put it in people’s hands.
TLS: Are you really doubling down on the “replayable narrative” idea?
KL: Yeah, it’s no joke. Whether we’ll succeed or not is a side issue, but the entire experience is dedicated towards not only making a narrative that’s on par with stuff you’ve played from us before but … the goal is to give players the kind of freehand they have with something like Civilization. But in an actual narrative.
TLS: Sounds exciting.
KL: It is. Certainly from a design perspective it’s super exciting and challenging.
TLS: You’re not only developing this new game, but you’re working on an interactive Twilight Zone movie in your free time. How did that come about?
KL: I was contacted by this group called Interlude. Yoni [Bloch, founder of Interlude] reached out to me and said, “I think the place where the untapped talent for live action content is people who direct video games.” I grew up loving the Twilight Zone. I had wanted to do some live action stuff for a while because I love working with actors. You do work with actors a lot. I work with actors in a very intimate fashion with these games and we spend a lot of time together. But you lose a portion of that performance because it’s just the voice. This was an opportunity for me to work with actors and to direct a live action thing in the Twilight Zone, so it was really hard for me to say no.
TLS: Are these two projects pretty different?
KL: I like thinking of cameras on one side and thinking about actors and real locations and performance and arbitrary control of the camera. So they’re really different challenges, and I like it like that. I think it keeps you fresh.
TLS: Do you think there are things that filmmakers could learn from game designers? Or the other way around?
KL: Well I think there’s so much I’ve learned from filmmakers that I’d be surprised if there weren’t things you could learn from game designers. But I think it’s hard to look at my career and say I haven’t learned a lot from filmmakers. My sources are so obvious probably in places that it’s hard for me to hide my fanboy colors.
TLS: Are you taking any lessons from the Twilight Zone experience and applying them to your new game?
KL: No, the way these two things are structured are completely different. But I’ve taken lessons from [Rod] Serling…He could speak of [political issues] in such a beautiful way without directly addressing the issue. But also just how Serling would use this clever technique of unreliable narration and surprising the audience and playing with the audience and toying with the audience a little bit but also respecting them at the same time. It’s kind of hard not to say that my whole career to some degree isn’t partly defined by being inspired by Rod Serling.
TLS: Is making a statement in your work important to you?
KL: Asking a question is way more important to me. I think that, if people take anything away from our work, it’s defined by our lack of certainty rather than our certainty.