The day before I was scheduled to meet with Ken Levine, I caught a brief glimpse of him walking around the floor of PAX East. I didn’t recognize him at first, but standing in a long line of devotees and cosplayers-fans who dress up in elaborately constructed costumes of their favorite characters-a low and fevered murmur spread through the crowd. “That’s Ken Levine!” a woman nearby whispered excitedly. She was wearing the iconic 50’s era blue dress and disturbingly large surgical syringe of the little sisters, an iconic character from Levine’s break-out success from his Boston-based studio, Irrational Games.
Videogames have an odd culture of celebrity; designers are rarely as visible or vocal as many other stalwarts of the entertainment industry. Trade shows and expos like PAX East draw swarms of fans and members of the enthusiast press, but serve a more insular and specific purpose than an event like the Grammys or the Academy Awards.
Ken Levine is unique for his ability to straddle both worlds. From its first release late in 2007, Bioshock has become iconic as a critical darling for gamers and first-person shooter fans as well as a curiosity for a mainstream press that often writes videogames off as childish or thoughtless pursuits. The game’s dark, atmospheric approach to story-telling can be seen as a critique both of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism and the way we play games. Levine, for his part, is incessantly critical, almost self-deprecating, when describing his work and the ideas he wants to continue to bring to games.
With Bioshock Infinite entering the final development push, I talked with Levine about some of his philosophical and political inquiries and how he applies them to constructing the narrative and gameplay for Bioshock.
There’s an increased emphasis today on player agency and ownership over the story that evolves into these incredibly complex, self-authored branching narratives. Do you think this has changed Irrational’s relationship to the rest of the industry over the years?
I think what’s different about our games is we’re very focused on place-environments like Rapture in Bioshock, the Van Braun in System Shock 2, even a place like The City for Thief. That’s the biggest tool you have to tell a story unless you want to do cutscenes, and I never really liked doing cutscenes. Coming up with a consistent aesthetic is how you tell your story, right? Imagine Bioshock not in an underwater city. A Call of Duty story could be put in a lot of different kinds of places- whether it’s in Afghanistan or in Baghdad. I’m not diminishing it, because it’s a more universal story they’re telling. But we tend to tell very particular stories. Place is usually where we start, even before character.
It’s very difficult for me as a writer to do branching narratives. For things that are multiple choice in a game, I like to have an infinite choice-what weapon you use, how you approach combat. That’s sort of the analog choice base where you can do any number of things, whereas the BioWare choices, and the choices in Bioshock for harvesting and saving the little sisters, those are binary choices, discrete choices. Even when there are multiple choices, they’re still all determined exactly by the designer. I find that, as a developer, I’m not as good as those guys are, so I try to stay away from it.
Well your games also seem to mess with the player and the amount of choice they think they have.
It’s a tension that I think about a lot. Games are a weird medium; it’s clear when you watch a movie that the space is very much a presentational medium. But games work in this weird space where the players want agency, but the storytelling you want to have is sort of anti-agency. In Bioshock, we chose to bring it into the story. Not in a meta-way-I mean, it had a meta-meaning, but nobody turned to the camera and said, “Eh? See?”
So I think what you see in a number of our games is me struggling with that as a gamer. Because do you really have choice? In a lot of ways you do. When you play a game like Minecraft, you have unlimited choice, but it’s within a limited context-you can make these bricks, but it’s not like you can have a conversation with somebody. In Bioshock you have very limited choices, but we can present you with a much more intuitive story.
And it’s a tension, man, it’s a tension! There’s another issue entirely where you’re asked to buy into these guys-Booker or Nathan Drake. Here’s this lovable treasure hunter, he’s got these cute relationships with these girls, and the guy’s a fucking psychopathic mass murderer! I’m not criticizing it-that’s a gameplay component. If that story was actually believable as a historical biography, maybe if he killed ten or twenty people that would be ok. Not if he killed hundreds!
You’ve spoken previously about the story of Bioshock Infinite being in part an allegory of the dangers of political extremism. How do you reflect the intensification of the story in the gameplay itself if it’s already violent-being a first person shooter and all?
It’s always nice to confront it, and that’s tough to do. There’s this episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where she’s in a mental institution and she asks herself, “What’s more believable, that I’m this girl in a mental institution, or this slayer that’s been given these super-powers?” The answer is obvious; it’s more believable that she’s just been in a fugue state for the past six years. What’s great about that is that it’s a very similar moment where, without turning to the camera and winking, you’re saying, “Isn’t this weird? Isn’t this thing we’ve fallen in love with very strange?” So they had their cake and ate it too-I thought it was one of the most brilliant moments on the show. Because if you step back a little, you think, what was the story of the show-was it the story of a superhero or a very sick young girl?
And what was so interesting is that both stories worked. In BioShock, is Jack a gamer going through an experience or is he a man? He’s obviously not a real man-he is an empty shell in the story and in the game. By embracing that, you can do these very interesting things. But you have to be very careful, you don’t want to necessarily turn it into a post-modern experiment.
Make it too self-consciously an intellectual exercise?
Yes, then it becomes kind of masturbatory. There’s room for that too, but when you go through the experience of a first person shooter, you already suspend your disbelief in so many ways. And to play with that, we have to be careful to not completely overturn it.
How much do you want these kinds of choices to be driven by the player as a player, rather than the player assuming the role of Booker?
Well there’s a tension there again. You’re inhabiting this vessel-you don’t want the vessel to tell you what to do, but you also want the experience of being someone else. If I was to write Booker as a movie character he would be much more vocal, much more active, much more present. In writing for a game, you have to make room for the player. So it’s complicated, and I’d be lying if I said I’ve totally got it all figured out. As a writer, you just want to go off and write people, but with Booker you have to be careful.
How do you create a strong sense of character when that character is susceptible to all these gamer impulses?
When I write Booker, I have a bunch of rules that are evolving in real time. I’m constantly saying “maybe we should reserve this judgment to the player.” I don’t even mean gameplay choice necessarily, but maybe Booker should comment on something he sees in the world. But we have to be careful what he says, because if that’s counter to the player’s feeling on it, things can get strange. So I tend to have Booker say things that are sort of uncontroversial, or I expect that the player is going to be on board for. I end up putting a lot more weight on Elizabeth because she can be more contrary, even just in terms of she sees something in the world and goes “oh I hate the color of that wall!” I mean not literally [laughs]. I don’t want Booker to see something and say “I fucking hate green!” Because what if the player loves green, you know? Elizabeth can hate green if she wants to.
You’ve spoken about how current events like the Occupy Wall Street protests and the Tea Party movement have been shaping Infinite. I’m wondering what you think the role you play as a game designer is in these types of debates. Do you think game developers have a particular responsibility for how they represent social or political issues?
It’s less about responsibility and more about how you can show a lot more trust for your audience if you’re asking questions rather than answering them. The political writers I really admire aren’t writing polemics. Like George Orwell-you read Animal Farm, and it’s such a simple little story. But it is the political parable that applies to almost any structure in history, it is the metaphor for every ideology. And he didn’t do it by spoon-feeding anybody. Then you go to 1984, the other political parable that you need to understand politics. He never said out loud, “This is what I think,” he left that up to you.
That’s the sort of stuff that inspires me, as opposed to someone like [Ayn] Rand, who would basically say “this is the way the world is, and I will brook no questions.” That’s not to say she doesn’t have interesting ideas-I spent five years of my life making a game about her, obviously I find here fascinating. But certainty. What always strikes me about these people are their certainty. Whenever somebody’s certain I get very, very nervous. I mean, look at politics right now: there’s this sort of Manichean struggle, and I don’t find those stories very interesting. That’s why I don’t find either left or right particularly open. People talk about how we need conservative movies, or liberal movies, and I find that so dull. Because that means you’ve already answered the question for yourself, you’re just intellectually dead.
How do you see this influencing the gameplay as well as the story?
In terms of the gameplay, it’s more about the characters we create. Whether it’s the little sisters, who are sort of the ultimate embodiment of the market-the unhinged, unfettered market. Or in this game, looking at characters like the motorized patriot, or Elizabeth, how she got to be who she was. There’s a character I just finished working on named Cornelius Slate, and I have him giving a certain world view of the military, and the mythology that comes in with the military-as compared to what it’s actually like to be a soldier. You read newspapers that talk about “the fallen,” rather than the dead young men? There’s a lot of pathologizing in our culture. Obviously it’s important, but it’s also a disservice to the real experience. I mean, when you sanitize that experience-the Pat Tillman notion. His family’s saying “look, we honor him by telling the truth about him, about who he really was.” Obviously the military is very important to them too, just not turning people into wax works.
Tillman always felt like a real-world example of 1984’s Comrade Ogilvy.
You definitely turn them into stories, because real people are inconvenient! People are complicated, people are messy. And stories, especially propagandistic stories, tend to be very uncomplicated and un-messy. So when I see an issue like that, I think that could be a really interesting thing to play on in the game. And not to be like, “Oh I’m gonna go write an anti-war game.” Because, as a student of history, I don’t see how you do that. But can you comment on what it means to sanitize that experience? Or take something like Jacobinism in the French Revolution. What if you took real people-actual people, not people that you’re writing to protect them from bad consequences? Even though I’m making a piece of fiction, I want to say, “Let’s not protect these characters, let’s see what happens when their ideas meet the real world.”