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Open Chat: Ken Levine and “BioShock” Under the Microscope

Open Chat: Ken Levine and “BioShock” Under the Microscope  (photo)

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Whether it’s Pac-Man, Master Chief, Sonic or Mario, gamers–and even non-gamers–all over the world know the faces of the medium’s biggest characters. However, unlike movies, TV shows and books, it can be tough to connect most video games with the real-life humans responsible for the interactive experience a title delivers.

Ken Levine’s the exception to that rule. From the minute that the hit 2007 game “Bioshock” was announced more than five years ago to the unveiling of the ambitious, in-development “BioShock Infinite” in 2010, the creative director of the Irrational Games development studio has been recognizable as the guiding force behind their philosophically anchored, cutting-edge releases. Just by playing “BioShock,” you can get a sense of what Levine is like: passionate about history, thoughtful when it comes to games’ capabilities as a cultural form and fan of a ripping yarn. While “BioShock Infinite” is still about a year from release, Levine took some time to talk about Hollywood, nerding out and what can make games rise above the banal.

This week, the Smithsonian will be unveiling the titles that’ll be shown as part of The Art of Video Games exhibit in 2012. You tweeted about the exhibit pretty much right when it was announced. What does it mean to you that “BioShock” was on that nominees list? Also, what do you think the exhibit means for video games?

I’ll tell you, in a measured way, it’s good for video games. I think the more people can see, especially people who aren’t into games, the more likely they’ll understand what games are.

The Smithsonian is a way to connect to an audience that really isn’t into games. I want to make a distinction between that and having a sense of validation, because I never felt the need to be validated by any people who aren’t gamers.

All I care about is making games that gamers like and that people enjoy in their own right. I never feel I need somebody from the outside to say, “OK, now you guys are OK. You an art form now.” That never really interested me. I think it’s just a way of exposing what we do. In a way, it’s for the people who might never ever see it otherwise.

It’s funny, I remember when my parents saw “BioShock.” They sort of knew what I did, and I’d show them stuff, but it wasn’t really until “BioShock” where, visually, the game got to a point where a couple in their 70s could see something and be like, “Oh, I see what you’re doing there.”

Because when we were making much more visually crude games, it was harder for them to relate to it, because they were so relatively abstract. They’re used to watching movies that looked realistic. The scenes we were dealing with were much more like things they could get into, the architecture they understood versus something like “Tribes.” And nothing against “Tribes,” it’s just my parents didn’t connect to it.


I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of care in the curation. But, unless you sit there for like 20 hours, and finish “Shadow of the Colossus,” you’re not necessarily going to get what makes a game special.

Yeah. Obviously, there’s a limitation there. People we’ll see sort of an abstract of what the game is because you can’t actually experience the game.

And I think that’s a problem we have as an industry in general. I’ve had this experience in meeting people in Hollywood. They were incredibly talented and incredibly enthusiastic about games but, because of where they fell in the age range, they didn’t grow up playing games. And just that barrier of entry with not experiencing games made it very challenging for them to think about games the same way they would think about movies.

I think we’re reaching this interesting induction point where there’s an audience that is starting to appreciate what we do but can’t really understand it because they can’t play them.

But I think obviously that’s going away. I’m one of those people who were in the older group. I grew up playing games and not a lot of people was doing that when I was playing games as a kid and playing them. Now, everybody plays games. You’re not going to have that problem as time goes on.

Can I go back to your parents just for a sec, because I don’t know if I’ve ever read you talking about them and “BioShock?” What was that like? They played pretty much a final retail copy of the game all the way through?

No. They didn’t play it. I showed them the previous games I’d worked on. I sat down and showed them. They were polite.

“That’s nice, honey!”

Yeah. I can’t speak for them, but my perception was that they didn’t really understand what it was. It’s not like they see, like, a knife. You buy a knife in the store, and they get it, you cut bread with it. But I don’t think they understood. What is this thing?

I think finally “BioShock” was visually at the point and thematically at the point where they can be like, “We get what you’re doing. OK.” They don’t fully get it yet, but they see the character growth and stuff like that. They don’t understand the security system. They understand it’s about going to a world and exploring it.

Too often, the focus on graphics gets painted in such a negative way. But, what you’re saying here the fact that finally you could render a world that’s more photorealistic than previous generations of games, is an asset. It presents a lower barrier to entry than maybe stuff that was more abstract or just more cartoony.

Right. You go back to the NES or something, you and I look at those graphics and go, “Cool. That’s great,” when they came out with Zelda. But to a non-gamer looking at that, it’s very strange and abstract. So, “BioShock”, even though the goal was never aesthetically to be photorealistic it was accomplished enough as a visual aesthetic that it wouldn’t stop people. In that, “what is it? I don’t get it?”

When did you hear about “BioShock” being on the list of games that people were voting on?

I was told about a few months ago by Pete Welch who’s one of the attorneys at Take-Two.

I can’t imagine you were too surprised if I can allow you some humility. What did you think of the crowd-sourced nature of the voting and all that stuff?

I think it’s cool. If you look at the whole interactive world that’s evolving, like Twitter. How people use things like LOL and ROFL, that’s something that we’ve known about for so long, this sort of interactive world, this kind of Internet world and the way people communicate with each other.

Everybody I know has been on it back when you were using GEnie and AOL and all these things before the Internet. We’re so familiar with that. It’s such a part of the world now that I feel it’s very appropriate for tying something like games into something that’s got so much historical basis like the Smithsonian, that you adopt the methodology for curating these things to the format that the audience is comfortable with.

Yeah, it’s a like-meet-like kind of scenario.

Yep. Absolutely.

Speaking of like-meets-like, I’ve been listening to the last few Irrational podcasts, and it strikes me that you’re not overly fannish. You had Brian Michael Bendis, one of Marvel Comics’ top writers, on. You’re a pretty dedicated comics fan but you treated that chat as more of a peer relationship more than anything else. What’s the goal for you guys at Irrational in programming those podcasts and getting people on?

I find myself in places where I got to talk to some of these people, and I found the conversations really interesting. But who wouldn’t? These are really interesting guys.

I remember there was a book years ago. It was like some film director interviewing another film director. I was always very interested in that because it’s great to have journalists interview people but it’s also interesting to have somebody who shares a craft with somebody.

So I had this idea that we do this show and fortunately I’m lucky where I can be like, “Oh, I want to do this show. Let’s just fucking do it.” Excuse me, I was trying not to be crass.

No, it’s exciting. Go with it.

And so, I talked to Todd Howard [of Bethesda Softworks] about doing it, he goes, yeah, sounds great. We did our first one with Todd. And we’ve talked great people inside the games industry. That started with Todd and Randy Pitchford from Gearbox. And then we moved to people outside of games.

I just want to talk to creative people and record that. Because look, I’m sure one day I’ll be able to look back on these interviews and be like “wow, I got to talk to so and so, and here it is.” Why not do that? When you work in Hollywood everybody is physically located in the same place.

Those people get to see each other all the time. I get to see these people at shows and stuff. And even then, that’s a maybe. Most of the people I have interviewed I have never met or I met briefly, or I’ve hung out with at shows. I really wanted a place to interact and just have a forum with some of those people.

Do you have favorite of the ones you’ve done so far? Or which one surprised you the most?

I don’t really have a favorite because there were moments in each of them that were really meaningful. I enjoyed talking to Zack Snyder because his work is so different than mine. Similar in some way, but different than mine. It was interesting to hear him.

He said such nerdy stuff, and I mean that in the best possible way. It was interesting to hear his process. Not really as a gamer, because he’s not a gamer, but he’s a nerd, a different kind of nerd. It was interesting to hear the process for me because it was different from what I do.

He’s an interesting case because as I understand it, he pushed really hard for there to be a “Watchmen” game, period. Which, it wasn’t a great game, but the fact that he feels like it was a necessity is kind of telling. Again, like you said, in a generational kind of way.

But also it seems like the way he approaches the visual image, seems to be influenced by video games, or at least the visual language that video games have created. You can’t look at “Sucker Punch” and not see video games all over it. So it is interesting that you say that what he and you do are similar. What did you see as the similarities?

What I love about Zack’s work is that he respects the aesthetic of the things he’s adapting, but he also figures out ways to make it work in a filmic way. I think that’s a very hard line to walk. Very few directors can do that.

I mentioned this in the interview with him, but my favorite moment of “Watchmen” movie is the opening, which is not in the comic. Those slow-motion sequences from history, that retell history in really interesting ways. That lesbian superhero kissing the nurse in Time Square at the end of World War II? It’s an iconic moment that he twists and recaptures in a really interesting way that felt so true to the comic and so visually aligned with the comic. Yet, it’s also a moment he created it as an artist.

I really respect that. Not just like, “Oh, I’m an artist, fuck it” but he also makes things like that happen in the language of nerdstuff. I love people, whether they’re in games or movies, who can take this sort of iconic genre material and make it something really special.

When people talk about nerd cuture these days, but you can’t help but be influenced by Patton Oswalt and what he wrote for Wired a little while back. What do you think? Do you feel like there’s a nerd singularity now that all of his stuff is rendered moot by its ubiquity?

Those of us who are nerds, we’re so used to being an alienated culture and Patton Oswalt is obviously a guy who grew up probably in a very similar way that I did. Feeling nerdy. Feeling like a bit of an outsider but having all of this incredible passion for this stuff.

The thing that made you popular or cool, you just couldn’t help it, because you loved it. Whereas now it’s quite different. The nerdy stuff now is in vogue and that’s great. But, there’s a danger of I think he’s probably about my age at comes at it from a similar perspective.

I think he’s working in a field were in Hollywood where they get it now. I think Comic-Con was the tipping point for Hollywood where they realized, “Wait a minute, this giant gathering for nerds? This is the place to sell our movie. There’s a lot of money that can be made here”. But I think, deep down, Hollywood is not run by nerds, where at least there’s nerds in very high levels of gaming culture.

They make the creative decisions.

Yes. Nerds who make the creative decisions. If you go back when I was a kid, when nerdy things were made–with very few exceptions when –they were really half ass. I talk about the Marvel cartoons that were re-runs in the ’70s.

Oh, man. Those Grantray-Lawrence ones, right?

Yeah. They’re aren’t watchable because the person making them didn’t love science fiction or fantasy. Only when you have somebody like Gene Roddenberry back then who believe in this stuff, who believed in being a nerd. And George Lucas comes along.

I remember I was in sixth grade when “Star Wars” came out. It’s hard to understand the impact of what that was. It was the Oasis in the Wasteland for nerds. There was never a wholly realized universe that had a budget that could be visually consistent and it wasn’t embarrassing to look at. It was so detailed. The amount of detail in that world. I just remember watching it over and over again. Like, oh my God, there’s this, and there’s that, and there’s this.

I remember there was a “Logan’s Run” television show that was made after the movie. They didn’t have a budget. And the characters, they’re riding around in a van in the California desert, and that was “Logan’s Run.” And I was like, this is not what I wanted. Now, nerds are getting what they want, even if it’s a mixed bag. So, with Patton Oswalt now, it’s interesting because his world is much more in transition, much more moving towards that nerdy space.

By contrast, the gaming world is always nerdy and is becoming much more financially viable. He’s probably been very interested to be more of an outsider in Hollywood and see that world evolve, to where it’s more inclusive of his interest. I’m guessing. I can’t speak for him obviously.

In the first “BioShock,” Rapture looked like it was glorious once before everything went terrible and the previews of “BioShock Infinite” make the floating city of Columbia look like a city frozen in time. Do those formative experiences for you–like all the detail in “Star Wars” or a terrible “Logan’s Run” TV show–drive you to push the team at Irrational, to populate the worlds that you guys are creating with that level of detail?

I think what makes Irrational different is a lot of the senior people here are really grounded in things like history and architecture and philosophy, so it’s natural for us to push that level of detail. One of the requirements in my job is to make sure the team , like we did during “BioShock,” is to say, “Hey, fellow nerds, why don’t we read ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and this other philosophy book? Let’s read this history book together. Let’s watch this documentary.” That’s not exactly a hard part of my job. Because, as it traditionally is with nerds sometimes, we won’t only read science fiction and comic books, which is great, because I love other stuff.


But, then, the challenge is you want to make a game interesting but you don’t want to crawl too far up your own butt with that stuff. It still has to be a great game. I’m not talking about genre. My feeling is make everything. Make shooters. Make non-shooters. Make this, make that. I’m talking more about how you use inspiration. Thematically, it’s almost more important that you spread your wings, that we get out of this just making the same kind of “Star Wars”/”Lord of the Rings” fantasy over and over again. While those fantasies are great fantasies, I think our goal is to broaden the syllabus a little bit.

As indies become a lot more prevalent and viable, I think part of the hope is that we get more thematic experimentation moving forward. That it’s not just like you said, the same old, same old, gritty-space-marine etc. and that people take risks in the kind of stories they tell.

But I think you can do that in the big budget space, too. Look at “BioShock.” Look at “Red Dead Redemption.” Look at “Portal.” These are things that are strange and weird and different, for games, at least. There haven’t been a lot of successful westerns or westerns in general. If you look at the last year you get “Red Dead” and, in the movie space, we get the Coen Brothers film “True Grit.”


All of a sudden, out of nowhere, two of the biggest pieces of entertainment of the year are Westerns. I think we have to keep challenging ourselves to not get too comfortable with, “OK, another space marine, another squad in Afghanistan.” Those things are great but let’s try other things too.

It’s funny, you look at a game like “God of War” after the fact, and, yeah, it’s a success. All the pieces that make it enjoyable are easily digestible: the combat, the scale and whatever else.

But, also, part of it is this big sweeping mythological tale that David Jaffe and the developers who followed him give us. Which people weren’t doing when the first game came out and aren’t really doing now. When you think about Kratos as a character, he’s kind of an antihero with all these classic Greek mythological flaws. And again, it’s source material that isn’t mined as much as some other stuff.

What I love about “God of War” is that they went back to the source material. And that stuff is blood, sex, and death, and heroes who are really kind of assholes. And that’s what I love about Greek mythology is that everybody is a fucking dick. Sorry! I keep cursing.

No, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it. Let it fly.

I think you’re exactly right, though. Compare it to the “Clash of the Titans” movie, which was tame. The “God of War” games delivered what mythology really felt like and that sense of power and awe. Like Kratos pulls these giant statues around and he has incredible strength. So visceral and so bloody.

It is just so true to what mythology was. It’s not comfortable or safe. Honestly, he has sex with girls. For some reason in video games, people can’t be bad and can’t have sex. You can’t do those. And that’s what I love about “God of War,” you did all those things and that was the core fantasy of those stories.

Zeus is a bad-ass and he’s not likable and he’s complicated. They really caught that in “God of War.” I thought that was great. Even though it seems to be very similar to a lot of other stuff. It wasn’t because they really understood the source material, and not as a fantasy, not as a safe fantasy written by a guy. Written by some virgin living in his mother’s basement but by people who lived. I mean, lived life and experienced life.

People who had their hearts broken. Got fired from a job. Et cetera, et cetera.

Had problems and experienced a broad range of stuff. That’s great. We need our William S. Burroughs.

Yeah, essentially, you want something that evokes a trippy, outlier sensibility. Like maybe this guy has done a lot of drugs. He’s gone on a lot of benders. He slept with maybe some of the wrong people. You want that sensibility in video games where it feels just a little bit less safe than the other fare we get.

It needs to be a little dangerous. I think that’s where I might separate from some of the indie stuff that it can become too intellectualized. I’m not the guy who says, games have to this or games have to be that, but I think some danger in conception and execution for the industry is a good thing.

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