As part of the ongoing BioShock Infinite reveal, Irrational unveiled a painting of George Washington holding the Ten Commandments and warding off a crowd of foreigners at GamesCom earlier this year. The painting is meant to represent the political culture of Columbia. "I had that idea to do this painting, and I looked at some reference, some paintings that have a similar feel," Levine said. "Working with the artist to execute that idea took forever, because there are subtleties and details and getting it right, like how caricatured are the foreigners in that, how is George Washington standing, how much text should there be? So, you have me being the editor of that, but then you need artists who are creating the actual assets and going back and forth with you. We showed it at Germany, like all these journalists wanted their photograph under it and everything, but you take the same idea and you execute it wrong, and people would just walk right by it. They wouldn't give a crap. And by extension, you could say that any element of the game is like that."


If there's an artistry to Ken Levine, perhaps it lies less in the Vassar education that informs the palette upon which he lays out a unique selection of thematic paints, but rather in his technical skills of editing together what can be very disparate forms of content in the first person shooter space. "[A first person shooter] has some of the same challenges like a musical has," he said. "You have people talking, and then all of a sudden they break out into song, right? You have to walk this tightrope to make it believable, to make it work. Shooters have the same sort of problem: you're telling a story, and then, all of a sudden, you're mowing people down by the dozen.

"Games need some kind of skill component, at least as I perceive it, or they're not really games; but you have to have this weird balance where you walk this tightrope of making almost two distinct things [story and gameplay] that have to be integrated, like a musical. You have the same guy directing a scene where people are talking, and then people are singing and dancing. You have to be able to do both things. You need to be able to integrate them as much as you can."

The challenge of understanding Ken Levine lies in separating the thoughtful observer of video games and game culture which draws upon his liberal education, and the designer who wants to provide hardcore gaming experiences with no concern whatsoever for their artistic merit. Ask Levine about his favorite recent games and he falls so easily into the armchair of the art critic. "One of the games I loved recently is Limbo," he says. "Either it's inspired by, or they somehow managed to psychically intuit, German Expressionist films of the 1920s and '30s. You know, that color palate and that sound design, and surrealist imagery. A game which is basically a platformer, but as an emotional experience it's absolutely stunning, Because you're able to tap into a literal and figurative palate that nobody else is playing in, they made this stunning piece of work. What made this game feel fresh is less its game mechanics and more its aesthetic, and that's because I would guess these people had some exposure to things outside the typical bill of fare of a videogame developer."

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