This past Thursday, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ken Levine, creator of System Shock 2, BioShock, Thief and just about every other game you should’ve played in the past 10 years. He’d finished a talk earlier in the week on storytelling, and was gracious enough to chat about life with Take 2 (he’ll never be a joiner), his take on compelling narrative and how World of Warcraft may improve your virility.
The Escapist: BioShock‘s been out for some time now. It sold great, and everybody loves it. You’ve received a number of awards for your work. So, where is Ken Levine now?
Ken Levine: It’s very gratifying to have the commercial and critical success of BioShock. It validates not only what we want to do in games but what I’ve been saying about gaming for a while, that it’s OK to break the formula a little bit and go in a little different direction both aesthetically, and with gameplay. And that gratifies me, not just with the games I’m making, but for other games. … I think we’re really starting to get to a place where the genre molds are getting a little broken, which is good. It’s been an exciting time. I’m just thinking about what we’re doing next, what are the next challenges and how do we overcome them.
TE: In BioShock, you revisited a number of themes from System Shock 2. It seems like you enjoy poking holes in popular philosophies. Is that a theme you like to touch upon in your games?
KL: If you look at System Shock 2, if you look at Bioshock, you see similar themes, which are a man caught between very large forces. In Thief it was the Hammers and the Trickster. In System Shock 2, it was SHODAN against the Many, and in BioShock it was Fontaine and Ryan. And these big forces tend to be ideologically opposed to each other.
I’ve never been a joiner. It’s why I’m an entrepreneur. I guess I [joined] with Take 2, but they did give me a lot of money. But I’ve generally not been a joiner. I think that independent spirit has gotten me into a lot of trouble at times, but it’s also what made me want to start a game company. So the games tend to be about that, these people who fall between these very large, powerful forces. I’m not speaking about any individual philosophy out there, more about these large powers with great surety about their purpose, and you being stuck in the middle.
TE: That in itself is philosophical, don’t you think?
KL: It’s sort of the skeptical philosophy. I’m not really on either side here; I’m sorta stuck in the middle. And I think that’s fun because I’m always trapped between these very confident ideologies – you know, the way politicians talk, you have this vision. … They make great comic books in some ways. The Nazi ideology is the best comic book ideology of all time. People have these certainties. Ayn Rand had a certainty. If you listen to her talk, she talked like Dr. Doom. She had this absolute certainty about how she spoke. Writing Andrew Ryan, reading her was very helpful, because he also has that certainty. And I’m also incredibly attracted to it, while there’s some huuuge flaws in objectivism, as an artist, as a businessperson, you know, hey, sign me up. With a lot of philosophies, I think there’s that whole level of ‘I buy everything about it, hook, line and sinker.’ And that’s what a lot of philosophies ask you to do is buy everything, or buy nothing. And there’s nothing where I’m going to buy everything.
TE: How are things with Take 2 after the acquisition/merger?
KL: They got behind us for BioShock. They believed in it, even though I’m not sure I entirely did in terms of its commercial viability. I always thought it would be a good game. They gave us almost total freedom to make this thing. I’m really grateful for that.
TE: Were you surprised that BioShock did so well commercially?
KL: Yeah. You know, after you do game after game that gets good reviews but doesn’t really move in the marketplace, you sorta start wondering if you’ve got a curse. But it wasn’t a curse, it was – I think we never had the resources before to make a game and make mistakes. What did that money buy? … It bought us the ability to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. To have the money and resources to correct them. And that’s really what BioShock had that we didn’t have before.
TE: Do you think being able to make the jump to consoles gave you extra opportunity there?
KL: I believe it gave the publisher confidence financially, that they’d recoup their investment, where on the PC side it’s tougher right now. So, yeah, I think it certainly helped us.
TE: In terms of platform ideology, is there one you like better than the other?
KL: No. I think they’re what you make of them, really. How well does your team vibe with the technology? What’s your install base? Certainly the 360 was a really nice platform to work on because my expectations of what we were gonna be able to do with the technology were much lower than what we actually got. I was pleasantly surprised by what we were actually able to do with the technology. I give tribute to Chris Kline and Rowan [Wyborn] and their teams at Irrational – 2K Boston, 2K Australia – because they almost never said no.
TE: What’s next?
KL: We’ve learned that what we’re strong at is creating great worlds for the player to experience, unique and interesting worlds that have unprecedented level of detail. And we’re really good at figuring out what those details are, I think. If you start with System Shock 2, it’s crude now, but I think it felt more like a real space than a lot of games did back then. … We strive for the next level, and I think we’re gonna continue to do that, making that world feel real, or at least consistent to itself. That’s really important.
TE: You know, I have to tell you, I still have nightmares about those damn monkeys.
KL: The monkeys were cool. Sometimes you think things over and you labor over them and nobody cares about it, and sometimes it’s like a moment of inspiration. The monkeys … we were doing a mocap session, and we had some time left. So I’m like, “Well, why don’t we do some monkey animation?” And then I had this idea of how to use them, and you know, with the sounds Eric [Brosius] put in, hearing those guys in the distance is very, very effective. It’s one of the first things I talked about in the panel is setting the scene. You come in the medical area and you see these monkeys on the operating table with blood around them. It tells you a little story about what’s going on around there, in a very crude way back then, but it was the first sort of experiment we did.
TE: In all of your games, the environment tells the story. As you run around, you develop the story, not through cut scenes but by actually rewarding people for exploring. Do you see yourself as a storyteller in that regard, or is it more of a game design thing, or both?
KL: I kinda defined it yesterday in my talk as narrative instead of storytelling, because that’s different from what we thought of as storytelling – you know, “Here’s some game, here’s a cut scene, here’s some game, here’s a cut scene.” Instead of rewarding the player with a parallel path to your gameplay, to integrate it with your gameplay as much as possible. I think that’s a place that has a lot of very rich earth, very tillable earth. It hasn’t been explored a lot. I think BioShock took some nice steps there. And I think the axis of where games are going, from more cut scenes or more in-game narrative, I guess the answer is in-game narrative – as an observer, not a partisan for in-game narrative. But that excites me, personally.
TE: Do you see anybody else out there who “gets it”?
KL: I think Valve did a great job with Portal and bringing that into the game. I think Sid Meier’s games, even though they don’t have a specific narrative – like “this happens and that happens” – the ability to create your own narrative in games like Civilization and Railroad Tycoon and all those games, you always remember those little moments where something happens. That dynamically generated narrative is very exciting. It’s not my specialty, but Firaxis does a great job with that. What BioWare is doing with Mass Effect is a little different than what we were doing, but they were trying to expand the option space for narrative. I think it was a good year for that.
TE: What are you playing now?
KL: I’m always stuck in WoW, always soloing, mucking my way through. I’m playing my DS. I just picked up the DS Mario Bros. game. I didn’t like it at first, but now I’ve gotten back into it and really enjoying it. I’m playing Sins of the Solar Empire, which I’m enjoying a lot. And, you know, Rock Band.
TE: Which instrument?
KL: I really enjoy drumming because it’s new and you kinda feel in an incredibly lame way in your living room that you’re actually drumming, but you’re not. But it feels that way. That’s what it is, that’s core fantasy. All games are about core fantasy. I have a lot of friends at Harmonix, and I applaud them for their understanding, for giving that core fantasy in a powerful way.
TE: Is that something you’d like to incorporate in your games? Something more tactile than more intellectual?
KL: I don’t start with that. I start with “What’s the core fantasy?” The tactility of the guitar thing, somebody said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to be a rock star?” And that’s how I think about it: “Wouldn’t it be cool to do this?” Rather than saying I want a tactile experience – what the fuck does that mean? … I don’t get up in the world to have physics and terrain destructibility, I get up to play a game to a fantasy experience I couldn’t have in the real world.
TE: You said you’re playing World of Warcraft. Do you see any area in the online space for you to do what you want to do with multiple people involved?
KL: I think narrative is very strong in World of Warcraft. I don’t follow the real story – I don’t know what the Burning Crusade is, I don’t know who the Lich King is, and frankly I don’t care. But I love these little moments you encounter in the world. Last night, I went back after the awards. I just won an award, right, and I’m walking out, I accepted it, and it’s very honorary – what a great moment! Then I go on and I’m playing as a Dranei character, I’m level 19. I did a series of quests – I didn’t know what they were about, I was just going around doing my thing. And then I apparently did something great. I got this big award, I got a tabard I could put on; I’d never worn a tabard before in that game. And then I turn around and I see this line of AIs cheering me. They must’ve spawned in the world. And I was like, “Thanks guys!” … My dick got three inches bigger, you know, in a fucking videogame.
I talked yesterday about the three levels of storytelling. The second level, you know, I’m kinda following along, I gotta kill this dwarf maybe – I guess he’s evil, I don’t know why, he’s aligned with the morlocks. … I love seeing little moments in the world with little details that evoke story rather than tell a story.
TE: If you look at a game like Halo, it’s got so much supplemental content. You play the game, then you read the book, and then you do everything else beyond that. Is that a good way to tell a story? To force people beyond the game?
KL: No, I’d like for them to tell that story in the game and let people opt out. … Those Bungie guys know what the hell they’re doing. Their gameplay, their scenario-based combat, their multiplayer, they know what the hell they’re doing. But, like, [if you’re asking] what would you do if it was your job to make one of these games, I think they have so much great content, but it’s sort of set in that parallel structure – cut scene, game, cut scene, game. How do you bring that content into the world? Frankly I wasn’t following it all; I tend to skip cut scenes. I wanna know more about the Arbitor, but I wanna see it in the world. The worlds are actually fairly – they have a strong aesthetic vision, but they’re kinda nondescript in terms of their function. … They’re sort of abstract in some ways, you know, in the Halo stuff. You’re on a spaceship – OK, I can accept that. You don’t get a sense of function. In System Shock 2 you really get a sense that you’re on a functioning spaceship. Then you start connecting, so I would really focus on bringing that narrative out of cut scenes and into the world. But then, that’s not surprising that that’s my approach.