[Live Interview] Ken Levine - Shock series - Part 1
Ken Levine and Irrational Games' BioShock - Shock Series, The Role of the Protagonist, Next-Generation Emergent Gaming
Jonathan S. "Liquidize105"
Jonathan: Phew, here we go.
Ken Levine: Hey, sorry, today got crazy.
Jonathan: How crazy?
Ken: The publisher showed up for a surprise visit. Such is the life of a dev.
Ready when you are.
Ken: Cool. Lay it on me.
Jonathan: Before we get into BioShock, tell me about yourself, your history in game-development.
Ken: I started my career a screenwriter. I made some money, but wasn't exactly what I'd call a stirring success. This was sometime ago. I'm very, very old.
Jonathan: You don’t look that old!
Ken: 40 last month!
Jonathan: Or is the picture very very old as well?
Ken: So, after that I kind of screwed around in a wide variety of jobs, but the one constant was – I was always a gamer. Ever since I was little kid, before there really were video games as we now them, I was playing PC and console games every day, but it never occurred to me I could actually work in the industry…
I had no idea what it meant to be in the industry. I didn't even know that writing was part of being a game designer, but I guess it's why I got hired; that and the Hollywood thing, which if you remember about 10 years ago there was this whole "Hollywood gaming convergence" thing – which didn't work out.
I saw an ad in Next-Gen magazine for jobs at my favorite company. A month later I was hired at Looking Glass. A month after that I was working on what became Thief: The Dark Project.
Jonathan: I've always wanted to ask: Is Thief suppose to be an allegory for capitalism?
Ken: Why do you say that?
Jonathan: Well, the acquisitive nature of the thief, his ability to take what's not his and make it his own (from which all great fortunes are amassed), and his invisibility whilst taking it.
Ken: Well, what's interesting about thief is that Garrett is more moral than the powers that be. Because at very least, he's honest about who he is. Everybody else hides behind a moral proposition or an ideology to cover up their greed and cruelty. Garret just puts it out there.
I like to think that we were creating of one of gaming's first anti-heroes.
Jonathan: As in a modern hero with a high degree of negative capability?
Ken: Most heroes in games just take on the tasks given to them because, they're, well, the heroes. I wanted Garret to be motivated by things that every day people could understand: money, women, and a sense of ownership of his own body.
Jonathan: Right, really the only different between the hero and villain in most games is that the hero is better at violence than the villain.
Ken: Whenever I write a scene and it's terrible, it's usually for one of two reasons. 1) I suck or 2) the characters’ aren't motivated. What makes Lord of the Rings great is not the heroism of the characters, it's their doubts.
Jonathan: Of course, humanism.
Ken: When 10 zillion game writers copy Tolkien, they only remember the orcs and the dragons, they forget about the most compelling elements of the story: the seductive aspects of power – something we can all relate to.
Jonathan: Yes, and I planned to get into that later.
Ken: Not that there's anything wrong with orcs and dragons.
Jonathan: But the point of the hero's journey, the "spiritual treasure" so to speak, is lost.
Ken: Yes. Star Wars is not about blowing up the Death Star. It's about Luke Skywalker becoming a man.
Jonathan: And the elixir which the hero brings back, it's the "will" to defy doubt.
Jonathan: The 12 steps in the hero's journey? Campbell?
Ken: Ah, you've clearly read more Campbell than I have.
Jonathan: Well, Campbell's stuff has to do with the eternal hero.
Ken: What are the steps you're referring to?
Jonathan: I think the modern portrayal of heroism warrants some deviations.
Let me dig them up.
1. Ordinary World - The hero's normal world before the story begins
2. Call to Adventure - The hero is presented with a problem, challenge or adventure
3. Refusal of the Call - The hero refuses the challenge or journey, usually because he's scared
4. Meeting with the Mentor - The hero meets a mentor to gain advice or training for the adventure
5. Crossing the First Threshold - The hero crosses leaves the ordinary world and goes into the special world
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies - The hero faces tests, meets allies, confronts enemies & learn the rules of the Special World.
7. Approach - The hero has hit setbacks during tests & may need to try a new idea
8. Ordeal - The biggest life or death crisis
9. Reward - The hero has survived death, overcomes his fear and now earns the reward
10. The Road Back - The hero must return to the Ordinary World.
11. Resurrection Hero - another test where the hero faces death – he has to use everything he's learned
12. Return with Elixir - The hero returns from the journey with the “elixir”, and uses it to help everyone in the Ordinary World
Ken: That's a pretty good archetype list. But I think it doesn't take into account the pre-existing weakness of the hero he has to overcome. It’s not always fear.
Jonathan: Of course, this is the condensed version. It's the job of the writer/developer to break it down and insert specificity.
Ken: Peter Parker has to overcome the feeling that because the world has shit on him, he doesn't have a responsibility to use his powers for something positive.
Yes, it's a decent outline of the path.
Jonathan: It pertains to the eternal/cultural hero, which is very all-purpose.
Ken: That's why the second Spiderman film is a great example of the genre, because the threat isn't the villain, the real threat is peter parker's own lack of will to persevere against unhappiness.
I'm really deep when it comes to thinking about Spiderman.
Jonathan: And it's a never-ending struggle.
Ken: Joss Whedon said he doesn't get mileage out of putting Buffy in physical danger, because the audience is confident Buffy can overcome physical danger. She's way more vulnerable emotionally.
Jonathan: I think the role of the hero is to become conscious to the "truth," so to speak, that lesser persons would turn away from, at a cost to themselves.
Jonathan: You brought up power earlier, which is very interesting.
Ken: Well, it just heightens the drama. It’s like putting salt on food. It brings out the emotional stakes when people have super powers. Good genre stuff is basically strong traditional storytelling enhanced by raised power stakes.
Jonathan: I think gaming is considered an escapist activity precisely because of its exact rendition of power, that it's pulled from thin air.
Ken: The troubles start when people focus too much on the powers and not enough on the emotional stakes.
Jonathan: Well, because power is not strength.
We're getting Faustian here.
Ken: Yes. As you said, if you just look at power, how can you tell the hero from the villain?
Jonathan: Exactly, which brings us to the subject of BioShock…
Ken: Okay, BioShock.
Jonathan: …and its commercialization of power.
Of course there's a parallel in reality – gun powder, which blew away feudalist society and created the modern aristocracy.
Ken: Yes. Gunpowder democratized war.
Jonathan: Which is the age that we live in
Is this one of the hidden commentaries of the game?
Ken: I don't think I’m that conscious of the themes of the game.
You'd be surprised how little I know about what I’m working on until it's done. Even the stuff you're writing about here, I don't actually think about it very much when I’m writing. The story usually dictates the themes, not the other way around.
Jonathan: But doesn't a connection to the real world lends to it some intrinsic value?
I mean, it takes upward of 4, 5 years to do a game, and if it comes and goes in the span of a few months like most games do, why work this industry?
Ken: I didn't say I don't care if it has a theme, I’m strictly talking about my writing process. BioShock's story started with "City under the sea," not "dangers of unexamined personal philosophies."
Jonathan: I agree that the story should determine the theme.
Ken: Then we added monsters, then guns, then a whole bunch of other stuff. One day, the narrative themes started making themselves known.
For a neurotic guy, I’m pretty Zen when it comes to this stuff. You kind of have to trust yourself that it's hiding there somewhere. It doesn't always work out. I’ve written one game story where the theme never really materialized.
Jonathan: So what prompted the switch from WWII Nazi bunker to underwater utopia?
Ken: I don't think I really ever exactly switched. I just don't think I ever thought the first idea through. There were a couple of ideas before the Nazis, mind you!
So the Nazis really weren't even the first idea.
Jonathan: Which were?
Ken: There was something about a religious cult. You were a deprogrammer assigned to pull a young woman out of a religious cult on a tropical island. Then far cry came out and the tropical island idea seemed not so fresh.
Ken: The one constant thing has always been you as the player get caught up in an ideological struggle.
I’m a big fan of putting characters in the middle of ideological struggles. I think living in America today, we all can relate to that.
Jonathan: Explain that to me please. Struggle between different ideologies, or the character's own ideology?
Ken: The struggle of other's ideology, sorry.
Jonathan: And the character himself? Is he a blank?
Ken: Well, I’m not gonna answer that about BioShock.
But use thief for example: Garrett was an ideological blank. He didn't have an ideology. That's why I liked him. He took in every day and every situation on its own basis. He didn't carry a lot of pre-conceived notions.
In shock 2, you were a blank. That was intentional. But you were caught between two giant and competing points of view, two very dangerous points of view.
I’m not a big fan of ideological struggles.
Jonathan: DX2 had like 4 I think...
Ken: In real life, I mean. In games they're fun. Ideologues make great speeches, but terrible leaders.
Well, ideologies are high standards.
Ken: Yes, inflexible standards. I’m a big fan of doubt.
Ken: And understanding how little you actually know about shit, and how little we all do.
Jonathan: What about the incredible sadness of doubt?
Jonathan: The sadness that comes from knowing how little we all know.
Ken: Well, you just said two opposite things, no?
Jonathan: You've read Dr. Faustus? You must’ve.
Ken: Yep, around 100 years ago.
Jonathan: He traded his soul for power.
Ken: Yes. For knowledge, right (depending on the version)?
Jonathan: He got power. He did it to ward off "weakness," which is the sadness of doubt and ambiguity. But the lesson is that power isn't strength, and only strength could deter doubt. He really wanted strength.
Ken: Look, what's doubt except the acceptance of mystery. Mystery is cool. Why do we play games? Because we know what we’re going to encounter? Because we know we're going to win?
No. we play them to experience doubt.
Jonathan: Do we? Or do we play them to gain power over imagery world? To win?
Ken: Yes, but you don't start the game with the powers unlocked. You earn them. And you don't start the game knowing how to win. You learn.
The whole process is about becoming acquainted with the unknown. Once the game becomes known you move onto the next game.
It’s the same with any experience – books, movies, jobs, relationships.
Jonathan: And yet only the best games are remembered for properly detailing this process.
I'd say that in most games it is no mystery to power; it's just click click click …
Ken: Not if the game has any challenge. But perhaps we're mixing up game story themes and game mechanics here. My fault.
Jonathan: No, maybe this was never defined in the first place.
Why make games? Where's the artistry in making games with all these heroic themes but to bring the players back to reality, and not escape it?
Ken: It is about escaping reality. But it has to be hinged on some kind of reality. Even the most out-there games like Katamari leverage aspects of reality. I’m not really cut out to play entirely abstract games, or make them.
Jonathan: So to you, it's not about looking at reality in another light?
Jonathan: You know, to frame a problem by duplicating that problem in the lives of fictional characters.
Ken: Sure. It’s, you know, metaphor.
Jonathan: Right. Can't games serve the same function?
Ken: Well, I think they do. Maybe I’m missing your point.
Jonathan: You said games are about escaping reality, to avoid it. Frankly this happens a lot, people die from it.
Ken: I don't think I said that. It’s about encountering a reality that you're NOT familiar with and learning about that.
Games are about mystery, hence the very concept of SPOILER ALERT.
Jonathan: Maybe I've played one derivative game too many, but that's not what's actually happening now is it?
Ken: I’m talking ideals, not particular games. I’m talking about good games. You can't draw large lessons about games from bad games (though you can get lots of little pointers about what not to do).
Jonathan: And yet, the best games aren't million sellers, what's the problem?
Ken: Ah, good question. We're going to have to pick this up in the next session.
Jonathan: We'll have to get into BioShock-proper some more, I still got a job to do
Ken: Yes, I want to make sure gamers will enjoy this (and not just me and you!).
Fantastic interview, one of the best game interviews imo!
Ok, so it's not about the game, but devling into the philisophical motivations of the story writer, which helps give a good insight into the game (hopefully). This is why I read Evil Avatar, keep up the good work Liquid
Did you wing most of that or did you have a lot of your material ready to go?
I'm prepared go whichever way, that's the first thing. Research is a must. And then, the interviewee goes one direction and I follow through, shaping and molding, eventually getting us to the topic at hand.
• • • • Games of Arkane with Raphael Colantonio
• • • BioShock with Ken Levine: 1/2, 2/2
• • Deus Ex Series With Sheldon Pacotti: 1/2, 2/2
• Thief Series With Randy Smith: 1/2,2/2