Game Changer: Kevin Levine

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Screengrabs via Irrational Games

Midway through BioShock—the video game Ken Levine wrote, the one that made his name famous—there is a moment when you, the player, are offered the option of killing a child. The girl, bony and hollow-eyed, cowers before you. If you let her live, the game will go on, but if you kill her, the game rewards you with increased strength. Either choice will have ramifications further down the line, but you can’t know this now. The child squirms to escape your grasp. You have to make your choice.

When BioShock came out in 2007, it was a milestone in the nascent industry of narrative gaming. It was one of the first games to offer the player a moral choice—a forking path between good and evil. Gamers went wild over its ambiguity, its storytelling, and its graphic beauty. “It’s no longer just another shooter wrapped up in a pretty game engine,” one reviewer wrote, “but a story that exists and unfolds inside the most convincing and elaborate and artistic game world ever conceived.”

“Seriously,” the reviewer went on, “if you don’t find something to love about BioShock, we’d recommend a trip to the nearest doctor to check if your heart’s still beating.”

The game has sold more than four million copies. Levine—at age 41, a failed screenwriter who had struggled for years to find an artistic niche—became a god among gamers. “Levine is known in his industry as a mad genius, a man whose games take five or six years to make, burn out staffers along the way and end up blowing players’ minds,” the Los Angeles Times wrote of him recently. In a field that requires intense collaboration among large teams of coders, artists, and designers, Levine has a reputation as an auteur, a stickler whose games are an expression of his own singular vision.

Last spring Levine’s Quincy-based studio, Irrational Games, finally unveiled his follow-up to BioShock, six years in the making. Like the original, BioShock Infinite takes place in a dystopian environment in which the player must choose between extremes of morality. And like the original, Infinite was a huge success: By July four million copies had been sold worldwide. “BioShock Infinite aims so damn high,” wrote IGN in its review, “that it’s a wonder it successfully hits any of its lofty goals at all. But it does hit them, again and again.”

Levine believes that only video games can allow the consumer to feel what it’s like to live with an objectionable set of values, or to act ignobly. In an age of violence up close, of bombings and schoolhouse rampages, he thinks games must present the imagery that the media fail to deliver. “One of the responsibilities of art is to actually show this is what it looks like when someone gets shot, because it’s really obfuscated” in news reports of war and violence, Levine said. “War is about sending pieces of metal very fast at people and tearing them to bits on the most primal level.”

Violence has always been a given in the genre of first-person shooters, the kind of game Levine writes. When BioShock came out, few questioned that. But this time around, in Infinite’s wake, some gamers are saying games should do more than just perfect the look of blood and wounds, do more than make the killing authentic. Games, they argue, can be more than even Ken Levine thinks they can be.



The Dungeon Master: Ken Levine has been hailed as a video-game auteur. (Photograph via Irrational Games)

Even today, at the age of 47, Levine calls himself a nerd. His default tendency in an interview is toward self-deprecation, again and again—“I was a B student,” he’ll say at one point, and then at another point, “I had no friends.” His origin story contains the standard sad-geek details—an isolated, bookish childhood, complete with a stigmatizing speech impediment—with an extra dollop of pathos: Lots of geeks played Dungeons & Dragons, the seminal tabletop role-playing game, but only Levine cops to having played it alone.

Playing D & D alone is like writing a play; there are many characters, but they’re all controlled by you. So it seems natural that Levine majored in drama at Vassar College, where he began writing and producing plays on campus. After school he went out to Los Angeles with screenwriting dreams. There he struggled for five long years. He got some work; one project he worked on was a vehicle for the Christian rock singer Amy Grant, a story about the devil falling in love with her. “I did not demonstrate a path to success with that story,” Levine said. “I was a decent writer. You’re either born with that or you’re not. But I knew nothing about storytelling.” Levine took one last shot at screenwriting with an idea about a society of vampires who swear off violence. “It was totally ahead of its time, and people were like, ‘What the fuck is this?’” he recalled. “I figured it was the best I could do, and I couldn’t get any motion on it. That’s when I gave up.”

He had been making ends meet by working as a computer consultant, so in 1995, Levine answered a job ad in a gaming magazine. He got the gig: game designer at a small studio in Boston called Looking Glass Studios.

Looking Glass was a lot of things to its industry: a clubhouse, in spirit and energy; a place of almost mythic imagination; a place that never made money. Some of the industry’s most respected designers got their start at Looking Glass, many from MIT. “Looking Glass was very much a dream job for me,” said Jon Chey, one of Levine’s colleagues there. “It was an odd organizational structure, a lot of decisions being made by people making the games, a lot of late-night brainstorming sessions. ” Its cofounder, Paul Neurath, was looking to broaden games into a more emotional experience. “There’s an immersion to good media, be it books or film or games, that you get drawn into in a way that the world around you just disappears,” Neurath said. “We looked at game-play aspects—how a player engaged with the game and got drawn into the experience.”

For Levine, coming to Looking Glass—and to video-game design—was like a rebirth.

“I devoted my entire life to it,” Levine said. “I was 29 years old, and suddenly I had a second lease. Not everybody gets a second grab at the ring—I did, and I knew it was important. I started at $34,000, living in a Harvard Square apartment on Kirkland Street. I had no life, but I felt so lucky.”


Screengrab via Irrational Games

One of Looking Glass’s critical early successes was 1994’s System Shock, a space adventure with some artificial intelligence and computer hacking thrown in. It wasn’t a big seller, but critics loved its immersive environment. Though he didn’t work on System Shock, Levine sees it as hugely influential on his own games. Here was a game that could enmesh players in a plot, allow them to explore a 3-D world, and offer them choices that could shape the game’s outcome.

In 1997, Levine, Chey, and a third Looking Glass staffer, Rob Fermier, decided to start their own studio, Irrational Games. At its start, the business ran only on the thin drip of ambition. They were broke and worked out of Levine’s apartment. Concepts were shopped around and rejected. Success seemed like a long shot. “I thought I was going back to computer consulting,” Levine said. “I remember I said to myself: ‘This is the time when people give up. That has an effect of narrowing the field. If you stick it out, just by being stubborn, you’ll at least be there when the call comes.’”

They had left Looking Glass on good terms, and Neurath proposed that Irrational collaborate on a sequel to System Shock. Released in 1999, System Shock 2 wasn’t a great seller, either, but with an acclaimed title to its credit, Irrational slowly grew. Industry giant Take-Two Interactive bought Irrational in 2006, giving the studio a publisher that would fund even more elaborate games. The deal also made Levine a rich man. Take-Two committed to publishing the studio’s next title, and Levine began writing the game that would become BioShock.

At the same time, an argument was brewing in the industry about the extent to which video games could be considered art. In some ways, people had been asking this question from the beginning. As early as 1982, the gaming company Electronic Arts created a provocative ad that asked, “Can a Computer Make You Cry?” Finding the answer, the ad copy continued, would mean “transcending [the computer’s] present use as a facilitator of unimaginative tasks and a medium for blasting aliens.”

Blasting aliens, however, would remain popular. At its simplest, a first-person shooter like BioShock is not that far removed from the pattern set by old arcade games like Pac-Man: The player manipulates a character through a maze, gaining or losing prizes, fighting or evading enemies. At the end of the maze, the game—and its story—end.


Screengrab via Irrational Games

In 2005, the great film critic Roger Ebert, writing about a movie adaptation of the game Doom, made the offhand pronouncement that “As long as there is a great movie unseen or a great book unread, I will continue to be unable to find the time to play video games.” Gamers took note and fired back, launching one of the Internet’s more notable flame wars. By 2010 Ebert had refined his position: In an essay titled “Video Games Can Never Be Art,” he wrote, “One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome.” A game without points and rules, he said, “ ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.”

Whatever Ebert said, Levine had his artistic sights set high. To design BioShock, he was reaching back to literary classics such as Brave New World, Animal Farm, and Ayn Rand’s Anthem. He became fascinated with dystopias: the human desire for perfect social order, and the inevitable failure of those aims. “There are a lot of utopia-minded people,” he said. “The problem is you bring people to your utopia.”

Levine set BioShock in an undersea city, Rapture, where a capitalist named Andrew Ryan has welcomed the world’s elite to develop their ideas. A banner heralds Ryan’s views: “No Gods or Kings. Only Man.” The discovery of rare stem cells that can bestow special powers alters this micro society, an underclass grows, and conflict ignites. The player is Jack, who tries to escape a Rapture gone mad with war. The creative team built an art deco setting of dystopia and insanity, of metal under pressure, of echoing shrieks, with a finish that has become a classic. In particular, BioShock’s scenes with the Little Sisters—little girls cloned to be incubators for those precious stem cells—set gamers into a frenzy of moral scrutiny. Depending on how the player interacts with the Little Sisters, the game has two different endings. If you’ve spared them, the story ends with the girls saving your life. Together, you ascend to the world above, where you raise them as your loving daughters. If you’ve killed some of the Little Sisters, though, the story ends as you lose your sanity, take over the city, and prepare to destroy the world with nuclear missiles. (There’s a third ending for those who slaughter all the Little Sisters—it’s the same as the second ending, but with a more disapproving-sounding narrator.)

“Everyone’s reaction will be different,” wrote Wired’s Chris Kohler. “‘I don’t know about you, but I have turned into a flagrant murderer of Little Sisters,’ said a friend of mine as he was playing through the game last weekend. I’ll never look at him the same way again.”

Not everyone admired this innovation. One reviewer, Kieron Gillen of Eurogamer .net, called BioShock “a game that’s furious that it’s a video game,” writing, “The game was built up as posing challenging moral decisions and showing the consequences…. Is it acceptable to kill defenseless girls to stay alive, just because someone tells you to? BioShock says no. The answer’s just, ‘No.’ It’s not something with gray areas….Where others have teased the idea of good and evil options, pandering to your tastes, BioShock just glares at you. You killed some kids? What Kind of Person Are You?


While marketing Infinite this past year, Levine appeared in every major gaming publication and at every convention, teasing audiences with clips and concept art and morsels of Infinite. His fans—almost 79,000 on Twitter—ate it up. They had been looking forward to this for the better part of a decade.

There had already been a follow-up to BioShock: the prosaically named BioShock 2, released in 2010, by another division of Take-Two. It was mostly a rehash of the original, and Levine had had nothing to do with it. Infinite was to be Levine’s true sequel.

Levine calls art a pressure cooker. Dozens of people worked on Infinite—artists, actors, composers, technical staff. Infinite’s story was so large that Levine spread the writing duties around. In the fall of 2013, when the game was supposed to be released, the company announced that its launch date would be pushed back months, and the press reported that four employees in creative roles had left Irrational before the product was completed. Fans worried that the project might be borked, but their fears were allayed when the game finally launched in March 2013.


Screengrab via Irrational Games

Visually, Infinite is stunning. Unlike the murky underwater metropolis of the original game, Infinite’s cloud city of Columbia is a place of blue skies and green parks, with cream-colored buildings bobbing in mid-air. Where the original BioShock’s dystopia had been founded on Randian libertarianism, Infinite’s is built on a strain of super-patriotic, race-obsessed religious fanaticism that many took as a parody of the Republican Tea Party—a charge Levine denies. “Themes tend to repeat themselves,” Levine said. “We started this game before there was a Tea Party…. People probably thought we were trying to make a point about racism. We were just trying to depict a period.”

Infinite’s depiction of religiosity run amuck was controversial with some players. One of them, Breen Malmberg, demanded his money back because of a scene in the game’s opening sequence in which the player must undergo a forced baptism to enter the city. It’s presented in the game as a choice—the player has to click on an “Accept Baptism” prompt—but there is no other alternative: You either undergo baptism, or you don’t play the rest of the game. “I am basically being forced to make a choice between committing extreme blasphemy by my actions in choosing to accept this ‘choice’ or forced to quit playing the game before it even really starts,” Malmberg, a devout Christian, told the gaming website Kotaku. Online commenters pointed out the obvious irony: For Malmberg, virtual baptism was an outrage, but he seemed to have no problem contemplating the countless virtual murders that would come later in the game.

For all its beauty, Infinite is disturbing. One of the main character’s most popular weapons is a handheld chain-saw glove that can core a head like a piece of rotted fruit. Even hard-core gamers commented on Infinite’s bloodshed. Chris Plante, of Polygon, wrote: “The magnitude of lives taken in BioShock Infinite, and the cold efficiency in doing so, is unfamiliar to even the most exploitative films…. Violence doesn’t serve BioShock Infinite. It distracts from it.”

BioShock Infinite is in many ways so, so close to being That Game,” wrote Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton, “the one we can show to our non-gamer friends and say ‘See? Look at this! It is so awesome! Check out the story! It’s like LOST! How neat is this?’ But it’s not That Game, because it’s so hilariously, egregiously violent that a large number of people will never give it a chance.”

In fact, the game’s violence struck some critics as so over the top, and so distracting from an otherwise lushly imagined fictional world, that they started asking a hitherto-unasked question: Why should games like Infinite include violence at all? Why are they still built on the old Pac-Man model of collecting points and beating baddies?

To put it another way, as the games journalist Stephen Totilo asked Levine in February: “Why is it that a studio that thinks about really interesting themes…why is it that a studio that is highfalutin enough and interesting enough to do that, is also a studio that makes first-person shooters?”

Levine replied at length, but didn’t have an answer. “I would say it’s an evolutionary form as we figure out more and more,” he said. “But this is an art form that is incredibly new.”


Screengrab via Irrational Games

It’s a sentiment he repeated in an interview with Boston magazine: “It’s exciting to me to be at the beginning of something,” Levine said. “What’s interesting about games is how little we know about how to make them. We’re falling on our faces all the time.”

Infinite’s been successful in creating dialogue, but not all of that dialogue is complimentary,” said Philip Tan, of the MIT Game Lab. “It’s incredibly valuable when one game comes out that everyone’s talking about. It gives us a central, common experience that we can use to discuss what is possible in games today.”

Rus McLaughlin, of GamesBeat, commented that a video game’s imagined world is the only proper place to demonstrate violence. “[Infinite] is intelligently written and smartly executed,” McLaughlin said. “That made a lot of industry people want to hold it up as an example of what games can be. They wanted it to be something that could break the ‘mindless video game’ perception that’s so strong in peoples’ minds.”

Games writer Leigh Alexander criticized Infinite for not following through on that expectation. “The player had no opportunity to experience empathy or to explore those systems [of race and religion] in a way that commented on them meaningfully,” Alexander said. “Ideas about systemic prejudices go from provocative to offensive when they’re forced only to be a backdrop, when the extremists just become uninteresting caricatures.”

This summer, the movie trades announced that Levine had been tapped to write a film reboot of Logan’s Run for Warner Brothers. The first Logan’s Run movie, out in 1976, is about an aging man who tries to escape his society, which kills people when they turn 30. It is a story of false utopia that Levine has loved since childhood. Long after his first effort at Hollywood, he has returned.

But at the same time, he has been working on the rollout of a final BioShock chapter: BioShock: Burial at Sea, a downloadable addition that takes players back to the underwater city of the original game. Is it art? Who knows, but it’s damn good fun.

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