If today we increasingly talk about video games as a cultural expression, it is also thanks to Ken Levine . Loved or hated, the “father of BioShock” plays a leading role in the game industry , thanks to the profound sensitivity that permeates its productions, not only from a content point of view, but also for innovative choices related to game design. But behind the Ken Levine character of the industry which person is hidden? How did your peculiar video game idea come about? Let’s try to answer these and other questions by retracing the life of the American videogame author, made up of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), science fiction and Ultima Underworld, but also of philosophy and literature, with the objectivism of Ayn Rand and the dystopia of George Orwell. A journey, therefore, between the most disparate themes to learn more about one of the most unconventional personalities of the videogames world
The Ken Levine solitary nerd and writer of comedies
An inveterate D&D player and table games, a film and comic eater: as a child Ken Levine was all of these things, summed up in the word nerd.
Today there would be nothing wrong with the term, but in the seventies the situation was quite different. At the time, in fact, the nerds were really the losers of society , with strange and niche passions, difficult to spread without the help of the internet.
For this reason, Ken Levine’s childhood spent in solitude, in his room in Queens of New York, throwing dice on the floor for every character he created for his D&D campaign.
Despite this, as a child he always had the support of his parents who – as reported in an interview onPlayStation.Blog – they saw in the game and in the use of fantasy the best tools to let express the creativity of the child.
This was also played by his older brother, a lover of board games, and in particular by Avalon Hill’s Panzer , based on military strategy and tactics.
Growing up, Ken Levine became interested in science fiction, through Star Wars and Star Trek , and in video games, with Maneater , an electronic game based on Steven Spielberg’s Shark .
He also received the Atari 2600 for Hanukkah as a gift from his father, although the most played title in his youth was certainly The Legend of Zelda on NES, because of which he was even left by his girlfriend at the time.
On the training side, Ken Levine always had a predisposition to tell stories, so he decided to study script at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. After completing his studies, Levine decided to move to Los Angeles to start his career as a screenwriter, something he never actually did, as he was mostly contacted to write comedies, a genre unsuitable for his way of being. The future videogame author looked at Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck, he wanted to achieve their genius, and the path that was taking shape in front of him could not allow it.
The disappointing Los Angeles experience convinced him to return to New York, hoping to obtain a professional redemption. Unfortunatelynot even the Big Apple met her dream , given that she mainly dealt with scripts for small theater companies who performed in the streets, near the Broadway area.
It was a particularly heavy period for him, discouraged by the harsh reality of not being able to break into the show with authorial works.
Following the failures in cinema and theater, Ken Levine realized that a turning point was needed : he sent the nomination for the role of game inventor for the development studio Looking Glass, as well as creator of Ultima Underworld and System Shock, two titles that Levine loved . Eventually he was chosen, although he knew nothing about how to make a video game.
This is not surprising: as we have also reported in this retrospective, in the Nineties there were no training courses to work in the videogame field, and those who were environmentally learned by themselves, experimenting and comparing themselves with the few colleagues who made up the development team. Another important aspect to be emphasized is that those who developed were primarily gamers. In short, thanks to the passion and initiative , everything was possible.
Once he took his seat in the Boston company, Levine began working on a game based on the Star Trek: Voyager series, but was eventually canceled.
It was then that the young game inventor switched to Thief: The Dark Project , the steampunk style stealth game, nowadays considered a true classic.
The experience gained up to that point in Looking Glass allowed him to set up his own development studio with two other friends. The name chosen for the company was Irrational Games , because the three felt crazy to want to make video games on their own.
However, his debut was not the best, as he almost immediately risked bankruptcy, so they got financing from Looking Glass for the contractual terms they signed when they left the company.
Obtained 70 thousand dollars, the small Irrational Games and Looking Glass worked on System Shock 2 , highly anticipated followed by the admirers of its predecessor, including Ken Levine himself.
For the second chapter, the author created a mixture of science fiction and horror, a combination that will then be a kind of trademark.
It came out a title in which the players felt anxious in advancing, provoked by the dark and disturbing atmosphere , highlighted this time by a fitting sound sector, given that at the time of the first System Shock it was not materially possible to realize variegated tones aimed at express the essence of the game.
Next to the fear of exploration, there was also the fascination of history, which managed to treat delicate subjects such as the role of politics and the economy. A mature product, atypical for the videogame scene of the time, able to involve with its gameplay, its aesthetics, its history. It was 1999, and videogame criticism welcomed the game with great enthusiasm.
We come to the most interesting part, that of the trilogy (to be more precise than the couple) of BioShock .
The development of System Shock 2 played an important role in its conception, at least as far as the anxiety and dark atmosphere were concerned.
In the early 2000s, Ken Levine had already decided he wanted to create a game based on the concept of restlessness, but that as a genre it would have been a cross between FPS and RPG , in which the plot would have had an important function. The setting would have been an island and the enemies would have been the Nazis.
This was the first pitchfrom BioShock, presented to the publisher Codemaster. The idea was not successful, but he made it clear to the author that he wanted to create a Triple A game that was revolutionary. The problem was finding a publisher ready to cover the large budget required.
It was not an easy search at all, to the point of forcing Ken Levine to send a BioShock demo to the press , to get the attention of publishers.
2K Games, of Take-Two Interactive, decided to finance the project, probably driven by the critical reactions of critics after testing the demo, on which the development team had put all its resources.
The sum initially given was $ 11.8 million, but eventually $ 15 million was needed for the development of BioShock .
Once again the comparison with today could make people smile, especially seeing the figures behind titles like Red Dead Redemption 2 , but about ten years ago such a budget was really difficult to obtain for the development of a video game. Only GTA III and Madden NFL could count on financial support of this level in those years.
Irrational Games worked hard, supported the 2K marketing side that created an ad hoc trailer tosend to the MTV GameTrailers program, and also a community survey to test the ground on a possible collector edition of the game.
However, there was no shortage of problems during development: given the special nature of BioShock, it was difficult to identify the right audience : those who expected a classic FPS would be disappointed, as well as those who wanted to play an RPG. Furthermore, the other key element of the title, that is the plot, was difficult to advertise, besides the fact that at the time the narrative component did not enjoy the same respect that it enjoys now.
In this sense, it was terrifying when the game was presented at E3, where rumors spread among the experts that BioShock sold at most a hundred thousand copies, as it was only suitable for hardcore gamers. The 2K executives were terrified at the thought, as the game would have to sell a million copies just to get back on track.
Marketing then became even more massive, while the game was continuously tested. Meanwhile Levine increasingly perfected writing, drawing ideas and concepts from his youthful interests.
BioShock came out in August 2007 . The game was awarded by critics, managed to sell 4 million copies in total, and marked a turning point in the videogame scene.
Certainly Levine’s work was not the first to deal with mature themes through the plot, but it certainly helped raise the video game as a medium , giving concrete proof of its potential.
The result was so far above expectations that Levine and his Irrational Games did not want to participate in the making of the second chapter: the Rapture story had ended admirably for him, and a marketing follow-up was out of the question. His ambition was to remain in the world of BioShock but with a new protagonist, a new story, a new city. From here BioShock Infinite in 2013, also acclaimed by critics and players.
At the beginning of this article we defined the “BioShock father” as loved or hated by the gamer community.
The reason for these contrasting reactions is related to the philosophy that hovers in the game worlds born of his mind.
Objectivism, dystopia, social criticism and historical vision: these are terms that can turn up your nose and even surprise you if they relate to the video game.
From this biography dedicated to Ken Levine, it is clear that his great ambitions have led him to want to propose an atypical , deep, adult triple A.
Already the BioShock game intro, reworked several times by the author, with the explosion of the plane and the ascent along the lighthouse, the trails of blood, the voice of Andrew Ryan, and the synthetic writings but full of meaning as “Neither gods nor kings, only men” portend the nature of the title, which speaks of the human condition in a brutal and at the same time intimate manner.
The symbol of this concept is water : the sea swallows our plane; the sea wraps around Rapture; the sea as a symbol of Andrew Ryan’s utopia.
And yet, once you take the elevator to the underwater city, utopia leaves room for dystopia.
The world hypothesized by the visionary Ryan, in which the man would have gone on only thanks to himself, free from the chains of religion, political ideology, morality, imploded on himself. Here is clear the influence of Ayn Rand on Ken Levine, the Russian-American intellectual, an exponent of objectivism .
Just bring the Wikipedia definition to understand the game concept:
“Objectivist principles include rationalism, that is, reason as a guide to human actions, the right to exist for oneself (individualism), without the obligation to sacrifice oneself for a moral, the rejection of the use of violence to propagate one’s values. The rational egoism or ethical individualism of Ayn Rand, is drawn and justified philosophically by taking up mainly concepts of Aristotle’s nicomachean ethics, in which it is called “constructive selfishness”: being “moral” means loving oneself, mainly, but never harming others ».
The problem is that the BioShock man is exclusively selfish, which is why the Rapture avant-garde society suffered a violent and frightening collapse.
Virtues such as beauty, art and science are exasperated by the characters that represent them, reaching the loss of control, values and, above all, humanity. It is precisely the concept of lossanother pillar upon which the BioShock philosophy. In this case, Stephen Lev is the greatest model of Ken Levine.
The fear of losing something, or worse, someone: we constantly experience this feeling as we explore Rapture’s decadence and know its characters.
Finally, another innovative element that has made BioShock famous is the non-linear narrativeoften linked to a reinterpretation of the past. Levine himself has repeatedly stated that he is fascinated by historical processes , as we periodically relive ideological, cultural and political situations already experienced, but declined according to modern times.
The author, therefore, through the video game spreads a message that undermines the visions typical of the Sixties (era in which the first BioShock is set) and therefore of the Cold War, as well as those of the Ten years in which BioShock Infinite is set, bringing patriotism, religious faith and more vulgar racism to the surface. All expressed with a non-linear narrative, which allows us players to immerse ourselves, through the fragmentary choices and rhythms, in the visionary but distracting atmospheres of Rapture and Columbia.
Given the breakthrough caused by BioShock, the many wonder when we will see a new work by Ken Levine. So far what we know is that the author ended up with Irrational Games and opened a small team called Ghost Story , currently working on a title that only the most intimate and familiar friends have tested.
It is surprising to see a personality like that of Levine abandon the world of big productions, but it all comes from the strong stress experienced by the American author , nervous at the thought of having to manage large teams located in various parts of the world, chasing publishers to get funding, and base the video game on marketing through content.
Yes, the video game is a product to be sold to the public, but it is above alla medium through which society expresses itself , and for this it must be valued in all its components.
Levine had understood this right from the start, not surprisingly, when he founded Irrational Games with his two friends, he admitted that the company’s goal would be to fix the world through the video game.