Develop gets inside the mind of Irrational Gamesâ?? creative director

Interview: Ken Levine

A young Ken Levine was spewed like vomit from Hollywood’s intestines.

Flushed away with a blank filmography in hand, an agent who stopped returning his calls, a scriptwriting dream shattered.

Today, some 20 years later, that devastation has become his muse; the bedrock inspiration of his output as creative lead at Boston-based Irrational Games.

“I’ve actually been thinking a lot about my game ideas recently,” he tells Develop.

“When I was jogging the other day I asked myself; why do I keep building these types of games? These perfect worlds where something goes wrong? It got me thinking about my own life, and how everyone tries to create their own little utopias.”

Levine has helped advance the dialogue of video games. Not by their text and certainly not through cut-scenes, but by building living societies – fantasy worlds – and setting upon them the realities of man: paranoia, greed, corruption. In Levine’s most famous works Thief, System Shock 2 and his breakthrough game BioShock, the player is told stories, usually a series of waxen-wing parables, by interacting with the aftermath.

“You have these dreams, these ideas, these creations of how good it’s all going to be, and you work your life towards those goals. They’re just hopes and ideas, they’re just things that spring from our heads, but they happen to define our whole lives,” says Levine. “Sometimes, we get stuck on that idea, that dream. We can’t see the reality of what’s really happening.”

Eight years before he set foot in the first game studio he’d ever seen, Levine found his own Hollywood scriptwriting dreams crumbling like the walls of Rapture.

It was the late ‘80s. After impressing his playwright peers at Vassar College in New York, Levine moved to LA with the single wish to become a great film writer. His self-belief – an essential trait for any creative entrepreneur – had put his work under the eyes of the world’s most powerful movie execs. The plan failed spectacularly.

Levine quickly found himself stranded from the industry he was desperately trying to be at the heart of; out of money, doubting his own talent, and fired from a last-chance writing gig. He had no choice but to crawl away from the Tinseltown dream. He was dejected. But worse, he was without purpose; a sense that his dream goal, though beautiful when achieved in his mind, was unrealistic.

Levine’s journey from that world to the games industry was far from straight, scattered as it was by moments of opportunism, walkouts, failure and hope. His career seems like it was always just minutes away from straying elsewhere; a wild goose chase of life’s purpose, where game design was never the ultimate goal. Not at least until the eleventh hour.

He was working at, of all places, a New York computer consultancy firm when destiny caught up with him. Screaming out from the opened page of a games magazine was an advert, a vacancy post.

Looking Glass Studios – the house of System Shock and Warren Spector, the progenitor of Ion Storm and Irrational Games – just so happened to be looking for a new game designer. Coding experience an advantage. Hollywood contacts a necessity.

Today Levine is a rising star of the games industry; an icon-in-waiting. Some of the greatest craftsmen of the entertainment industries see BioShock – built under his leadership at Irrational Games – as a vital, modern inspiration. Cliff Bleszinski says the industry “warmed down before Bioshock came along”. Gabe Newell said he had to ban the game from Valve’s offices. Steven Spielberg was said to be addicted.

“BioShock is our passion at Irrational,” says Levine. “It’s our consuming life’s purpose, it’s what drives my life. For five years I’ve worked for it, and when you do what I do – and God bless my wife and her patience – there’s not really a distinction between work and home. My team get emails from me at all hours. And calls. It’s our lives.”


But the designer – despite having built a game of award-winning narrative sophistication – doesn’t agree that story is higher up the pecking order than gameplay. Levine is not, he suggests, trying to relive the Hollywood dream through code.

“I think my games fall into this interesting space between simulation and scripted elements. Our narratives are quite unique, but I can definitely say the story isn’t more important to us than the game,” he says.

“The two mediums are of completely different languages. It’s why I don’t do cut-scenes. Going down that road is dangerous; the focus is the play.

“I love it when developers say ‘in our game we have 800 lines of dialogue’. I mean, who fucking cares? That’s a standard? ‘We have 600 hours of cut-scenes’. So what? As a writer, bulk is the easy part.”

“Making content is easy. But leaving enough out, looking at everything as an interactive piece, that’s the real ambition.”

Irrational’s BioShock Infinite, in terms of concept, is the most ambitious idea yet to come from the Boston-based Irrational.

Studio Ghibli may have animated it, Jonathan Swift may have written it, but Irrational is going to build it; a breathtaking city in the sky. One buoyed above the clouds by air-balloons the size of football stadiums. A utopian retreat that somehow lost its civil values and, stranded miles above the earth, became a beautiful, ghostly prison.

It can only be said that, when it was demonstrated behind closed doors at this year’s Gamescom, BioShock Infinite became one of those rare projects that leaves an industry unanimously awestruck. Even executives from direct rival companies urged Develop to take a look at it. Why? Hard to explain, they said. You just have to see it.

And yet one of the biggest challenges of the project came from how effortlessly beautiful the flying city of Columbia looks. Levine wants to turn this city, saturated as it is in fierce sunlight, into a vintage horror show.

He agrees it’s an unconventional approach, but the payoff can be striking.

“Our goal with Infinite is to present a world that is so different, strange and weird, that also has elements of familiarity. The mixture can be even more effective.
“I was out the other night and saw this absolutely beautiful woman, and she turned her face and on the other side she had a… well, it must have been some kind of birth defect. What was striking about her is how she carried herself, because she was beautiful, but the other side to her face stood out from it. When you see it, you stop for a second, it breaks your expectations of her being perfectly symmetrical.

“That mixture of the perfect and the strange really interests me as a game designer. It works so much better than plunging you into a world that’s completely alien.

“With the first BioShock, everything was a dark corridor. Everything was one or two guys – shotgun, electrobolt, shotgun. That was a flaw, I think. We wanted to open up the world and change perceptions.

“Have you ever seen Blue Velvet? It opens on a shot of this beautiful, welcoming green grass field. And eventually you come to find an ear, sitting in the grass, ants crawling all over it. That’s what we’re going for.

“It’s a huge challenge. But when Irrational Games start getting comfortable about what we are doing, we start getting uncomfortable about what we are doing.”

Technologically, Irrational is plunged into its own nightmare. BioShock Infinite is built with Unreal Engine 3, yet – like many studios that have been exploiting the engine for years – it’s becoming hard to tell. The visual craftsmanship, and the sheer scale of the game, is remarkable.

Levine says there’s no code sharing between what the studio had with the first BioShock to Infinite, not a single line.

“It’s because we couldn’t, not with this idea we had of a city in the sky,” he says.

“Every building actually floats, we’ve knocked out a flight structure for them, and obviously the draw distance is a vast improvement on the first BioShock.

“We’ve also had a tech team build a deferred lighting engine that’s not in Unreal, which can do dynamic lighting very economically.”

Levine talks tech with a surprising degree of comfort. He was, admittedly, completely oblivious to how games were created when first hired at Looking Glass. It poses the question that perhaps, while coders and artists are the lifeblood of dev studios, a creative soul is needed at the beating heart.

Levine’s literary and filmic inspirations have a clear common theme too.

“George Orwell is my main influence,” he says. “Animal Farm is the only book you’ll ever need to read about politics. It’s not the focus on communism itself that I love, but the notion that these sociological systems will get corrupted.

“In terms of film, actually I’d say Fight Club is a really interesting one. Not because of its studenty anti-society stance, but because of that great notion of the unreliable narrator.

“There’s a TV series that inspired me as well. Logan’s Run. I still remember the first time I watched it – where this perfect world was made under this one condition; everyone had to die when they were 30. It was just this amazing utopia with a rotten core. When I saw that I lost my shit.”

It’s these themes of corruption, of betrayal, of fallen idealised worlds that jump out from the cities Rapture and Columbia and into the players’ minds. These ideas, and their execution, are central to why Levine has become such a key asset to the game industry.

He is a creative talisman, born to write scripts, who fell in love with an industry virtually void of good writers. The industry’s execs should take note; BioShock’s avuncular Big Daddy mercenaries and Little Sister moral dilemmas have not proven to be difficult ideas to sell. BioShock is lucrative franchise.

In fact, BioShock was such a big commercial success that – in an ironic twist – those Hollywood execs took notice. The boy they once spat out from their incestuous clique now wanted him back. For Levine, it must have been quite a beautiful moment.

“I was offered the chance to make a game with a film director,” he says. “A very talented film director. They said they really liked what I was doing and wanted to share it – that this project with creative leads from both game and film – was going to be amazing.”

Join us, would you kindly?

Levine said no.

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