Monday, February 4, 2013

Ken Levine: Maker Of Games, Sayer Of Things

Look, before I say anything else, I want to make it clear that I have enjoyed playing several games that Ken had worked on, System Shock 2 and BioShock being the most prominent examples. Whatever good stuff in those games was Ken's fault - well done! As a gamer, I'm very grateful.


Here's an excerpt from the interview he gave to Rock Paper Shotgun:

RPS: Just touching on that idea of unreliable narration that Bioshock dwells on – games generally tend to be quite literal, don’t they? I’m trying to find the best way to express this, but I was thinking about how books or movies are so often tricks, or illusions, or sleight of hand, whereas games are so often just what they appear to be. Are you trying to avoid being over-literal in that way? Whether or not you regard the Bioshock games as successful, are they basically exploring the idea of making games a little less as they seem?

I can only boast of a tentative idea of what Jim is asking here - he is probably referring to how most games are literal rather then literary, you get what you see, no hidden meanings, no twists, no turns, no character development beyond levelling up and upgrades. Most games are CODMW2 SP rather then Fallout 2. But my apologies ladies and gentlemen, Imma let Ken here answer the question.

Levine: I have this friend from a D&D group in high school, he’s a writer named Andrew Mayer, and after we had both seen Inception he made a really interesting point about the ending. We were talking about that final scene where the camera cuts off before the spinning top either falls or doesn’t, and that leads the audience to wonder if DiCaprio’s in the real world or not in the real world… And Andrew says to me: “No, he’s in a movie.”


And I...

Hold up Ken. Hold up. Let me catch my breath here. You truthed me so hard, dog, I can't walk straight no more.

And I thought...

Wait up, wait up. Whew. What an emotional roller coaster! 

And I thought tha...

Just one more second. Let me interject here and express my gratitude that you and Andrew have finally solved the age old problem of "where exactly is DiCaprio". I think I speak for every citizen of the world, I speak from the bottom of my heart, my good Sirs, we can never repay you. Never! Please, continue.

And I thought that was really interesting.

I don’t know if that’s what the authorial intent of that scene was, but it’s interesting to notice that DiCaprio’s character is never either in the real world or in the Inception world, he’s in a movie.

Whoa! Here it is again!

If you step back from it, neither is more or less real than the other. But on an emotional level that’s not true for us, we think that the movie’s real world is more real than the dream world. Some things in fiction are more true to us than other things. In Bioshock Jack’s perception about himself is no more or less real once Andrew Ryan told him the truth about himself, because it’s all a lie. It’s all fiction. Except it’s not.

We just got schooled, son! Literature 101 right there. But wait, there's more. And it gets better.

I love that stuff. I have a bit of the post-modernist bent to me. I grew up loving Tom Stoppard, The Manchurian Candidate, Fight Club, Twelve Monkeys, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind… you know, stuff like that where the form itself is part of the conversation, where identity is a question, where the form itself is a question. Some people are capable of doing that really elegantly, and I’ve always enjoyed that kind of stuff, because it’s not about twists per se, but about your perception of the experience and what you take from that.

:sigh: See, I think this is what you get when you let your kids study in liberal arts colleges. They will reduce the definition of post-modernism to plot twists. Ken studied drama back in the day and apparently wrote couple of screenplays which leads me to believe that he is either dumbing it down for us, so that we, the subhuman readership of RPS, will maybe understand the basic concept of literature or he actually thinks that he has a "post-modernist bent" that sets him apart from people who don't have that... bent.

I recently started paying more attention to people who are creative leads or design leads in different game developing companies and it sometimes seems like I'm reading interviews with the same guy. He has many incarnations but they all sound alike and say similar things. Above all, all his versions have the same aura, same air of "I am delivering a very interesting and valuable information instead of answering your question." And it's not, the information is not valuable. It's high school level stuff for $100K a year. I felt the same about Harvey Smith, most of whose tweets are about his meals, and I felt the same about Jake Solomon, who seems like a very good-natured guy who loves his family very much. They all seem to be nice, clean-cut, probably hard working, moderately capable managers. I wish game rags would spend more time on crazy/deranged/obsessed lower level designers and writers, people who actually make art assets for their games and don't say things like "I have a bit of the post-modernist bent".

Or maybe it's me and everything is just fine. Oh yeah, Ken, sorry about that, please finish your thought.

That’s why I love my friend’s observation about Inception, because there’s no more validity to one than the other. There is no spoon, right?