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?


  1. If you want my opinion on Inception movie - there is no difference whether that spinning gizmo stops or not. If you accepted the rules of that "dream world" and act like it is a real one - there is no difference in which reality exactly you are.
    It is a your deeds and your faith that make things real and valuable or not.
    And about Ken Levine: can you make an asuumption that he tried to get rid of that interviewer answering in such manner, can it be a joke?

    1. I've seen videos of Ken doing presentations and interviews and he doesn't seem like the guy who could totally troll an interviewer. Unless, of course, the joke goes deeper and he's trolling everyone with everything he says to divert the attention from the fact that he is actually Andrew Ryan's son!

  2. I couldn't even barely read a paragraph of that link, he feels like the type that spews out a whole text wall but in the end is saying nothing. Hey! Would that be a good story? That'd be totally abstract and deep!

    "But often you will see something a designer or artist is working on, and it doesn’t feel right, and then you have to figure out why it doesn’t feel right. And that can just be because it contains a couple of elements that you would never see together. I remember working on Thief, or at least I think it was Thief… anyway, I was looking at all the doors in the game, and all the doors looked wrong. I didn’t know much about building, and it took me a while to realise that there were notice that there were no frames – you don’t just cut a hole in a wall! There’s a frame there for the door to go into. And we have a hard time noticing that stuff sometimes. Most of us spend our time looking at screens or our loved ones, not a seams and moulding and flanges, but nevertheless when they’re not there we can see something is wrong."

    Fucking. Christ. I mean, man, that is a good job on slapping some poor kid up the back of his head. Probably doesn't even want to be there and hates having such little creative control. They love when you do that! Good cause too, your anal insight gave us all the total immersion of accurate fucking door frames.

    Lost it. Ahahaha.

  3. Alright, I read through more of that and then went offline. I don't think it could take it anymore and neither could I.

    It's like he thinks he's some keen observer of human behavior, and he isn't one. He seems caught up in that "realism" shit with games. He talked about how when the player stands still his comrade must still keep moving, basically. We've already had that, but it was more of an easter egg with games, not a requirement. You go idle, the character scratches his ass. But they do all this stuff to emulate the real thing, and it's still very fake at the end of the day.

    He's more painful in video form! Look at that smug.

    "Storytellers of the Decade" by Game Informer

    1UP Network's 2007 person of the year.

    Douche of the anal sort ~ Vee.

  4. And on that youtube link, I just caught a very sad top comment that was in response to someone who actually gets it.

    "No offense to anyone but some people are taking this bioshock stuff way too seriously. Games are supposed to be fun not about what is and isn't a real type of game"

    In which a perfect example of one of many Levine money feeder fans replies:

    "As far as I'm concerned they shouldnt even be called "games" anymore. They are much more than just petty play things nowadays. People take Bioshock "way too seriously" because we the fans care about it very much. Its a rich detailed interactive experience with complex philosophical themes and one of the most iconic and original worlds ever created. So i respectfully disagree with you saying that games are supposed to be mindless fun and nothing else."


    "Its a rich detailed interactive experience with complex philosophical themes and one of the most iconic and original worlds ever created."

    AHAHAHAHA. Alright, I'll shut up now. Somehow you made blogs fun man.

    1. I hope I don't offend you by saying that I did find both Bioshocks (especially the second one (probably because Ken didn't work on it)) fun. That said, I do agree that they are a bit of non-games. While I appreciate the sheer amount of money and polish that went into them, they are more like moves than games. A very old argument, I know. I can also see how these games are "like super philosophical and shit" for people who don't read that much. I guess it's better that they find out about Ayn Rand this way, as opposed to never knowing that she existed.

      I'm actually planning to do a playthrough of Infinite and hopefully get a chance to talk about some hand-holding and cutscene force feeding that I'm guessing is going to be happening in one of the most expensive releases of this year. As well as probably some decent artwork that will be in there. I doubt there will be decent writing but I'll go in as open minded as possible.

      Obviously we both have a very similar opinion of Ken, so I'm not going to go into that. Between the two of us we created a very solid portrait of the man.

      On the ass-scratching-for-realism subject: the only ass scratching that I've enjoyed in-game was in Monster Bash, where if you're idle for too long, Johnny turns around at one point and fires his slingshot into the screen making it "shatter". First time that happened, I thought "videogames - MOAR!!!"

    2. "I hope I don't offend you by saying that I did find both Bioshocks fun."


      No though, never man. Your taste is awesome, you'll forever have me beat in a lot of areas! I have the first one, but I never beat it. And I will probably pick up Infinite. They're not terrible games at all. I like, the whole sunken city eerie feel, different ways you can go about something with the fun super powers, insane characters are always fun, steampunk junk - that stuff is great. But the realistic water fetishism, the forced "moral choice" of letting the girls live or die, and uhh, I don't even know how I feel on that whole "50s" thing. I feel like a lot of people go for that look. You know how you see those Marilyn Monroe prints at Walmart or the like? Whatever that's called. Tits, Fedoras, Alcohol and Guns in a time during or before the early 60s, late 50s, 20s even but not before the 1900s. Mad Men.

      The Last Days of Coney Island, it has all of that, yet Bakshi will put a lot more into it where it's not generic or early 60s for the sake of it being early 60s. He's not using it as a writing cop-out to make something interesting, it just happens to be a time period where something interesting is. I can't really say where Bioshock is on why they set it in that time period. Same with Infinite. You could throw anyone in a room with a bunch of old pictures from those periods and they can make something.

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