Transcript: Interview With Ken Levine

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Friday, September 14, 2007; 2:52 PM

The following is a transcript from a portion of the interview @Play Columnist Mike Musgrove had with BioShock's lead designer Ken Levine. Levine is president and creative director of 2K Boston, the game studio that made the video game BioShock.

Mike Musgrove: While playing BioShock, I sometimes paid attention to the story, and sometimes ignored it. Does it bother you that some people may blast through the game and ignore the storyline -- or is that a valid way to play the game?

Ken Levine: I think that's a completely valid way to play the game. I think most great works of popular fiction have to work on a couple of levels. You look at Lord of the Rings or The Matrix, you have to have your giant monsters and you have to have your great explosions and people can go to the movies and enjoy those movies for those elements.

But what I think makes those things enter the cultural zeitgeist is, they work on another level -- whether it's The Matrix with these existential themes or Lord of the Rings as an extensive meditation on the meaning of power and how it affects people.

That's what separates those films from other works in the genre, they have this underlying element and I think you find that in all really popular genre stuff, that there's usually something else going on there, and, really, that's what draws me.

However, I'm perfectly comfortable with the guy who plays through the game -- in fact I really enjoy watching people play through the game -- who are really just there to shoot stuff in a cool environment.

But what I find quite often what happens is that one of the reasons we tried to tell the story visually so much - that's why the world of Rapture is so visually revelatory of a story... we wanted to draw people in who never thought they'd be interested in the game as a meditation on governmental regulation. It's hardly something you can pitch as a video game: "Come play our game about a pseudo-objectivist style Utopia!" That's not exactly going to get butts in the seats...

I think one of the reasons the game is having the impact it's having is because it has themes beyond the monster stuff. But, you gotta deliver on the monster stuff.

Mike Musgrove: When you're making a game, do you come up with game design or a storyline first?

Ken Levine: The short answer is: Game design first... You have to get the gameplay stuff right and the story has to complement the gameplay.

I think that quite often you have a lot of frustrated screenwriters or novelists making videogames and so they're quite insistent on forcing the audience to soak in every aspect of their narrative from A to Z and learn every proper noun and every character's name and every relationship.

With BioShock that wasn't our goal, our goal was to put the stuff there for the people who want it, and there's an incredible amount of depth, but we really wanted people to be able to play it and... if they didn't want to deal with this deeper story, they didn't have to. But they can't help absorbing some of this stuff through the visuals of the world.

Mike Musgrove: Can you cite any influences for BioShock from other games, or movies or books? I feel like the Shining was in there?

Ken Levine: I saw the Shining when I was 9 years old. It pretty much set my notion of how to do horror properly, that it has to be connected to character, that horror is about loss at the end of the day. A fear of losing things that are important to you is what drives horror-- not a monster in the closet, but losing the things that you love. To me, that's what Rapture and the world of BioShock is. That's why Rapture had to be a beautiful place at once, that it had to be this fallen glory and all these lives had to be incredible and had to hold so much promise. The fact that they fell apart had to be a tragedy or there's just no horror there.

I think that great masters of horror like [Stephen] King understand that you have to love the characters in order to fear for them to lose what they have...

Fight Club was an inspiration. There's a scene in Fight Club, there are several scenes in Fight Club where, the second time you watch [there are] totally different meanings than the first time. I love movies like that, because the narrative doesn't just mess with the characters' minds, it messes with the viewer's mind and that's something I wanted to accomplish in BioShock.

Mike Musgrove: Do you believe video games are art? Do you regard BioShock as a piece of art?

Ken Levine: Honestly, to me that's a bit of a remote conversation. To me, all I care about is, does it work, does it impact an audience? Is baseball art? Baseball certainly drives people emotionally and gets people engaged, people follow it. But is it art?, I don't know.

Is BioShock art? I don't know and I guess I sort of don't care. That argument tends to be more about turf wars. And this happens with every new media. Movies, when they came around, there was an argument: Are they art? Comic books, are they art? Video games, are they art? It's always the same path. There's a push back from the old guard who have turf to protect, because, you know once you're art, you can be serious. But I don't really care about being serious. I don't care how people regard me, if I'm an artist or not, all I care about is are they being moved by what we're making.

Mike Musgrove: What are the advantages, or limitations, of video games as a storytelling medium?

Ken Levine: One thing I think we learned making BioShock is that you have a storytelling device that doesn't exist in any other [medium] and that's your environment. So much of the story of BioShock is told by what we call mise-en-scene. You just asked me if video games are art, I can tell you that video game designers are as pretentious as any artists, [to use] terms like mise-en-scene!

It means "to set a scene" and so much of the world of BioShock you can tell what happened here by looking around you and exploring the world and that sense of discovery in film you know the camera has to drive the mise-en-scene and the director has to drive it.

There's something awesome about the discovery process that the player goes through when they play the game and they can sort of discover little stories -- sometimes they're out of the way and sometimes you get a story that a lot of people may not have even seen or sometimes you're able to put together some narrative clues just by looking around the world and exploring the world. I love that. There's no other media can do that...

That opportunity doesn't exist in other media and it's a really exciting place. I think if we've done anything in BioShock, we've sort of pushed that notion down the road a little bit, which is, you can tell a story without words that is unique to each viewer.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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