Irrational Games' Ken Levine, of "System Shock," "Bioshock," and "Bioshock Infinite" fame is recognized as one of the video game world's premier storytellers. On Friday, he will be recognized for lifetime achievement at the Golden Joystick Awards. Winners are chosen based on nominations from experts at a variety of game publications in Britain, such as CVG, Games Radar and the official Xbox and PlayStation magazines. Levine is the first individual to receive this honor.
He hopped on the phone from London on Friday to speak about his award, and what's next for his work as a storyteller. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Hayley Tsukayama: I want to open by asking you about how it feels to get a "lifetime achievement" award in your forties. [Levine is 47.]
Ken Levine: It’s like an invitation to the tomb! No, but in the game space, a lifetime achievement award is interesting. It's unlike film, where they do what they do and they get it. Gamers — we're still really figuring it out.
It’s a nice milestone on this mountain. But I’m looking up at the summit, and it’s in the clouds, and who knows how to get up there? Or what exactly is the form we're working in? I don't think I'm being recognized for mastering some kind of known craft — I'm just one of the guys scratching his head for 18 years and trying to figure it out.
In previous conversations, we've talked about the debate of whether video games are art, which seems to be one that you don't particularly like. But it's mentioned in the Golden Joystick press release on your award. What do you make of that?
I have a pretty pedestrian definition of art. For me, it's pretty much: Does it have value outside of function? If it has no function, then it’s probably either sentiment or art —a family photograph has value but you can't make a meal with it. A book has value, but not because you're going to build a house with it. I don't tend to say, "Is that book art?" I think all books are art. The question is whether it’s good art, right?
You may walk past the theater and they're showing a triple feature of the Twilight movies and think "Ughhh." [Note: It was really hard to transcribe this particular noise of disgust.] But I still think that's art.
So how did you find out you got this award, and what was your initial reaction to it?
I was surprised. Like you said, it was like "Whoa, I'm 47, and I’m not 78." But it’s a very young medium. The medium didn't exist when I was born — I remember when it came into being. I really had to get my head around what it meant.
And I came to my own conclusion. It’s a recognition of the attempt more than the completion of the act. It’s saying here's somebody who’s in there and he’s trying — one of the guys trying to figure it out, as we're all trying to figure it out.
You've emphasized a couple of times now that you're far from the end of your career, and I know you've just wrapped up work on the first of two new downloadable content episodes for Bioshock Infinite. How do they help advance you to the summit, whatever that may be?
I think what was interesting if you look at [the first] Bioshock, it was about a place. Bioshock Infinite was about a character. Meeting [Bioshock Infinite protagonist] Elizabeth as a third-party, and then at the end of the story getting to play her means you go through this entire range.
It's been an interesting experiment. The goal is to see the world as she sees it and we're doing a lot of work on that. How does she view the door that she's lock-picking? When she sees a complicated schematic, how does she view it? She's not Booker [Infinite's other, playable protagonist]. She's very different. And taking her from a distant thing to an instinctive, internal thing has been interesting.
I think we've been doing different wrinkles of that since the first Bioshock. When we're finished with that, I think you're going to have a very different experience.
Those things you just mentioned — how to show a door, how to look at a schematic — those are very practical, functional things. How do they add up to something more, something like art?
When a doctor sees an X-ray, you see the same image that a doctor sees. But they see something completely different. So we're asking, how does she see these things in the world, and we've done a lot of experimentation on how we visualize that. In the first episode, "Burial at Sea," it’s about this Elizabeth who’s so different from the person you've just met — she's grown. Infinite is one large storytelling experiment and it's been great to take it through the lens of this character.
And it's been great to work with Courtnee [Draper, Elizabeth's voice actress] on this character. She’s now in her third year of law school, and accepting a job ... we started this before she even got into school. You think about it, this woman who hadn't even started school is now going to be in this prestigious law firm; it's been great to watch the character changing and Courtnee go through growth in her career together.