Humanizing Technology

Making it Real

By Anne Miller

Screenwriter-turned-mega-game-creator Ken Levine ’88 engages players with good storytelling and cutting-edge technology.

This past spring, BioShock Infinite hit the gaming world like a $100 million tornado. Critics unanimously gushed over the groundbreaking storytelling, reserving spaces on their “best of” lists even before 2013 was half over. By fall more than four million units of the third game under the BioShock label had sold, bringing sales of the entire three-game line well north of nine million units.

BioShock Infinite “touches on mature themes players might not encounter in a video game, including faith, religion, government, and racism, to name a few,” wrote USA Today.

The plot involves a hero, a heroine with special powers, and two warring class factions in the year 1912, and the story is set in the fictional floating city of Columbia. The main character, Booker, is charged with rescuing Elizabeth, who is being held captive in a tower, and bringing her back to New York. Parallel universes play a major plot role.

The game has made a celebrity of self-described childhood nerd Ken Levine ’88, the creative director and cofounder of the company responsible for BioShock, Irrational Games. Fans swarm him at conventions. A Reddit “Ask Me Anything” chat a few weeks before BioShock Infinite’s release drew more than a thousand commenters. He has more than 75,000 Twitter followers.

But video games aren’t about fame for Levine. “I’d rather stay home, tweet, eat ice cream, and play Xcom,” he told his Reddit fans.

What delights Levine is crafting narratives, melding good stories with cutting-edge technology, and creating benchmarks in the medium of gaming.

Levine was born in Flushing, New York, and grew up in New Jersey. He jokes that he picked Vassar College by putting his finger down on a map. After watching his older siblings agonize over college entrances and move away to school, he wanted to keep it simple. He picked drama as a major because he wanted to write screenplays. His classes focused more on acting, but opportunity knocked when he started working behind the scenes.

“I was working at the Alumnae House the summer after sophomore year and was fired because I was a terrible busboy,” he says. “The tech director at the Powerhouse Theater said, ‘How would you like to be a carpenter?’” And so Levine found his niche.

He learned management skills as a member of the Philaletheis Society, a student-run group that produced its own plays. “I got to learn a lot about getting the money together, getting the people together, making college students show up on time, and getting them to know their lines,” he says—all skills that serve him well running a creative, computer-based company.

Levine’s connections paid off when a playwright he met at the Powerhouse agreed to pass one of his scripts on to an agent.
Levine ended up with a first-class plane ticket to L.A., where he snagged a screenwriting deal with Paramount Pictures for a romantic comedy. (Not the best fit, he admits, for a man with darker visions of humanity.)

He settled in San Francisco because he couldn’t afford a car necessary to traverse L.A. Soon, he says, his screenplay days “just sort of faded away.” He turned to tech, landing a job with Looking Glass Studios, a small gaming firm. Soon after, he and some coworkers started Irrational Games, releasing System Shock 2 in 1999, a sequel to a game produced by Levine’s previous employer.

“It was insane,” he says. “I had no business experience. It’s like saying, ‘Why don’t I start a movie studio?’ when you’ve been in the film business for a year and a half.”

But it worked. Levine’s earliest games were lauded for their storytelling.

And then came BioShock.

“I very quickly realized the unique thing I had to offer, which was story,” he says. “There are not now, and there certainly weren’t then, people who understand the process” of building a story for games.

Levine’s video game storylines touch on history and literature. In the many interviews he’s given about the BioShock series, he mentions Erik Larson’s bestselling The Devil in the White City, about a serial killer and the Chicago World’s Fair, as well as Ayn Rand, as influences. He focuses less on the ever-changing consumer tech realm, the latest smart phones or gaming consoles, and more on crafting engaging stories.

“Whatever it’s going to be in the future, people want to be entertained,” he says. “They want quality. They want something they can be engaged in.”
In films and books, there’s great narrative, but no interactions. For a storyteller, that’s the challenge—and novelty—of games. “How can I help take narrative to a place that it hasn’t been before,” he says.

BioShock’s next title, Elizabeth, is an “attempt to move the ball down the field.” He says the idea “whispered in his ear” during one of his daily long runs through the rolling landscape of his Massachusetts town (one he prefers not to name for fear of fans flocking to his door).

And it turned out to be a game-changer—a female companion who melded a strong character with artificial intelligence technology that made her more interactive and made players care about her. Unlike many other games, Booker’s sidekick Elizabeth isn’t a static character who has little impact on the plot. In BioShock Infinite, she helps move the story forward.

“Every game is not just a creative endeavor, it’s an invention”, he says. “Just to make a believable person—that was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.”

For all his success, Levine says failure is key. Not just his early professional stumbles, but a willingness to fail during the creative process, to write and rewrite and not fear leaving large chunks of work on the cutting-room floor.

“People tend to fall in love with an idea and they think it’s magic, and they’re not able to look at it from the eye of the audience,” he says. “Putting that distance between you and your work is really, really tough.”

Levine won’t discuss what his next gaming project might look like, but news about his next screenwriting venture has already broken. It’ll be an update of Logan’s Run, a 1976 sci-fi movie about a society in which people are not allowed to live past a certain age. The film—based on the book of the same name—was panned by critics but was nominated for an Oscar for its visual effects.

Levine, who says he didn’t read many books as a child, nevertheless grew up “obsessed” with Logan’s Run—he figures that he read the book 15 to 20 times.

Levine writes on weekends. He estimates he has at least 70 vacation days socked away and might use some of that to finish the project, although he admits he rarely takes vacation. More likely, he will tread the same paths he took while building Elizabeth, BioShock Infinite, and other stories—a dedication to craft, an embrace of failure, and long, slow quiet runs where creativity whispers.