Ken Levine (game developer)
September 1, 1966 |
Flushing, New York
|Occupation||Video game designer, Creative Director|
Ken Levine (born September 1, 1966) is the creative director and co-founder of Irrational Games. He led the creation of the multi-million selling, multiple "game-of-the-year" award-winning video game BioShock, and is known for his work on Thief: The Dark Project and System Shock 2. He was named one of the "Storytellers of the Decade" by Game Informer and was the 1UP Network's 2007 person of the year. He received the inaugural Golden Joystick "Lifetime Achievement Award" for his work, such as System Shock 2 and Bioshock.
Life and career
Levine was born in Flushing, New York to a Jewish family, though he considers himself an atheist. He studied drama at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a film career, writing two screenplays. In 1995, he was hired as a game designer by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Looking Glass Studios after replying to a job ad in Next Generation Magazine. At Looking Glass, Levine worked with pioneering designer Doug Church to establish the initial fiction and design of Thief: The Dark Project.
In 1997, following his work on Thief, Levine left Looking Glass along with two coworkers, Jonathan Chey and Robert Fermier, to found Irrational Games. The studio's first game was the science fiction RPG/shooter System Shock 2, a direct sequel to Looking Glass' original 1993 System Shock. Levine served as lead writer and designer, and the game shipped in 1999 to critical acclaim.
Irrational made two Freedom Force games, a real-time tactical RPG that drew heavily on the love Levine and Irrational artist Robb Waters had for the Silver Age of Comic Books. After the first Freedom Force game, Irrational developed Tribes: Vengeance and SWAT 4, on which Levine served as writer and executive producer respectively.
Although Tribes: Vengeance, SWAT 4, and Third Reich all shipped within a year of one another in 2004 and 2005, Irrational had been working in preproduction on the first-person shooter BioShock, the studio's most ambitious game at that point, since 2002. The game went through numerous revisions to its premise and gameplay, and was released in August 2007. In 2005, Levine, Chey, and Fermier sold Irrational Games to publisher Take-Two Interactive. Take-Two Interactive changed their name to 2K, just as BioShock was released.
In 2008, Levine delivered the keynote address at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, discussing his youth as a nerd in the 1970s and how it impacted the path of his career.
Since the release of BioShock, Levine has been serving as creative director and lead writer on BioShock Infinite, set in 1912 in the fictional floating city of Columbia. Bioshock Infinite was a critical success, winning over 80 awards pre-release.
Work as an Author/Screenwriter
Ken Levine has been a consultant and co-author of three books related to the Bioshock franchise. These are Bioshock: Rapture, Bioshock Infinite: Mind in Revolt and The Art of Bioshock Infinite. Levine himself did not work on the majority of "Rapture" and "Mind in Revolt", but provided the intellectual property and quotes used by the authors in the books. The author for "Rapture" was John Shirley and the author for "Mind in Revolt" was Joe Fielder. Levine personally wrote an introduction in the Deluxe Edition of "The Art of Bioshock Infinite", published by Dark Horse Comics.
Ken Levine has recently been confirmed to be writing the script for the remake of the dystopian science fiction film Logan's Run. Levine will continue to make video games after Logan's Run is finished.
Ken Levine is most notable for his conceptualization and work on the Bioshock franchise. Ken Levine and his team only worked on Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite, passing on the opportunity to make Bioshock 2.
Bioshock is set in 1960, where the player controls a man named Jack who is the sole survivor of a plane crash near a mysterious lighthouse in the mid-atlantic. Jack finds a bathysphere and takes the submersible down to an underwater city called Rapture, a city that was dedicated to the super elite that wanted to avoid regulation and government. The city has fallen into ruin due to the city's social implosion and Jack must find a way to survive against the crazed inhabitants and escape.
Bioshock Infinite is set in 1912, where main protagonist Booker Dewitt must travel to Columbia, a flying city that has no fixed location and rescue a girl named Elizabeth and bring her back to New York. No motivation is given as to why Booker must do this except the cryptic words "Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt." Booker arrives at Columbia to find an American Exceptionalist city dedicated to hailing the Founding Fathers that is led by a religious zealot known as Father Comstock.
Style and Themes
Ken Levine is known for creating visually dynamic, innovative and narrative heavy games that explore sociological and philosophical ideas in their narratives. Ken Levine selects dynamic art styles for use in his games, such as Art Deco, Steampunk and Frontierism. Levine has explored concepts ranging from racial commentary to metaphysics with his games and is very heavy on the storytelling aspect of gaming. He has cited Mad Men, the Coen Brothers and Stanley Kubrick as some of his influences.
Bioshock: Ideas of Choice, Objectivism
Bioshock is considered Ken Levine's defining work by critics and gamers alike, it is known for its innovation in the first-person shooter genre regarding game mechanics, and its complex narrative and dynamic art style. The art style that Levine used to design Rapture's interior and exterior architecture was heavily influenced by Art Deco, a style that focuses on Geometry to create a style that emphasizes speed. Rapture's locations were named after places and characters from Greek Mythology, such as Neptune's Bounty (a fishery), Hephaestus( The City's "Power Plant") and Apollo Square. Mechanically, the game played like a normal First-Person shooter, with the exception that the player had access to a variety of genetically imbued superpowers, such as pyrokinesis and telekinesis, through the consumption of DNA altering drugs mass-produced as a commodity for the citizens of the city. It also added elements of role-playing games, such as customization of the player's weapons, attributes and load out.
Beyond the game's aesthetics and mechanics, Bioshock often challenged the player to make choices that were impactful to the story, so much to the point that the player could get a variety of endings upon completing the story. Levine wanted to make the idea of choice and free will a major factor in the game, such as the inability for the player to control whether or not Jack, the silent protagonist, murders Andrew Ryan, the founder of Rapture. Andrew Ryan, the mastermind behind the city and the ideals that drive it, is a play on words for philosophical author Ayn Rand, of whom's ideals Rapture was built upon. Levine based Andrew Ryan and Rapture around the extremes of Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. Levine's criticism through Bioshock was that Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy works only when Rand has complete control of the world and characters which she creates. Rapture's fall from utopia to dystopia is direct commentary on this, as the city's people quickly became corrupt under the Objectivist ideals of Andrew Ryan and turned on each other and eventually drove the entire populace to madness. Levine Constructed the narrative this way to show the effect of when human nature meets Rand's Objectivism. Levine's commentary on objectivism was well received by the intellectual community, such as Mike Sharov, a self-professed Objectivist who stated in his Bioshock review that he thought that Ken Levine was simply going to attack Objectivism. Later on in Sharov's review, he had this to say about the game, "Now that I have played through it, what can I say about Bioshock? First of all I must admit that I was wrong. Then I simply must extol it. This game is a true masterpiece! It is the ideal to which all past works of this type have strived to reach and to which all future ones will likewise strive to live up to! It is a truly awesome piece of propaganda against Objectivism and for statism and altruism that would have made Stalin and Beria weep with joy." 
Bioshock Infinite: Exceptionalism, Metaphysics
Bioshock Infinite was released on March 26, 2013 to critical acclaim, both for its gameplay and narrative. It also garnered controversy, both in its release and its development, regarding how Levine and his team tackled sensitive issues such as racism and religious extremism. Ken Levine conceived Bioshock Infinite's flying city of Columbia from numerous sources of inspiration, such as the flying city of Bespin from the Star Wars franchise, the 1890 Chicago World's Faire and Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City". Levine took further influence from the World's Fair by adding a revisionist museum exhibit that displays The Battle of Wounded Knee and The Boxer Rebellion, specifically the Battle of Peking.
The art style and architectural design that Levine employed for Bioshock Infinite seems to draw influence from Steampunk and Frontierism. In terms of gameplay, Ken Levine and Irrational Games made Bioshock Infinite similar to Bioshock in almost every way, with the exception of some new features such as the skyhook mechanic and the kinetic reflection shield that protects the player's health. The player still wields weapons with superhuman powers and customizable load outs and character traits, but going with the drastic changes that Levine made to the setting, the weapons and powers now have a period touch to them. The firearms acquired by the player range from the Mauser Pistol to semi-automatic grenade launchers, showing the level of technological prowess that Columbia has already achieved by 1912, and the Plasmids from Bioshock have been revamped into Vigors, a reference to frontierism and the various tonics and cure-alls peddled at that time. The Vigors of Infinite are different to the Plasmids of Bioshock in the fact that they are ingested by drinking, while Plasmids were injected.
Similar to its predecessor, Bioshock Infinite is heavy in sociological and political themes, commenting on race, sexism, American Exceptionalism, religion and metaphysics. Ken Levine made Columbia into a floating city that looks perfect on the outside, but is actually a volatile society of radical exceptionalists who worship the founding fathers as deities who are led by a religious zealot named Zachary Comstock. Comstock is similar to Andrew Ryan from Bioshock in the respect that he is a man who lives for his ideals, and his strong beliefs dictate his actions. Levine drew these parallels between Comstock and Ryan on purpose, as well as the parallels between the dystopia of Rapture and Columbia, because both the men and the cities are the same. They are the same entities, but in different universes. Quantum Physics is something that Levine delves into pretty heavily in Bioshock Infinite, and Levine's choice to include this aspect of physics/metaphysics in Bioshock Infinite was well received amongst critics and journalists, such as Paul Marret, who had this to say in his article regarding the metaphysics of Bioshock Infinite,"Bioshock Infinite also deals with many other concepts in metaphysics, such as time travel, causation, and determination. If you haven’t played the game yet, I highly recommend it, not just because it is a fun shooting game, but also because it gets you to think about theories such as these. They are important things to think about, since they attempt to figure out exactly how our world functions at its most fundamental level.'
Along with Levine's commentary and exploration of metaphysics, there is the heavy amount of criticism towards religion and exceptionalism. Ken Levine created Columbia as a heavily patriotic, hyper American-exceptionalist city that worships George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin as gods, and looks down on people of different race in a very vocal and public fashion, such as the opening raffle scene where the crowd at the event drew tickets to see who would get first throw in the public pelting of an interracial couple, or the Fraternal Order of the Raven, a 'secret society' in Columbia that hails John Wilkes Booth for assassinating Abraham Lincoln, who they see as a devil. Levine showed racism in a period sense to show just how ugly and imperfect Columbia really is. While the racial commentary was generally well received, there were many gamers who were offended by Bioshock Infinite's racial commentary and American Exceptionalist critique, even going so far as to attack Ken Levine personally, like in the collection of blog posts assembled from forums such as PC Gamer by Kotaku.com contributor Luke Plunkett. Gamers had comments for Levine and Irrational Games such as, "A ‘racist,' ‘violent,' ‘backward' world...? Oy vey indeed. The previous "BioShock" games also had very strange, borderline-deranged (if not psychotic) themes with anti-White undertones. I remember in one of the previous parts, one had to kill little White girls as the player for ‘power-ups.' The makers, "Irrational Games," have at least one "Cohen" amongst their staff" and "Not surprised, the owner of Irrational Games (the company who made this) is Ken Levine, a Jew. He and his like minded clique come up with these ideas, then get their white programmers and 3D designers to make it beautiful and marketable. It is thanks to the white piss-ons that the game looks as beautiful, and has the fun playability that it does, it is thanks to Levine and the higherups that it has the propaganda that it does crowbarred into it. 99% of the people who actually make the games are white, all the designers, programmers, artist etc. But 99% of the company owners with the actual power are Jewish, such as Levine..." Plunkett's article was in defense of BIoshock Infinite's racial and American commentary.
Ken Levine also commentates on religion in Bioshock Infinite, the main theme being that religious extremism is very dangerous and can lead to an unstable and sometimes unethical society. Levine explores this point by making the leader of Columbia (also the antagonist) Father Comstock a ruthless zealot who has made a religion similar to Christianity that revolves around God and the Founding Fathers with Comstock as the prophet who communicates the divine will of God to his people. When the player arrives in Columbia as Booker, they are forced to go through a baptism carried out by one of Comstock's preachers, a scene that sparked huge controversy, including a particular incident where a gamer by the name of Breen Malmberg asked for a refund from Valve, the company that owns the gaming platform Steam on the basis that the game's mandatory baptism scene offended his Christian beliefs. Kotaku contributor Patricia Hernandez wrote an article covering Malmberg's story while giving a different perspective on the issue, stating, "Baptism, thematically, is important to some of the questions Infinite poses: can a person find redemption? Can we atone for our sins? Can someone who has committed grave atrocities be forgiven? Traditionally in a work of art we understand baptism as a means of undergoing a rebirth, something which the game also touches on. And finally, Columbia wouldn't quite be the awful place that it is without espousing white supremacy and religious zealotry." Levine also had trouble in the studio when it came to Bioshock Infinite and its religious elements. An unnamed Irrational Games developer of Christian faith almost left the team due to being offended by the early stages of Father Comstock's development. The developer apparently went so far as to type his resignation right after watching some of the game in production, but Levine talked to the developer, and the conversation that Levine had with the developer influenced Levine to re-write the character of Father Comstock with help from the developer. Levine further stated that it was harder for him to write Comstock's character due to being an Atheist and having a lack of religious knowledge, and that the developer gave him a better understanding of Christianity.
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