Thursday, September 8, 2011
Ken Levine: a Genius Game Designer
There are few people in the video game industry that I respect more than Ken Levine. As the creative director at Irrational games (the company behind the lauded video game series Bioshock) he has continually pushed the envelope of what games can be. While most developers look to push a games limits in the physical sense (better graphics, improved AI behaviors, better gameplay etc.) Levine's ideas are largely conceptual. Above all else, his efforts focus heavily on innovations in video game storytelling, which in my opinion, are some of the hardest things to achieve in the medium.
It wouldn't be possible for me to talk about someone like Ken Levine without delving into the Bioshock series currently available for this generation of consoles. Levine was the creative director for Bioshock 1 and also the upcoming Bioshock Infinite set to release in February next year (somehow 2k studios thought they didn't need him for Bioshock 2 and the game subsequently wasn't nearly as good). In Bioshock 1 the story is set in the late 50's early 60's and revolves around a character named Jack (who you play as) who's plane has crash landed over the Atlantic ocean. Jack survives this ordeal and quickly swims to a nearby lighthouse. Eventually he finds his way to a bathysphere that takes him to a supposed underwater utopian city called Rapture.
This is where the game's sheer storytelling power is showcased. Rapture itself is a dystopia. It was one man's singular effort to create an underwater city "free of God's and Kings...only Man". A place where the "hands off" approach of government was met with a new extreme. Science is not held down by "petty morality" according to Andrew Ryan (the aforementioned founder and antagonist of the game). This extreme objectivism encourages citizens of rapture to alter their DNA and allow them to do crazy things like shoot fire from their hands or use incredible powers such as telekinesis. It also leads to death and destruction. The citizens (with no limits or laws protecting anyone because of this extreme principle Rapture was founded upon) have abused these DNA alterations (called plasmids) and have resorted to killing each other to gain more ADAM (the compound used to create and use plasmids).
To say Rapture has become as dangerous as the lawless wild west would be a vast understatement. The entire city is collapsing with leaks springing up everywhere. Much of the power is out and Raptures citizens (called splicers now because they have been "splicing" their DNA to shreds) are extremely dangerous. On top of all this danger, there is something even worse prowling the halls of Rapture: the Big Daddy's. These genetically engineered, mind controlled monsters, donning heavily armored diving suits protect individuals known as little sisters. Little Sisters are demonic looking little girls who go around stealing ADAM from dead bodies in Rapture and maintain Andrew Ryan's control over the city by making sure this is stockpiled for him and his followers. As Jack you are tasked with fighting Andrew Ryan's vise like grip on the city and somehow escaping to the surface while overcoming these seemingly insurmountable dangers.
The first thing that Bioshock does is to blow your mind to a degree. Here you are on the bottom of the ocean, in a huge city, with crazy looking and acting people running around, and 50's art deco and music all over the place. Talk about imagination. Just coming up with this idea makes my head hurt. I also can't overstate just how intelligent, and how literary at times, Bioshock can be.
Levine is heavily criticizing polarizing figures such as Ayn Rand in this game (by the way Andrew Ryan is actually a play on her name). He uses a videogame to make social commentary and critiques a political outlook. In many academic circles this didn't appear possible for videogames. In fact I can imagine countless people who don't play videogames staring me in the face and saying "only books, photographs and film can do that effectively". Levine also manages to work in moral depth to Bioshock by introducing a fascinating decision mechanic. In the game you can fight a Big Daddy (if you choose to) and when he's dead you can decide whether or not to kill the little sister and harvest all of her ADAM (which you need as much as you can get to power up and survive) or spare her (which will give you a fraction of the ADAM you would get by harvesting her). This morality makes a player feel something deeply. This is yet another convention of great art that many people have declared just isn't possible in a game.
Levine's thinking "outside the box" technique is stunning. In my opinion Bioshock is the best videogame series currently available and I can't wait for Bioshock Infinite. If you have the opportunity to play any of the Bioshock games please do. These are can't miss experiences that Levine has crafted conceptually and you won't find anywhere else in any medium. Videogames offer true immersion in a world and apparently, through the efforts of people like Ken Levine, they can tell one hell of a story too.
P.S. Please watch the video I posted along with the entry. It's one of the best openings I've ever seen in videogames or movies.