Developer Origins: Irrational Games’ Ken Levine

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Developer Origins: Irrational Games’ Ken Levine

After introducing gamers to one of the most talked-about games in a console generation — BioShock — Ken Levine became something of a big deal in the game industry. By infusing his games with socio-political overtones, sympathetic characters, and ambitious art direction, the Irrational Games president and creative director earned a reputation for creating smart games for smart people, influencing a generation of video game developers in the process. And now, the Boston-based developer is deep into development on BioShock Infinite, a game that has already earned widespread attention for its focus on weighty themes such as xenophobia, American Exceptionalism, and civil unrest.

I know Ken pretty well, as far as these things go, but I’ve always wanted to learn more about his background: where he came from, what it was like for him growing up, and how he came to be an unabashed lover of geek culture (which manifested itself in a spirited defense of geeks in the pages of Game Informer magazine). I recently caught up with the man to delve further into these topics and, hopefully, catch a glimpse of what makes him tick.

Bioshock Infinite: Ken Levine InterviewBioshock Infinite: Ken Levine Interview

PlayStation.Blog: Where did you grow up? Did you feel ostracized for being a self-described geek?
Ken Levine: I was born in Flushing, New York, of all places. I grew up in a small town in northern New Jersey. We used to go to New York a lot… but yeah, I was a Jersey boy.

I think it’s hard for younger people to understand today what the world was like before the internet. It was a desert for nerds — there was very little out there. There were comic books, maybe one science-fiction movie a year. When Star Wars came around, it was a revelation. It was the first time there was such a fully realized sci-fi universe that you could see. I saw it opening weekend and it was like touching a third rail. But back in those days, if a comic book got canceled, there was no way to find out because there was no internet. You’d keep going back to the comics stand and it just wouldn’t be there. You only discovered new stuff by going to the store to see if they had anything new.

We had to hide what we liked because we were nerds. We’d get made fun of…being a nerd just wasn’t part of popular culture at all. But that didn’t stop me from being obsessed with it. I used to play Dungeons & Dragons by myself, in my bedroom, because I had nobody to play with. I’d just roll up characters all day long! [laughs]

PSB: I’ll interject for a critical question: Deep down, are you a Star Trek guy or a Star Wars guy?
KL: I’m both. I loved Star Wars for how visceral it was, and for how it created its world visually. I really care about visual consistency. I think it’s easy to forget now how visually consistent that world was in Star Wars, like that oil vat that C3PO descends into. They didn’t have to say, “This is how C3PO cleans himself!” They just showed it with those little details.

Star Trek didn’t have the budget for that, they didn’t have the people for it. It was a little more ramshackle. But I love the metaphorical aspect of Star Trek, that they were telling stories about today, about politics, about culture through the lens of this world. I love different things about both franchises.

PSB: Were your parents horrified by your sprouting geekdom, or did they support it?
KL: I was really lucky — my parents supported it. I don’t know if anyone remembers, but when Dungeons & Dragons first came out, a lot of people thought playing it led to demonic cults. My parents said, “This is an amazing way for Ken to express himself creatively.” They completely supported it and the comic books. The highlight of my childhood was the day my parents got me an Atari 2600. My dad was in the jewelry business, and he made some deal to get a 2600, and I got it for Hanukkah one day and I didn’t even know it was coming.

But being a nerd was something I did at home. I brought comics into school one day and the other kids made fun of me, so I couldn’t bring them in any more. It was tough because there was no nerd culture. There were nerds individually, but there was no way to connect those nerds.

Ken LevineKen Levine

PSB: Growing up, where you a sci-fi or fantasy reader? What were your favorite books?
KL: I was never a huge reader of science fiction and fantasy. If I was going to read science fiction, it would usually be dystopian fiction like Orwell [Nineteen Eighty-Four] or Brave New World. For a while I was obsessed with the novel Logan’s Run, but overall I was never a huge sci-fi or fantasy book reader. I was into them on the gaming side, though, with D&D and the like.

PSB: Was there a book you read that made you say, “I can do this. I can write fiction?”
KL: No. Actually, I wrote a play. I would get around creative stuff back then by working as a sound designer, like a sound tech, and I was working at a theater at a summer camp. The theater was planning this showcase, and they said, “We can put on a play if someone wants to write it.” So I said, “Okay, I’ll write a play.” And I did, and it was an amazing feeling to actually write something. And people liked it, so I realized that writing was something I could maybe do. So I started writing and writing… But nothing lead me to writing. I didn’t know how to write a play, but I wrote this little play on an afternoon off.

PSB: What was the play about?
KL: I think it was called “Graduation Rehearsal.” It was about two kids in a high school graduation rehearsal, a guy and a girl, who were having this conversation. You find out that the boy had killed his brother in a hunting accident — that was the twist! And it was about how he was really damaged by that. I don’t know where the story came from, I just tuned into it. People liked it, and I enjoyed writing it, creating this tiny little world that’s just this boy and this girl.

PSB: What are your favorite movie monsters? Growing up or otherwise.
KL: It was a remake, but I think I’d say John Carpenter’s The Thing. It had a cool monster and some great moments, but what was terrifying about it was that it could be inside anybody — that element of paranoia. Once the monster shows up, and the rubber mask is on, it can only be so good. It’s what leads up to that. Remember that scene where Kurt Russell is testing the blood of the scientists? It was just that actor’s performance that sold that monster, the way he reacted when the monster’s blood was burned and how he was connected to that blood.

Bioshock Infinite: Ken Levine Interview

PSB: You’re a self-described history buff. What time period do you find yourself most drawn to?
KL: When I was younger, it was mostly about wars: the Civil War, World War I, World War II. But since then, I’ve been getting way more into social movements. BioShock was part of that; thinking about the social currents after World War II that led to the changes of the Sixties. And since I’ve been working on BioShock Infinite, I’ve been looking at the turn of the century, the period between 1900 and World War I. What America was going through, how technology changed the world…

Right now, I’m reading a book called The Ghost Map, which is about the cholera epidemic in London in the 1850s. But what it’s really about is how someone figured out that cholera came from drinking water and how he evolved the scientific method, which didn’t really exist at the time. Nobody knew; people thought cholera came from the air you breathed, from moral turpitude, all these things. This guy figured out that everybody who got cholera had been drinking water from the same contaminated well. He figured it out with basic scientific research…the fundamentals of which didn’t exist at the time. It’s so interesting to see how things you take for granted now, like the scientific method, and how science basically evolved from amateurs.

PSB: Do you see any historical parallels to where the world is now?
KL: It’s always a parallel, right? Nothing that happens is entirely new. When we were working on BioShock, we were talking about notions of government — the role of government, how big it should be, how small it should be. And this was before the Tea Party came onto the scene with this push for small government. It wasn’t that we foresaw that; we had seen it in the past with the John Birch Society and Ayn Rand. All these themes repeat themselves.

I think that the reason BioShock resonates is not because we’re trying to tune to the latest and greatest things that are happening in society. We looked at things that have happened over and over and over again — because that means they’re meaningful and people relate to them. Good or bad, these concepts are important to people.

PSB: You say that history repeats itself, but does that apply to the impact of the Internet? Has there ever been a technology that has revolutionized society as much as the open, chaotic democratization of information?
KL: Technology is always transformative. When gunpowder came along and the gun became cheap, it caused empires to fall. You could put huge amounts of firepower in the hands of some farmer. Before that, if you wanted to be powerful, you needed a big suit of armor and a sword and a horse. That’s why knights were these elite weapons, they could afford it. When gunpowder came along, it democratized power. And it therefore helped enable these revolutions that came along at the same time. Technology democratizes power, and the more you democratize power, the harder it is to hold onto power.

Bioshock Infinite

BioShock Infinite explores themes of xenophobia, jingoism, and civil unrest, topics that are driven by Ken Levine’s passion for history and sociocultural movements.

PSB: What are the repercussions, do you think?
KL: If you want to learn about politics and society, read George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The animals take control of the farm and become just like the humans. It’s cynical and it’s sad, but there is progress too. But sometimes there are people who aren’t like that, who break the cycle. Sometimes people think that BioShock Infinite is taking a swipe at America…but if you look at the founders of America, they didn’t do that. They told George Washington that he should be king, president for life…and he said no. If guys like that hadn’t set the example, it’s not clear where this country would be today.

Occasionally you have these extraordinary individuals who foment real change, but they’re very rare. Historically speaking, it tends to be “meet the new boss… same as the old boss.”

PSB: American Exceptionalism, nationalism, and xenophobia are themes that drive BioShock Infinite. Are these topics especially relevant now?
KL: When we started making a game, we don’t tear anything from the headlines. Just like with the first BioShock, I’m not surprised to see that the headlines came back to align more closely with the game. There are certain themes just repeat over and over and over throughout history: it was common in the 30s, in the 50s with the Red Scare. You see these things over and over again, especially during tough financial times. It’s not something that we planned on, it’s just that we’re touching themes that are very core to America and to every country.

PSB: What are your favorite misunderstandings from that first BioShock Infinite reveal video? I’m sure you’ve heard a few.
KL: Some people have thought it was Andrew Ryan doing the conducting, and that was never our intention. Some people thought that the Handyman was a Big Daddy, and he’s not. Those are the big ones. I think it’s natural: we threw so much at people, I think we underestimated how much we were putting out there. People’s heads were sort of spinning at first, but once they caught their breath, they started to get it.

Comments are closed.


13 Author Replies

  • ^_^ I heart Levine. Such a smart guy with a vision that takes us to a special place in gaming. Also loved hearing him talk with Del Toro in their podcast :) Great post!!!!

  • Nice read…Looking forward to Bioshock Infinite

  • He’s hot. No joke.


    A BioShock fan.

  • Infinite is almost upon us! When will we get news about the Bioshock for the Vita?

  • What an absolute embarrassment to gaming this clown is.

    Ayn Rand mixed with a medicore shooter. LOL. What a joke.

    His Sony E3 appearance was a disaster to an otherwise amazing show. Shame on Sony for giving this clown a forum when there are so many amazing and talented PS3 developers out there.

    It is sickening to have this idiot’s junk games labeled ‘spiritual successors’ to the amazing and unsurpassed System Shock.

  • JohnRomer

    First, while I respect your right to your opinion, I hope you respect mine which holds that you’re an utterly obtuse buffoon and failure of a troll.

    Second, Ayn Rand’s philosophy set the backdrop for an incredible plot, and gave the game multifarious political and philosophical dimension rarely, if ever, seen in any other game. It is no surprise, then, that BioShock was heralded as one of the greatest games to ever grace the PC and consoles. Even less surprising is this homage to the man who was at the helm of the BioShock series. I thoroughly enjoyed this interview, as it adds a personal (and political) perspective to this genius of a man.

    Finally, there are much more better ways to express your disagreement other than dabbling in derisive and unpropitious insults (which I, ironically, chose to ignore)

  • Ken Levine is the man. Also mad props to JohnRomer for having his trollface on so early in the day.

  • @JohnRomer: You’re and @#$%!

  • One of the most talented developers and humbled personality ever, KL just want to tell you how much I respect you as the biggest fan ever!

  • yazter:

    “BioShock was heralded as one of the greatest games to ever grace the PC and consoles”

    “this genius of a man”


    Gotta love the trolls coming out to defend this idiot. Sounds just like the dopes who desperately tried to defend Denis Dyack babbling about his ‘genius’ and how ‘intrigued’ they were about the ‘Nordic Mythology’ slapped on his junk Too Human game.

  • I’ve never played any of the games he’s been involved with but see no reason to bash him. He’s helped make numerous games that many people have enjoyed after all. If you want to bash anyone for giving him a “forum”, then bash the company that sent him many hats full of money… but I guess that won’t happen as it would be a conflict of interest to silly console warriors.

    @Sid Shuman
    Might this “developer origins” become a regular PS Blog feature? It would be pretty neat to get these on a bi-weekly basis or so.

  • Hmmm…it seems me and Ken Levine are similar in some ways…….cool!

    • The Thing is also my favorite movie monster (perhaps tied with Alien), so I was thrilled to hear him name it. Totally agree with his take on the move, it’s a personal favorite of mine as well.

  • Ken Levine is a Genius!!!

  • megamixer:
    @Sid Shuman
    Might this “developer origins” become a regular PS Blog feature? It would be pretty neat to get these on a bi-weekly basis or so.

    I second this.

  • I’m glad to see more than just game promos and release information on the PS.Blog.

    • Glad you liked it! I was a little nervous that it was too different for the Blog, but relieved to see that isn’t the case :)

  • megamixer:
    @Sid Shuman
    Might this “developer origins” become a regular PS Blog feature? It would be pretty neat to get these on a bi-weekly basis or so.
    I second this.


    Also, JohnRomer, we get it, you didn’t like BioShock. No one cares.

    • Glad to hear you like it — something I’ve been pursuing for some time, let me try and work it into a regular feature. Thanks for the encouragement!

  • I’m not a shooter person, but when I saw the gorgeous pictures from Bioshock Infinite in Game Informer, I was intrigued. I finally ordered a copy of the original Bioshock last week. Hopefully it will get here soon…If I hear the phrase “American Exceptionalism” one more time, I am going to need some catharsis.

  • I really hope he does an Anthem game at some point. By far my favorite Ayn Rand novel.

    On another note, can’t wait for Infinite, and whatever he’s developing for the vita!

    • Interesting idea! Can’t wait to hear more about the PS Vita game as well, though I suspect it’s some ways off judging by Ken’s comments to the press. We’ll keep you posted!

  • Ken Levine is a genius and BioShock is my favorite series. I’d love to see a System Shock reboot!


    Really hope you’re joking. If not then I’m very worried about you. Next thing you knoq you’ll be saying David Cage and Hideo Kojima are idiots. Laugh, I would.

  • Can’t wait for Bioshock Infinite. I’ve preordered my copy on June 8th. It’s been a long time but I don’t mind waiting since I know the game will be worth the wait. BTW, good job on those two first Bioshock games. can’t wait to play Infinite or the next PS Vita game.

    • Levine only did the original BioShock, just FYI. A different group called 2K Marin handled BioShock 2 on their own

  • He is really one of the best designers out there. Maybe even the best in the west (heh rhymes)

  • After the world (i.e. the internet) praising BioShock I just had to buy it. Was a bit underwhelmed to be honest, but enjoyed it nonetheless. Yet to start on part two.

    Despite my ‘lesser’ enjoying of the game I’m very exited about Inifinite. Hope I won’t get fooled again ;)

    • It’s though to play something after everyone else has lavished praise on it — it’s almost destined to not live up to the hype, you know? Trust me when I say that BioShock was a stunner when it first released — there was nothing else like it!

  • I got it out of hype and I was not disappointed. Nay, surprised even by how good it was for a FPSer. I was not familiar with any of the plot though, just that it took place in an underwater city. So, nobody ruined anything for me.

    The cover finally sold me over as it was not typical, in a world of FPSers with army guy stoically walking for a cover it looked like the right kind of different that I would give it a try. I know covers are not the best judge, but it does at least reveal the art direction and mood that they want to show you.

    Anyway, interesting read.

  • I had more time to read this and I must say thank you Sid and Ken for the awesome insight.
    I’ve been gaming forever and also feel the awkwardness of loving all things nerdy, especially when I was a teen. Even to this day not too many people know my fascination for all things “geek”. I’m older now, 29, married, and work as a personal trainer and still feel weird if I were to tell people that I was playing a video game for hours the night before. It still has that stigma to it for me ya know? This kind of encourages me to not feel weird about myself just because I <3 videogames. Thanks again guys. I too hope to work in the industry one day as an artist :)

  • I never played bio-shock but i did help my friend master it by pointing out where everything is and by constantly reminding him to go the wrong way before the right way to experience the full game. so from the time i spent watching someone play it it looked pretty awesome. I’m the kind of Gamer that as long as some one in the house is enjoying a video game then im content even if all i get to do is watch.

  • I really enjoyed this article and I hope to see more of them in the future. Ken always has very deep and insightful things to say. One thing that I wondered about ken is if he has read brain k Vaughn’s Y: the last man and if he has what are his thoughts on it as it seems like a read that he would really enjoy. Thanks in advance for a reply.

  • You’ll have to forgive John, he’s butthurt because he was expecting another Call of Duty and never bothered with the plasmids.

  • What I like about Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games is that they are able to bring you a compelling story with great gameplay attached. Never giving up on one for the other. Although the buzz is about Bioshock Infinite right now, what I’m more intrigued is this project that they are going to make for the PS Vita. Its one of the games I’m really looking forward on the Vita to be released.

  • As a gamer who is a sophomore in high school who can appreciate gaming i am surprised how much of a genius Ken is. Sid being my age sucks since i was not even alive for games like Final Fantasy and Elder Scrolls FEEL OLD LIKE I DID TO ROBERT KIRKMAN AR COMICCON! Anyway i hope this article happens every week, do David Jafee *hint hint so i can tell him God Of War was my first M game i ever played (3 years ago not at release)

  • Ken Levine! He made one of my most treasured games this generation. BioShock was an absolute blast! Can’t wait to see what he has in store for Infinite :D

  • Really great interview, Sid. I have so much respect and admiration for Ken Levine, both as a storyteller and more broadly as a figure in the gaming industry. Without a doubt, BioShock Infinite remains my most anticipated game of 2012.

  • If you like this article then you should go and listen to his podcast. I think it is called irrational interviews or irrational games podcast and is available on iTunes and probably other places for non iPhone people.

    None of the people I know are gamers or real geeks and it is nice to listen to people talk who care about the things that I find interesting.

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