Crispy Gamer

On the Hot Seat: BioShock's Ken Levine

Make no mistake, it takes a village to make a videogame. But someone in said village has to order the pizzas on Fridays, and decide who's going to hold the Almighty Talking Stick during staff meetings, and also be willing to lock himself in the village smokehouse on weeknights until he has visions of lumbering Big Daddies dancing in his head.

And that guy is 2K Boston's Ken Levine.

After collecting yet another armload of trophies at the Game Developer Choice Awards this past February for Best Audio, Best Writing and Best Visual Arts -- his trophy shelf must be about to buckle under the burden of all the awards the game has won -- you'd think Levine would be holed up in the Ritz penthouse, taking baths in Dom Perignon, eating candy and watching all the PPV movies he wants to watch.

But the one thing more daunting than making a great game is making a follow-up to a great game, and BioShock, in all of its eerie underwater glory, is going to be one hell of a tough act to follow.

Crispy Gamer recently caught up with Levine and sat him down on the Crispy G. Hot Seat. Here's what Levine had to say.

Crispy Gamer: Rumors are floating around -- and yes, that awesome pun was very much intended -- that BioShock 2 will be a prequel to the original. Does that mean we'll finally get a glimpse of Rapture in all its glory, as opposed to the post-apocalyptic state in which we last saw it?

Ken Levine: [Turns away for a moment]

PR Henchment Markus Wilding appears and delivers the official response of 2K Games: At this point we don't have anything to say at the story and/or setting of BioShock 2. [Editor's note: Translation: Don't ask anymore boneheaded BioShock 2 questions. It's still too f***ing early. Bonehead.]

Crispy Gamer: Moving right along, then. Super Mario 64 was one of those oh-shit games that reportedly sent a great many developers and publishers into tailspins because it basically redefined not only what the Nintendo 64 could do, but also what a videogame could be. BioShock has had a similar effect, I'd wager. Have any developers come up to you and say, "Screw you, Levine! You ruined our game!"

Levine: [laughs] Well, we did put a lot of effort and thought into BioShock. We felt like gamers were saying, "Can you give us more?" We sensed that gamers were ready for more. While working on the game, we had several moments where we'd go, as a team, Well, that's how to do it. And then we thought, Wait a minute. Do we really have to do it that way? We took a lot of risks with this project.

Our goal was to make Rapture a real place. It was never going to be a sprawling Oblivion-like world. I love those guys at Bethesda; their goal was to open things up, to create this huge game world, and they succeeded.

In contrast, our goal was to include a very high level of detail. We wanted people to play the game, to be walking through Rapture, and say, "Hey, you know, people must have really lived here."

Crispy Gamer: According to your resume, you've done some dabbling in the film world.

Levine: Hollywood.

Man, I've been there. I was a screenwriter. The money, the hot women, the whole thing. Game making is a different medium. The reason I'm in games, let's be honest, is that I failed as a screenwriter. The form of games, it's all brand new. Working on games is what Hollywood must have been like in 1915. We're all still figuring it out, and that's exciting.

Crispy Gamer: At best, writing is an afterthought in most games -- yet, BioShock features some truly terrific writing. [Editor's note: It won the Best Writing Award at this year's Game Developer Choice Awards.] Tell me a little about the writing process involved in BioShock.

Levine: I did a lot of writing on the game, yes. But I'm lazy. Everything was always very last-minute. The whole thing was really born out of an ongoing dialogue between the artists, the designers and myself. We'd inspire each other. Working on a game is not like writing a novel. I don't sit down and just come up with everything. Example: The Gatherer's Garden machines. I remember a meeting I had where I said, "OK, here's what I want them to look like," and I described them to the artists. They went off and came back with that great design, with the soda-machine area in the middle. Later, I remember we were recording dialogue for the game, and I was working with one of the voice actors, a woman, and I wrote a song on the spot, the little jingle that comes out of the machines. I had her record it, and that's what's in the game. So much was done in the moment, at the very last second.

Crispy Gamer: During the development of BioShock, was there a sense that you were making a balls-out, transcendent piece of software here?

Levine: I'd say that there was a sense that we were doing something different here, yes. We thought, We're really taking a leap of faith. Who knows how this is going to turn out? Our wives and significant others were very patient with us. My wife is a very patient woman, bless her heart.

And, you know, beyond that, credit 2K Games, too, for greenlighting the project. Here's a truth: No marketing guy ever got fired for greenlighting a licensed property that failed. But the tombstones of marketing guys are all along the game development highway for those who greenlit projects like [BioShock] that didn't work out.

For example, consider the whole concept of the Little Sisters. You're basically holding a child and having to decide if you're going to save her or kill her. They never said, "Are you f***ing kidding me?" They never put up a single creative block.

Really, give credit to 2K Games, because at the end of the day, we've all got families to feed, and honestly, I'm not sure I would have greenlit this project if I had a family to feed?

Crispy Gamer: Talk about working in Boston. Are there any advantages to working in the New England states as opposed to, say, working in Austin or San Francisco?

Levine: Besides working with great people? No, there's really no advantage. There's no support from the state for this kind of work, so we have an obligation to treat our employees right. And we do. And look at the games coming out of the New England area these days. You've got things like Rock Band and BioShock. The fact that games like this are coming out of Boston is a testament to the gumption of these people.

Crispy Gamer: Did the milieu of Boston influence Rapture or the game in any tangible way?

Levine: The truth is, I like living in Boston. But BioShock is a New York game through and through. I grew up in New York. I remember going to Rockefeller Center as a kid and just loving that space.

Crispy Gamer: One final question: How much of a nightmare would it be to have Uwe Bolle direct the BioShock movie? [Editor's note: Before you get your Fruit of the Looms in a bunch, there is no official word at this point on any sort of BioShock movie.]

Levine: [Laughs] You see the stuff that Zack Snyder and Robert Rodriguez are doing with Frank Miller's material? Sam Raimi too, to some extent. I saw those Spider-Man movies. Man, there were 40 years worth of comics and themes up on that screen, and they were put up there with real love. What I'm saying is, there are indeed directors out there who are capable of taking offbeat source material and doing it right.