As video games have matured, we’ve begun to see the auteur theory applied to several prominent game designers. One of the biggest and well-known examples is Ken Levine, designer and writer of BioShock and BioShock: Infinite.
With the recent remastered release of BioShock: The Collection, Rolling Stone’s new video game site Glixel sat down for a lengthy, fascinating interview with Levine that covers politics, regrets, choices, and the reasons Levine decided to quit BioShock.
The interview explores the massive success of 2007’s BioShock and 2013’s BioShock: Infinite (Levine passed on the chance to make 2010’s BioShock 2).
BioShock created a new narrative-focused template for first person shooters. The game plays heavily with the concept of player choice. Levine admits that he fought with publisher 2K Games over the choice to harvest or save the Little Sisters: “It’s sort of anathema to game design, where you have a path for the player that is just harder. I actually think that people approach harvesting and saving almost entirely from an emotional standpoint.”
The BioShock games are frequently analyzed for their politics. Levine admits to sympathizing with Andrew Ryan more than BioShock: Infinite’s Comstock. “BioShock 1 is about Jews,” Levine says candidly. “They’re all survivors of oppression. And they don’t come out of it heroes. I think most people are destroyed by oppression. If you pretend there are a lot of happy endings for those stories, in some ways it elevates the oppression to something it’s not.”
Levine talks about suffering from mental health problems. BioShock: Infinite’s five year production was especially grueling, as his team ballooned from 30 to 150, spread out over two continents. It’s the sobering story of runaway success becoming a negative influence: “It changed my life in terms of what it did to my health, and what it to my view of making games, and my relationships with people.”
He enjoys making a game with a smaller, more personable team more so than shipping a final product: “If I could still get paid, I would make games and never ship them. I don’t enjoy shipping games. I think it’s kind of dreadful.”
In 2014 Ken Levine announced he was leaving Irrational Games, the company he’d founded in 1997. Instead of letting him go, parent company Take-Two Interactive reached a deal to form a small studio within the company. Ken Levine, who still works as a screenwriter, is currently working on a sci-fi game that dives even deeper into immersive story-telling and but still add infinite replayablilty.
BioShock: The Collection is out now for Windows PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.