Ken Levine The Man Behind Bioshock Artwork

Ken Levine: The Man Behind Bioshock

“No gods or kings. Only man,” wrote Ken Levine, the creative lead and mastermind behind the Bioshock series.

Those were the words scrawled upon the banner outside of the bathysphere that introduced the player to the world of Bioshock. Levine questioned the morality and freewill of mankind, creatively weaving 20th century utopian ideals with contemporary culture, creating the artful worlds of Rapture and Columbia. This dystopian first-person shooter franchise earned critical acclaim for its philosophical, narrative-driven gameplay that examined race and class relations, metaphysics, and individualism versus collectivism. 

Considered one of the brightest and most unique voices in gaming, Levine served as lead writer for System Shock 2, a game often described as Bioshock’s spiritual predecessor. This was Levine’s first foray into hybridizing RPG elements on a first-person shooter foundation, leading to the gameplay that would be featured in Bioshock. Levine also developed the design and story concepts for Thief: The Dark Project, a 1998 stealth video game set in a Steampunk metropolis that received the honor of being placed on multiple hall-of-fame lists. 

Since his humble beginnings in Flushing, New York, Levine has collected numerous awards for his achievements in video game design and storytelling. These include GameInformer’s “Storyteller of the Decade,” 1UP Network’s 2007 Person of the Year, and the Golden Joystick “Lifetime Achievement Award.” With these accomplishments, and the monumental success of the Bioshock series, Levine earned his spot as one of the great auteurs in the video game industry.

Bioshock Born Amidst Sea and ADAM

A plane engulfed in flame descends from the sky and into the sea. The player must swim from the wreckage to discover an art-deco inspired lighthouse stranded among the waves. Levine admitted that this cutscene was later added to the game because focus groups didn’t respond well to Bioshock in its original inception, telling Levine that the game was destined to be a failure. 

Levine recounted the story to Rolling Stone magazine: “That was one of those moments where you either accept the fact that somebody tells you you’re a loser, or you double down and say, ‘The fight’s not over yet.’” Instead of accepting defeat, he added the opening cutscene with the plane, the cigarette, and the crash; setting the player in the time-period Bioshock was trying to encapsulate. 

One might ask what Levine was trying to accomplish with Bioshock in the first place. An art deco statue of Atlas, the god who held the world on his shoulders, stands before Rockefeller Center in New York City. This was the initial spark of an idea for Bioshock, based on industry titans such as John D. Rockefeller—who built great feats of architecture under insurmountable odds. This laid the foundation for Rapture, the setting of Bioshock 1 & 2, an underwater city completely removed from the rest of the world. 

Furthermore, Levine described the utopian writings of Aldous Huxley and George Owell as “fascinating,” but was influenced by one writer more than any other. Novelist Ayn Rand—the philosophical writer best known for The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged—laid the groundwork for the objectivism ideology to which the isolated Atlantis paradise dedicated itself. Later, Levine recounted Take-Two’s support of experimental work, saying he couldn’t “believe they gave us all this money to make a game about a failed Objectivist utopia.”

Thus, came the inception of Rapture, a dystopia tainted by ADAM—genetic material that grants its users superhuman power. The bloodthirsty ADAM-addicts, called splicers, roam the underwater city setting an atmospheric scene of a libertarian society gone awry. There is an ecosystem of violence in Rapture, all surrounding the attainment of ADAM. 

In an interview with The Mary Sue, Levine described the guardian relationship between the Big Daddies and Little Sisters as “predators hunting some prey. And then the prey’s mama swooped in and saved her younglings.” This reminds one of the unforgettable, chilling scene where a female splicer tends to her stroller, but instead of carrying a baby, there is a handgun—implying that no relationship in Rapture is safe, not even between a mother and her child. In this way, this free market obsession grows savage, as murder becomes the way to win in the game’s hyper capitalist society. 

Throughout this carnage of citizen against citizen, the ethos of Ayn Rand permeates the storytelling in a cult-like way. Levine is well known for his ultra-characterized environments, and Ayn Rand’s libertarian philosophy increased Rapture’s creep factor even further. This iconic quote, spoken by the fictional titan of industry and leader of Rapture, Andrew Ryan, sums it up: “Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? ‘No!’ says the man in Washington, ‘It belongs to the poor.’ ‘No!’ says the man in the Vatican, ‘It belongs to God.’ ‘No!’ says the man in Moscow, ‘It belongs to everyone.’ I rejected those answers; instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose… Rapture.”

After the successful release of Bioshock, Levine admitted he didn’t realize “how Jewish it was until afterwards.” Levine’s own Jewish upbringing wove itself through the themes, characters, and even the setting of Bioshock, even if through his subconscious. Levine stated he felt as if he knew the main characters in a way he didn’t for any of his previous or subsequent titles. Andrew Ryan, he thought, was an example of a bourgeois Eastern-European Jew who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution, much in the same manner that Ayn Rand had. Many of Rapture’s denizens encapsulate that Jewishness, beyond their surnames—Steinman, Cohen, Tenebaum—by representating a post-Holocaust identity of displacement, persecution, and a desire to find home. 

Levine’s parting thoughts on Bioshock were: “I hope if anyone takes anything away from Bioshock, it’s about how oppression just goes on and on and on, and how ideology can get very muddy once the real world mixes with it.”

The City in the Sky

Levine and his team opted out of working on Bioshock 2, stating that in order to grow as a writer, he wanted to branch out to avoid repeating himself. Rapture, to Levine, was a setting already explored. “We’re always trying to challenge ourselves,” Levine said in an interview with Eurogamer. “We’ve done that, we’ve done the dark rooms, but that’s a crutch, eventually, for a team.” 

In a mission to explore the new and exciting settings, Levine looked away from the dark subaqueous depths of Rapture, and instead gazed skyward for his next dystopian city. Thus, Levine stepped out of the dark room and into the bright, shining skies of Columbia, the new, reimagined dystopian environment of Bioshock: Infinite.

In 1912, self-proclaimed prophet Zachary Hale Comstock built a magnificent, floating steampunk city-state in the sky through the use of blimps, balloons, and quantum levitation. Columbia was created as a spectacle of American exceptionalism, parading itself from shore to shore as a sort of collective diplomat. However, tensions rose and Columbia seceded from America, disappearing into legend behind the clouds. Yet, the old-timey Americana is ever-present throughout the narrative and woven tight around Columbia’s history. 

Levine used true historical events to build the precursor to Columbia’s in-game inception, such as the Wounded Knee Massacre—which causes the events of the game to unfold—and the Boxer Rebellion, which is responsible for Columbia’s secession from America.

More than anything, Levine wanted to depict the time period of Bioshock: Infinite with accuracy. He claimed that it was not done in a bid to increase diversity, but instead to be honest to the times in which the story is set. While the original Bioshock was set in the sixties, Infinite is set at the turn of the century, and came along with all the societal problems of the era. 

While the original Bioshock dealt largely with class distinctions, Bioshock: Infinite dealt with racism and nativist nationalism. This theme came to life in the character of Daisy Fitzroy, leader of the Vox Populi, a working class populist group sequestered down in the depths of Columbia. The Vox Populi were the primary victims of the Prophet. Levine told Forbes: “We wanted to use everything from the period – the politics of the time, the clothes of the time, the music and specifically what was going on in science.” 

At the turn of the century, the many worlds theory was popular. Levine combined the science of the era with a retro-futuristic aesthetic to create the scientific landscape that anchored an important part of Infinite’s narrative. His approach to creating fantastical worlds is simple: use only three unreal elements against a naturalistic background to ground the narrative—and the world—in reality. 

In the case of Bioshock: Infinite, these elements are quantum mechanics, a floating city, and robotics. Elizabeth, at first seeming a damsel in distress, is the key to unlocking and understanding the tears ripping through the space-time continuum throughout the game. 

“We looked at things that have happened over and over and over again — because that means they’re meaningful and people relate to them,” Levine said, and that is perhaps the metastory behind Infinite’s multiple realities.

Irrational Games Now Ghost Story Games

With the news of the next-gen Bioshock release, fans wondered if Levine would lead this next exciting project. In 2014, Levine made the sad announcement that Irrational Games was closing, with only fifteen members staying on to work with him. The announcement was met with some dismay and criticism, as those in the industry felt it unethical to fire one-hundred plus workers. However, Levine was open about the stress on his personal life and marriage resulting from the leadership of such a large development company. 

“Managing 30 or 40 people where you know everybody’s name is a very different process than managing 150 people. You walk by people in the studio and you don’t know who they are,” Levine told Rolling Stone magazine, adding that if he signed on to create another iteration of Bioshock, he was worried about losing both his mind and marriage.

It’s no secret that Bioshock: Infinite had a turbulent early development phase, with numerous delays, gameplay changes, and financial obstacles. Yet, somehow, Levine managed to create another legendary game that boasted critical acclaim. It’s possible that there is a time to stop, and Levine managed to find that perfect window of opportunity. 

That doesn’t mean that Levine is done with video games. Far from it. Irrational Games dissolved, rebranding itself into Ghost Story Games. Levine described this choice as a means “to refocus my energy on a smaller team with a flatter structure and a more direct relationship with gamers. In many ways, it will be a return to how we started: a small team making games for the core gaming audience.” 

Ghost Story Games is now investing in emergent, narrative-driven games. Levine described the creative process as working with “narrative legos” to create procedurally generated storytelling. At CDC 2015, Levine explained that he liked “systemic gameplay,” exemplified by games such as Civilization, wherein replayability is near infinite. This would mean more than multiple endings and multiple choices, but a game in which the narrative is player-driven in its entirety through the use of sophisticated A.I.

Levine’s Video Game World

Levine’s stylistic choices are reflective of video games themselves. “Games are a microcosm of that [many worlds] theory. You have constants and variables. You have the elements of gameplay that are going to be the same for everyone—that cutscene is going to play out exactly the same way for every single person,” Levine told Forbes magazine. The original Bioshock was all about the illusion of choice—“would you kindly?”—wherein there wasn’t a choice at all, but rather a command thinly veiled as a request. 

Bioshock: Infinite illustrates how each instance of a game being played is in itself like another world. Every player plays differently. Every player perceives the game world in a different way. There are minute differences, but eventually, the outcome is largely the same. Like Elizabeth says: “There is always a lighthouse, there is always a man.” 

Perhaps in the future, Levine will make strides to change that sentiment. 

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