The lights are on
Ken Levine’s body of work includes some of the most innovative, thought-provoking games in the history of the industry. With work on Bioshock: Infinite in its final months, Levine took the time to attend PAX East in Irrational Games’ hometown of Boston. I had a chance to sit down with him at the event, and he shared some of his personal history with Game Informer.
Note: This is the extended version of the article that appeared in issue 230 of the magazine
Game Informer: Where did you live before settling in Boston?
Levine: I was born in Queens, and I grew up in northern New Jersey. I moved there when I was like one. When I graduated from college, I went to San Francisco for a year, then I went to L.A. for like five years and Europe for a couple years. I was sort of all around. I came here for a job with Looking Glass in 1995.
What was the first game you remember playing?
I went to my sister’s college to visit her in like 1976, and they had a mainframe there. There were these old Star Trek games with 10x10 grids, they were like turn-based strategy games that were on a lot of these very early systems. They were relatively simple, but some of them had some depth. The computer I was playing on had no monitor, it was just a huge dot matrix printer. Everything that came out of the computer was on this printer, not on a screen. I remember playing this game and losing my mind. I was like “Oh my God...this is amazing.” I took the printout and brought it home, and every few days I’d go through all my turns and review them again. Once I saw that, I remember not wanting to leave that room. I just wanted to play and play and play.
When did you know you wanted to create games?
I’ve played games ever since I was a little kid. Even until some time in 1995, it never even occurred to me that people made games. I assumed they just sort of showed up. I was reading Next Gen magazine, and there was an ad in the back for jobs with game companies. I saw an ad for Looking Glass, and I was a big fan of them. They were hiring a game designer, and I was like “What exactly is a game designer?”. I had done some board game design, but I never really thought about video games having people making them. I don’t know why. I thought “I could do that,” and I applied for the job. For some reason, they flew me out there and hired me.
When you’re not making games, what do you enjoy doing?
I have a fairly simple life, actually. I play a lot of games, nonstop. I do a lot of running. I like movies, I do a ton of reading. But mostly, I play a lot of games. I’m not a very social guy, I tend to go home, hang out with my wife, play games, and relax.
When you say you’re not social, does that carry over into gaming? Are you not a fan of multiplayer?
I’m really not. I have a WoW group that I play with, a couple guys that I know. I have so many responsibilities in the real world, I don’t want the responsibilities of “oh, I can’t make the dungeon tonight.” I find that the responsibility of being social, especially in a game, is really tough. I have so many responsibilities and so many things pulling me in different directions.
You mentioned that you’re into movies. Do you have a go-to favorite?
I’m a Coen brothers whore. Anything by them. If you play our games, you’ll see tons and tons of Coen Brothers influence. In Bioshock, it was Miller’s Crossing. Another Coen brothers film, and I won’t say which one, had a huge influence on Infinite.
Do you have a favorite fictional hero or villain?
I’ll always be a Spider-Man guy. I grew up reading comics, and he’s every nerd. He’s how we all view ourselves as outsiders, and he does it with humor and self deprecation. To me, there’s every other superhero, and then there’s Spider-Man. I remember encountering him, and thought it was a great origin story and character. I quote it all the time, that line of “with great power comes great responsibility,” and I apply it to my business life all the time. It’s a really good guiding principle for work.