Things You Didn't Know About Ken Levine
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.
Favorite game of all time?
I go back and forth. Sometimes it’s X-COM, sometimes it’s Civilization. Then there are some old school games like the original Castle Wolfenstein and Diablo II. If anything inspired Thief, it was that. Some old Looking Glass games, before I got there...Ultima Underworld and System Shock. Beyond Good & Evil is a game I’ve always loved. I loved Wind Waker, Paper Mario...I’m really quite eclectic when it comes to games.
What was the last great game you played?
There are so many developers now in their prime just knocking it out of the park every time, whether it’s Naughty Dog or BioWare or guys like that. One of my co-founders at Irrational is at a company called Robot Entertainment, and they did a game called Orcs Must Die. I thought that was a very smart, fun little game. There’s something about it that feels like an old Atari 800/Apple II kind of vibe. I really liked how simple it was and how it’s a combination of strategy and action. It reminded me of that old Battlezone game in 1998. I like weird hybrids, I like experiments that are very hardcore gamer experiences. I’m not big on games where it’s like “Hey, play this game where you’re a piece of dust.” That’s not as much me, but I like games that take hardcore tropes and mix and match them.
If you weren’t creating games, what would you be doing for a living?
Lying in a ditch somewhere. I don’t know, I remember going to my tenth high school reunion. The story of a high school reunion is supposed to be the nerd goes to it and he’s successful and happy and the football hero is kind of a loser. I went to it and I remember being with a girl that I didn’t really love, and I was working as a computer consultant on Wall Street. I really was not very happy. I ran into the football captain, and he had this really successful business and this beautiful wife, and he looked super happy. I was like “wait a minute, this is not how this story goes.” Shortly after that is when I decided I have to figure out what I’m gonna be. That kind of stuck around for a long time. I settled on games and it seemed like the right mix for my skill set. I lucked out, and I found the thing that I had a passion for and a thing that I could be relatively successful at.
I heard that there’s a story involving you and another writer named Ken Levine. Tell us about that.
It’s weird because Ken and I both tweet and sometimes we get mistaken for each other. The Time magazine thing happened, and a friend of Ken’s called him and was like “Hey, congratulations!” and [the other Ken] was like “What are you talking about?”. Then he realized it was meant for me. I don’t know if he remembers this. When I was living in L.A., I got a suicide answering machine message. Guy calls up and says “Hey Ken, I just took a bunch of pills and I just wanna say goodbye to you. This is Frank.” I’m like “I don’t know any Franks.” Then it occurred to me that he worked in the entertainment industry, and realized he might be talking about the other Ken Levine. I had to back [Frank] down very quickly, because for all I know this guy is dying. I called [the other Ken] up and said “Hey, I think I may have gotten a call for you that sounds quite urgent” and he actually reached out to the guy on the phone and talked him out of it. He and I wound up having a chat afterwards. He worked for M.A.S.H., he worked for The Simpsons, he worked for Cheers, and he was also a sportscaster. Because of that, I have a credit on a game called Front Page Baseball that’s actually his credit. Once you get a credit on MobyGames, you cannot get your name off it no matter what you do. Ken and I wound up chatting, and he was a nice, unassuming guy. He’s had this huge writing career, and I guess we collectively kept this guy from killing himself.