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Faith In Rapture – Ken Levine Shares Thoughts On Creating Authentic Diversity

by Mike Futter on Apr 09, 2015 at 05:47 AM

In order to understand how this story came about and why I felt it important to write, I need to break a rule. I need to insert myself, just a bit, into the narrative.

I was raised in a Jewish home, and we worshiped at a Reformed synagogue. To understand what that means, know that during confirmation classes we ate meatball pizza. The Rabbi loved it. 

While we didn’t keep kosher, we did attend Shabbat and holiday services. There was a menorah to light at Hannukah, services to attend on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and Hebrew school to fidget in once a week after school and on the weekend.

I learned to read and pronounce Hebrew, but never really learned to converse in the language. I figured that would come in time, because my Rabbi suggested more than once that I should consider Rabbinical school (a humorous thought in retrospect).

My religion has always been a part of my life. In my freshman year at the University of Richmond, you’d think I was the first student at the school to ever ask for a kosher Passover meal based on the reaction. By the time I graduated though, there was a small spread for the Jewish students.  

I continued to attend services, observe fasting on Yom Kippur, and swallow an unfathomable amount of matzah on Passover. That has faded over the years, and I might be what you’d call a “secular Jew.”

Being Jewish is still very much part of my background and who I am today. It isn’t the only thing, though. I’m a father, a husband, a gamer, a writer, a singer, and a lover of humor. All of these pieces make up the person you’d get to know if we met in person.

With the alignment of Passover and Easter again this year, I quipped on Twitter that I should have put together a list of game characters who are Jewish. I meant this as a joke, naming Borderlands’ Claptrap and Destiny’s Ghost (aka Dinklebot) as likely candidates.

Then, I received a note from Ken Levine, founder of Irrational Games (now secretively working on a new project). His message was simple. “Dude, so’s pretty much half the cast of Bio 1,” he said.

Wait. What?

I had figured Sander Cohen as a sure thing. Cohen is one of the most Jewish names there is, as it translates directly to “priest” in Hebrew. And, with his “congregation” of artists that he had assembled, this seemed to make a lot of sense.

Levine continued, though. “Ryan, Steinman, Tenenbaum, Lutz…” he rattled off.

Ryan’s city of Rapture, founded on the principles of Objectivism, isn’t a bastion of religion. The philosophy has a selfish bent, which is in stark contrast to the tenets of most religions, especially Judaism and its 613 mitzvot (Hebrew for “good deeds”).

“It was less about faith and more about what their Jewishness meant to others,” Levine told me in a pre-interview message exchange. “Ryan’s Bourgeois family was ruined by the Bolsheviks. Tenenbaum’s family was slaughtered by the Nazis. Cohen and Steinman were cultural American Jews, but in that time, others defined them by their Jewishness.”

It’s from there that our phone interview begins, taking a path from Rapture, to Columbia, and into the future of Levine’s work with his new team.

Read on to learn more about how history shaped some of BioShock’s most important figures.

When we talk about BioShock’s underwater city of Rapture, thoughts immediately drift to its founder, Andrew Ryan. His objectivist beliefs are modeled after author Ayn Rand, and his history shares elements with hers.

“If you dig into the audio logs, Ryan was born in Russia (much like Ayn Rand), he was middle class (much like Ayn Rand),” Levine tells me as we begin our conversation. When the Bolshevik revolution happened, his family business was destroyed. That was a defining event for him: the nationalization of all these industries, his family business was destroyed, and Jews weren’t exactly beloved in Russia to begin with, but especially a Bourgeois Jew.”

One might think that moving to America after that would amplify the sense of freedom a young Andrew Ryan felt. However, it was quite the opposite. Any restriction chafed.

“His family came to America, and he lived his life in response to that event, that that would never happen to him again,” Levine explained. “He had a mistrust of government, a mistrust of socialism, a mistrust of all those things. That led him to becoming the guy he was. Even America was too government-oriented for him. It’s why he created Rapture. It’s all a response to this thing that happened when he was a kid, and because he was Jewish.”

Ryan assembled a group of like-minded people around him. They were ambitious to the point of rejecting anyone and anything that dared impose boundaries. Many, like Brigid Tenenbaum, all also shared a history of tragedy and oppression.

“She was the driving force in the creation of the Little Sisters,”  Levine shares. “She worked with the Little Sisters and Suchong was the one who developed the plasmids, so their work was hand-in-hand. She discovered Adam, and there’s an audio log about her seeing this fisherman who had gotten wounded and how he interacted with this sea slug that healed him. It would bite its prey, in this case the fisherman, and in order to continue being parasitical on the prey, it would repair the wound by giving these stem cells to it.”

So began her work to create the Little Sisters as a means to harvest the source of Rapture’s downfall. And, like Ryan, her work under the sea was informed by her childhood experiences.

“She was sent to Auschwitz and was going to be experimented on by [Josef] Mengele and was observing his work and started correcting him,” Levine tells me. “She was a high-operating autistic savant. She said, ‘If you’re going to do this, you might as well do it correctly.’ The morality never entered into it. It was her love of science.” Tenenbaum's story takes a sharp turn as she begins to help conduct the horrific medical travesties in the camps.

(Note: Following publication of this interview, there has been some conversation about what Levine was saying about autism. He shared a clarification via Twitter that we have decided to include. "Autistic savants don't lack empathy," he writes. "I can see how my comments might imply that. Tenenbaum lacked empathy b/c autism doesn't define her.")

That same disconnection from empathy is what allowed her to manipulate young girls into the ghoulish creatures known as Little Sisters. “She never brought the moral angle to any of her scientific works, whether it was her helping experiment on Jews in the camps or working with the Little Sisters,” Levine says. “Because of her autism, it never cracked through. She was disconnected from any human aspect or any sense of empathy. Then she had this moment and her empathy comes rushing in as she’s able to see what she’s done for the first time.”

When we meet Tenenbaum in Rapture, she isn’t simply a foil for Atlas. She has truly repented and is working to make right her mistakes. Not all of the residents of Rapture found redemption, though. Dr. Steinman, a Jewish plastic surgeon who we meet lurking in Rapture’s medical pavilion, transforms from healer to monster.

“I don’t think any of these people were hyper-religious Jews by any stretch of the imagination. They were much more part of the cultural experience of being Jewish,” Levine clarifies. “You can imagine Steinman in a 5th Avenue office in New York. I think what his issue was, much like Ryan’s issue, and Cohen’s issue – they are very much a reflection of each other – their work was always constrained by little people.”

In the Jewish faith, permanently defacing the body (as with tattoos) is prohibited in the Torah. The specific passage comes from the book of Leviticus: "You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord." 

“If I were to go back and write his biography, I think that would be an interesting place for it to start, with his parents’ rejection of his work because of their religious beliefs," Levine says. "You can imagine maybe he had some disapproval from his family and much more observant parents. This is the field of medicine you go into? This is what you choose? You go into a field where your profession is to alter the body?’ That was the first interaction he had with people saying, ‘There is a problem with your work. You need to be restrained by some force: by God, by government, by regulation.’ The reason he eventually becomes a monster, especially when he starts taking Adam himself, his mind starts collapsing. It’s an expansion of his desire not to be held back by any outside force.”

While these characters share a religion, it’s their desire to work without oversight or restriction that is the crucial motivator. Ryan chafed at government oversight, Tenenbaum was driven by scientific pursuits that would be deemed unethical elsewhere, Steinman shrugged off the disapproval of his family and acted in a way no medical board would condone.

Read on to find out more about how Levine approaches creating characters with subtle, authentic diversity.

From motivation, characters are born

The characters Levine created for BioShock are not defined by one trait. They are complex people with varied motivations, exhibiting authentic diversity, even within the fantastical setting of an underwater metropolis.

“The first thing you think about is, ‘Who is this character, and what does he want, and what’s in his way?’ That’s how you develop a character.” Levine tells me. “If you start from, ‘This is a black dude’ or ‘This is a Jewish dude,’ you’re kind of missing the point. I try not to look at characters as their skin color, race, sex, creed, or their gender. I think that’s an inauthentic way of thinking about character, because that’s not what defines people. What defines people is their experience.”

We return to the genesis of the conversation. Levine uses Judaism and people of the Jewish faith as an example of how the balance of internal and external exertions can shape who someone becomes.

“Sometimes external forces push people of the same creed into an experience, for instance the diaspora of the 20th century Jews," Levine says. "The Cossacks burned Jews out of their villages, there were shtetls, the Russian gulags, and pushing farmers and businessmen out of Russia, the Nazis pushing Jews out of their homes. These diaspora forced people to make changes in their lives. That common event didn’t come from something innate. It came from something that was pushed upon them. I think that people react to those events and are traumatized by those events. People are affected by those events, and that creates similarities among people. They have a shared experience.”

The theme of diaspora is another that provides the undercurrent for the original BioShock title. Some members of the cast were forced from their homes multiple times.

“I think that BioShock 1 especially is about people with a shared experience of leaving a place and going to another place, and quite often being forced to leave a place," Levine says. "And going to Rapture is another kind of diaspora. I think that is a much more interesting lens to look at a character than saying, ‘He is this way because he was born a Jew or because he was born black or born white.’ That’s not an interesting way for me as a writer to look at a character, because throw 10 Jews in a bucket and you’ll find 10 different people.”

Kindred spirits, and alternative approaches

Levine’s approach to the different elements of diversity and his philosophy on character building isn’t unique. I asked him who else in the industry was doing work with which he identifies.

“I think there lots of good writers out there," he says. "There’s Amy Hennig, Chris Avellone, and Rhianna Pratchett. There are tons of good writers out there. Generally, they come at the problem in a similar way, which is to start with the character and worry about everything else later. I think the commonality for them is that they start with character. It’s very hard to write if you don’t just start with, ‘Who is my character, and what does he or she want?’”

Despite having his own preference for approaching the topic, Levine is aware that others might disagree. There are different paths writers might take to developing their principal players.

“I don’t want to fall victim to being the guy who’s saying, ‘You have to create your games this way, and it’s the only valid way to work, so if you’re doing it differently, you’re doing it wrong,’” he says. “I can tell you what’s been successful for me and what’s been successful for writers in general.”

Diversity is an issue that has been regularly discussed in the gaming industry. There is a valid desire amongst the population to see themselves represented in the games they play. Levine and I spoke about the growing ways in which developers are working to diversify characters to serve the audience and his thoughts on fulfilling those needs.

“I think there is a feeling of wanting to see character types rather than characters,” Levine says. “People ask me, ‘Why don’t you write a ‘positive gay character?’ In the abstract, that’s a very odd request, not because there aren’t positive gay people out there. It’s because nobody is wholly positive or wholly negative. And that’s also not what makes somebody interesting. Being strong and positive is not what makes people interesting. It can be part of what makes somebody interesting, but that to me is creating a one-dimensional character, that’s only recognizable by their strengths, or only recognizable by the fact that they are black, or by the fact that they are Jewish. As a writer, that doesn’t seem like a terrific path to creating interesting characters.”

In the second half of the interview, Ken Levine discusses his new studio's first game.