I was skimming some of the pieces that have gone up for Banana Pepper Martinis here at PopMatters when I noticed something: I tend to rag on Bioshock a lot. I’m not alone in this; most critics pull it down from their dissection shelves and point to it when they are making a case. Do this, avoid that, this could’ve been better. It’s just that…there are so few games that have ever attempted to engage with art or philosophy, and here’s this game that had the guts to do it. And a lot of that criticism doesn’t just get aimed at the game, it goes to the figurehead behind it, Ken Levine. I’m guilty of ragging on him excessively as well. Ever since the GDC lecture on plot in which he advised developers to simplify their game plots, I’ve tended to call him Ken “Make The Plot As Dumb As Possible” Levine in forums. This, of course, is taking the quote totally out of context, and I’m being hypocritical because I tell people to write plainly all the time. But I’m gonna make it up to him. Folks, we’re going to talk about how awesome Ken Levine’s impact on video games has been. And best of all, I’m not going to mention Bioshock once while I do it…starting now.
The first two major games Levine helped to create used The Dark Engine, which was developed by Looking Glass Studios. A great deal of credit goes to the programmers and designers for creating a game engine that allowed the artists to independently create in-game assets without technical help. They could design and create character actions and plot elements on their own. In conjunction with a brilliant sound-detection game design, Levine got a chance to flex that writing muscle on his first game Thief. Before we get into that, there some basic themes to Levine’s writing you learn to recognize and appreciate. As a former screenwriter, Levine has a good edge with dialog and he relies on it heavily in all of his games. The plot is usually delivered via heavy-handed narration with interesting fictional quotes mixed in about the environment itself. Most action sequences are left up to the player, but when the game does have a cutscene with action, the moments are appropriately full of nuance and powerlessness for the player. Levine is a writer who is very aware of the fact that he’s writing a video game and always uses static instances when the player’s input would be irrelevant anyways. His games usually feature two morally complex philosophies in conflict, you’re usually stuck in the middle, and no one comes across as a good guy. It’s a moral predicament that Levine seems to like and it is in this setting that he evokes the settings of his games.