To Ken Levine

[18 August 2008]

By L.B. Jeffries

PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor

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.

A world of rival philosophies is exactly the setting that the protagonist Garrett and the player inhabit in Thief: The Dark Project. Simply put, the game is a discourse on society v. lawlessness. The Hammerites are a devout religious order whose zeal is only matched by their rigid morals. Almost every house or location in the game has their paintings and relics on display, indicating that they are the dominant faith of the city. Their jails house the criminals and their faith sets the foundation for the laws of the game’s world. The player spends the opening missions looting churches, noblemen, and crypts all while Garrett sarcastically mocks the Hammerite sophistication and moral authority. In one cutscene Garrett muses, “Lord Bafford, like most of his kind, probably keeps his treasures on the top floor of the place. Close to heart and far from his servants.” The player’s choices distinctly revolve around the degree to which he wants to break those virtues. You are a thief, yes, but the game asks you to decide if you want to be a murderer as well by making it an optional mission objective to not kill anyone. Nor does the game design ever support a player who openly walks about—the stealth gameplay mirrors Garrett’s anti-social outlook by forcing you to stay in shadows. A player can only take on one or two guards, which is both a limit of Garrett and the player’s ability to enforce his criminal lifestyle. Nor can players force their way through combat; trying to fight more than two guards at once is a suicidal venture in the game. The player may become a master thief, but will never get far without learning to avoid and respect the world they are robbing.

Garrett’s distaste for society and the player input take a strange turn when Garrett is tricked into stealing a holy relic by a much more lawless person than himself called the Trickster. Planning to invade the city and cast an unholy darkness over humanity, the Trickster and Garrett never devolve into the typical anti-hero versus bad guy exchange. Garrett feels no guilt at his involvement nor does he feel vindictive for being made a fool by the ancient demon. When Garrett has his eye ripped out, his whimpering and crying is not the mark of your typical game hero. He is genuinely frightened, not just at what the Trickster has done to him, but what he will do to the very society he leeches from. When Garrett finally decides to get help from the Hammerites and defeat the Trickster, there is no reconciliation between them for his misdeeds. The player must literally break into a church, go straight to a bishop, and drag him away so that he’ll listen to you. Garrett simply accepts that in order for him to exist as a thief, society must exist for him to steal from. The last mission of the game is a very distinct one because there is almost no theft or hiding involved for the player. You must stand in the open, make your way through treacherous obstacles (as opposed to picking locks or watching patrols), and openly fight the demons threatening the world. Yet despite this change in tactics and play-style, there is never a moment where Garrett ceases to be the sarcastic, clever thief he always was. The player’s final challenge is to sneak into the Trickster’s arcane ritual and swap the idol in the middle of the room. Making light of his final mission, Garrett dryly notes that he’s certainly never robbed a God before.

Levine’s second game would be the critical darling System Shock 2, which he made with his break-off studio Irrational Games. Like with Thief, credit needs to be given to the amazing soundscape and atmosphere created by the team. What Levine utilized was the concept of delivering the story by allowing players to discover it rather than just feeding it to them as in Thief. Picking up voice mails, e-mails, and ship logs, the horrors of what happened to the Von Braun and the Rickenbacker slowly unfold at a self-regulated pace. Indeed, outside of the basic RPG mechanics, the entire game functions like a series of moments or incidents. The chief player input to the plot is just hearing or watching these little vignettes. With those and a few key cutscenes, Levine tells a story about the horrors of a Hive Mind alien called ‘The Many’ and the fascist implications of a cold, inhuman computer named SHODAN. During a psionic dream the Many ask, “How can you choose cold metal over the tender flesh? You fear of us. You rage for your brothers whom you believe dead. They are not. They sing in our symphony of life.“ This appeal to a sensual submission is nevertheless contrasted to the horrible monstrosities The Many have created. The player witnesses everything from the aliens artificially impregnating women with larvae, digesting people alive, or subverting their psyche into brutal murderers. It coincides with the idealism and fantasy of a communal society where all are equal and one, but the reality of such circumstances is wildly different from the sales pitch.

Yet SHODAN is hardly an alternative. From the beginning she lies to and manipulates the player. When she finally reveals herself, SHODAN asks, “Are you afraid? What is it you fear? The end of your trivial existence? When the history of my glory is written, your species will only be a footnote to my magnificence.” Her obsession with history, personal perfection, and the inherent superiority of her mechanical form to your meat all echo the tenants of fascism. It is also seen in the game design of the cyber modules. The only resource that lets you upgrade your abilities, SHODAN tightly controls their flow and forces you to obey her with them. No cyber modules means no leveling up, and that means you won’t last another hour with the constant stream of aliens hunting you. The player does not just obey SHODAN, they race to get the credits to upgrade and stay alive. Stuck with the choice of a Hive Mind who promises joy when the reality is painfully the opposite and a machine who believes you are an inferior race, the game is tense every step of the way. Nor does your alliance with SHODAN ever seem safe or reliable, as she eliminates the few survivors from joining with you while promising you glory and power as her avatar. Once the Hive Mind is finally destroyed SHODAN doesn’t even bother to announce her betrayal, she simply recommends you shoot yourself for her greater glory. In the final twist on her obsession with perfection and history, SHODAN uses the fold-space drive on the ship to manipulate time and space. She begins to transform the ship into Citadel station, the place where she was originally defeated in the first game. True to her beliefs, SHODAN intends to rewrite history itself with her failures blotted out and her glory unmitigated.

I know that video games are a team effort, and I tried to give shout-outs to the people who gave Levine the chance to shine. I also know he had a ton of help with all the ideas in those games, including the writing. But on some level, video games need to have a figurehead, a leader who we can both praise and blame for a game’s attributes. It certainly isn’t a job any sane person would want. Look at Peter Molyneux—everything becomes your fault as soon as a game doesn’t meet expectations. Like Fatlip says, “You know the routine, when you winnin’ they grinnin’, all up in your face like they was with you from the beginnin’. But on the flipside, when you washed up like a riptide, fools clown ‘bout how you slipped, and let shit slide.” It ain’t easy being the guy whose name is plastered all over a video game that tries to break the mold. So here’s to Ken “Make The Plot As Dumb As Possible” Levine! May he keep on ignoring his own advice!

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/to-ken-levine/