The Art of Video Games” Interview with Video Game Designer Ken Levine

  • The Art of Video Games exhibition was on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum March 16 through September 30, 2012.

    ANDREW RYAN: A man has a choice. I chose the impossible.

    KEN LEVINE: The idea for "Bioshock" came from a bunch of places. There are two components: what is the game you want to make, and then, what are the thematic and narrative elements? The story wasn’t there at the beginning. It was always like a Robinson Crusoe story; it was always a castaway story. One of our goals in Bioshock is always that the narrative and the gameplay elements would have unity.

    I had read “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand, and I enjoyed it. It certainly made an interesting impression on me. Her heroes have no flaws, and they can’t make mistakes, because they’re her heroes and she wants them to succeed. And so, the goal was, in the beginning, let’s take these notions of – these philosophical notions and put them in a world where things can go off track, potentially.

    ANDREW RYAN: I built a city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the great would not be constrained by the small, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality. I chose to build Rapture.

    KL: The voice of Andrew Ryan, our version of Ayn Rand, started coming to my head, and I started thinking about this world, and my wife and I were in Rockefeller Center once and we were struggling with the visual aesthetic. And I was just in Rockefeller Center and we just looked around and were like, “Oh, boy”. It’s just untouched in games, the whole Art Deco aesthetic. What if you just made this world like Rockefeller Center under water? And so all those ideas came together and there just seemed a really interesting visual space, and it expressed Ryan’s ideology so well, that visual.

    I love that we are sort of struggling to figure it out. Every day, we’re trying to figure out something different, whether it’s technology, or how we present story, or how we have interaction, what platforms we’re on. It’s just evolving so quickly and I love that because it keeps you nimble. You’re constantly – if you’re not nimble, your dead, because it changes too quickly, it just changes all the time. I hope that doesn’t calcify, because I like that.