Ken Levine returns with ‘BioShock Infinite,’ but will he stay?

March 22, 2013 | 5:00 a.m.
kevinlevine2 Ken Levine returns with BioShock Infinite, but will he stay?

Ken Levine, co-founder of Irrational Games, presents the world premiere of "BioShock Infinite" on Dec. 7, 2012, at Spike's 10th Annual Video Game Awards in Culver City. (Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)

Some video-game makers are motivated to make the most detailed simulation of warfare. Others re-create childhood dreams of monsters in caves. Ken Levine is obsessed with ideologies run amok.

The creator of the hit “BioShock” series — the first of the so-called smart shooters — and head of Boston-based studio Irrational Games makes video games about worlds in which an obsessive leader has created his own would-be utopia and the player must deal with the messy consequences.

In 1999′s “System Shock 2,” it’s an artificial intelligence on an alien world whose genetic experiments go amok. In 2007′s “BioShock,” players descend into an underwater city founded by an acolyte of Ayn Rand. And in “BioShock Infinite,” due Tuesday, one of the most anticipated games of 2013, it’s a city in the sky ruled by charismatic, patriotic religious fanatics.

"BioShock Infinite" creator Kevin Levine in December, 2012. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

“BioShock Infinite” creator Ken Levine in December 2012. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Levine is known in his industry as a mad genius, a man whose games take five or six years to make, burn out staffers along the way and end up blowing players’ minds. It’s a process he can’t seem to escape but that makes him jealous of the villains of his own work.

“All of these people think they have the complete prescription, and I’m like, ‘I have no idea,’” Levine said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “I keep making games with that vibe because I feel that way in the world.”

The trim, bearded 46-year-old frequently speaks about his philosophy and process, making him one of the few people in the game industry, along with “SimCity’s” Will Wright and “Metal Gear” creator Hideo Kojima, who are singularly identified with their work. “I don’t know if it’s possible to be an auteur in the big-budget game space with its compartmentalized production and corporate mandates, but Ken Levine is probably as close as it gets,” said critic Michael Abbott, who runs the weblog BrainyGamer.com.

Levine’s career path began not in the game industry, but in Hollywood, and far from spectacularly. After studying playwriting at Vassar College, a professor connected him with an agent in Los Angeles.

Convinced he would be the industry’s next big thing, the New Jersey native moved West in 1989, took meetings with producers and studio executives, and got to work on more projects. But the heat around his career faded as quickly as it grew and soon he found himself another struggling writer in a town full of them.

Frustration led to depression. “You have this vision where you think you’re going to be something and then you’re not,” Levine recalled. “It’s like the most typical story in L.A.”

The dejected screenwriter returned to playwriting, eventually moving to New York, where he found it as difficult to find success in the theater world as he did in film. He stayed afloat financially by working as a computer consultant with a specialty in Macs.

To him it was a way to make money, but friends saw it as being as central to his personality as the scripts he wrote. “The product of a really big intelligence is the constant asking and willingness to reconsider,” said “Flight” screenwriter John Gatins, who was Levine’s roommate in L.A. “That’s why computers endlessly fascinate him, because if we talk tomorrow, the world of computers will have changed again.”

Ken Levine, cofounder of Irrational Games, presents the world premiere of "BioShock Infinite" on Dec. 7, 2012 at Spike's 10th Annual Video Game Awards in Culver City, Calif. (Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)

Ken Levine, co-founder of Irrational Games, presents the world premiere of “BioShock Infinite” on Dec. 7, 2012, at Spike’s 10th Annual Video Game Awards in Culver City. (Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)

Ultimately, it was an ad in a gamer magazine that changed Levine’s life, when he realized he might be able to apply his skills as a writer to his lifelong hobby playing video games. In 1995 he applied for and, to his surprise, landed a job at Looking Glass Studios, a Boston company that shuttered in 2000 but still enjoys a cult following among gamers who respect its pioneering work melding story with immersive worlds in games like “Ultima Underworld.”

Feeling like he had opened the gates of Oz, Levine immediately fell in love with video-game production, as it merged his passions for creativity and technology. Though he was hired primarily to work on dialogue and story structure, the fledgling game designer said he was most enamored by the environments his colleagues were building that responded to players’ choices.

“They showed me what games can be — that they can be worlds you explored,” he said. “You could go to a fire, there’d be a piece of meat, you could put it in the fire and it would cook.”

Levine’s fascination with worlds shines through in the output of Irrational, which he left Looking Glass to co-found in 1997. Rather than using “cut scenes,” its games tell their stories largely through the details of the environments players explore. “BioShock’s” decaying city of Rapture, for instance, told players all they needed to know about what had happened to its founder’s dreams of an objectivist utopia, while scattered tape recordings filled in details for those who wanted to know more.

“What Ken is best at is conceiving a world, story lines and characters, and making that real in an interactive experience,” said Strauss Zelnick, chief executive of Take-Two Interactive, “BioShock’s” publisher and Irrational’s parent company.

“BioShock” has been one of the biggest hits for Take-Two outside of its blockbuster “Grand Theft Auto” franchise, with two games selling 9.5 million copies.

While some were entranced by Rapture, other loved its deep and complex action mechanics, which let players customize a variety of weapons and develop mutant powers.

Game developers say the balance of intelligence and firepower has had reverberations throughout the industry. “‘BioShock’ was the first smart shooter,” said Cliff Bleszinski, who was lead designer on the hit “Gears of War” action series.

However, “BioShock” has not become an annual series of tent poles like Activision Blizzard’s “Call of Duty.” Indeed, 2010′s “BioShock 2″ was made by a new team when Levine felt he didn’t have a good enough idea to jump into it. (Though it has ardent fans, reviews and sales were not as good as for the original.)

Buoyed by creative freedom that’s rare in the game industry, Levine spent years searching for inspiration for “Infinite,” certain only that he did not want to tell another story set in Rapture.

“We had a conversation with senior people at the company about what is a ‘BioShock’ game,” he recalled in a relaxed but confident manner. “We determined that it’s really two things: an incredibly detailed world that is strong and fascinating but also familiar in some way … and experimental, improvisational combat and interactions. There are no sacred cows beyond that.”

The result is a game that’s in some ways a mirror image of the original “BioShock.” Rather than plunge underwater, players at the beginning of “Infinite” fly a capsule into the sky, where they find an early 20th century city called Columbia that is, in Levine’s words, “the Fourth of July, 1912, in small-town America as people thought it was.”

A scene from "BioShock Infinite." (Irrational Games)

A scene from “BioShock Infinite.” (Irrational Games)

Its dictatorial ruler is not a hyper-rational scientist like in the first “BioShock” but an ultra-nationalistic patriot who integrates Thomas Jefferson and George Washington into his religious symbology. Rather than exploring the world alone, as they did in the original, players have a sophisticated computer-controlled companion, a teenage girl named Elizabeth.

Five years of production work have not been smooth, with industry scuttlebutt focused on several senior people who have left Irrational.

“There have been rumblings of how difficult development has been,” said Bleszinski, whose former colleague at Epic Games, producer Rod Fergusson, joined Irrational last year to help finish the game on time. Yet despite the chaos, Bleszinski added, “every scrap that I see of ‘Infinite’ makes me hungrier to play it.”

Levine said simply, “At Irrational, it’s not easy to make these games. There are some people cut out for it and some people who aren’t.”

But as he winds up work on his most ambitious production, Levine acknowledges that he is questioning whether he himself is cut out to keep doing it. The process of innovating in technology, gameplay and storytelling simultaneously can take nonstop obsession.

“It takes dedication and long hours, and I think I probably err on the side of being a workaholic,” Levine said. Once “BioShock Infinite” is in gamers’ hands, he added, his plan is to go on a retreat and see if he can’t find some certainty about what he’ll be doing with the second half of his career.

– Ben Fritz

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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