You can listen to the audio version of this conversation on our YouTube channel.
“They say never meet your heroes, cause they are always disappointing.” Ken Levine has said that to me, and it’s true but not in my case!
So I’m a big fan of Ken, I’ve been lucky to be in contact with him for some time now, but I never dared to speak with him, anyway I finally did it and I was nervous, is he going to disappoint me? Am I going to sound like an idiot? But this conversation made me someone more in my life, It was like Ken is my old friend and we’re at a bar talking very casually. It’s amazing how someone can affect you in your career and in your life, I kind of believe that he’s made me a better man, a more modest man.
After our conversation which you’re going to read below, we kept on going, we spoke a lot about other stuff and it was crazy, imagine the hero of your life asking you about your life, giving you advise, telling you to believe in yourself, cause he believes in you. I got so emotional that I couldn’t speak right!
So, check out my conversation with Ken Levine, the creator of BioShock, and I hope it inspires you just like it inspired me.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: How are you doing sir?
Ken Levine: I’m good. How are you Hamid?
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Excellent! I feel like the luckiest guy in the world, If I die, I’ll happily say that I’ve spoken with the hero of my life, so…
Ken Levine: (Laugh), You know, they say never meet your heroes, cause they are always disappointing.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: No,no,no,no! So, let me start with a story.
Ken Levine: Sure!
Hamidreza Nikoofar: A true story, a very personal story, it might be boring for people, but It is very important for me to tell you, it’s going to be a long speech, but I have to tell it.
When I was a kid, before I learn to read, I was always wondering about books, I didn’t know what was in them, all I knew was that it must be something magical, cause people would sit for hours and stare at them with a face full of emotions.
So when I finally learned to read, I was so excited and I went to my dad’s library. Huge collection of books, among all these political, philosophical and history books, I saw a strange book, a very different book, a book with the pictures of cartoon animals on it. It was odd! Why is daddy reading a children’s book?
I looked at the title and it was “Animal Farm, by George Orwell” so, I started to read it right away, turning pages and I’m lost, what is this book? It’s a book with talking animals, so I’m kind of pretty sure it’s a children’s book, but it feels not, it feels like that I’m not supposed to read it. Anyway I finished the book and I though the last pages of the book were missing, I was like “What was that about? where is the rest of the story?”
Anyway, months later I read an article in daddy’s newspaper again about the subtexts of that story and I was shocked, all those times I was reading a book with political and philosophical subtexts, and after that, I felt powerful, I felt like a grown man, when others were reading Cinderella I was reading Orwell. So that felt amazing.
Ken Levine: How old were you?
Hamidreza Nikoofar: I don’t know, I think eight or nine, probably.
Ken Levine: WOW!
Hamidreza Nikoofar: After that I was always saving money to buy more Orwell’s, Reading 1984 and I’m like a kid in Disney land. The fact is, while reading those books, I felt respected, I felt like a grown man, more than anything I felt like I know the truth behind everything, I felt more I read, more I get close to the lighthouse in middle of a dark and deceiving ocean.
So, I decided to do the same, I decided to be a story teller, I went to Film School with a dream of adapting 1984 into a feature film, with a dream of creating utopias just to be able to make them dystopias.
Skip forward and I read somewhere an interview with a guy who’s making a game called BioShock, now why is that interesting? cause I’m a video game fan? Yes, that must be one reason. Cause it looks amazing? Absolutely undeniable, or is it the fact that I read the guy who made this, was influenced by George Orwell and Ayn Rand?
When it was released, I played the game, I had a very familiar feeling, I felt like a child being treated like a grown man again, I felt like a child seeing the truth in the dark of the ocean, I felt like a child being so inspired that he decides to be someone more. And what I did? I made a plaque on my wall that said “What would Ken Levine do?” and that plaque changed my life, I became a game designer, also I became the one who never gets tired writing screenplays so one day he can inspire the next generation. Now, there is no more plaque on my wall, but a mirror to remind myself, who am I going to be? What am I going to do?
So, sir… you gave me hope, you gave me inspiration, you gave me purpose and you taught me to “Choose the Impossible”, Thank you for everything!
Ken Levine: WOW! Sounds like you’re the one doing the work and I’m the one getting the credit. But thank you very much for saying that. I’m flattered to be included in the company of Orwell. I think the brilliant of that book is a young man, a young woman can read that book and understand it and the ideas it talks about, you would be wrestling till you’re old I think.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Yeah, it’s amazing. Let’s talk about you sir. I’m very curious to know more about your childhood, cause you know, I kind of believe an individual is a reflection of his or her surrounding in a community or a family. What was inspiring you while you were just a teenager, how did the path end up to this point of your life? In other words, how did you become a God?
Ken Levine: Probably very similar to yours. I was very drawn to certain pieces of fiction. There were bunch of stuff that came out when I was a kid, like Logan’s Run and Roller Ball, Planet of the Apes, all these sort of dystopian stories. I was very attracted to them, I don’t really know why I was drawn to them. With Logan’s Run I saw the movie and read the book several times and I wasn’t a big reader as a kid so that was one of the books that got me really into reading, I think you’re ahead of the curve with me. I read that book like five times and the thing about, someone can imagine an entire society was very appealing to me and I think it was in high school that I read Animal Farm first and It was really, obviously the kind of political ideas in that was far more sophisticated than Logan’s Run, and Brave New World and stuff like that so it was fiction that I was really drawn to.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: I heard in a conference that you said, ideas are rubbish, anyone can come up with ideas, what matters is the execution of ideas. Looking back at your games, it’s amazing. I mean BioShock for example is full of different ideas, each have potential of becoming a stand-alone game, So the question is, how do you make sure a good idea is going to be executed well, and how do you make sure they work together perfectly?
Ken Levine: I think the key is…the important thing that we all should keep in mind is that we’re making something for an audience and eventually somebody who is not us or is not team members or family, friends or parents and a player, they’re not going to have any reason to like our thing more than the other thing. We are asking them for their money and their time which is very valuable, so we should put ourselves in the position of the person that is receiving and we have one chance with them and we better do our best to get their attention and that requires you to sort of look at your own work in different way and you know, “Oh! I had a great idea!” or “What a great story!” you know, ideas are just building blocks for the thing that you eventually deliver and you have to be very willing to be a critic of your own work.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: I believe a story in a video game must not be told, it must be experienced. And that makes the games different than other medias, I mean I’m a game designer and a film maker too but I can’t stand cut-scenes and stories being told like cinema, we have a jewel of gameplay in video games and yet we’re trying to rip off Hollywood with cheap awfully directed cut-scenes.
But you work differently, and that I think makes it impossible to make a film adaptation of BioShock equally as good as the game. Cause if the BioShock was a film, we would have probably say this to the hero of the story: “Go kill the Big Daddy, cause: A. we’ll watch a cool action scene, B. You’re the protagonist, you’re not going to die in the middle of the story!”, But in the game, you have a choice, you fail, you’re going to repeat it until you get past it. And here the option of leaving the Big Daddy in peace is much more understandable. And the choices and the experiences we have in a game will eventually make it different that other medias. So, story-wise games are experiences, not just stories. A very fresh example is Playdead’s Inside, no dialogue, no voices, no bullshit and it feels like the best story ever told. So how do you use the possibility of gameplay in order to tell an engaging and compelling story, without the use of the god damn boring cut-scenes?
Ken Levine: I think bringing on Inside is a very valuable addition to the conversation because Inside, I think is the best game I’ve played in the couple of years and it uses the medium extremely well. The entire goal of the game, you’re not told what it is but basically the right side of the screen is more attractive than the left side of the screen. You’re trying to get from the left side to the right side and that’s a thing that only can exist in a game. The notion of moving forward is preferable than staying where you are.
I think there are influences from films too, have you seen the film “Under the Skin”?
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Yeah absolutely, great movie!
Ken Levine: You know they tell you very little in that movie as well and it sort of leave a lot to your imagination and I love stories like that, directors like Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson and filmmakers like that.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: He’s my favorite filmmaker.
Ken Levine: They don’t tell you what to think, they sort of present you with interesting ideas and Inside leave a lot for you to say what’s happening here, especially the ending which I think a lot of people found confounding but I found it brilliant.
But I’m not sure that I’m agree with you that something is not adaptable, I think adaptation is the key word, you can turn BioShock into a symphony. It would have been a very different piece of work because I’m convinced of one thing, that there is an artistic impulse inside of people and how that comes out of us is different depending on person. Some people turn that artistic impulse into a piece of music. You know, I’m not a musician so I don’t know how to turn ideas into a piece of music but you know, if you’re Johnny Greenwood from Radiohead who scored There Will Be Blood and P.T. Anderson would have a different idea about how to get the idea out which would be his component of the film which would be direction, writing and working with actors.
I believe the artistic impulse is the same, it just comes out of people in different ways, so I think the same about a piece of art that we just have to figure out as a screenwriter, say if you’re writing a movie, you have to figure out how an artistic impulse is channeled to a film as a game.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: It’s funny that you mentioned Paul Thomas Anderson cause I had like four or five plaques on my wall and they were: “What would Ken Levine do?”, “What would Paul Thomas Anderson do”, “What would Christopher Nolan do?”, “What would Hans Zimmer do”, “What would Terrence Malick do?”
Ken Levine: You’ve set your sights very high! These are some pretty powerful, creators, look, you’ve mentioned that you put each of those plaques down and I think that’s a great thing to do because in the end of the day those people come to inspire you and they can give you sort of direction and how to think about problems but at the end of the day, people are going to be drawn to how you solve those problems.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Exactly! Your games deal with a lot of political and philosophical issues, how do you insert them into your games? Is the story based on those factors or they come along as you write? How is the process working?
Ken Levine: I think in the best case you are working with character, you know, if you look at Andrew Ryan, you can’t separate Andrew Ryan as a person from Andrew Ryan the political figure, his response to pain, it’s political, right? I’m going to create a society that is going to protect me from that pain and I think that’s what most people trying to do in politics, you get into politics as a respond to something that is distressing or upsetting you and you know we are wrestling with different kinds of demons. You know, the expression of wrestling for me is art work and the expression of wrestling for other people is going to politics, so I tend to write about… I have no interest in being in politics, I like making politics in games because I can sort of have a lot of control in the games. I can forget about the lack of control I have in the real world politics because it’s not a world that I’ve ever was interested in.
But I think that you start with a character, like, what’s that person’s problem and what’s their solution and I’ve chosen characters whose solutions tend to be political.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Do you ever fear that your game become too complicated and sophisticated to understand? I mean people might say, screw it, I have to read books to understand this.
Ken Levine: Do I have that fear?
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Yeah.
Ken Levine: I think the ideas as presented are … You could play BioShock and really just view it as a cool dungeon crawler with cool art and characters. I don’t think you really have to walk away struggling with the issues of Capitalism and the extremes of Capitalism or the limitations of Communism. I think you play it as an experience, I think you won’t get full value out of it but I think if you have to enjoy a piece of art on every single level the author intended to it, it’s not a very perfective piece of art because you really have to assume there is a broad audience is going to be attracted to different parts of what you’re doing.
Hamiderza Nikoofar: Imagine I want to tell a story, and I have some intentions, of course the main goal is to tell a great story, but I want to express my ideologies through this story, I want to talk to people behind it, how do I do it without being so blunt?
Ken Levine: I’m not sure what you mean.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Like how can I talk about something else in my story, without getting caught? talking about Capitalism for example.
Ken Levine: I think the interesting thing is, you have to start from the position of the story, exactly what you just said, the end of the day, there has to be a story to follow. You know, Animal Farm is brilliant cause you can read it like you said, it’s about bunch of animals who stage a revolution at the farm house and that sounds like an interesting story but what about if animals took over the farm? What would happen? You don’t really necessarily have to understand anything about Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin and all that to understand that story is really about them, or even about politics or the larger issue, you know, the Russian revolution.
You know, I knew nothing about the Bolshevik revolution when I was a kid when I read that book, I took something away from the story just as an example of people when how people don’t live up to their own ideals they create. You create some ideologies and it’s hard to adapt to it.
You know, I have this expression, do you have this term “Skin in the game” in Iran, in English?
Hamidreza Nikoofar: No.
Ken Levine: That means, if you believe something, what are you willing to give up for it? You see a lot of political figures talk about X, Y or Z but they want other people to change and their not try to give up things for themselves. The Russian Revolutions are great examples, it’s all about workers’ revolution and suddenly you find people live in power has special privileges when the revolution is supposed to be about the ablation of privilege.
You know there are stories that you can tell and people don’t even have to know that they are political and they’re still political, for instance you can talk about morality and people talk about homosexuality, you know, I think this is how other people should act in their bedroom but meanwhile they wouldn’t want anybody to come to their bedroom and tell them how to act and that’s a good example of skin in the game. You want other people to change but you’re not willing to change yourself.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Have you ever got into trouble because of the content of your games?
Ken Levine: Yeah! I mean, you’re going to piss people off always. In our first game, BioShock dealt with infanticide, killing of children. Most people who react to these things tend to be the games press. I had so many questions in BioShock 1 about the Little Sisters harvesting from the press and when the game came out I had only one person that time, come out talk to me about how that bothered them. It became a non-issue, people understood it was a metaphor and people are smarter than what the press are getting credit for.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: I’ve been a game designer for years now and I’ve designed some successful games and I’ve made good money out of them, but ironically, I’ve never designed a game where I can tell my personal stories, and unfortunately in Iran, we mostly make games for mobile devices, and I fucking hate mobile games, in my opinion they’re not experiences, cause their being played in subway with the bad breath of a homeless guy standing aside you.
Ken Levine: (Laugh)
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Their being played without sound, their being played on small screens, and you’re in a middle of game and suddenly a message comes: “don’t forget to buy brocolis” and it ruins the game, and they are casual as hell, they’re the games for having good times, not meaningful times. So, anyway, I’m in this limbo and recently I’m moving more toward my film making career cause, I think there I have more freedom to tell stories and it’s a shame cause video games are great place to tell stories. So, what would you do if you were in my shoes, when your head is full of experiences but the there is no ink in the pen? When it’s really hard to make your dream project?
Ken Levine: I have to start by asking you a question. I’m not exactly clear on what sort of constrains there are in Iran and there may be none, I don’t actually know, but as a creator do you have any governmental strains on what you can or can’t work on?
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Yeah we have but that’s not the issue.
Ken Levine: Is that a market issue?
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Yeah! The PC market is not very good but mobile market is absolutely great.
Ken Levine: Let me ask you a question, if you’re making a PC game for distribution on Steam, what keeps you away from doing that?
Hamidreza Nikoofar: The cost of making a PC game, and there are problems we have releasing a game outside the country. Here you can make a small game on mobile and have a lot of money but the international market is really hard and it needs money.
Ken Levine: So, I think the answer I’m giving you and I’m sorry I don’t want to sound glib because we all live in different places with different economical challenges and government challenges, publishing challenges, etc. But I would say that the best trick is to fool people by that I mean to create things that people don’t actually know are political. (Laugh) cause overt politics can be turned off, I think what made BioShock working was the opening of the game, it was exciting, compelling, serious, strange and weird, I didn’t put a lot about politics at the beginning, it was just a plane crash at we tried to just drop in at the start. It’s a Robinson Crusoe.
So those drawings from long traditional stories served to tell stories and I think if the game have been called “Objectivist Underwater City” it wouldn’t have done as well as BioShock because politics make people nervous because it draw negative things to them and same with the Animal Farm, right? It’s called Animal Farm, It’s not called “The Examination of the Fragility of an Ideological Systems” and that’s why it’s called Animal Farm. If it haven’t been called that and didn’t have pigs and donkeys on the cover you probably wouldn’t have picked it up when you were a little kid.
So, if you want to work in that space, you should find a way to communicate to people in a way that you could go through the back door, when they don’t see you coming and you have to surprise people with your messages, by leading the entertainment first and that’s always the case, the best and the most transformative art is almost always really good at entertaining in high quality. So start with that, What is a great story I can tell? And then worry about getting the messages across. Start with a great story and if you do that say “How do I lead with the story rather than ideology that I want to get across”
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Thank you, that’s a great answer. So, I’m wondering when you’re hiring people, what qualifications are you looking for?
Ken Levine: It depends on what you’re doing, for us now we are a much smaller team so our hiring is really based upon being somebody who is a very senior team to people and so people who are rather senior who don’t need any management because we don’t have a management structure anymore and we’re depending on people to do a lot of their self-management, we have some management but the goal is to have people who are quite self-led in our group, but when we were doing Infinite we needed a lot of people so we needed much broader range of talent types so we tend to look for people who are comfortable working in an environment, comfortable with criticizing and being criticized as well, people who think they don’t have all the answers, and they are open to be wrong, people who are obviously skilled and have this technical skills but also always willing to sort of step back from their own work and say “can I make it better?”, “how can I make this better?” cause there is no piece of work that couldn’t be made better, it’s all question of time at some point you have to put your pencils down but until that point happens any work can be improved, any work!
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Let’s talk about BioShock. Bless your ears for selecting Armin Shimerman for Andrew Ryan. The guy is a legend, how did you find out that he is going to be the voice of Andrew Ryan?
Ken Levine: It was at the auditions. It was an open audition, you send out audition material and people start read from it and send it to you. I had Armin and I was sort of familiar with from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer he was on but he played a very different role and also DS9 and it was a very different part. But I heard his voice and,… Armin’s voice is actually pitched about, I believe two or three semitones down in BioShock, so his voice is actually higher than that he doesn’t sound like Andrew Ryan when he’s at his normal pitch but there is something about Armin and his conviction with the material and his understanding of the material that would drew me to him so when I went to Emily our sound designer at the time I said why don’t we try pitching him down to see how he sounds, and we pitched him down and there are always some concerns cause when you pitch somebody down and you know that could actually affect the quality of the voice and it starts to sound artificial, but it worked OK and he became… It was very clear very quickly that Armin was the guy in that part, I can’t think of a different voice in that role. He needed to be at the center, you don’t even meet the guy the game is almost done so that presence of the voice has to carry you through the game.
There is play here in high school, pretty nice play, came out as a TV show, and there is a technique that Neil Simon uses in that, so for the first act of the play, there is poker game and everybody is talking about one of the characters, are you familiar with The Odd Couple?
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Oh, no!
Ken Levine: It’s a classic story about two divorced man moving together, one is super clean and super uptight and one is super messy and super relax and how they clash with each other and it’s a comedy. They spent the first act talking about the clean guy but you never see him, he doesn’t appear till the second act but they set him up so well by the time he appears, you’re prepped for this guy to come in and the audience senses are high and Andrew Ryan is sort of like that, you keep hearing about him, you don’t see him in the entire game basically, he’s in the game for like five minutes in terms of meeting him in physical terms but that five minutes, we had hours to set him up and that was a very interesting experience of you not meeting this guy until the very end. I think that helped to make his impact very meaningful when you finally did meet him.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: It’s great cause, like you said he is more of a voice than a character to see, to interact and what a character he is!
Let’s talk about Garry Schyman. How did you know he’s the man for the job and I’m serious BioShock’s soundtrack is something really special and recognizable, and I think a lot of it comes to you letting the composer go wild.
Ken Levine: Oh I wouldn’t give a lot of credit to myself here, I think Emily, the sound designer found him and I was actually opposed to it, generally I didn’t like game scores because game scores tend to be just music play in the back ground repeating at that point and Emily and Garry sort of convinced me that we can actually score this thing much more like a film and the first thing I heard from him ended up to be the center of rapture music, I could feel the ocean, I could feel the weight of the ocean when I heard that music and it was sort of a mystery and you know, Garry’s score is sort of inseparable from the experience of playing that game so I’m grateful that they were both patient with me and helping demonstrate the value of having that kind of score in the game.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Amazing score! What was the last inspiring game you played? And why was it inspiring?
Ken Levine: I can get inspired in different ways, some games inspire me with their gameplay, like XCOM 2, I’m playing a lot of that again and I just love the gameplay and I love how much choice it gives you.
I think the last game that sort of inspired me from a… this is talking you on a journey, sit back and be amazed by the journey was Inside like you said. I just was like transformed into another world so I think that was the last time that I was drawn into something like that.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Very well! Sir, you know how much I respect and love you. It was a dream come true for me, and I’m proud of myself to finally speak to my hero after many years, I look back and I see the 16 years old version of myself playing BioShock and dreaming of talking to the guy how made this. It’s really dream come true, and you made it possible. For years I’ve been looking up to you, telling myself how to become a game designer and a story teller like him, now I look up to you and say, how can I be a man, honest and humble like him. Thank you sir! …thank you for everything.
Ken Levine: Thank you Hamid and I really appreciate the time… I’m not sure how to respond to those beautiful sentiments but thank you.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: You’re being is a beautiful respond to that, thank you.