Coming from a screenwriting background, Ken Levine moved into videogames with the illustrious Looking Glass to work on the original Thief: The Dark Project. Since leaving to co-found Irrational (it's two studios are now known as 2K Boston and 2K Australia) he hasn't looked back, his company producing a string of classics including System Shock 2, Freedom Force and SWAT 4.
He's a contradictory figure - he creates games with some of the most satisfying narrative meat in the medium, but argues that this is entirely secondary to games' key appeal. We speak to the man himself about his studio's greatest triumph: BioShock.
What sort of emotions are you trying to provoke with BioShock?
Ken Levine: I wanted to put the players in a place between these major ideologies and powerful figures... but they're not black and white. You can see what happened to Andrew Ryan's city, but he's got some really powerful things to say. One of the first things you hear from him is... "Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow?" And yes, that's a powerful question!
You kind of buy into Ryan, for a little bit. And then you encounter the other powers in the city... who all have their own ideologies. And you're sort of stuck in the middle of these guys. I think people can relate to that. We're living in a very grey age right now. When I play an ultra-patriotic game, given the current political situation, I'm not quite sure if I'm comfortable in the role of just accepting what authority says.
That's why I like making games where the player isn't just the victim of major forces in the world but the guy who runs in the middle and has to work out his own path.
It's interesting to see developers responding to that. Not actually going out and making an explicitly political statement - at least most don't - but actually responding to the emotional climate...
Levine: If you look at the '60s, you'll see Vietnam movies like John Wayne's Green Beret being made. And you go to the '70s, you have Apocalypse Now. From this ultra-patriotic unquestioning thing, we're moving to a stage where games are getting mature enough to reflect the zeitgeist a little. BioShock is reflecting the confusion I have.
It's a game which doesn't try to answer a lot of questions. One of my favourite things about making the game was seeing the arguments on the internet, where someone will see the game and view it as intense republican propaganda. And then other people will view it as a communist screed, attacking those principles.
I'm very comfortable in that space where I have people hating me for different reasons and the 'message' of the game not being entirely clear to people.
One of the more interesting things I saw was people arguing BioShock is anti-stem-cell research, which I hadn't even considered. Do you think people's minds will change after they actually play it?
Levine: When you have someone with strong ideological feelings I don't think any number of encounters with reality will necessarily change those feelings. But I think that people who open-mindedly go into the game, they'll find there's no 1:1 current-events message in it. It's much more general in thinking about power and what people say and what it actually means... and the lengths people will go to to believe in something and not question themselves.
It's a game about doubt more than anything. The value of doubt. I think people will find their own messages in that, as it's not a clear ideological message. I'm not a real strong believer in clear, ideological messages, as they can be pretty dangerous.