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Golden Joysticks interview: Why Ken Levine fights through failure

By Rob Crossley on Thursday 24th Oct 2013 at 11:12 AM UTC

If Ken Levine had the chance to walk that rocky path between the lighthouses, if he could go back to 1997 to meet his 31 year-old self who was starting up Irrational Games, he just might put a stop to it.

"Had I known back then how much work is required, how many challenges I would face in the future, I think it would have been pretty hard for me to swallow," he tells CVG.

"If I gave the younger me an idea of the amount of work, and the amount of heartache, and the amount struggle it takes to do this, I think I'd have scared him off. I mean, I had never run a company before Irrational, and it has been really difficult."

On Friday Levine becomes the inaugural recipient of the Golden Joysticks Lifetime Achievement award, a new prize honouring the inspirational dystopian stories he has sculpted into digital code. His team's breakthrough game BioShock (2007), and its successor BioShock Infinite (2013), are virtual playgrounds with shotgun shells and thunderbolt blasts and all the rest, but their ambitions extend beyond that.

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Levine's first games writing gig was for Thief: The Dark Project at Looking Glass Studios

They are also sprawling interactive parables, portraying hallucinatory societies that have been mutilated by the realities of man: paranoia, greed, self-loathing, ego and shame. With his work, Levine wants to venture deep into the unexplored potential of what games can be, whilst not betraying their traditions, and his success in managing both has defined his legacy.

But nothing worth doing is ever easy. The protracted and painstaking five years of work on BioShock Infinite, in particular, was disrupted by delays, dead-ends and staff departures. Even still, that half-decade odyssey would have taken longer, or perhaps not made it through at all, had it not been for immense work and personal sacrifices.

"Now I'm in a much better place," Levine says. "After Infinite, I was talking a lot about finding a better and healthier work-life balance. I'm actually going on vacation this year, and that's tough because on the other hand I'm passionate about [upcoming DLC] Burial At Sea and we're working our asses off to finish it."

Levine surrounds his life with work and inspiration. He jokes that he "probably consumes more media than any other human being on the planet", with several books and movies and games on the go at once. It partly explains why he usually settles in bed after about 4am, sometimes later.

"I end up working a lot because I think, well, if I don't add this or that thing in the game now, it'll never go in and it'll break my heart if it's not in there. I'm not an advocate of people working long hours, I don't think it's generally good for you, but I know people I work with who do."

"I would like to work on a turn-based strategy. Maybe I will at some point"

It's a habitual flaw to assume that people like Levine, those who have 'made it' and those who achieve what we aspire for, have an easier life. The New York-born drama graduate is mindful of how hardship is all relative, and that there are many people in the world who would scoff at his grievances, but no one is immune from defeat or dejection. It is a natural conundrum in work and life; if you desire something, you become vulnerable.

"You know, I've received this Lifetime Achievement Award for my work, and my team's work, which is great, but there are crushing disappointments I have to go through all the time," Levine says.

It would be unfair to suggest Levine is pessimistic. He is, in fact, outwardly positive to the extent that it's embarrassing to complain in front of him. He views his past failures and struggles, of which he has as many, as a sort of morbid rite of passage. It's the perseverance more than anything, he believes, that has led him to awards and success.

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After founding Boston studio Irrational in 1997, the studio shipped its debut project System Shock 2; a cult survival horror title for PC

"Obviously there are some things in life that you can't really recover from," he says. "Things like the death of someone close, where there's really no upside. There was a death in our family, someone really important to me, and I just couldn't find any glimmer of positivity to it. But I swear that everything else, no matter what happens, no matter how bad it gets, always has an upside.

"I remember when we lost our first gig when we started Irrational, and I was heartbroken, but then without losing that we wouldn't have done System Shock 2. We also lost a gig right before BioShock too, and it hurt because it was for a Dungeons and Dragons game and I really love D&D, but again we wouldn't have done BioShock had we not lost that opportunity too.

"If I didn't fail as a screen writer when I started out, I would probably not be in games. I would probably be writing a TV show I wasn't excited about. The first movie I got paid to write was something I wasn't passionate about. I would probably still be doing that."

Levine's career has, in some respects, come full circle. Eight years before he first set foot in a games studio, his dream to become a Hollywood writer had crumbled. It was only when he was killing time at a computer consultancy firm in New York when he noticed an advert, screaming out from the pages of Next Gen magazine, for a job vacancy at Looking Glass Studios. Now, sixteen years later, he is writing the script for the Logan's Run remake.

"My whole career I've been making dystopian worlds, and I absolutely wouldn't have had I not read Logan's Run," he says.

BioShock, released on consoles and PC in 2007, was Levine's breakthrough hit. It tells the story of a failed utopian city encased under water. It stands as one of the most critically acclaimed titles of the generation and, as of March 2010, had sold more than 4 million copies worldwide.

"I've probably read the book 25 times, and obviously I'm now reading it again. When I was pitching for the script I said, and I really meant it, that I don't think there's anyone in the world more suited to take a shot at this than me. I feel like I have this debt to pay to it, because it was so influential in my life."

He insists that, even if Logan's Run is a runaway success, he won't quit games.

"I think we do have an inferiority complex in games sometimes. When Guillermo del Toro started working in games I don't think anyone asked him if he was done with movies. I don't really see myself as a guy who would go off and write a romantic comedy or something.

"Games are uniquely interesting as a medium, because unlike movies, in which the form has been mastered and it's now more a case of individual expression, with video games we're still figuring out what the hell we're doing."

"That's my advice. Get up again, get up again, get up, get up, get up"

Levine and the team at Irrational are currently working through the final stages of Burial at Sea, the first several-hour DLC chapter that collides the destines of characters from both BioShock and Infinite. What comes after both those chapters, however, is unclear. When Levine is asked what his dream project would be, his answer comes naturally.

"I play a lot of systemic turn-based games. I'd love to work on one, but at the same time I don't want to work on XCOM or Civilization because I want to play them instead. I want to approach them with fresh eyes, unsullied.

"But if I could work on a type of game, at some point I would like to work on a turn-based strategy. That's where I started, essentially, because I used to design board games when I was younger. Maybe I will at some point. Right now it's a cost versus opportunity question."

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BioShock Infinite is regarded as Irrational's most ambitious project in its sixteen-year history. The game, also critically acclaimed, deals with themes as diverse as American exceptionalism, racism and metaphysics.

[Image: DeviantArt]

Now's probably not the best time for Levine to obsess over that next major games project, whatever it could be. First comes finding healthier work-life balance, and taking that holiday, and picking up his award on Friday, and repaying a debt to an inspirational novel. Now's the time to stop, for a fleeting moment, and look back.

"Y'know, I didn't get into games until I was 29 years old," he says.

"It took me a lot of struggling to finally realise what I wanted to do, and I was in my forties when we had our first big hit. So, the best advice I can give to anyone starting out is that your failures are on a road to success. It's hard, it's always hard, but you only lose when you quit.

"If people want to be successful, the real question people should ask themselves is, can I keep going? Can you pick yourself up again? If you look at anyone who is a success, they are people who also failed and said, yes, I can keep on doing this.

"That's my advice. Get up again, get up again, get up, get up, get up."

Slideshow: Burial at Sea DLC

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If Levine could take that impossible journey between the lighthouses, back to 1997, who knows whether he really could dissuade his younger self from writing System Shock 2 and establishing Irrational. After all, to steal a line from the Lutece twins: Things get set in motion. How would one know how far back to go?

"When I go back to the time when I was a kid reading comic books and playing video games and watching TV, I had no idea I would actually have the chance to participate in those things," Levine says.

"If the ten year-old me saw me picking up this Lifetime Achievement Award, I'd hope he realise that yeah, this guy is getting old, but he's also really lucky."