Ken Levine (game developer)

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Ken Levine
Ken Levine 2014 GDC cropped.jpg
Levine at the 2014 Game Developers Conference
Kenneth M. Levine

(1966-09-01) September 1, 1966 (age 53)
Education Vassar College (B.A.)
Occupation Video game designer, creative director, author, screenwriter
Known for BioShock
BioShock Infinite
System Shock 2
Thief: The Dark Project

Kenneth M. Levine (born September 1, 1966) is an American game developer. He is the creative director and co-founder of Ghost Story Games (formerly known as Irrational Games). He led the creation of the BioShock series, and is also known for his work on Thief: The Dark Project and System Shock 2 . [1] [2] [3] [4] He was named one of the "Storytellers of the Decade" by Game Informer [5] and was the 1UP Network's 2007 person of the year. [6] He received the inaugural Golden Joystick "Lifetime Achievement Award" for his work.

Ghost Story Games American video game developer

Ghost Story Games, LLC is an American video game developer based in Westwood, Massachusetts, and led by Ken Levine. The studio is the rebranding of Irrational Games as announced in February 2017, and while still the same business subsidiary under Take-Two Interactive, the rebranding was considered a fresh start by the founders as they move into more emergent narrative-driven titles compared to the larger titles they had made under Irrational.

Irrational Games video game developer in Quincy, Massachusetts, USA between 1997-2014

Irrational Games was an American video game developer founded in 1997 by three former employees of Looking Glass Studios: Ken Levine, Jonathan Chey, and Robert Fermier. The studio was acquired by Take-Two Interactive in 2006. The studio was known for its games System Shock 2, Freedom Force, SWAT 4, and most notably two of the games in the BioShock series. In 2014, following the release of BioShock Infinite, Levine opted to significantly restructure the studio from around 90 to 15 employees and focus more on narrative games. In February 2017, the studio announced that it had been rebranded as Ghost Story Games and considered a fresh start from the original Irrational name, though still operating at the same business subsidiary under Take-Two.

<i>BioShock</i> (series) First-person shooter video game series developed by Irrational Games

BioShock is a retrofuturistic video game series developed by Irrational Games—the first under the name 2K Boston/2K Australia—and designed by Ken Levine. The series is considered a spiritual successor to the System Shock series, on which many of Irrational's team including Levine had worked previously. As with System Shock, the BioShock games combine first-person shooter (FPS) and computer role-playing games (RPG) elements, giving the player freedom for how to approach combat and other situations, and considered part of the immersive sim genre. Additionally, the series is notable for exploring philosophical and moral concepts with a strong in-game narrative influenced by concepts such as objectivism and American exceptionalism.


Life and career

Levine was born in Flushing, New York to a Jewish family. He studied drama at Vassar College, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in drama in 1988, [7] in Poughkeepsie, New York before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a film career, writing two screenplays. [8] In 1995, he was hired as a game designer by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Looking Glass Studios after replying to a job ad in Next Generation magazine. [8] At Looking Glass, Levine worked with pioneering designer Doug Church [9] to establish the initial fiction and design of Thief: The Dark Project . [10]

Vassar College private, coeducational liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, New York, in the United States

Vassar College is a private, coeducational, liberal arts college in the town of Poughkeepsie, New York. Founded in 1861 by Matthew Vassar, it was the second degree-granting institution of higher education for women in the United States, closely following Elmira College. It became coeducational in 1969, and now has a gender ratio at the national average. The school is one of the historic Seven Sisters, the first elite women's colleges in the U.S., and has a historic relationship with Yale University, which suggested a merger before they both became coeducational institutions.

A Bachelor of Arts is a bachelor's degree awarded for an undergraduate course or program in either the liberal arts, sciences, or both. Bachelor of Arts programs generally take three to four years depending on the country, institution, and specific specializations, majors, or minors. The word baccalaureus should not be confused with baccalaureatus, which refers to the one- to two-year postgraduate Bachelor of Arts with Honors degree in some countries.

Poughkeepsie, New York City in New York, United States

Poughkeepsie, officially the City of Poughkeepsie, separate from the Town of Poughkeepsie, is a city in the state of New York, United States, which is the county seat of Dutchess County. As of the 2010 census it had a population of 32,736. Poughkeepsie is in the Hudson Valley midway between New York City and Albany, and is part of the Poughkeepsie–Newburgh–Middletown Metropolitan Statistical Area. The name derives from a word in the Wappinger language, roughly U-puku-ipi-sing, meaning "the reed-covered lodge by the little-water place", referring to a spring or stream feeding into the Hudson River south of the present downtown area.

In 1997, following his work on Thief, Levine left Looking Glass along with two coworkers, Jonathan Chey and Robert Fermier, to found Irrational Games. [11] The studio's first game was System Shock 2 , an early hybrid of a role-playing game and first-person shooter. System Shock 2 is the sequel to Looking Glass' System Shock (1994). Levine served as lead writer and designer, [12] and the game shipped in 1999 to critical acclaim. [13]

<i>System Shock 2</i> action role-playing survival horror video game

System Shock 2 is a 1999 first-person action role-playing survival horror video game designed by Ken Levine and co-developed by Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios. Originally intended to be a standalone title, its story was changed during production into a sequel to the 1994 game System Shock. The alterations were made when Electronic Arts—who owned the System Shock franchise rights—signed on as publisher.

Irrational Games developed Freedom Force and its sequel Freedom Force vs The 3rd Reich , real-time tactical role-playing games that drew heavily on the love Levine and Irrational Games's artist Robb Waters had for the Silver Age of Comic Books. After the first Freedom Force game, Irrational developed Tribes: Vengeance and SWAT 4 , on which Levine served as writer and executive producer respectively.

<i>Freedom Force</i> (2002 video game) 2002 video game

Freedom Force is a real-time tactical role-playing game developed by Irrational Games and published by Electronic Arts and Crave Entertainment in 2002. The player guides a team of superheroes as they defend Patriot City from a variety of villains, monsters, and other menaces. The game's budget was $2 million. A sequel, Freedom Force vs The 3rd Reich, was self-published in early March 2005. The games were made available on Steam on May 29, 2009.

Silver Age of Comic Books Mid 50s to 70s era of comic books

The Silver Age of Comic Books was a period of artistic advancement and widespread commercial failure in mainstream American comic books, predominantly those featuring the superhero archetype. Following the Golden Age of Comic Books and an interregnum in the early to mid-1950s, the Silver Age is considered to cover the period from 1956 to circa 1970, and was succeeded by the Bronze and Modern Ages.

<i>Tribes: Vengeance</i> 2004 video game

Tribes: Vengeance is a science fiction first-person shooter video game, developed by Irrational Games and released by Vivendi Universal Games in October 2004. It was built on an enhanced version of the Unreal Engine 2/2.5, which Irrational Games called the Vengeance engine. Part of the Tribes series, in addition to its multiplayer network maps, Vengeance includes a complete single-player campaign.

Although Tribes: Vengeance, SWAT 4, and Third Reich all shipped within a year of one another in 2004 and 2005, Irrational Games had been working in preproduction on the first-person shooter BioShock , the studio's most ambitious game at that point, since 2002. [14] The game went through numerous revisions to its premise and gameplay, and was released in August 2007. [15] In 2005, Levine, Chey, and Fermier sold Irrational Games to publisher Take-Two Interactive. Take-Two Interactive changed their name to 2K, just as BioShock was released. BioShock was a critical and commercial success, and is considered one of the best games of all time. [16] The BioShock franchise has sold over 25 million units to date. [17]

In 2008, Levine delivered the keynote address at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, discussing his youth as a nerd in the 1970s and how it impacted the path of his career. [8]

Since the release of BioShock, Levine served as creative director and lead writer on BioShock Infinite , set in 1912 in the floating city of Columbia. BioShock Infinite was a critical and commercial success, winning over 80 awards pre-release. [18] [19]

On February 18, 2014, Levine announced that Irrational Games would be closing down, with fifteen members of the staff to follow Levine to focus on digital only, narrative-driven games for Take-Two. [20] Levine stated in a 2016 interview that the stress of managing Infinite's development had affected his health and personal relationships, and rather than stay on to lead an even larger BioShock game, opted to depart from it. Levine's current project involves a concept of "Narrative Legos" that can be used to create an endlessly-replayable story-driven video game. [21]

On February 23, 2017, Irrational Games was rebranded as Ghost Story Games, founded by 12 of the former Irrational members with Levine remaining as president and creative director. [22]

Work as an author and screenwriter

Ken Levine has been a consultant and co-author of three books related to the BioShock franchise. These are BioShock: Rapture , BioShock Infinite: Mind In Revolt and The Art of BioShock Infinite . Levine himself did not work on the majority of Rapture and Mind in Revolt, but provided the intellectual property and quotes used by the authors in the books. The author for Rapture was John Shirley and the author for Mind in Revolt was Joe Fielder. [23] [24] Levine personally wrote an introduction in the Deluxe Edition of The Art of BioShock Infinite, published by Dark Horse Comics. [25]

In June 2013, Levine had been confirmed to be writing the script for a new film version of the dystopian science fiction novel Logan's Run . [26] However, he was later dropped from the project. [27]

In April 2016, Levine stated he was working with Interlude to write and produce the pilot episode for an interactive, live-action series based on The Twilight Zone , which will be published by CBS. [28] [29]

Notable works

Ken Levine is most notable for his conceptualization and work on the BioShock franchise. Levine and his team worked on BioShock and BioShock Infinite, passing on the opportunity to make BioShock 2.

BioShock is set in 1960, where the player controls a man named Jack who is the sole survivor of a plane crash near a mysterious lighthouse in the mid-Atlantic. Jack finds a bathysphere and takes the submersible down to an underwater city called Rapture, a city that was dedicated to the pursuit of a perfect free market economy. The city has fallen into ruin due to the city's social implosion and Jack must find a way to survive against the crazed inhabitants and escape. [30]

BioShock Infinite is set in 1912, where main protagonist Booker DeWitt must travel to Columbia, a flying city that has no fixed location and rescue a girl named Elizabeth and bring her back to New York. No motivation is given as to why Booker must do this except the cryptic words "Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt." Booker arrives at Columbia to find an American-Exceptionalist city dedicated to hailing the Founding Fathers that is led by a religious zealot known as Father Comstock. [31]

Style and themes

Ken Levine is known for creating narrative-driven games that explore sociological and philosophical themes. He selects dynamic art styles for use in his games, such as art deco, steampunk and frontierism.

Levine has explored concepts ranging from racial commentary to metaphysics with his games and emphasizes the storytelling aspect of gaming. He has cited Mad Men , the Coen brothers and Stanley Kubrick as some of his influences. [32]

Personal life

While Levine considers himself culturally Jewish, he does not follow Judaism, [33] and considers himself an atheist. [34] [35]

List of works

NameYearCredited withPublisher
Looking Glass Studios
Thief: The Dark Project 1998 Initial design and story concepts Eidos Interactive
Irrational Games
System Shock 2 1999 Lead design, writing dialogue, story, voiceovers Electronic Arts
Freedom Force 2002 Freedom Force team, voicesElectronic Arts, Crave Entertainment
Tribes: Vengeance 2004 Writer Vivendi Games
Freedom Force vs the 3rd Reich 2005 WriterElectronic Arts, 2K Games
SWAT 4 2005 Executive producerVivendi Games, Sierra Entertainment
BioShock 2007 Story, writing, creative direction2K Games, Feral Interactive
BioShock Infinite 2013 Lead writer, creative director2K Games, Aspyr
BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea 2013 Lead writer, creative director2K Games, Aspyr
Ghost Story Games
Untitled Ghost Story Games Project [36] TBATBATBA

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Andrew Ryan (<i>BioShock</i>)

Andrew Ryan is a fictional character in the BioShock video game series developed by Irrational Games. He serves as the primary antagonist of the first half of the first BioShock and a minor character in its sequel, BioShock 2 and its prequel, BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea. Ryan is portrayed as an idealistic business magnate in the 1940s and 1950s; seeking to avoid scrutiny from governments and other oversight, he ordered the secret construction of an underwater city, Rapture. When civil war sees Ryan's vision for a utopia in Rapture collapse into dystopia, he descends into reclusiveness and paranoia. After his victory in the war, he becomes increasingly ruthless in his control over the remaining inhabitants of the city.

Rapture (<i>BioShock</i>) underwater city that is the setting for the games BioShock and BioShock 2, and briefly appears in BioShock Infinite

Rapture is a fictional city in the BioShock series published by 2K Games. It is an underwater city that is the main setting for the games BioShock and BioShock 2. The city also briefly appears in BioShock Infinite, and is featured in its downloadable content, Burial at Sea. The game's back-story describes the city as envisioned by business tycoon Andrew Ryan in the mid-1940s as a means to create a utopia for mankind's greatest artists and thinkers to prosper in a laissez-faire environment outside of increasing oppression by the world's governments. However, the lack of government made many people uneasy, and the masses turned toward political activists like Atlas who advocated stability under a government, turning the city into a dystopia; and on the eve of 1959, a civil war broke out, leaving much of Rapture's population dead. The remaining citizens either became psychotic "Splicers" due to the effects of ADAM, a substance that can alter genetic material, or have barricaded themselves from the Splicers to protect themselves, leaving the city to fail and fall apart around them.

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The BioShock series is a collection of story-driven first person shooters in which the player explores dystopian settings created by Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games. The first two games, BioShock and its direct sequel, BioShock 2, take place in the underwater city of Rapture in 1960 and 1968, which was influenced heavily by Ayn Rand's Objectivism. The third installment, BioShock Infinite, is set aboard the floating air-city of Columbia in 1912, designed around the concept of American Exceptionalism. Though Infinite is not a direct sequel to the previous games, the game is thematically linked; a short scene within the core Infinite game returns to Rapture, while the downloadable content BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea tie in many of the plot elements between BioShock and BioShock Infinite.

<i>BioShock Infinite</i> First-person shooter video game and the third installment in the BioShock series

BioShock Infinite is a first-person shooter video game developed by Irrational Games and published by 2K Games. It was released worldwide for the Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and OS X platforms in 2013, and a Linux port was released in 2015. Infinite is the third installment in the BioShock series, and though it is not immediately part of the storyline of previous BioShock games, it features similar gameplay concepts and themes. Irrational Games and creative director Ken Levine based the game's setting on historical events at the turn of the 20th century, such as the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, and based the story on the concept of American exceptionalism, while also incorporating influences from more recent events at the time such as the 2011 Occupy movement.

Elizabeth (<i>BioShock</i>) character in Bioshock Infinite

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Development of <i>BioShock Infinite</i>

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Voyager was a graphic adventure computer game developed by Looking Glass Technologies from 1995 until its cancellation in 1997. It was published by Viacom New Media. Based on the Star Trek: Voyager license, the game followed Kathryn Janeway and the crew of the USS Voyager in their attempts to rescue members of their team from the Kazon. Voyager was the first game in a multi-title agreement between Viacom and Looking Glass, and Viacom took a minority equity investment in the company as part of the deal. However, Viacom decided to leave the video game industry in 1997, and Voyager was canceled in spring of that year. In response to Voyager's cancellation, team members Ken Levine, Jonathan Chey and Rob Fermier left Looking Glass to found Irrational Games.

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