The research for my interview with Ken Levine painted a picture of an artist and consummate intellectual. BioShock Infinite has already been roundly lauded for the bright, "turn-of-the-century America" art design of the floating city of Columbia, and the political themes of Infinite cut extremely close to the bone for American audiences. I thus came armed to the interview with questions meant to elaborate upon this running discourse regarding "the smartest man in videogames." In foisting this label upon him, however, I wonder if the gaming world has not done Levine a massive disservice. "I'm not going to pretend I'm some omnivore of art," Levine said. "I was fortunate enough to go to a liberal arts college, where I was exposed to some stuff that I never thought I'd be interested in. I bring that stuff, hopefully, into what I do as a game developer, and mixing the dragons and the machine guns and the laser pistols has been interesting for me as a career." That may be the truest statement about Ken Levine's identity as a videogame developer that we've ever heard.
The artistic direction of the BioShock games could be argued as being incidental to the work of creating the most kick-ass shooters Levine can deliver. One of Levine's chief complaints about BioShock was the lack of tactical variety players were required to exercise. One can imagine him asking how the formula could be changed. Long range combat was fairly absent from BioShock, and combat movement was fairly linear. What kind of environment would allow Irrational Games to add these mechanics? How about a floating city in the clouds, completely open to the sky, with a roller coaster connecting the individual buildings that players can use during combat? This is to take nothing away from the aesthetics and culture of the city of Columbia, but I have no doubt that the gameplay considerations came first. "I find the gameplay to be harder to get right than the other stuff," Levine said, "so I tend to put a lot of focus on it at the beginning because it's the part that causes me the most anxiety. I can sit down and write Andrew Ryan speeches all day long. That's relatively easy. Making sure the weapons feel good and balanced is a much tougher thing for me to do, so I need to spend a lot more time thinking about that problem. Working with my team on those problems."
The much-hyped cultural literacy of Ken Levine is certainly in no small part responsible for his reputation, but the drive to define him as an auteur may also rest on a fundamental misunderstanding of his role at Irrational Games. We hear "Creative Director" and attempt to apply auteur theory to the man, but to hear Levine explain it, he's more of an editor. "My job on both the BioShock Infinite trailer and the demo, and working on the game, is to be the gamer seeing it the first time. Being the journalist seeing it the first time. To put myself in that role, and to bring that level of discretion. I still need to see all the flaws. I still need to be the guy going 'Am I interested in this?' I need to be the guy who says 'Are people going to be blown away by this?' That's an editorial function to a large degree. If you don't have that team around you, no matter how good an editor you are, they're never going to be putting awesome stuff in front of you."