PAX 2008: Ken Levine's Keynote
The massive, winding line for Ken Levine's keynote address left little doubt as to the Bioshock developer's popularity, or the draw of this year's Penny Arcade Expo. So many PAX attendees lined up to hear Levine, in fact, that it took a full forty minutes to pack the expo's main hall to capacity early Friday evening. Seated expogoers were lulled to complacency by various game trailers projected on two-story screens at either side of the stage. When Levine quietly took the podium, the crowd seemed completely unperturbed by the extended delay.
"I've had a really great past year," Levine began, alluding to Bioshock's success, "and this is a good way to cap it off." But instead of treating the audience to an account of his recent game development activities, he launched into a slightly bawdy, self-deprecating autobiography in three acts, complete with slideshow illustrations.
In Act 1, "Nerd Siberia," Levine recounted his childhood descent into nerd-dom, beginning with his love of comic books. "Comics were my geeky gateway drug," he explained. While most of his peers were entranced by Farrah Fawcett, Levine developed an abiding lust for Marvel Comics' Scarlet Witch. In a laughter-inducing slide entitled "My Sexual Development," he diagrammed how the film Logan's Run - and specifically, actress Jenny Agutter's provocative scenes as Jessica 6 - finally enabled the transference of his adolescent desires from comic heroines to real-life women.
The "real bomb" in Levine's geek maturation, though, was a 1978 Hanukkah gift of an Atari 2600, followed shortly thereafter by his discovery of Dungeons and Dragons. Realizing his interests marked him as a potential outcast, he initially pursued them in "stealth nerd" mode while he attempted to fit in with his ungeeky peers. It didn't work. By high school Levine had resigned himself to "a sentence to Nerd Siberia."
A chance meeting with fellow D&D players on a school bus ended Levine's isolation, as he explained in Act 2 of his presentation, entitled "The Tribe." Levine's high school tribe was a group of fellow geeks, bound by their love of sci-fi and fantasy. Years later, the group faltered and eventually disbanded as its other members began pursuing the opposite sex.
Early adulthood saw Levine transferring his roleplaying leanings into a career as an upstart Hollywood screenwriter in Act 3, "Westward Ho!" Once again he concealed his geek proclivities, explaining that his newfound peers "were people who thought Dr. Who was their kids' opthamologist." Despite a new social set and sense of confidence, Levine's first screenplay, a romantic comedy, "sucked." Hollywood "dropped him like a hot rock."
For the next several years Levine drifted between careers, unfocused and unsatisfied. He rediscovered video games, this time to escape and numb his dissatisfaction. At some point, it hit him: people were making these games. Maybe he could make these games. An interview landed him a job at Looking Glass Studios in 1995, where he discovered what Hollywood couldn't provide: an outlet for his interests and a true sense of belonging. Once again, he'd found his peers.
Levine concluded his remarks to the sympathetic audience by noting that PAX offers the same sense of purpose and identity he sought for much of his early life. Let's face it, he said, "What brings us all together at PAX is that we're a giant bunch of fucking nerds." At this, the crowd roared its approval. "Thank you," responded Levine. Thank you for coming here. Thank you for listening to me. And thank you for letting me be part of your tribe."