JONAS: You’ve always created outstanding worlds in your games – settings that are unique and exciting, yet at the same time have this layer of metaphor and symbolism. What do you consider the most important factor for a strong setting? Do you start with the metaphors that you want to convey and then build the world around that, or does the symbolism and the philosophy come after the fundamental concept? How do you find the “tone” of a setting, so to speak?
KEN: By writing, re-writring, re-writing, re-writing. People always ask me if I had all the ideas for set for something for day one. That is not how it works. Ideas change. Things evolve. Ideas are easy. Execution is hard.
JONAS: One of the things I personally admire about your games is their laser-focus on the central themes of the story. This is something I often struggle with myself, as it can be difficult to resist the temptation to pull in new inspirations or spin irrelevant narrative threads. How do you balance out the importance of keeping focused on core themes against adding in interesting digressions?
KEN: We have a pillar at the new group which is to always be Player Facing. That means, see the game through the eyes of the player. Just because you as a designer always go left when you come into a room in your level doesn’t mean the gamer will. Just because you find a story element interesting because you have to share every last detail that you dreamed up! doesn’t mean the player will.
JONAS: You’ve also made some very memorable personalities in your games. When you go about writing a character, what sorts of details do you focus on to flesh out their personality? Do you have a clear picture in your mind of what they will be like before you start writing, or do you prefer to jump in fairly soon and write your way into their head?
KEN: Characters aren’t people. Characters have a purpose in your story and their actions are governed by wants and needs. The thing that often motivates a story is the conflict created by your character being frustrated in obstaining wants and needs. A good start is to give your characters wants and needs that will yield interesting conflict. For instance, if Andrew Ryan’s wanted to open a candy store instead of an underwater objectivist utopia, I’d argue BioShock wouldn’t have been a very good game.
JONAS: How much does your work tend to change during the development of a game? Do you treat game writing as an iterative process and plan for changes accordingly, or do you try to keep the original narrative structure intact throughout development?
KEN: It changes. I’ve never had anything really survive from beginning to end, except SUPER high level stuff.
JONAS: What sort of editing passes do you have for your own work? Any particular things you go back and check for periodically?
KEN: My editing passes are constant. I’m constantly tearing things out and putting them back in. It’s not uncommon for me to rework a sequence dozens of times and/or throwing it out and starting over.
JONAS: What do you find to be the hardest type of thing for you to write? What do you find to be the easiest?
KEN: It’s all hard except the day you wake up and for some reason you know how to write that scene.
JONAS: Any particular design ideas or concepts that you’re obsessed with right now? Anything you’re particularly excited about on your new project, or particularly determined to find a way to use in the future?
KEN: Replaybility for narrative.
JONAS: Thank you very much for answering my questions, Mr. Levine. I’m excited to follow along with the development of your next game, and to see how it all turns out in the end!
Jonas Waever is a guest author at XP4T, and Creative Director of Logic Artists. You can read an interview we did with him here, and the interview he did with Chris Avellone here, or follow him on twitter @. He also likes cats, just so you know.