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When I saw the reports on Tuesday morning that Irrational Games was closing I was surprised, but only for a moment. Based on my knowledge of Ken Levine, the Quincy video game studio’s creative director, from several lengthy interviews over the years, and many critics’ reactions to its most recent blockbuster game, “BioShock Infinite,” and the current importance of storytelling in the video game industry, the pieces fell into place quickly.
I’ve spoken with Levine about the preposterous expectations that were placed on “Infinite" (pictured above). He looked away when I asked him, and I’m not sure what he could have said without it sounding like a complaint. When the original “BioShock” was released, critics practically wept at the originality of the game world and the depth of the story. How does one follow up a game that was cited to Roger Ebert, when the film critic said “video games can never be art,” more times than perhaps any other game produced by the industry in three decades?
“Infinite” was subjected to intense scrutiny. Critics dove into what they felt were troubling depictions of gender and race. They felt the game was too bloody. They took issue with the fact that the game was a first-person shooter at all, wishing that “Infinite” could have been an old-fashioned adventure game instead, owing to the depth of the world that they had little time to explore for its own sake before the bullets started flying.
All fair criticisms to make—that last one could prove to be prophetic—and I don’t think it’s a leap to suggest that after such an experience one might want to move on and try something new. Considering the incredible challenges Levine faced of trying to follow up a work that is widely considered a masterpiece, even a cultural touchstone, I wondered how George Lucas felt when critics (with justification) tore his “Star Wars” prequel films to shreds. I wasn’t shocked when Lucas sold the franchise to Disney last year, either. I don’t think anybody was, not after years of fans complaining that he was ruining the “Star Wars” franchise.
Please take none of this as my making Levine into some sort of victim. When you talk as freely and often to the press as Levine does, you paint a big target on your back. Levine’s outspokenness makes for great marketing copy, and the enthusiast press lapped it up over the years. Any harsh criticism Levine has received is something he opened the door to, in part by giving the press such a feeling of familiarity with him.
It’s uncharitable to other game developers that Ken Levine is frequently touted as “the smartest man in video games.” It’s an image I’ve taken issue with, but also occasionally contributed to, because I’ve never had another game developer talk to me about German Expressionism or repeated trends in human history during an interview. Nor can I think of another developer who has a history with writing and directing for the stage. One of the most interesting conversations I’ve had with Levine was about the relationship between directing actors for the stage, and directing them for video game voice work.
That conversation included a question I’ve asked him many times, about the limitations of trying to tell stories through first-person shooters, a genre not known for the sharpness of its storytelling. Levine always answers in a similar way. He says that every medium has its strengths and weaknesses, and that he might be crazy for trying to tell stories the way he tells them. He likes to talk about the immersion offered by first-person perspective games—and his largest successes have always been with first-person perspective games—but Levine has never convinced me that the first-person shooter genre he was working in was satisfactory for what he wants to do in the present.
I think the labored birth of “BioShock Infinite” speaks to that point. There were reports of a bloated $200 million dollar budget; high profile members of the studio departing during production; stories about the difficulty of working with Levine and his artistic temperament; and ultimately the need to pull in Rod Fergusson, an experienced producer from another studio to get the game pushed out the door. Put those pieces together and you get a picture of a game that just wasn’t fitting together the way it had to.
It makes sense to me that Levine is going to leave Irrational Games if he wants to do something different, as the studio is currently set up to support the development of first-person shooters. By leaving Irrational, he leaves the trappings of that setup behind him. I don’t know this is the reason for certain, but it seems like a reasonable guess.
Critics have taken issue with the fact that it seems as though Levine’s departure is the sole reason why Irrational Games is closing. Video games, said critics argue, are the result of collaborative efforts and not the will of a single man. Therefore, goes the argument, considering that Take-Two Interactive, not Levine, owns Irrational Games why couldn’t Take-Two choose to keep the studio open and not dislocate all of the talented employees who work there?
That argument is predicated on the presumption that it is in Take-Two Interactive’s economic interests to do so, which is speculative at best. I’m not comfortable criticizing a studio closure on the basis of pure speculation. The economic argument also feels far less salient than the creative considerations.
I cannot think of another video game studio that revolved so heavily around the will of one man. To listen to off the record stories from employees of Irrational Games during the development of “BioShock Infinite,” Levine had his thumb in all the pies. Trying to understand the fate of Irrational Games in the context of other video game development studio closures therefore may not work in this case. It may be more appropriate to look elsewhere for context.
Film and television production are also collaborative efforts, no less so than video games, and sometimes film and television projects die upon the exit of a key figure who largely defined the project. When David Milch walked away from the HBO series “Deadwood,” HBO could have tried to replace him and keep the show alive, but the project would have suffered. “Deadwood” was Milch’s baby, and everyone knew it. (Update: There's some debate over whether Milch walked way from "Deadwood." See comments below.)
Irrational Games was the baby of three founders. Levine was the last, and now he is leaving. Even if it were in the purely economic interests of Take-Two Interactive to re-staff Irrational Games and keep it alive, considering the reputation of the studio and the legacy it was built upon, would it actually continue to be Irrational Games in fact?
If Take-Two did try to re-staff the studio with a new set of creative leads and dub it with a new name, would the studio ever escape the ghost of Irrational Games and its legacy, or always suffer unfairly with the perception of being a lesser-than?
“In time we will announce a new endeavor with a new goal: To make narrative-driven games for the core gamer that are highly replayable,” wrote Levine in his message posted to Irrational Games' website Tuesday announcing his departure and that the studio would be "winding down." If any developer wants to experiment with narrative in video games, now is the time to make the leap because the conversation about storytelling in games has changed dramatically over the past few years.
Narrative has taken on a new importance in games recently. Telltale Games is absolutely killing it with their episodic, narrative-driven games like “The Walking Dead” and “A Wolf Among Us.” I look forward to the release of each episode like I look forward to new episodes of the “Walking Dead” television series, or “True Detective” on HBO, or the entire second season of “House of Cards” on Netflix.
Double Fine Productions recently released a game called “Broken Age,” which hearkens back to the adventure games of the 1980s to 1990s. The game was backed on Kickstarter, and fans met the initial funding more quickly than anyone might have guessed. Interactive, text-based adventures are seeing renewed popularity and interest, in no small part due to tools like Twine that make creating games in the genre accessible to anyone who wants to make a go at it.
These genres demonstrate the rising tide of opinion that narrative in games actually matters. Stories aren’t just extra material to tack onto game rules and graphics anymore. Writers are participating in game development from the very beginning and making sure games support their ability to tell stories.
Levine has made his name in large part by his ability to tell stories around the restrictions of mainstream games designed first and foremost to sell in the marketplace. If he wants to try something different in regards to storytelling, the industry is ripe for the attempt. I can see why he’d walk away from Irrational Games to do so.
I don’t think Levine can ever escape the expectations around his work, no matter what studio he’s working in, and what kind of games he’s trying to make. It’s way too late for that. And I think this move will only galvanize the critical voices who put his work under such a microscope. Levine will likely never get around any of this, not as long as he works in the video game industry.
That said, feeling like I understand this decision makes it no less sad, mostly because I wanted to see what Levine did next with the “BioShock” universe.
Spoiler incoming: Both “BioShock” games begin at a lighthouse. Towards the end of “BioShock Infinite,” we see the main characters Booker and Elizabeth walking on a wooden bridge in front of that lighthouse, and all around them are an infinite number of Bookers and Elizabeths mirroring their every move on an infinite number of wooden bridges in front of the same lighthouse, stretching to the horizon and ostensibly beyond.
The point, obviously, is that the story of “BioShock” could take an infinite number of forms through an infinite number of different realities. A city in the sea named Rapture, ruined by Objectivist philosophy run wild. A city in the sky named Columbia, ruled by American exceptionalism, and race and class struggle. And the new chapters in the “BioShock Infinite” story, released as downloadable content that adds onto the retail release of the game, center around an alternate version of Booker, and an Elizabeth who can travel throughout all of these different realities, in this case back to the city of Rapture in which the original “BioShock” took place.
There were so many places the franchise could have gone. The rights to “BioShock” have been sold to 2K Games. Maybe the staff at Irrational will follow the franchise. I hope that’s an option many of them choose to exercise, because the entire studio is extremely talented, and maybe the “BioShock” universe can be projected into yet another quantum reality to explore another facet of human existence. Without Levine, however, I doubt it, and I think it will take a while to realize what a loss this was, on so many fronts.
Dennis Scimeca is a Boston-based freelance writer. He is usually on the video game beat, and has been published on Salon, Polygon, Ars Technica, and Kotaku. Follow him on Twitter @DennisScimeca.