As 2011 comes to a close and the holiday video gaming releases are in full swing, I took some time to talk with Morgan Webb, host of “XPlay” on G4TV about this year in gaming, what’s next and what does it really mean to be a gamer.
Webb said she is an avowed fanatic when it comes to the “Centipede” arcade game. She also said her first console was an Atari 2600, where she played “Combat” and “Plaque Attack” for hours on end.
GN: This was a year for sequels. Every major title that came out had a number after it. Why is that?
Webb: “We’re nearly the end of a console cycle so series that have begun at the beginning of the console cycle, they’re starting to finish up the series. People have made the investment in the franchise and they’ve got the art together and they don’t want to create something completely new when new consoles are starting to be on the horizon.”
GN: Were there any games that surprised you this year?
Webb: “’LA Noire’ from Rockstar. Rockstar traditionally makes very good games, but we were surprised and delighted that the game had a very different perspective on the traditional ‘GTA’ (‘Grand Theft Auto’) style open world game. That was a great surprise and a great game.”
GN: What’s going to be different in the next generation of consoles?
I think they are going to have a lot of cloud functionality. You’ll be able to play games on the cloud. You’ll definitely be able to have saves on the cloud. They’re going to start transitioning people off of discs. That doesn’t mean they aren’t going to have disc drives because they are. But we’re going to start having consoles with big hard drives that you can gather those games because you’re going to have much better bandwidth. You’re going to be able to download those games more often. They’re going to want to start that transition and start cutting out the actual game stores just like how book stores have been cut out from books. On the gaming side, we going to see very powerful graphics cards and we’re going to see very powerful processors. They’re going to be very powerful computers that are going to sit next to your television and they’re going to be very good prices for what you are going to get.
GN: With the Wii U and the PlayStation Vita coming out next year, is this where we are headed with more motion controls and less button pushing in gaming?
Webb: “I think there is room for both. Core games, the hard core gamers who play games like ‘Gears of War,’ ‘Call of Duty,’ ‘Assassin’s Creed’ and ‘Skyrim,’ that gamer is definitely more interested in using a controller for a lot of their experiences. The problem is that the (PlayStation) Move, these motion experiences, aren’t nuanced enough to actually give the player as much control as they would have with a (regular) controller. For example, if you are swinging a sword on a Wii game, you slash to the right and it does a right slash or slash to the left and it does a left slash, but it doesn’t really track or there is no skill involved. Now you are just standing up there making slashing motions for three hours.”
GN: Are the console wars still alive or has the battle moved to specific game titles?
Webb: “I think there are people on the Internet who sit there and decide that everything on the PlayStation is awesome and everything on the Xbox is awful and people who think that everything on the Xbox is great and everything on the PS3 is terrible. We call those people trolls. People become emotionally invested in the console they purchase so that’s the reason they get so attached to it. I think in general most people are ‘hey, I have an Xbox and I like it and lots of good games come out for both consoles.’ Each console has their exclusives and they are great exclusives on each. The Wii tends to have fewer rabid proponents because it tends to aim for a more casual audience.
GN: Does the title ‘gamer’ carry more weight than it did in the past?
Webb: “Unfortunately, it is a more confusing word now because there are so many different types of games and so many people playing games from on their cell phone to Facebook to many other things. The word encompasses so many different groups so it doesn’t really mean as much as it used to. I call myself a gamer but someone’s mom who plays ‘Farmville’ all the time, maybe she calls herself a gamer too and she should because she is. I think we need words to start differentiating the subgroups.”
While Webb would not name her 2011 Game of the Year, she did have some recommendations that players should pick up if they can.
- “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” – “You have adventures in this world that is very living and you have hundreds and thousands of choices you make and it all seamlessly works together.”
- “Uncharted 3” – “This is what we want the ‘Indiana Jones’ movies to be. You are living and playing that ‘Indiana Jones’ treasure hunting experience.”
- “Resistance 3” – “A little of the beaten path. It has funky, over-the-top weapons, but funny weapons, weird crazy weapons that you aren’t going to see anywhere else.”
- “Saints Row The Third” – “A GTA style game that is hilarious and over-the-top and crazy. Not for kids!”
- “Portal 2” – “There are some great puzzles in there.”
“Star Wars: The Old Republic” wants to put geeks and nerds in the “Star Wars” universe with their new massively multiplayer online (MMO) game.
The development team at BioWare is very anxious for fans of the classic franchise to jump in and experience what it is like to live with (and perhaps battle against) Jedi and Sith. The writing team for the game spent 60 man years (that’s 525,600 hours) in crafting a world that they know is going to be closely analyzed by “Star Wars” enthusiasts.
Daniel Erickson, the lead writer on “SWTOR,” and his writing team poured over every bit of information they could get – from movies to books to comics to encyclopedias of data. He said they have to be on their game because there are three different types of fans out there and they will all be looking for details specific to their memories of “Star Wars.”
“There’s folks like you and me who are 1st generation. Our thoughts when we think ‘Star Wars’ is immediately ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and the big scenes from that,” Erickson said. “Then we have a whole generation after that who the prequels are really what ‘Star Wars’ is for them. Then we have the third generation coming after that who show up at the conventions to play the game in their Commander Cody outfit from the ‘Clone Wars’ cartoon.”
Erickson said they tried to represent the world as a normal, functioning world and not go into the minutia or crazy trivia. They wanted to provide enough information and detail that was relevant to the character class being played. But, at the same time, they respected the franchise and recognized that good story telling is very important to the “Star Wars” legacy.
“If you are just going to nerd out on ‘Star Wars,’ the only people who are going to enjoy it are other people who are going to hard-core nerd out on ‘Star Wars,’” he said. “The thing that makes ‘Star Wars’ so brilliant, and why we all loved it in the first place, is because ‘Star Wars’ is extremely acceptable and is very universal. It’s sort of the great Western fairy tale. So, ‘Star Wars’ done well should be totally accessible for anybody who jumps in.”
There are eight classes featured in “SWTOR” and each class has its own unique story line. Erickson said the team expects a majority of people to gravitate to being a Sith or Jedi, each of which has two individual classes to choose from. But there are four other classes that are not Force based and gives players options to experience parts of the “Star Wars” universe that they never have before.
“I know when I was a kid, I always wanted Luke’s powers, but I didn’t want to be Luke. I wanted to be Han. Han was awesome. Han got the girl. He had an ultra-cool life.”
The audience for the game is expected to fall into three categories: the “Star Wars” fan, the MMO fan and the BioWare fan who is used to playing the company’s role playing games. Erickson said there is plenty for everyone.
The “Star Wars” fan will get to live their own “Star Wars” trilogy. Each story has three giant pieces to it that are larger than the normal role-playing game. Erickson describes is as “finally getting to live and star in your own ‘Star Wars’ trilogy of movies”
The MMO fan is likely to enjoy the context and high production values surrounding the activities they will do in the game. Sure, you’ll get to kill lots of people and creatures, but those kills will have meaning and understanding rather than just killing as “grinding.”
“Getting a consistent world and galaxy that holds together, that actually puts way more meaning on all of the great activities that you always enjoyed doing,” Erickson said. “You’re not just feeling powerful and just feeling like you’re accomplished in this world because you’ve got really cool outfits on. The whole world is reinforcing your fantasy.”
While there is guild building to allow for groups of players to take on large missions, the solo player can also have great success, but at a cost. Erickson said lone wolf players will miss out on some of the best content involving multiplayer missions, however they will have an amazing RPG experience.
Erickson said their ultimate goal is to make all the fans feel comfortable and immersed in the game environment and experience. “Star Wars” has its own life with big, overarching themes, good versus evil, and the space opera/1950s serial action film feel, he said. And despite changing the characters and the time period and the main plots, he thinks people will “nerd out.”
“There’s a quintessentially Star Wars feel that when you turn it on, you go, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I get it. This feels like Star Wars.’ You can still settle in to your nerd phase and say this is the Star Wars I know and love.”
There were plenty of great games for 2011 and all many long-time franchises put bows on storylines that have been going on for years. It was also the year of the shooter (and the number 3) as “Battlefield 3,” “Gears of War 3” and “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” brought players into combat zones with new and creative gameplay.
As with any top 10 list, many very good games will not make the cut. As I put this together, I tried to include games that I played and never really wanted to put down until the very last scene. Your list may vary.
A fitting finale for Nathan Drake and his adventures, “Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception” wraps up the historical adventure franchise with possibly his greatest treasure yet. Not only does the story takes a look back and reveal how Drake got started on his quests, but also tied up many loose plot lines very well. The game feels like an Indiana Jones adventure and Drake keeps a wry sense of humor throughout the most trying times. The designers did their research to showcase several incredible environments, historical references and lost treasures. Players will come away feeling like they’ve been on a grand adventure, which they have.
“LA Noire” puts the story to the forefront in a daring attempt to be different. Action is dictated by the narrative and not by a splash of action to get the plot moving. It looks and feels like a 1940’s style detective thriller with some great voice acting and motion capture animation. It is a great effort to bring the narrative to the forefront without forcing dialog or plot. Expect to see more like this in the future.
[PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows PC]
Sackboy returns and actually got better. “Little Big Planet 2” has a single-player story that has a good plot, supporting characters and new abilities for everyone’s incarnation of imagination. There is actual dialog instead of grunting or mumbles. The puzzle solving remains fun, but the creation of levels to share with the community raises the enjoyment level. The inclusion of social media connections increased the player’s audience for their newly created level and has spurred some wonderful creations that anyone can play.
”Deus Ex: Human Revolution” allows players to experiment with different augmentations to enhance their human character. Creatively building and upgrading, gamers will discover new ways to complete missions even during replays. The atmosphere of the not-so-far-away future is one of hope and despair. The story is well crafted and keeps players involved with very little downtime or boredom.
[PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows PC]
“NBA 2K12” offers more basketball action, both on and off the court, and gave hoops fans a great outlet while the real NBA figured out their work woes. Improved animations make the action look more realistic than ever. The inclusion of more of the NBA’s greatest players lets you pit superstars from different era to find out who is truly the greatest of all time. “My Player” mode lets you get drafted, work your way up the depth chart and puts your player in the harsh glow of the media during press conferences.
[PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, PlayStation PSP, Windows PC, Nintendo DS, Nintendo Wii]
So many games use sex and violence as a hook to draw players in. “Saints Row The Third” uses it as the canvas of a hilariously funny and sexually charged romp that also offers excellent game mechanics. Missions are ultra-violent, outlandish and filled with tons of OMG moments. Drive around with a tiger in your car. Rescue hookers from a violent gang. Converse with Burt Reynolds and Hulk Hogan. It is a tongue-in-cheek, high-paced game players will enjoy.
[PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows PC]
An independent title that shows what the “little guy” could do, “Bastion” was a surprisingly stunning game with original weaponry, an environment that players put together as the game progresses and narration that literally tells the story of what you are doing at that time. Dialog isn’t tied to a predetermined set of events. The narrator, known as the Stranger, reacts to what your character does and makes the game seem personalized. It was a game that was very fun to play without taking itself too seriously.
[Xbox Live Arcade, Windows PC]
Let me say that the top three could be shuffled in any order and it would still be right. But this is how I’m shuffling them (for now). “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” is an open world role playing game that literally has over 100 quests to complete. Your character can be trained in any skill at any time, thus assuring that the game is very personal to each player. Sure, there are some minor bugs in it, but they are more amusing than frustrating. And any game that lets me stand at the top of a mountain while more than a dozen dragons fill the sky is a big winner in my book. It is enthralling, addictive and satisfying.
[PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows PC]
The Dark Knight returns to his beloved city of Gotham and discovers it to be just as violent and twisted as the dark halls of Arkham Asylum. His new adventures, “Batman: Arkham City,” expand the playing field dramatically and take the insanity into the open world. This allowed for more freedom during combat as well as takes the missions away from a linear progression. The voice acting remains flawless, the design and the increase in the number of the classic villains and the sense of foreboding throughout the game made this game a pleasure to play and a difficult one to put down even after the main story line (which was highly dramatic) was finished.
[PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows PC]
Outstanding characters? Check. Cryptic puzzle solving? Check. Great dialog? Check. Everything you’d expect from a “Portal” title returns in “Portal 2” with some great additions. While the first title was all about the puzzles, this title keeps the puzzle solving portion alive, but mixes in a wonderful story that is fast paced, informative and extremely humorous. Origins are discovered, new alliances formed and there is not a crumb of cake to be had. If that wasn’t enough, a new co-op mode was introduced that allows players to play as test robots that act like Abbott & Costello. A fantastic game from start to finish.
[Windows PC, Mac OS X, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360]
I was fortunate enough to be able to speak with BioShock creator Ken Levine in two separate interview for about 90 minutes total. While his answers were trimmed down for a story, I thought it would be interesting to reveal his long-form answers to some of my questions.
Levine spoke passionately on several different subjects. Here is some of our discussion.
You got your start in the film industry. How did that come about?
(Film was) my first sort of career path in my younger period of time – late teens, early 20s. I didn’t start doing anything creative until I was about 18 or 19. I started writing plays and I didn’t really know. I just fell into that as a creative outlet. And I wrote some plays and I met a playwright, John Robin Baitz, who has done a bunch of TV work now, and I asked him about my plays and he liked them. I was about 19 at this time and I asked how do I make money doing this? I was starting to worry about the post-college years and I was just trying to find my way there. And he said that he usually left that stuff to my agent. And I didn’t know anything about writing as a business or anything at this point. I had a play and there was an agent who liked it and asked me if I could turn it into a screen play. Which I did and that sort of became my calling card that got me my first movie job.
Was it as successful as you hoped?
I wrote 8 or 9 (screenplays) and I sold 1 of them. Maybe it was 6 or 7 instead of 8 or 9. I don’t really remember. I sold one of them to Paramount. But I would not call my movie career a smashing success. I think I made a little money but I didn’t make any impact. I was very young and I certainly learned about the nexus where creativity and commerce meet for the first time. I remember when I was young and I was winning all these playwright awards and on the other hand I was just another screenwriter trying to make it in the difficult world of Hollywood. I certainly learned a lesson early on about what it means to write commercially versus constructively.
How did you transition from film into the gaming industry?
When I was about 22, I just kind of tooled around doing different things for the next 5, 6, 7 years. I was struggling to figure out what I was going to do as most people do in their 20s. I had been playing games since I was a little kid and I love games. All of the sudden it occurred to me that there are actually people who make these. Could I become one of these people? But I was getting bored and I knew nothing about it. So I started looking at gaming magazines for ads from the game industry and I just tuned into game designer primarily because I knew I couldn’t draw, I couldn’t program so what was I going to do? I didn’t even know what a game designer was. I ended up apply for a job with this company called Looking Glass. They hired me almost right away and I think they probably did because this was back in ’95. There was going to be this merging of film and video games and wanting somebody who was familiar with the Hollywood space and looking at me as some kind of expert, which I simply was not. I got the job and that was my big opportunity.
Did you start out as a writer? What did you do in the beginning?
When I came in, the notion of a writer wasn’t really being thought about that much. Games didn’t have that level of content and the thinking was you really didn’t need a writer for games. In making Looking Glass games, I worked a Star Trek game that never got published – Star Trek: Voyager – and I worked on this game called Thief. I’m not certain how the writing fell on me, but it did. They knew I could write and it sort of fell to me. I was able to bring an understanding of artistry and structure from when I was writing plays and in movies. Thief and System Shock had a feel for that structure and I think that was helpful. I think I had experience pitching things to actually go in and pitch things. I think I was naturally someone they would go to when they had to pitch ideas to a publisher. I had that experience of being in front of people and giving out ideas. I think those skills definitely helped me in the beginning.
How did you get involved with the “System Shock” franchise?
I played the first game (System Shock). I didn’t work on it, but I played it and I felt that there were different things that were special about it. The world that was created, I thought it was a very unique and interesting world. I felt at the time that games were sort of set in these abstract environments that didn’t really have a purpose. I thought Citadel Station felt very real. Looking back on it, it was quite crude. But at the time, I felt it was a real step forward in launching the gamer in a real environment that felt true. Also loved the feel of the characters that they felt like they were written in a naturalistic style. They were just people and you found all these diaries of the people in the Station. It played out like some sort of novel. Reading different letters between different people. It has a natural, believable feel to it. I think for a science fiction game to have such a natural, believable feel especially at the time was really striking. I remember this character named SHODAN felt like HAL in 2001, a HAL-esque computer intelligence, sort of a sinister, evil presence. When I had the opportunity to come up to work on the same sort of project, it was something that I felt driven toward or at least my skill set was better suited for. I thought I could really do, have a decent chance at doing a good job on it. So when the opportunity came up to do that (System Shock 2), I really jumped for it.
I really do think people want stories. But they don’t want to watch a story like a movie, they want to participate in the story. Which is natural for interactive media. I think that games started off with no stories, then they started to get very passive stories. You play a game, you watch a little movie, you play some more. Now, I think we’re really, for the last 10 years or so, 13 years or 14 years, really trying to integrate the two where the narrative is imbedded in the gameplay. That’s a real challenge. We don’t have a model to work from. I think where games have been going from a narrative standpoint, you step back and you say is the future of narrative in games more non-interactive or more interactive. I think anyone would have to say interactive so the real question is how do you get there? How do you get to those levels of interaction so they feel natural and exciting? And anticipate what the player is going to do – that’s always a challenge. We don’t know what the player is going to do. And with a movie, are they going to have the same experience when they watch it every time? You have a lot of control. You don’t know what the gamer is going to do so we have a lot less control in our narrative ability. What you lose in control, you gain in excitement. The player becomes part of it.
Has technology driven the changes in gaming or is it a natural evolution?
In terms of the visuals, they are leveling off to some degree. It is more a matter of art direction than technology. We don’t really talk about, in Hollywood, who has the better technology. You talk about who’s got the better art director or cinematographers. We’re getting to that place with the technology – it’s less about how the different companies use the same piece of rendering that Irrational or some other company uses. One of the reasons BioShock was so striking visually was because of the technology. We had a great art director with a great visual sense. I think it is really about art direction than technology that is standard across a lot of games. Then it comes to immersion and how do you make that world feel, not just a backdrop to the gameplay, but part of the gameplay.
When DC Comics reintroduced their stories with “The New 52,” there was a backlash from the comic community. With the changes to the BioShock franchise in “BioShock Infinite,” do you foresee a potential backlash from your fans?
I think we sense, and this is true about every story, there is this permission. Does the audience give you permission to do something? Does the audience give permission for Batman to do item X, item Y? You probably need permission for Batman to become a child molester. They will accept him going to some pretty dark places because he’s Batman. That’s an extreme example. If you look at BioShock, the audience gave us permission to surprise them in terms of what the game is about. I think so much of what BioShock, the first BioShock game, was so much of the success was people were surprised and thrilled by the environment. And that rush of what is this place and where am I going? What is this city of Rapture? And Andrew Ryan? Who is Atlas? Who am I? All those questions, which we’ve answered. Once you answer the questions, a lot of BioShock’s appeal, it puts a strain on that appeal as it would with any franchise. It takes away from our mystery. I think in another franchise I probably would have been much more hesitant because a lot of franchises are based on hitting the same note over and over again. Once you start hitting the familiar notes, BioShock starts losing some of its power. I think you have to go with themes that are connected, strongly connected, to the BioShock franchise in the gameplay department. Very strongly in the gameplay department it is a BioShock game. Thematically, this idealistic world that is capturing a sense of idealism, unwavering, undying idealism. But I think that people crave in BioShock games is the need to be surprised. And that is so important for us to do that.
Where do you get your inspirations?
I have a great team of people that I work around. We are very intellectually curious at Irrational. We’re always coming in and be like oh I just read this or this or saw that. We’ll start up these conversations about the World’s Fair or conversations about politics or about American history or conversations about social movements. And because we are a bunch of industry and culture and social movement nerds in the company, we are fascinated by all these activities. When we make a game, BioShock, one of the things it is most noted for is the philosophical movement and architectural movement that we incorporate. That’s because our nerdity is pretty far reaching and broad at the company. We nerd out on a very broad range of things and we bring those things to our games.
Is there a difference between nerd and geek?
Not in my mind. It is basically.. I think the meanings of the words nerd and geek has probably changed. It was quite a negative. When I was growing up, it was an insult. Though I was by any definition, I played Dungeons & Dragons by myself. I didn’t have any friends really because I was such a nerd. By the definitions of the time, I was a nerd. I couldn’t help what I was. I couldn’t pretend to like things I didn’t like. I hated it to some degree because I was made fun of for it. Now that I’m grown up, I’m not made fun of for it and it is sort of celebrated. I don’t think there is much of a difference between nerd and geek but I think it has changed over time. Now it is something that people accept and it is cool. I haven’t changed. The world has changed.
What is it about today’s culture that makes being a nerd or a geek cool?
I think you have to say that the Internet coming in and touching everybody’s life. This weird little activity of poking around on a video screen which used to be a very sort of nerdy little thing. Like playing video games or program, things like that. The Internet really changed what you could do on your computer. Everybody’s got a computer with them. When I was a member of the computer club at school where all the little nerds used to hang out, you don’t need a computer club anymore because it is just some part of our culture and it breaks those barriers. They start coming down. When I was growing up, I was interested in Spider-Man. If nobody else was interested in that, I was considered a nerd. With the Internet, all of the sudden, everybody was connected and the isolation itself started to disappear. Now we have PAX, the Penny Arcade convention. I mean, there is nothing like that – the celebration of being a nerd! A lot of people are saying I’m a geek, I’m a nerd. It almost becomes something people want to be. It is very easy to forget that guys my age, I’m 45, it was pretty lonely being a kid. Now I’m very grateful that it is not the case. I’m happy for all the kids growing up because they won’t be isolated. The fact that they like science fiction, that’s great that it is part of our culture.
Today’s kids have it easier being a geek?
I’m very happy that it is no longer.. I remember being bullied. I’m very happy that kids growing up now, it is very much more accepted. Will not be made fun of because of what I went through as a kid. I’m very happy about that.
What games did you play as a kid?
I really got started with Avalon Hill board games – like Luftwaffe and Panzer Blitz. I still love them. I grew up playing all those Avalon Hill games and Dungeons & Dragons.
Are there still console wars or is it more about the games?
I think it is an interesting time because the games are transforming so fast and the platforms are transforming so fast and the business models are changing. I’m loath to make predictions but I will say that the only thing that’s going to be constant in the next 10 years is change.
What was your first console?
Atari 2600. I got it on my 13th birthday and it was one of the best moments of my life.
So many IPs are cross-platform now. It seems every title has a book or comic that is coming out. Is the idea to expand the brand or reach out to potential fans who aren’t into games right now?
Novels and graphic novels is just a chance to get your brand out. People in different places, comic book stores, book store and things like that, toy store with action figures. Creators like me, when the opportunity comes, you’re going to want to look at .. you know, you have more shows so each show potentially reaches fewer people. You want to bridge the gap between one form of media and the other. For example, Spider-Man started off as a comic book character and now he’s a multimedia character. Obviously that’s a lot more valuable for people than if he had just stayed in comic books. Not every character or every concept can make that leap. Concepts that can make that jump are highly valued and rightfully so in terms of how much money they can create and the reach they can have. The proliferation of different types of media is increasing.
Is there an idea or story that you’ve thought about but never really gotten the chance to flesh it out?
I don’t get that attached to a story or spend a lot of time with it. I get hundreds of ideas every day. But I don’t get attached because I’m not invested. It takes me a while to get invested and once I do, I tend to go very, very deep on it. BioShock was more of a concept than a story for many years until we really started working on it – Atlas and Andrew Ryan and the underwater city of Rapture. We just had a bunch of game concepts and a lot of ideas, but once I got very invested is when it came together. I really don’t have a bunch of ideas running out of my head because I would want to develop them more and get more attached to them. I don’t get that attached to something at that time. I’m not that promiscuous. I’m pretty monogamous. Once I’m drawn to that thing, that’s where I’ll put all my attention. I don’t have a little black book (of ideas). I’m really focused on the thing that I’m working on.
I understand you like to read and absorb a lot of media when you are working on your ideas.
I’m a real history nerd. Once I sort of determine the period that we’re working in, I try to understand what’s really going on from a social perspective. With Infinite, it was interesting that I knew almost nothing about the turn of the Century, 1912, where Infinite takes place. I knew a lot about the Civil War, World War 1, World War 2 but I knew nothing about the pre WWI period. The more I started looking into it, I think what tuned me in was not a book but a PBS documentary called America 1900. When I watched it, it struck me how the two threads that were going on in the country at the time. The incredible optimism in two areas. One optimism of technology and, you think about the period, the world had completely changed in a short period of time. You have in the last 30 years of our lives one major piece of technology and that’s been the Internet. If you go back to 1912, they had like 10 different things on the scale of the Internet. They had electricity, cars came about, movies came about, records came about, airplanes came about, radio came about in a period of about 10 or 20 years. Their heads must have been absolutely spinning. That led people to sort of think that the future was going to continue to change at that pace and it gave people an incredible sense of optimism for the future. Simultaneously, you have America starting to come into prominence in history. Starting to get involved in foreign adventurism. We got involved in the Spanish American War with Cuba and got into the Philippines and we really hadn’t done that in a substantial way outside of the continent. That was a real change for America. We had been a colony ourselves about 100 years before that. So both of these things really gave the country some optimism for the future, what America was going to be able to do politically and what we were going to be able to do from a technology standpoint because almost all of the technology was coming out of America. And that gave me the lead I needed to start defining the story of this game. The story of the world of Columbia came out the geist of this time, we just sort of enhanced it, enhanced that geist, sort of what we did in BioShock 1 as well. And then I started reading more. I read a book about the assassination of McKinley, profiling McKinley who was the first American adventurer of the time when all these adventures were happening and was shot part of an anarchist movement, something that was rising at the time and would eventually completely change the world as we knew it for America when an anarchist shot the Archduke, just like an anarchist shot McKinley. One shot Ferdinand in Sarajevo that started World War I that involved most of the empires in the world that existed at that time. These incredible themes were all just running through the world and even as a history buff, I wasn’t aware of them. I was really excited once I started tuning into them and I found myself incredibly obsessed with the details at the time. I also read “The Devil in the White City”, which my guys turned me on to. It deals with the 1892 World’s Fair, the Chicago World’s Fair with the Columbian Exposition where there was both this incredible display of technology by electricity which is one of the first times people had ever seen that and it was all mentioned for the future of the World’s Fair but it was also simultaneously the time of America’s first serial killer was stalking the fair and Chicago and the area around where the fair was. In all these stories, you have these incredible themes. One of great optimism and excitement for the future and one of this ominous feeling at the same time. The ominous feeling was the serial killer and that’s a true story. You have the enthusiasm of technology that happened at the turn of the century bookended with the start of World War I and seeing what all that technology can do. This Yin and this Yang that was present in all of this research really made me excited to work on this game.
I think the thing I’m most interested in is how what we intend to do, we often go into things with the best of intentions and how unintended consequences can frustrate us. We often have the best of intentions. I was originally inspired many years ago by a book called Red Mars, which is a science fiction book. I don’t read a lot of science fiction but I love this book about a human colony on Mars. They were all excited about the colony on Mars because they thought they would leave all the problems of Earth behind – racism, war, all that. What they forget is that on Mars they bring the problems with them because they bring the people with them. We are doomed to a certain degree to not have things turn out as they are intended. It just sort of happens when you look at art, social engineering. You look at Rapture and Columbia and they are to a certain extent large scale social engineering. What happens is things don’t always happen the way they are created to whether it is Ryan in BioShock 1 or Comstock in BioShock Infinite. They have these plans and they think that it is going to work out as well as the characters in their philosophy. That’s what I found fascinating even if you read Rand and you read Atlas Shrugged or Fountainhead, things work out great for those characters because she controls all the variables. She is the author of the book. What I tried to make in BioShock was what if you really had somebody like one of those characters and you tried to do something like that in an open world. What would really happen? And as fantastical as BioShock is, I think it is probably in some ways a more honest look at what would happen, much like Rand’s philosophy or anybody’s philosophy if you tried to put it into motion. That if you try to be pure, things will happen that you can’t anticipate and that will confound your vision and the challenge is how will you react. I think Ryan’s in BioShock 1 was he didn’t accept the fact that it wasn’t what he’d hoped it would be and he couldn’t change course. He just believed in the philosophy – philosophy trumped reality.
What other media do you enjoy?
I’m constantly reading all the time. It is easier for me to read now because I can read wherever I am. I’m watching and re-watching Mad Men. I’m watching and re-watching Breaking Bad. I read comic books. I play video games. I’m a huge media whore. I view it as part of my job because I need to know what’s going on. I want to feel like if I went back in time and I was there that I wouldn’t be that confused or surprised by what I saw. That would be my goal.
“BioShock: Infinite” is one of the most talked about games in 2011 and highly anticipated games for 2012. With a combination of fantastic art direction, immersive gameplay and deep storyline, the third installment in the franchise has attracted attention from gamers and non-gamers alike.
The series is the brainchild of creator and game designer Ken Levine. Levine, 45, has been working in the gaming industry since 1995 and had early success with “System Shock 2” and “Thief,” but it is his more recent work in the creation and development of “BioShock” and “BioShock 2” that has garnered the most attention.
In an interview for CNN.com, Levine talked about where he gets his inspiration for his game development ideas, growing up as a nerd and being a self-proclaimed “media whore.”
Inspiration for games
Levine didn’t start out his career in gaming. During his college days, he turned his creative talents to writing plays. While working on his craft and worrying about his post-college years, Levine sought out the advice of playwright John Robin Baitz.
Baitz began to educate Levine about the business side of writing and dealing with agents. So when an agent asked to turn a play Levine had written into a screenplay, he had his opening into the movie industry. Levine ended up only selling one screenplay to Paramount and was learning what it meant to be a writer commercially versus creatively and being just another screenwriter trying to make it in Hollywood.
He began to “tool around doing different things” for the next seven years and was struggling to figure out what he was going to do for his future. His attention turned to something he loved doing as a child – playing games.
“All of the sudden it occurred to me that there are actually people who make these,” Levine said. “Could I become one of these people? I started looking at gaming magazines for ads from the game industry and I just tuned into game designer primarily because I knew I couldn’t draw, I couldn’t program, so what was I going to do?”
Levine was hired by Looking Glass Studios and was ready to unleash his creative talents in the gaming world. He was particularly fascinated by the creation of unique and interesting worlds and how players moved through them, which was unique at the time. He worked on the writing and design of “Thief: The Dark Project.”
“I’m not certain how the writing fell on me, but it did. They knew I could write and it sort of fell to me,” Levine said. “I was able to bring an understanding of artistry and structure from when I was writing plays and in movies.”
“Thief” was Looking Glass’s most successful title in sales and critical acclaim. But he was looking for a new challenge and joined two others in forming Irrational Games in 1997 and he jumped on the opportunity to work on “System Shock 2” as game designer after playing (and enjoying) “System Shock.”
“I felt it was a real step forward in launching the gamer in a real environment that felt true,” he said. “I also loved the feel of the characters that they felt like they were written in a naturalistic style. They were just people and you found all these diaries of the people — it played out like some sort of novel. It has a natural, believable feel to it.”
It was during this time that Levine began to hone his skills for telling a creative and interesting story while still making it interactive for the player.
“How do you get to those levels of interaction so they feel natural and exciting? And anticipate what the player is going to do – that’s always a challenge.”
“System Shock 2” wasn’t a commercial success, but it drew attention from critics for its forward thinking about how a game should play and the elements of a successful title. Levine and his Irrational Games team began to build a culture of intellectual curiosity at their studio as a way of inspiring ideas and concepts for their games.
In 2002, that free flow of ideas and themes gave rise to the ideas for the “BioShock” franchise. Levine said “BioShock” and “BioShock 2” are noted for their incorporation of philosophical and architectural movements, which comes from a “nerdity that is pretty far reaching and broad at the company.”
“We’ll start up these conversations about the World’s Fair or conversations about politics or about American history or conversations about social movements. And because we are a bunch of industry and culture and social movement nerds in the company, we are fascinated by all these activities,” he said. “We nerd out on a very broad range of things and we bring those things to our games.”
For “BioShock: Infinite,” Levine tries to really understand what’s going on from a social perspective in the time period the game is based. A Public Broadcasting System documentary called “America1900” served as the launching point for the upcoming game’s themes of optimism and anarchy. The game is set in theUnited Statesin 1912, a time between the Civil War and World War I. It was also a time of great technological leaps that Levine said gave people an incredible sense of optimism.
“You have, in the last 30 years of our lives, one major piece of technology and that’s been the Internet. If you go back to 1912, they had like ten different things on the scale of the Internet,” Levine said. “They had electricity, cars, movies, records, airplanes, radio in a period of about ten or 20 years. Their heads must have been absolutely spinning.”
It was also a time of great upheaval as an anarchist shot and killed President William McKinley in 1901 and an anarchist would assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand ofAustriain 1914. A book entitled “The Devil in theWhiteCity” detailedAmerica’s first documented serial killer who stalked the 1912 World’s Fair inChicagoand caught Levine’s attention.
“In all these stories, you have these incredible themes. One of great optimism and excitement for the future and one of this ominous feeling at the same time,” Levine said. “This Yin and this Yang that was present in all of this research really made me excited to work on this game.”
Growing up nerd
Levine revealed he was a nerd when he was growing up, but it wasn’t the badge of honor that it is today. He said he played “Dungeons & Dragons” by himself in his family’s basement. He played war games from Avalon Hill, like “Luftwaffe” and “Panzer Blitz.”
His first console was the Atari 2600 that he said he got on his birthday and was “one of the best moments of my life.” And while he freely admits that he was, and still is to the day, a nerd, it was a very lonely moment in his life when he was a child.
“By the definitions of the time, I was a nerd. I couldn’t help what I was. I couldn’t pretend to like things I didn’t like. I hated it to some degree, because I was made fun of for it. Now that I’m grown up, I’m not made fun of for it and it is sort of celebrated.”
Levine said he hasn’t changed, but the world has changed and the nerd culture barrier has broken down largely in part to the Internet and peoples comfort level with computers. Everyone got connected and the isolation that comes with being a nerd started to disappear.
He points to the PAX convention hosted by Penny Arcade as a celebration of being a nerd. And people openly proclaiming to be a geek or a nerd is more evidence of the changing culture.
“I remember being bullied. I’m very happy that kids growing up now, it is very much more accepted,” Levine said. “(They) will not be made fun of because of what I went through as a kid. I’m very happy about that.”
When diving into a project like “BioShock: Infinite,” Levine dives head first into researching everything he can about the time period, the culture, the technology and the conflicts of his setting. He said he gets deeply invested in the concepts because he wants to be able to fully understand all the elements so he can weave as complete a story as possible.
Levine said he constantly reads and, with his Kindle, he can read wherever he is. He is a self-proclaimed history nerd and, while he doesn’t read a lot of science fiction, was originally inspired by a book called “Red Mars,” which he said revealed quite a bit about unintended consequences to him – a running theme in the BioShock franchise.
“They were all excited about the colony on Mars because they thought they would leave all the problems of Earth behind – racism, war, all that. What they forget is that on Mars they bring the problems with them because they bring the people with them,” he said. “Things don’t always happen the way they are created to, whether it is Ryan in ‘BioShock’ or Comstock in ‘BioShock: Infinite.’ They have these plans and they think that it is going to work out as well as the characters in their philosophy.”
He also consumes other types of media voraciously and views it as part of his job because he needs to know what’s going on.
“I’m watching and re-watching ‘Mad Men.’ I’m watching and re-watching ‘Breaking Bad.’ I read comic books. I play video games. I’m a huge media whore.”
He said his appetite for media feeds his creativity for his projects. The more he reads and watches, the greater detail he can put in his games. Critics and players consistently point to the attention to the littlest elements in the “BioShock” series as one of the standout elements in the franchise. Levine wants the players to feel as he would want to feel in the game’s time period – like they belong.
“I want to feel like if I went back in time and I was there that I wouldn’t be that confused or surprised by what I saw. That would be my goal.”
Social games are becoming more prevalent as mobile devices allow us to maintain contact with family and friends. But those games usually rely on visual displays to play the game and chat with other players.
Debbie Fisher, 37, from Reno, NV, and a mother of four, has been legally blind all her life due to a genetic disorder called retinitis pigmentosa. She can only see light and dark shapes and cannot discern details.
Fisher said she has always enjoyed playing games with her family. However, those games were usually restricted to titles where other people were physically around to assist her. After she got her iPhone and iPad, she tried playing some of the downloadable games, but due to her eyesight, she couldn’t find a game that she enjoyed and allowed her to play with her friends.
Fisher uses the Voice Over accessibility program on her Apple products to help her “see” what’s on the screen and interact with it. She said it was tough to find games that were compatible with the Voice Over program.
“I always get the free version (of games) to make sure it is Voice Over compatible, which is what makes the iPhone and the iPad talk,” she said. “If it works, then I’ll get the paid version, but I need to make sure it works first.”
Fisher said she’s likes the games on the mobile devices, but has only found one game that works for her and also lets her play and communicate with her friends. “Hanging With Friends” (Zynga) is word game that resembles Hangman, but there are a few twists.
One player comes up with a word that another player tries to discover one letter at a time. Get a letter wrong and the balloons holding up your avatar will start popping until there is nothing to save you from the lava pit below.
The game, which debuted in July, is played one on one and can be played with anyone anywhere. Fisher said “Hanging With Friends” specifically works with Voice Over and lets her “see” what’s going on and chat with her family and friends who are playing.
“Playing a game against the computer is one thing. But playing against real people is what makes it so much better.”
Paul Bettner, general manager of Zynga With Friends, said they didn’t intend to make a game for the visually impaired, but are pleased that their game can be enjoyed by people like Fisher.
“It may seem silly to think that a game can change someone’s world, but why not?,” Bettner said. “’Hanging With Friends’ was designed so that nearly anyone can pick it up and play and we are very happy and proud to welcome visually impaired players now as well.”
Fisher said there are other games that are Voice Over compatible, but they don’t allow for the social interaction that “Hanging With Friends” does. She said she hopes more social games will embrace the Voice Over program so she can enjoy them with her family and friends.
“’Hanging With Friends’ really wasn’t my type of game until I started playing it. I wouldn’t have even guessed that I’d be so into that game before I started playing it,” she said. “But I love this game.”