Gaming Made Me: Ken Levine

By RPS on July 13th, 2009 at 1:03 pm.

As we mentioned last week, after hurriedly deciding to do the Gaming Made Me feature we hurriedly sent a mail around to those RPS-correspondents and famous-folk we didn’t feel too bad about hurriedly asking to hurriedly write a little thing about the games that made them who they are. 2K-Boston’s Ken “System Shock 2/Freedom Force/Bioshock” Levine didn’t write a little thing, instead giving us a thousand words on the games who made him who he is today. And you’ll find it below…

The march of the sinister ducks.

Adventure (Warren Robinett)

The first game that really influenced me was adventure on the Atari 2600. It’s really the first game that put you in a world. It was a weird world of weird geometrical shapes and dragons that sort of looked strangely like chickens that could eat you. You were just a dot. So when the dragon ate you, you just looked like a dot in the chicken’s stomach and you could see yourself in there and you could wiggle around. But it was a game that I played over and over again, because it was that first game that said you could go on an adventure that was completely graphical in nature.

There were quests and there were objects to interact with. It was just sort of the predecessor to everything that I ended up doing as a game developer. There were quests, and goals, and this very, very, rudimentary narrative.

It had various color keys and various colored gates to castles. I just liked watching the interaction of how everything worked in that world. I watched every frame of “animation” that happened as you opened up a castle gate, and I loved the bridge that sort of let you walk between walls. It just did so many things that other games at the time just didn’t do and that had a huge impact on me. While other kids my age were playing spin the bottle and winning little league games, I was stabbing that damn chicken dragon in the neck.

I admit, I've never played this one. The continental divide..

Castle Wolfenstein (Silas Warner)

Another greatly influential game was the original Castle Wolfenstein, not Castle Wolfenstein 3D, but the original one created by a guy named Silas Warner (who unfortunately has passed away: for a great tribute to him, go check out.

This game just does not get the amount of props that it should. It was truly the first stealth game. If you like Thief or Splinter Cell, you’ve got Castle Wolfenstein to thank in large part.

You played an Allied POW that had to escape from the titular castle. It had all the mechanics of stealth, you were way less powerful than these German gaurds. You were terrified of them showing up because you had very limited ammunition and if you found a gun, it would only have a few rounds in it (this was a big influence on me when making System Shock 2). You had limited tools, you had to open up chests to find treasure and you didn’t know what kind of treasure could be in there. The entire time you were terrified that the S.S. guards would show up.

It had really rudimentary digital voice too. You’d be sitting there unlocking a chest, terrified that a guard might show up and then he would. The Nazi guard would show up and he’d say something like “Achtung!” and “Kommen Sie” in this incredibly crude digitalized voice. I say crude now, but at the time, the arrival of one of those SS guards would be enough to make me have a minor heart attack.

It was so much fun that I was willing to play it and replay it even though when you died you had to restarted the game from the very beginning, not just a long load time, you had to go through the entire game from the beginning.

Where's the terrain?

The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo)

I don’t know what I can say about the Legend of Zelda that hasn’t already been said. It’s one of my favorites of all time. It’s such a powerful game design, that they’re still producing blockbuster games on essentially the same game design and aesthetic to this day.

However, it also served as a formative title for me in this way: After I graduated from college, I moved to an apartment San Francisco with first super-serious girlfriend. She was a couple of years younger than me, so at the end of the summer, she was set to go back to school. On our last day together in San Fran, I for some reason picked up The Legend of Zelda. As she stood by waiting for some romantic gesture to happen on our last day living together, she was instead treated to watching me obsessively plow through Hyrule for around 15 hours. By the time the cab showed up to take her to the airport, I realized if I had any hope of keeping her as my girlfriend, it was time to shut off the NES.

Needless to say, we didn’t spend the next summer together.

Ah, here it is.

Ultima Underworld (Blue Sky Productions)

Ultima Underworld has got to be my next game. Other games have sort of tried to put you in a place but the technology just wasn’t there. Ultima Underworld was the first game where you could have different elements that the designer created, coming together to interact with each other in totally amazing and surprising ways.

I always remember one of the first true immersive experiences I had as a gamer; I was being chased by some goblins, and of course the world was really crude, but I was seeing these bit mapped goblins chasing me down a corridor and I was low on health so I was fleeing them and I turned this corner thinking “I got away from them!”. I turned the corner to find this giant spider and all of a sudden I was in a scenario that the designers probably never contemplated.

The designers trusted their system enough to know all they needed to do was put a goblin down in one place and they put a spider further down the hall. The game (and the gamer!) would handle the rest.

Unlike Wizardry where all of the combats were in these sort of discrete blocks, the game system in Ultima Underworld allowed these interactions to happen that were unpredictable. You could kite the goblins to the spider and I had never encountered anything like that before. The world was so convincing. It was a very limited but sort of rich space and it stunned me. It opened up my eyes to what could be done with videogames as not things you play but things you experience.

Many thanks, Ken. More Gaming Made Me to come…

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60 Comments »

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  1. Bananaphone says:

    Great read. This is a really interesting series. Would love to see one from Peter Molyneux and Warren Spector.

  2. Duckmeister says:

    Ken Levine is THE MAN!

  3. nabeel says:

    Awesome.

  4. Rinox says:

    Ultima Underworld took months from my life. Great read.

  5. much2much says:

    Ultima Underworld was the bomb. Then 3d games became big and everybody was ooing and aaing about being able to shoot 3d monsters and I was just thinking yeah but you could do all that and more in UUW… Not to mention convincing 3d in terms of height and movement where a lot of later games had what always felt like 3d graphics pasted over a 2d engine (I may be more attributing stuff that was more UUW2 here but it was still before many 3d games and definitely ahead of anything for years). Hell even Hitman Blood Money will kill all people with a mine on a given xy coordinate regardless of what level they are on.

  6. sfury says:

    Ah, the Good Ole Castle Wolfenstein. Those SS guards’ voices were terrifiying. Also you had to separate controls for the gun direction so we had to play with a buddy next-door, one moving the guy, the other aiming and shooting.

    I can’t remember if I mastered the feet or the gunning, but no matter how coordinated we eventually got, entering a room to find out two SSs waiting for you, meant almost insta-death. And getting to that final bridge out of the titular castle – well that is not something you can forget.

  7. cyrenic says:

    If you enjoyed that you also might enjoy Levine’s keynote speech from PAX a few years ago: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwH7QFTWT4E

  8. Pod says:

    Not suprised by these game choices. Especially Castle Wolfenstein.

  9. ascagnel says:

    KL is the man. Now please confirm the rumors that you’re working on a new XCOM (nee UFO) game. If that rumor’s true, even a stinker of a game from 2k Boston would still rock the socks off the world.

  10. lumpi says:

    Man, I wished he went back to his clearly RPG-driven, nerdy roots… Bioshock was nice, but you could feel the corporate neck-breathing in every aspect of gameplay.

  11. Dracko says:

    This is a quality list.

    GOG need to get their hands on Ultima Underworld.

  12. Jonas says:

    The presence of Ultima Underworld on Levine’s list makes so much sense it’s not even funny. I’ve never played any of the other ones (even Legend of Zelda), but now I feel like looking around for Castle Wolfenstein :P

  13. meeper says:

    I’m really glad someone finally mentioned Ultima Underworld.

  14. nihohit says:

    Ken levine’s eyes made me.

  15. leederkrenon says:

    too american. needs more zx spectrum.

  16. Frans Coehoorn says:

    Ultima Underworld was released before Wolfenstein 3D. How about that huh? Loved that game.

  17. Lobotomist says:

    Ultima Underworld was truly one of most amazing interactive worlds in its time. Perhaps only outmatched by Betasheda games later on.

  18. Xercies says:

    One of the things that interest me is that Legend Of Zelda doesn’t tell you very much, in fact its probably one of the best exploratory games and when you think about that its very amazing. Though I really hated it for that because I always got lost

  19. Radiant says:

    Ahh the sultry eyes of Ken Levine.
    I’ve missed thee.

  20. Dominus says:

    even now Ultima Underworld gives lessons to many so-called RPGs
    UW is one of the most immersive games ever

  21. Psychopomp says:

    Wow

    I expected this comments thread to be another Bioshock debate…

    It’s…

    SO BEAUTIFUL ;_;

  22. Sunjammer says:

    Ken Levine has made games that have shaped me. I owe him so many beers.

    Sidenote, i wonder what Ken would do if he was given the chance to give Nintendo input on where to take the Zelda franchise..

  23. Sunjammer says:

    Also, sidenote. I never “got” Zelda until Zelda III. I think i needed it to tell me at least something to put me in its world. The first game basically had a manual to clue you in to what things were. The times i got to play it when i was a kid, i never had enough time with it to understand exactly what was going on, and never for it to actually get me addicted, or even really interested. It didn’t help how obscure a lot of it was, even more obscure in some ways than Adventure. “In this nondescript area, place a bomb alongside this specific tile. No there will be no hints”.

    Zelda III did to me what the original did for Ken though. That game nearly made me a criminal.

  24. Dracko says:

    Psychopomp: Can’t fault the man for his taste in games.

  25. TariqOne says:

    Adventure and Castle Wolfenstein. Hear hear.

    That said, I hate this series. Not sure why.

  26. Alec Meer says:

    And this series hates you.

  27. Aftershock says:

    We need to do one for CliffyB.
    That’d be lol.

  28. Pidesco says:

    This just makes me all the more sad that Bioshock was lost to gods of marketing and focus groups.

  29. cowthief skank says:

    Thanks Ken.

  30. Guhndahb says:

    Thanks for joining in the fun, Ken. And a big thanks for the heads up on Mr. Warner.

    This Gaming Made Me parallels my own journey quite closely.

    …Liebfraumilch wine!

  31. Vinraith says:

    What a fantastic list. In particular I’m very pleased to see Adventure and Ultima Underworld mentioned, as my second-favorite genre (RPG’s) owes a lot to both. I tend to think of UU as the forebear of the Elder Scrolls games (though my timing may be wrong, I never got to play the early TES titles) which are some of my favorite titles of all time. I spent every scrap of time I could steal on my uncle’s PC playing UU back in my childhood, it was the most amazingly immersive game I’d ever experienced. And adventure was just limitlessly replayable in a way that so many games of that era weren’t, it was great fun (hell, it still is).

    Oh, and I’m compelled to say “somebody get this freakin’ duck away from me!”

  32. Bhazor says:

    “Written by RPS”?
    Really? Surely it should be “Written by Ken Levine”.

  33. Mr Wonderstuff says:

    Ultima Underworld 2 was my first ever PC game…so overwhelmed by the free looking of the environment in the first location (your bedroom) on first boot up, I had to make a cup of tea and calm down so overwhelmed was I. Truly one of a number of great gaming moments in my 25 years of gaming.

  34. Chis says:

    I heart Ultima Underworld. For some reason the sequel was a little inferior, perhaps the map design was less inspired. But it was still amazingly top-quality dungeon crawling.

    The first UU though… I played through it a couple of years ago, and it has far, FAR greater atmosphere and gameplay than many modern RPG and dungeon-crawler games. Problem is, there’s so few of the latter nowadays as people focus on open-world and MMORPGs.

    I am chomping at the bit for more first-person dungeon crawling, but it’s either click-a-thons or MMORPGs these days. I just want to kill stuff, level up, explore mazes and darkly chaotik, charnel passages miles beneath the surface.

    At least Daggerfall was released for free, it’s pretty good as crawlers go. But Ultima Underworld is probably still the pinnacle of the genre.

  35. Justin Keverne says:

    Are those what’s commonly refered to as “come to bed eyes”? Or am I sadly lacking in a certain kind of life experience?

  36. Frank says:

    I didn’t realize KL was so cool. Bioshock’s irritating voice work is forgiven

  37. MrSexyMan says:

    Wot no X-COM?

  38. Venom says:

    There is a Java based virtual Apple website so you can play the games!

    http://www.virtualapple.org/

    Castle Wolf is here:
    http://www.virtualapple.org/castlewolfensteindisk.html

  39. Vinraith says:

    @Chis

    Take a look at the Etrian Odyssey Games and The Dark Spire on Nintendo DS. It has, oddly, become a standout system for old-school RPG’s.

  40. Pace says:

    Doesn’t anybody in gaming ever shave? I think someone needs to organize some sort of instructional seminar or something.

  41. Mr Wonderstuff says:

    I always thought Arx Fatalis was a fab dungeon crawler.

  42. Dracko says:

    Aftershock: I know for a fact CliffyB loves Karateka:

    Karateka taught me to approach a woman kindly… and not in a Kung Fu stance.

  43. Chis says:

    Vinraith: Already aware of them, as it happens (Dark Spire has a truly inspired artistic style). Those and Bangai-o Spirits are consistently pestering my credit card to get a DSi. The one thing that stops me is that I’ve not played a portable system in nearly a decade, and I seem to have developed an aversion to gaming on such a small screen…

  44. Vinraith says:

    @Chis

    Glad you’ve heard of them, too few people have.

    You might want to consider getting a DS Lite. They’re cheaper than the DSi, and have the (considerable) benefit of having GBA slot for backwards compatibility (LOTS of fun, dirt cheap GBA games out there). The DSi’s only real advantage is a slightly (VERY slightly) larger screen. It has a couple of ultra low (0.4 megapixel) cameras you’ll probably never use, and the ability to download a few really crappy apps, but if you’re like me neither of those really matters much. Considering the $50 price difference and the DSi’s lack of backwards compatibility I’m not sure why a serious gamer would go for the newer system.

  45. JoeX111 says:

    Does anybody else think Ken looks like a bearded Christian Bale?

  46. Bhazor says:

    Reply to Vinraith

    Why do serious gamers use DSi? R4s.

    http://www.dsiconsoleblog.co.uk/r4i-the-r4-dsi/

    You can get a huge range of home brew applications on one of those. The most common are emulators, particularly NES and Scumm. Then you get into the weird stuff with word processors, mp3 playing, around an hour of video and the ability to surf the Internet. All for less than an Eee.

  47. Vinraith says:

    @Bhazor

    I have an R4 for my DS Lite. I also have a RAM expansion (goes in the GBA slot) which is not available on a DSi. Look around a bit, you’ll find the R4/homebrew thing actually works better on DS Lite than it does on the (hobbled) DSi as a result (yet again) of having that GBA slot.

  48. BurnHeretic says:

    @ RPS Staff

    Do you tell these guys not to pick games already mentioned in previous articles?

  49. mlm says:

    @Chris Re: UU I and II

    I agree that UU II wasn’t as successful as the first. It’s not that the game was less sound mechanically or a half-assed production, it was a top notch game all around.

    For me at least, it’s the atmosphere of UU I that makes it a powerful experience even today. There was such a sense of place in the game. The Abyss somehow feels very real, and you feel like you’re truly trapped in it.

    Underworld II has scope that’s much broader that the first, and that’s actually what holds it back in relation to the first. Whereas Underworld 1 put all of its energy into fleshing out a single “world”, UU II included several (was it four?), each was good in its own right, but a. not as thoroughly envisioned as the Abyss in UU I and b. the different styles of each world fractured the mood created by the game.

    Frankly that’s something that more game designers should remember – sometimes (frequently) it’s better to limit yourself to one fully realized setting rather than doing a fire level, then an ice level, then a whatever level. Levine’s work is a great example of this, as are games like Escape from Butcher Bay.

  50. Irish Al says:

    No, we don’t want to see one from Peter Molyneux. Because he’ll somehow work a load of hype for whatever blue-sky nonsense he’s currently hawking into it.