Ken Levine: The Conversation, Part One

By Alec Meer on January 18th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

Some interviews with prominent figures, as in Polygon’s widely-circulated one with BioShock: Infinite lead designer Ken Levine, are held on top of skyscraping Californian hotels. While it’s not something I’ve experienced myself, I can entirely appreciate why this often leads their eventual write-ups to be somewhat defined by awe, be it overt or subtle: a famous figure is encountered in a dramatic setting, the trappings of aspirational luxury around them. Thus, they are inevitably presupposed to be superhumans of a sort, with achievements and a lifestyle far beyond those of mere mortals such as the humble interviewer. This is the tale. Notoriously, this week also saw the outermost extreme of this, in Esquire’s absurd interview with/clearly lovelorn ode to the attractive but otherwise apparently unexceptional actor Megan Fox.

I can’t ever imagine going as far as Esquire, and I’d hope someone would throw me into the nearest sea if I did, but I do understand why it can happen. The scene is set in such a way that the interviewer is encountering, if not a god, then at least royalty. Even on a more moderate level, I have never conducted an interview in a Californian luxury hotel’s roofgarden, and my own interview with Ken Levine last month was no different, but I am nonetheless left thinking about the narrative created in that half hour. What tale could I now tell from just a talk with a guy in a room? Initially, I thought it impossible, or at least redundant, to spin a story out of a short, slightly awkward conversation in a dark little room somewhere in London: this is why Q&As are the standard interview format here. Let’s try, though. I want to tell you about what happened in that interview, and how it felt to me, as well as sharing Ken Levine’s comments about BioShock: Infinite’s characters, pacing and mysteries with you.

When I meet Ken Levine, as has been the case when I have met almost every other developer I’ve interviewed, it’s in a dark little room somewhere in London, faces blue-tinged from strip-lighting, a gaggle of other journalists from across Europe waiting outside for their turn, publisher representatives apologetically popping in to order ‘one last question’ as my half-hour expires. There’s always a cardboard standee somewhere, a two-dimensional monument to a fictional character frozen in perpetual heroic motion, and the only real sign that the interview subject is Someone, not anyone.

Ken Levine wears a serious expression, speaks softly, and silently, probably unconsciously, conveys the entirely understandable resignation of anyone who’s spending a day sat in a dark little room somewhere in London being asked uninspiring questions by a parade of scruffy strangers who are probably less intelligent than he. He is impeccably polite throughout, and while there may be an edge to some of his replies he certainly could not be described as unfriendly. He quietly eats green grapes as we talk. I spend the half hour fighting a confusing urge to reach into the bowl and grab a couple myself, though I am not even faintly hungry. I just feel… wrong. I am tired, cold-ridden, self-conscious about my appearance, my intelligence and the sniffling noises I keep having to make with my nose, and I am discombobulated by having been ripped right out of the middle of a critical narrative sequence in BioShock: Infinite in order to conduct this interview.

I’ve written down very few questions today, believing it better to freestyle based on the time I’d spent playing the game, but the abrupt shift from play to conversation has brought about a rabbit in the headlights effect, a childish nervousness which does not reflect my general determination to not feel awe in the presence of a Someone.

But there’s no time to pull myself together. No time for pleasantries, no amazing 30th-flight view of Beverly Hills to make me – or, for all I know, Ken Levine – feel relaxed and happy. The clock is ticking. A man from France, I think, must replace me in exactly half an hour. Straight to business.

Already, I’m thinking too much about this situation and not the reason for it, my hands-on time with the third BioShock game (and the second lead by Ken Levine). My first question, uttered awkwardly and too quickly, before I have offered any pleasantries beyond ‘hello’ or any compliments upon a game I have most certainly been enjoying, thus revolves around whether he finds it strange to suddenly have all these people playing his game and offering their opinions on it, after several years of it and most knowledge about it being carefully locked behind 2K’s doors.

Ken Levine: Oh yeah. We’ve been putting people in front of it for a while, internally, friends and family, people like that. So you have to be very open to people’s feedback, because the game’s evolved a lot since we started that process in, I dunno, February. And it was in rough shape back then, so you got some very frank opinions.

Any time you make a change to a sequence, you have to do a fair amount of guesswork, because it takes so long to make some of the changes. You change a bunch of stuff, especially if it’s a narrative scene. You have to re-write it, re-record it, re-motion capture it, re-integrate it, review it… It’s not like ‘hey, let’s just shoot this scene differently!’ It’s very time-consuming.

I relax, just a little. A talking point is established, Ken Levine does not seem dismayed by my appearance, question or sniffle, and his response has sparked a memory and, I think, a better question from me.

I recall a trailer for the game in which we saw BioShock: Infinite’s AI-controlled companion character, Elizabeth, use her mysterious space-time powers to open a rift – a ‘Tear’ -to an alternate 1980s, where we saw a cinema hoarding advertising ‘Revenge of the Jedi’, an earlier, discarded title for the 1983 movie eventually called Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. This scene had appeared in the section of the game I’d just played, but rather than occuring during a desperate flight through the airborne city of Columbia, as seen in that earlier trailer, Elizabeth had opened the Tear by herself, while in captivity, in a different context entirely. Had this scene, that 1980s cinema, been salvaged and recycled from an unrevealed change in order not to waste the work done on it?

Ken Levine: I don’t want to go too Inside Baseball here, but we had that scene with her opening that Tear, but for various reasons we had to remove it, it just didn’t make sense there anymore. But I really missed it, I really thought it was an important scene because it got across what her powers were very clearly. So she opened this Tear to Paris and it was very cool, but then she just couldn’t keep it open. So I said, ‘why don’t we bring that back?’ because it brings across the challenges and the danger attached to [Tears].

We already had the ambulance and the cinema sign, so… We had to re-do it in French obviously, but it wasn’t a huge amount of savings really. Trust me, we’re not afraid to throw stuff out if we have to. I more missed the idea of the scene.

I recall writing a news a story about this apparent time-travel in Bioshock: Infinite, and seeing similar headlines on a number of other game sites. Unwise to waste that promotion too, perhaps?

Ken Levine: That’s right, that’s right.

Agreement, but with the shortness and the sudden ending that most every interviewer fears. He doesn’t want to say anything more about this: his prerogative entirely, and quite frankly it was not a terribly interesting question on my part. Is there anything to be gained from pressing for more, or should I change tack entirely? I choose the latter, which immediately makes me feel awkward because it necessarily transforms this from a conversation into a more formalised question and answer session, and risks making me appear to read from a script rather than be able to adapt to what’s said.

I move on to a theory I’d come up with mere moments before beginning this interview, that perhaps the relationship between this Elizabeth and the game’s equally mysterious player character, Booker DeWitt, might be slightly unhealthy. My/Booker’s first encounter with Elizabeth is as a captive, in a grim facility filled with warnings about ‘the specimen’ and its deadly powers, only to discover that it’s an apparently innocent, harmless young woman. I/he walks through corridors walled by one-way glass, watching Elizabeth go about the routines of a captive: flitting between activities, evidencing both sadness and happiness, opening ‘Tears’ that she cannot maintain for more than a few seconds, and completely unaware of her mute observer. Was this done to unsettle the player?

Or – ah, a cardinal sin of interviewing, the listing of possible answers, the clear suggestion of what the reply should be, rather than an open invitation to say anything – was it to force a trigger-happy player there for the gunplay to slow down and pay attention?

Ken Levine: No, I think it’s actually a combination of the two. Not that they’re together, but it’s to demonstrate what was happening to her. She was a specimen to them, but also it’s revelatory to you, so you understand who she is. We started saying ‘how are we going to introduce you to Elizabeth?’ You want to know stuff about her, right. And we as the storytellers wanted you to know stuff. I didn’t want her to just stand there and have to say ‘oh, I’m Elizabeth and this who I am, this is what I can do.’ You want to do these things visually and naturally, so we came up with the idea that she was being observed, because that was a very convenient way to have you observe her as well.

When we had that idea, that made our lives easier in a sense, in that we had a context for an introduction to her, but at the same time I suppose how they treated her. Also give you a sense that you’ve also observed her, and that it is a little weird. I think it makes you feel a little more protective towards her, because you feel that maybe you are a part of that.

This encounter was not the only enforced slowdown I’d experience in the game, so I ask how regularly such things occurs, and are they there to prevent pure-action gamers from rushing through? Not for the last time in this interview, Ken Levine seems to hear a slightly different question. I don’t know if it’s because I expressed it poorly (I did, all ums and ahs) or because he is media-trained enough to hear certain words or phrases and offer certain reactions to them. Or both. I get an interesting answer regardless.

Ken Levine: Pacing is an interesting thing. There’s not just sex, there’s romance, right? You have to build up to things sometimes. You look at a film like Jaws, it’s not just the shark attack. In fact the shark attacks very rarely. There’s the scene where they’re comparing scars and he’s telling stories, that scene is funny and charming and then Quint tells that story about the sinking of the Indianapolis.

It becomes horrifying and scary, and setting up what they’re all in for. They’re all laughing and joking, then somebody hears something and it builds and it builds. There’s this growing horror and realisation, and that’s pacing, right?

Spielberg understands that great, he did it in Jurassic Park with that T-Rex scene, he understands how to build tension very well. Certainly we watch a lot of his films, but a lot of directors do this very well. Building up to tension is very important.

I observe that this thinking is inverted in the Elizabeth encounter, in that we see signs warning of the specimen’s terrible danger only for the outcome to be a pretty young woman who’s afraid of the player. He agrees, but again the answer stops there. Stick or twist? Twist, move to a new question, about whether Elizabeth has always been so central to the game or if her role grew as they realised they were onto something during development?

Ken Levine: Well, in terms of ‘always’, not when I was 14 years old, she didn’t exist, but during the course of development of the game, relatively early we decided to have this character you’re with. Who she was evolved over time, and her story evolved a little bit. Well, a lot. We always knew what her arc was going to be, but the details of it were filled in.

I’m alarmed by the ‘not when I was 14 years old’ comment – was that meant to be gently rude about my lazy language, or was it just a joke? I hope I didn’t betray any embarrassment as he continued.

Ken Levine: I think that, certainly once you hire an actor, and you get her look right, and you build a relationship… The actor brings something to it as well, if I had a different actor in there Elizabeth may have ended up somewhat different, because I write for the voice after a while. Fortunately the recording was so strong that she was very easy to write for, and she always gets it right practically first time, which is not always easy to do.

I rack my brains to try and recall who voiced Elizabeth. Should I ask, or is it something I, as a games journalist, should already know full-well? Discretion is the better part of valour, perhaps. Twist. Is Elizabeth always in the princess role, or will there come a point where she’s not primarily there to be rescued?

Ken Levine: I’m not gonna… I don’t wanna… Elizabeth… evolves as a character, that’s all I’ll say.

Slight annoyance has crept into his voice, and entirely understandably so. I’ve committed another cardinal interviewing sin: essentially, I’ve asked him to tell me a spoiler. I didn’t mean to, I was more interested in this character’s role and the design motivations for her, but of course there’s no way to discuss it without revealing what happens to her. I laugh nervously, in a way that makes me wince when I listen to it back while transcribing this interview, and move on again. Elizabeth’s appearance has appeared to change between trailers, and once again for this playable code. Honestly, I don’t know what I was trying to ask there, I think I was just trying to dig myself out of the spoiler-request hole, but it brings about a critical misunderstanding and makes it appear as though I’ve asked a question I very deliberately did not want to ask.

He thinks I’m asking about her breasts.

Many of our readers, and presumably other sites’ too, have commented that Elizabeth’s most-seen outfit reveals a heaving cleavage, and in this more diversity-sensitive age of gaming it’s caused some to vocally worry that the character is being overly sexualised. Ken Levine, I have no doubt, has heard this accusation many times, and he thinks he’s hearing it again now, because I muttered “You’ve been tweaking her appearance too…” That slight suggestion of irritation rises, though he remains polite and professional.

Ken Levine: Well, that’s not a new… that’s just earlier in the game. She still has the blue dress, and people thought we decided to change her outfit again.

I try to undo the damage and muse that her haircut has also changed, from a bob to a ponytail. He makes a gesture with his arms, which I believe is meant to denote something cryptic. A small lightbulb goes off, too late – so she’s changing her appearance throughout the game rather than she’s being redesigned again?

Ken Levine: She changes her appearance throughout the course of the game. It happens for reasons. Uh. That’s all I’ll say.

Oh God, he thinks I’m digging for spoilers again. I try to explain: gamers and journalists alike are often fed so little information during the course of a game’s pre-release promotion that we may try to extract clues that may or may not be there from the small amount on offer. We run wild with theories, because we want more, because we’re excited. Alas, the misinterpretation (or, more likely, my miscommunication) remains. He still thinks I’m asking about why Elizabeth’s cleavage seems to have changed.

Ken Levine: Look, it’s a gamer’s right to be cynical, to be distrusting if that’s what they want to be. I think they think there’s a lot more going on than there actually is. ‘Did they change it because…?’ But this earlier in her growth, she’ll end up in the outfit you’re familiar with.

It’s interesting listening back to the interview, in that apart from the initial mention that her appearance seemed different in the playable build, I’ve said nothing that could possibly refer to her cleavage. I wonder to myself how many times he’s been asked about it, how many times he’s had to defend himself from some little punk trying to get him to say something about tits, and I feel rising embarrassment that he might think I’m one of them. I try to bring things back to my last point, that we’re in an age where people do shot-by-shot trailer breakdowns in the hope of extracting any extra clues.

He still thinks I’m talking about breasts, that I’m accusing him of changing Elizabeth’s outfit to try and end the online concern. He sighs, heavily.

Ken Levine: I mean, look, Alec…

Uh-oh. He used my forename as a point of emphasis. That’s never a good thing.

Ken Levine: …a long time ago I sort of stopped… You can’t let every reaction of something on the internet…. [Sighs] The natural process when making a game now is this. You show something, people get excited, then they say ‘but wait a minute, I bet that there’s this problem.’ Then you show the next thing, which addresses that thing. And they say ‘that’s great, that’s great… I bet there’s this this problem…’

I laugh, sympathising with his frustration, all too familiar with it myself from the perpetually-suspicious, perpetually-disappointed commenters on my own site who seem so determined that every game and every game-maker is guilty until proven innocent. That laugh helps so much. I can hear, on the recording, that his voice softens, warmth creeps in again and even now, several weeks after the event, I feel relief again. We understand each other again. We have a shared horror at how unpleasant the internet can be.

Ken Levine: Y’know? [Laughs softly.] And for the first year we were pretty much silent because it’s not something that I’m particularly interested in chasing, because at the end of the day, after all the speculation about the game, we have the event today, I just want to give people the controller and they’ll tell me the state that’s the game in. Because why believe me? I am obviously biased. At the very least.

Even say ‘Ken is the most honest man who ever lived, he can only speak 100 percent the truth’, I’m still biased because I love the game, I’m close to it, it’s my baby, my company’s baby. I’d just rather give you guys the controller. That’s why I waited, that’s why I didn’t do anything last year because I was tired of just sort of promoting it. So I said “in a year or whatever, just give them the controller and they’ll tell me.”

Relieved, I observe that nobody asks someone about their newborn child expecting them to say something like ‘I don’t like its big nose.’ In a sudden panic, I look at Levine’s nose at this point, fearing I’ve just said something offensive. But his nose is a fine, normal nose. We’re still OK. For now.

In part 2: The mystery of the Beach Boys, how the game treats race, a important request and a mutual acknowledgment of the interview’s awkwardness.

Photos in this piece by Dan Griliopoulos. See his collection of game dev portraits here.

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96 Comments »

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  1. Premium User Badge

    AmateurScience says:

    That was seriously tense. Reading it gave me butterflies in my stomach.

    Absolutely wonderful stuff.

    Edit: that polygon piece goes on forever and ever and ever.

    Edit Edit: but also v. interesting.

    • Premium User Badge

      Lambchops says:

      The Polygon piece doesn’t go on forever and ever if you happen to find the section labelled “top” alienating enough that you can’t be arsed reading the rest of it.

      It might be worth it, it might be insightful, but as someone whose only exposure to Polygon before was Brian Crecente’s boasting about how his house was better than yours that first section only served to have my prejudices about Polygon confirmed and clicking the big X in the corner of the tab.

      • Premium User Badge

        AmateurScience says:

        I’ll admit I almost gave up after the first paragraph or two.

        That ‘cribs’ piece really did leave a rather unpleasant taste in the mouth.

        • magos says:

          Don’t let it. I’ll be honest, I find the design-driven (read Hipster 2.0) nature of the Polygon website agonising seeing as I consume most of my web journalism via mobile. In spite of this, and the hyperbole that this kind of site seems to engender (is it chicken or egg?), some of their stuff is fabulous.

  2. magos says:

    Alec, I’ve gotta say I love your long form work here. You’ve punctured narrative form interviews very aptly and combined it beautifully with an informative Levine interview. Sadface for no staring eyes though…

  3. Low Life says:

    What an enjoyable read, cheers Alec! The Polygon article made such a bad impression (with the stuff you reference at the start) that I couldn’t get myself to finish it. Maybe one day. It’s so damn long, too :(

    But did Mr. Levine just tell us that he’s had Bioshock Infinite in his head since he was fourteen?

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      I didn’t really get the sense that it was written by someone over enamored with fame and glory, just a writer trying to put a some much-needed mood into what would have otherwise been a pretty straightforward overview of Levine’s history and managerial style.

  4. db1331 says:

    He looks like The Illusive Man in that header photo.

    • diestormlie says:

      Alec. You’re in my chair.

    • Premium User Badge

      Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      You’re not the only piece on the board, Shepard. There are other agents doing important work, and they’re not all as visible as you are. Humanity is the game, and some of the pawns think they are players. You would do well to remember that.

      Shepard’s hologram winks out, to be replaced with a pasty-faced Englishman

      Alec. So good of you to join me. You will no doubt have many questions about Bioshock:Infinite, but be warned: There are concerns here that are bigger than you are. I’ve done things for this game that I’m not proud of, but Bioshock:Infinite is the culmination of years of my efforts, and I will not apologise for any of it.

      • Kamos says:

        As always, amusing. I applaud your work here, Lord Smingleigh.

  5. tenochtitlan says:

    I tip my hat to you, good sir, for this great interview deconstruction. I’ve been in similar situations and you pretty much described my thought process during these interviews. I’m looking forward to the second part.

  6. IneptFromRussia says:

    Ken Levine new Cliff Bleszinski as far as media attention

    • Beybars says:

      Yeah, but I actually like Ken, so I don’t mind.

    • ParadoxEternal says:

      He definitely deserves it.

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      ffordesoon says:

      Probably because, like Cliff Blezsinski, he’s one of the few big designers who gives interviews that A) aren’t shot through with a palpable fear of talking to another human being who is going to tell more people than you have ever met in your life about the conversation you are having and might make you look horrible if you say the wrong thing and oh God why can’t you just play this thing and leave me alone; B) that are full of answers that are about things other than 1) how cool dragons are, 2) how cool soldiers are, 3) how cool the game the developer is promoting is; C) that doesn’t sound like he has a severe-looking gentleman standing over his shoulder forcing him to hew religiously to a prepared set of answers, even if that is in fact the case; D) is not speaking through a translator; and E) is willing and able to discuss his process, his influences, his management style, and his place in the medium.

      I mean, you can say whatever you like about Cliffy B, but the dude possesses all of those qualities in spades. That’s why he was Epic’s secret weapon for so long. Well, that and the fact that he has an uncanny ability to predict upcoming trends in the market and explain them in a way that people immediately understand and retroactively find obvious. Remember when he said “The future of shooters is RPGs,” and you saw all these internet commenters laughing at him? And then that was exactly what happened? He’s done that countless times before.

      That’s why I always pay attention to Cliffy B, even though I don’t like him or his games that much.

      • magos says:

        Uh, no. Cliffy B has presentation skills, much akin to the estate agents [realtors] who present house-buying programs in the UK. He can do a reasonable facsimile of a task that is itself a reasonable facsimile of normal human interaction (rough-edges tidied for mass consumption), but that’s it. God forbid he actually emit some form of meaningful content. The ‘future of shooters is RPGs’ is meaningless: shooters have had forms of experience accrual for decades, and RPGs are products of far more than their XP.

        And, for what it’s worth, I thought Levine looked like a benevolent, loping, Jersey Devil, desperately clutching a Red Bull, in the last photo in this article, which I think excludes him from the dubious classification of ‘persons with innate presentation skills’.

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          ffordesoon says:

          Note that all of my stipulations except the last one could be grouped under “good presentation skills.” I didn’t say I liked the guy. In fact, I made a point of saying I didn’t. The implied question I was answering was, “Why is Ken Levine the new Cliffy B?” I answered that question. I don’t care for Cliffy B or his work, if you must know. But I think he tends to give good interviews.

          Your point about my last, um, point is fair enough, however. I don’t agree, for a whole lot of reasons that I don’t feel like getting into at the moment, but it’s a fair criticism.

          As to your last quibble regarding Ken Levine’s presentation skills, I confess I am puzzled. Are you joking? I can’t tell if you are. But I am pretty sure a lot of people with good presentation skills have been in dumb or weird photographs before.

        • zbeeblebrox says:

          “The sky is blue”
          “Uh, no. The sky is aquamarine”

          That’s what you just did.

  7. ParadoxEternal says:

    I really like how you make this not only an interview about the game, but an article about an interview. I like the insights it provides into what it’s like to be, in this instance at least, a game journalist.

    On another note, I never get tired of reading Ken Levine interviews. He’s probably one of the more intelligent and creatively brilliant people in the industry today, and also one of the best storytellers. I liked the Jaws example about pacing.

    • luukdeman111 says:

      Wait, I don’t get it….. You get tired of reading his interviews…. because he’s intelligent?

      Edit: Oh, damnit brains… Read… READ!! Sorry…

    • magos says:

      I’m not too sure myself: I’ve found that in other media, the post-modernist self-referential bullshit tends to sound a death-knell for that medium. Not that I think this was Alec’s intention, and nor am I trying to stifle innovation. Hell, I play X360 pretty much exclusively: I come here for the journalism, not it’s relevance to my life.

      On the topic of Levine’s brilliance: he’s certainly a genius in the narrative scope. I live for game narrative, so I was happy, but I found the gameplay of Bioshock somewhat lacking, both in depth and fluidity. And I think this raises an interesting point: we seem to have two kinds of auteurs in gaming: the narrative auteurs, who have been successful at mapping stories to a gaming framework, and the ludocentric auteurs (for wont of a better term) who excel at creating new game-forms. Sadly I’m struggling to name any contemporaries here, but Looking Glass are a good example.)

      • Premium User Badge

        drewski says:

        Ehhh.

        Irrational have a pretty solid history of gameplay chops – System Shock 2, Freedom Force, Tribes and SWAT 4 all had pretty tight gameplay in very distinct ways, even if you happen not to have enjoyed Bioshock’s chaotic sandbox approach to killing things with silly toys.

      • luukdeman111 says:

        Isn’t what you decribed there the difference between a creative director and a lead designer? former focusses on story/atmosphere/ latter focuses on mechanics/ gameplay systems…

        At least that’s what i thought, not quite sure though..

  8. Beybars says:

    Ken Levine is one of the greatest story tellers in video games, I just can’t stop wondering how he would have written System Shock 3. DAMN YOU EA!

  9. Premium User Badge

    Oozo says:

    That’s good. Still, I feel like the real question wasn’t asked: So, tell us, Alec, is Ken Levine an ancient Aztec?

  10. db1331 says:

    So what are the odds of Elizabeth either being a bad guy, or dying by the end of the game after they get you all attached to her? Isn’t Booker a merc hired to bring her back? Maybe his employer doesn’t need Elizabeth herself, maybe just her blood/brain for research. Maybe the player is ordered to kill her, or finds out his employer is a bad man and he just can’t hand her over to him. I bet you at least one of those things happens.

    • int says:

      What if the player was mind controlled throughout the entire game? Nah, that’s not the Bioshock way.

  11. mckertis says:

    “He is impeccably polite”

    And yet he called you by your name. A serious breach of etiquette.

    • Kamos says:

      Yes! He shoud fall on his sword for not using Alec’s family name and -san!

      Damn you! Now *I* must fall on my sword!

      • Lanfranc says:

        I’d say it falls on the Not Done scale somewhere between bringing up the issue of Jaffa cakes in a conversation and making eye contact on the Tube.

        Falling on a sword seems a little harsh. Maybe falling on a slightly sharp stick would be sufficient?

  12. JP says:

    Thank you for not making this interview an embarrassing, worshipful whitewash.

  13. luukdeman111 says:

    It’s funny how in the last teaser sentence for part 2 the mutual acknowledgement part excited me most…… Good Job on this one, Alec!

  14. Phoenix says:

    I loved this article. Best one I’ve read in a long time – turning an interview into a long form article like this makes for very interesting and entertaining reading.

  15. Will Tomas says:

    I loved how much of a piss-take this article is [of Polygon, not Levine, before anyone gets the wrong idea]. Alec, never, ever change. It properly made me laugh. Best thing since the tour of your office.

    • Alec Meer says:

      Hmm, it’s not, to be honest – it’s a reflection of a very different circumstance and how that affects the resultant material.

      • magos says:

        I’d argue that it is satire to a degree, whether you intended it or not. I wouldn’t call my reading parody: it had more subtlety, but it clearly took narrative interview towards the entertainingly banal.

        If Barthes is good enough for John’s criticism of Far Cry 3, I think it’s only fair to apply it here.

        As I said in another comment, I loved it, but if your intention was different, I’d stick with the Q&A format: I need only present your many interviews with Jake Solomon as evidence of your mastery of the form.

      • Premium User Badge

        Hodge says:

        Yeah, it didn’t read like satire to me. More like a genuine way of salvaging an interview which (seemingly) didn’t go too well.

  16. SamC says:

    This is an odd format. I don’t know that I’ve seen one set up exactly like this. You get to expound and explain on your questions without us readers getting to see exactly how you phrased them. You say he misinterpreted you at multiple points, but all we have to do off of is how you explain it, and not your exact words. It felt uncomfortable, but maybe that’s what you were going for. Not criticism, just – it was an odd reading experience.

    • Alec Meer says:

      That is true, and I’m conscious of it, but most of the ‘questions’ are far more direct quotations of what I said on the day than is perhaps evident from the format.

      • SamC says:

        It forced me to put a lot of trust into the narrator – err, you – and I couldn’t just skim through it, I had to stop and reread and really analyze and try to visualize how everything took place. And I think that’s a good thing.

        • GepardenK says:

          Yeah, it was tense. It felt I was reading something much grander than an interview. Like a dramatic chapter for a much bigger book

          Its also a very interesting reflection of the power struggle between the participants in an interview. Some can get very (maybe unconsciously) compettetive. In this case it was Alec who felt there was a difference in authority between them, I wonder if Ken felt the same or if he was just having a “mindess” conversation. Appearing relaxed can be a powerfull weapon

  17. Nathan_G says:

    This is fantastic Alec. I really appreciate your honest and humility, and you’ve managed to turn this into a fascinating insight into what I’m sure plenty of journalists go through on a daily basis, rather than just extracting the newsworthy responses and sweeping the rest under the rug. I’m really, really looking forward to the next part of this interview!!

  18. Kamos says:

    A lot of “the internet”s nastiness / negativity comes from anonymity, but at least some of it comes from the fact that some developers exist in a bubble. In my case, I mainly become an angry internet man when someone (especially a developer) says that games I like should not be made, or that I should be quiet and satisfied because there are all those now 20 year old games that I can go play instead. On the other hand, I think it is important to be reasonable and to remember that game developers are human. I can certainly sympathize with Levine’s sighs in this case. :)

    Edit: I should also have said, this is one very interesting read! Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Alec. It really adds a lot to what is otherwise a Q&A.

    • GepardenK says:

      True. I think a lot of it also comes down to poor wording (not talking about the regular hate post here). Forum posts can often come off as more direct or agressive than they are maybe meant to by the writer, unless you are very carefull

      Things hurt more when you get it in pure black and white with little to no context

  19. Premium User Badge

    RedViv says:

    This content in this format made me feel all fuzzy and warm inside. Good.

  20. matrices says:

    The Polygon interview is worth reading. Suffer the pretentious writing style that mars the opening, because the length allows Levine to deliver really valuable insights on a lot of subjects (game design, creativity, writing, how to find your passion, how to be a leader).

  21. The Smilingknight says:

    Hey Meer,
    Thanks for this rather nice interview with Megan.
    Shes a total darling and just awesomely nutty and sweet.

    But… why did you have to be in some room with that weird old guy….Ah, nevermind, nevermind, …not my business.
    XD

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    psepho says:

    Brilliant article! I love the combination of interview, implicit commentary on the interview process, and your own personal story. A brave approach but it works perfectly.

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    AlwaysRight says:

    Excellent article

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    Lambchops says:

    Really enjoyed this interview format. Not something I’d like to see all the time mind you, but interesting nonetheless. Kind of struck me that Alec wasn’t happy with the questions he asked (or at least the way he phrased them or they were misinterpreted) and wanted to explain himself. Heck, everyone has bad days at the office and this is a far more interesting, entertaining and, most refreshingly, honest way of explaining yourself than most I’ve seen! Plus it sounds like things get less awkward in the next part, which is good to hear.

    As for the game I’m still in intrigued but not excited mode. Partially because trying to avoid spoilers means I don’t know enough about it and partially because Bioshock still remains on my to be completed list thanks to its opening hours being good but not quite good enough to stop me from being distracted during a phase where distraction was something that happened a lot (I’m now going through a concerted period of actually completing games and it’s something I intend to return to).

  25. lebbers says:

    This article represents a fresh take on the rather staid Q&A format that is commonplace in video game reporting.

    It is also possibly the most painfully awkward interview I’ve ever read. Like, I was physically uncomfortable reading parts of it.

    I can never remember which writers are British, but after reading this article, there can be no doubt as to the author’s provenance. Cheers!

  26. geldonyetich says:

    You can tell these guys are professionals. If I was doing a Ken Levine Interview, it would go something like this:

    Me: Ken Levine, you make very good games.
    Ken: Thank you.
    Me: Can I play the full version of Bioshock: Infinite now?
    Ken: Please be patient, we’re working on it. Ask me something else.
    Me: … Nice weather we’re having.
    Ken: … Yes, it is?
    Me: Can I play the full version of Bioshock: Infinite now?
    Ken: … I’m leaving.
    Me: Not handcuffed to your chair, you’re not.
    Ken: Am I handcuffed to my chair, or are you handcuffed to yours?
    Me: … My God, you’re good at this.
    Ken: You will buy 400 copies of my game.
    Me: I will buy 400 copies of your game.

    And that’s the last thing I will remember of the encounter.

    • mckertis says:

      You forgot to ask about Beth’s boobs.

    • Premium User Badge

      particlese says:

      Well, that was weird. I somehow read your second sentence as “If Ken Levine was doing the interview, …”, so your mock interview was of him interviewing himself. And it actually made some bizarre sense, though I don’t know if it fits his actual personality. Thanks for the laugh!

  27. gwathdring says:

    That was a great read! I like this side of the Q&A. :)

  28. Ny24 says:

    Meer, you rock! Also notice that your name means ocean in german. This is very important obviously.

    • Premium User Badge

      Bluerps says:

      I think he complained once that his name is not “Ocean Quigley” – but that might have been one of the other RPS writers, I’m not sure.

    • Sleepymatt says:

      Hmmm, it gives a sinister turn to Walker’s “No Oceans” drive, for sure…

    • Land says:

      And it means ”lake” in Dutch.

  29. SuperNashwan says:

    Every so often I sort of forget just how good you guys can be at writing and then along comes an article like this. Thanks Alec, thoroughly enjoyed the insightful combination of games journalism and games journalism journalism.

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    Bluerps says:

    What a great interview! For a while, I felt like I knew what it was like to be games journalist who met Ken Levine. I look forward to the second part.

  31. F3ck says:

    I enjoyed the read – mostly because it’s a wordy piece about a game I badly want to play – but the format seems a bit of a cheat, no?

    Me: what I may have/could have/might have asked…

    Interviewee: exact quote.

    Me: my intended words cleverly padded with flowery reconsiderations…

    Interviewee: exact quote.

    Me: astute reply, the sort only afforded by afterthought…

    Interviewee: …wtf?

    • Bork Titflopsen says:

      To be fair, he does state what he tought was going through Ken Levine’s mind at the time and what could have let him to the answers that he gave. Also, it’s not like he can expect Levine to take the time to write a lenghty explanation of his feelings during several points in the interview.

      So, empathy! It comes in handy, I suggest you make good use of it.

  32. The Random One says:

    This is a great article about games journalism, though I’m not sure it’s a very good article about Bioshock Infinite.

  33. IneptFromRussia says:

    He does have a big nose though

  34. Wombats says:

    Sim Interview 2013 is a game BOOBS about ignoring the ELEPHANT BOOBS in the room.
    The things you do to avoid stepping in the lowest common denominator, Mr Meer. (BOOOOOBS!)

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      Great. Now you’ve got me picturing what elephant boobs would look like.

  35. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    That was excellent! My interview experience is tiny, and I don’t remember much about them, but the general feel of your thoughts totally jive with what goes on in my head when I have to give an educational talk to peers and superiors. I haven’t ever had to contend with a bowl of grapes, though. I think I would have burst out laughing as soon as I noticed my urge to partake, and then I’d have been lost to a fit of giggles imagining what he thought I was thinking.

    Also, was that dead horse picture strategically placed? Granted, Elizabeth doesn’t appear to be flogging it at that precise moment*, but you do have some other moments of humorous self-deprecation here.

    *Edit: And by “flogging”, I do not mean “attempting to sell”. Ah, to be a silly American on a British website…

  36. PopeBob says:

    I appreciate that you’re mixing things up and experimenting with print interview form, but I often found myself skipping to the answer rather than read about your personal misgivings and reasoning. It often felt a little more like unnecessary insight into Alec Meer than context-giving content for the subject at hand.

    But that’s the glorious thing about words on a page or a screen, you can simply skip or skim past anything you may find extraneous. A fine interview besides, and the format certainly seems to have resonated with more people than disliked it, so good on you. Keep it up.

  37. AlexStoic says:

    Great article, I really enjoyed it. Read the Polygon article and enjoyed that too. But your walkthrough of a Famous Developer interview is something much more intriguing than Polygon’s bizarrely plastic star struck overtones.

    You’ve got a guy, Levine, who probably doesn’t really enjoy doing interviews, for a high profile game that nobody really knows much about right now. There’s a line of reporters who want to write articles about him, and each has 30 minutes to wring him for information. It sounds like speed dating with one hot chick and ten anxious, awkward dudes waiting for their chance to impress.

    What are you even supposed to talk about? You can’t ask him for more info than they’ve released. You know he can’t answer those. You can’t ask about boring, beaten-into-the-ground controversies, like boobs. Besides, who cares? You could talk about influences or development insight, but that informations already out there, and dry as hell. What do you talk about?

    You wrote a really interesting article about that experience, and you got some interesting answers out of him to boot. So great job! This is pretty much why I read RPS. Looking forward to the second part…

  38. Yosharian says:

    Interesting read. Normally I don’t read interviews unless they’re people I’m really interested in.

  39. BreadBitten says:

    GODDAMNIT!!! WHAT IS IT ABOUT KEN THAT REMINDS ME SO MUCH OF CHARLIE KELLY?!

  40. Kefren says:

    Where’s Scully?

  41. Premium User Badge

    Man Raised by Puffins says:

    BioShock: Infinite, changing dresses, awkwardness and Jaws

    I was waiting for discussion of dream hunk Ken Levine’s tremendous jawline. I was disappointed :'(

  42. Pippy says:

    OH GOD HE THINKS IMMA TALKING ABOUT THE CLEAVAGE EVEN THOUGH HE AM NOT MENTIONED THE CLEAVAGE!How do you handle talking to someone who has a cleavage Alec?

  43. funtard says:

    That really is an insane interview with megan fox. Amazing.

  44. BreadBitten says:

    That was…that was some edge-of-the-seat stuff right there, Alec! But for some reason it felt a bit staged to me, Ken’s reactionary comments and answers that is, especially how, in the past, he’s given the impression of holding the site’s [RPS’s] editors and general community in relatively high regards. In any way, great stuff, can’t wait for part deux!

  45. The Smilingknight says:

    I just had a brilliant idea Meer.

    RPS finances my trip to US and I do the interview with Megan, about video games she likes and why and what she thinks about the industry. The twist will be that there wont be any sexual overtones or erotic pictures.
    Ill cover my expenses and doritos, dont worry. And ill set up the interview.
    You just buy me a ticket to LA.

    And you guys can keep interviewing older guys in dark little rooms.

    Imagine the bazillion clicks you would get!

  46. Iskariot says:

    Love your writing mr. Meer.

  47. Baal_Sagoth says:

    Very interesting read and done in a unique style as well. Somehow I ended up not being the greatest Bioshock fan and apparently being moronically numb to one of the great classics. But I’m really warming up to Infinite. Elizabeth seems like a very interesting character, the mystery around what she’s about is compelling and the game’s setting has me very curious.
    Now I really hope it’ll turn out well and end up being my kind of game.

  48. mr.black says:

    It’s over already!? But, but, the conclusion? What will happen to Alec, will Kevin end up as a good-guy or bad-guy? What about the noses?
    I CAN’T WAIT for part 2!

  49. czerro says:

    Great interview. Levine is the most straightforward guy. He has a genuine passion for what he does, he knows how to tease and build momentum for his games, and he’s obviously proud of his teams work and doesn’t feel uncomfortable in an interview regarding it or the process of creating it.

    I think the most interesting thing was the cross-talk regarding Elizabeth’s appearance. It seemed to suggest that Elizabeth looks different as the game progresses. It would definitely be “Shock-style” for her to be some sort of shapeshifter manipulating Booker’s perception of her and a third act reveal of a malign agenda that the player has been unwittingly assisting in.

  50. GoliathBro says:

    Where is part II, dammit?