Gaming Made Me: Ken Levine

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…


  1. Kieron Gillen says:

    BurnHeretic: Actually, no, we didn’t. That’d have involved some organisation. The actual spread of the games is actually another thing I find somewhat heartwarming about this exercise.


  2. fullbleed says:

    The staring eyes of Ken Levine…

  3. Acosta says:

    Love the series, thanks for it. Would love to read the list of as many people as possible, I think it´s a excellent way to discover or rediscover new things through the experience of other. I would certainly love to read about people like Sid Meier, Brian Reynolds, Peter Molyneux, Richard Garriott.

    I was thinking that it would be cool if you could make a entry of this series with the community of RPS. Basically, asking to us to write the games that made us and publish a selection. Too messy?

  4. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    Lovely series of articles. Good show, RPS!

    @ Acosta: Well there’s already a thread on the forums if team RPS want to draw on that.

  5. The Sombrero Kid says:

    awesome stuff, cheers, need more of this kind of thing, not just on the website but in the industry as a whole, i was thinking next week I’m going to upload warren spectors master class to usenet, that way they’ll be accessible to all super fast for the next year.

  6. Bhazor says:

    Reply to Vinraith

    Well that’s me told. I don’t use an R4 myself, because I’m too much of wimp, but I thought you needed a completed work around to use an R4 or homebrew on the DS/DS Lite? Might have to give the bally thing a try.

  7. Vinraith says:


    Nope, no tricks involved, the R4’s base “operating system” was originally written for a DS/DS Lite, they had to change it to the R4i to get around the safeguards on a DSi. I’m not aware of any advantages to the R4i version, and the RAM expansion you can set up on a DS/DS Lite allows you to run a number of extra things. For example, with a RAM expansion in the GBA slot and an R4 you can run homebrew originally written for the GBA, which opens up whole new worlds of stuff. It also allows you to run more complex things than are possible otherwise, like Linux (!). I’ve gotten a ton of use out of mine, and think it’s well worth the investment.

  8. BIKMIKE says:

    10 fucking guns in SS2 and I have to beat shit to death with my wrench right up to the last boss all because of Castle Wolfenstein.

    Thanks asshole.

  9. Dracko says:

    We need a System Shock remake already. That was always the best one in the series.

  10. Valentin Galea says:

    I love Ken Levine’s voice:) I want to hear an audio version of this!