Tearing Down the Levine/Bioshock Idol

by Jed Pressgrove

Some games media couldn’t resist worshiping developer Ken Levine after he announced the closure of Irrational Games, the studio behind the Bioshock series. This cultural elitism — cute at best and misleading at worst — has no place in reports or editorials, particularly when one considers the history and art of video games.

Perhaps this cultural elitism received its purest and most condescending expression from Gamasutra’s Leigh Alexander when she reminisced about talking with Levine: “I felt it was refreshing to go talk to a game developer who really understood literature, history, theater, who was so obviously fascinated by culture. In my work I talk to man after man who loves to say ‘badass’ or whose scope of references doesn’t extend beyond the Aliens trilogy.”  The smug implication is that most game developers don’t “get” literature, history, or theater — the cultural capital that makes Alexander a privileged human being — making Levine a special breed worthy to worship. Alexander’s intentions with her description might seem innocent, but her spill indicates and reinforces the myopic mindset that Levine is a lonesome intelligent creature in a video game world that lacks cultural understanding and meaning.

Gamespot’s Tom McShea made a similar mistake when he, under the heading of “Bad News: One Less Artistically Minded Developer,” equated the closure of Irrational Games with the gradual disappearance of “emotionally difficult experiences” (?) and “subversive games” from big-budget studios. (One wonders if McShea is familiar with the emotional difficulty involved in playing, say, Castlevania III.) In reality, most developers are mindful of the “art” behind video games. To imply otherwise is inaccurate and maybe even insulting. But who cares about those people who say “badass” anyway?

And how is Bioshock “subversive”? It’s one thing for Boston Magazine to publish ahistorical nonsense like “[Bioshock] was one of the first games to offer the player a moral choice.” But when Alexander types with wonder, “you as the player character make choices and study whether you think they mattered,” one wouldn’t be out of bounds to question whether some experts are driven by hype.

The gross suggestion is that Bioshock provided insight into “choice,” the most tortured term in gaming. How did Bioshock surpass or even meet Fallout, Planescape: Torment, or even Street Fighter II in regard to the consequences of choice? Bioshock has more in common with a movie like The Usual Suspects. Through its devious plot twist, Bioshock favored manipulation over choice — not that I ever cared, as I found the game’s environments and violence to be the main points of interest.

The anti-game history and anti-artist worship of Bioshock and Levine presents a serious intellectual sickness. People are well within the boundaries of reason to love Bioshock, but its cultural reach is relatively limited, unless we define “depth” as a narrow set of philosophical concerns. Criticizing Ayn Rand doesn’t make you an artistic genius — it simply means you know how to pick an easy target. After all, the failed American Utopia has been snatching our morbid curiosities for decades upon decades. Video games have more impressive cultural stories, but the way Street Fighter II brought together people of different backgrounds for friendly competition is a forgotten legacy. The story’s not smug enough.


  1. I adore Bioshock. It is one of the best games I’ve ever played. That said, it offered less moral choice in your character than the original Fable managed to present. Levine is probably a great guy, but three games do not a God make.

  2. It’s good of you to not blindly praise Levine as I’ve seen a great deal of that around the release of Infinite, which is an inferior game to the original BioShock. I have no criticism for the original, and have to agree when you say its not about “choice.” (Levine even seems to be saying that himself in Infinite, that it was never about choice.) It was the beautiful art, fun gameplay, and sensible criticism of a bad philosophy.
    Infinite had potential but in the second half the game just got lost in stupidity and dumb storytelling. The environment wasn’t nearly as intriguing and charming as BioShock, and I had little pleasure dispatching the enemies this time around.
    Thanks to Steam I started playing System Shock 2 and I look forwards to finishing that. I do hope Levine does return to game design eventually.

    1. I actually really liked Infinite, not better or less than the original, to me they’re too apples and oranges, but the same way you might say it’s impossible to not compare I think the game sorta agrees, since I’ve always viewed the ending as directly breaking the fourth wall and telling the audience “we’re sick of making the same stupid game with a slight twist in formula everytime, I mean hell the only thing that connects THIS game to the Shock series is the name and nothing else, this is wack, we gotta end it” (as opposed to the ohmahgawd multiple dimension theory hallibalu that seemed a really face value level interpretation)

      I always liked the Bioshock games because they feel like games ABOUT games, the first one not about choice but the lackthereof, criticizing and deconstruction the way we as gamers implicate trust the voice in our ears guiding us through the world as leading us to escape or some valiant goal by exposing the fact we’re merely being used and taking the thinnest possible excuse to commit horrible acts. And I like Infinite because it looks at both its own formula and pattern as a franchise and viciously self criticizes. But the way people suck these games off doesn’t come off as honest enjoyment or even understanding of the subject matter, but more a desire to SEEM more

  3. I love how people in media (not just gaming media, but almost all media) only respect people who are artsy, or well-read, or listen to “diverse” music (diverse, meaning non-western, and definitely not classical). Does anyone respect hard sciences or mathematics any longer? How about the fact that to program a video game requires tremendous intellectual skill (programming, linear algebra, vector spaces, etc.)? Well, that doesn’t matter because the guy who “designed” the game is a good reader.

  4. I think its a symptom of the types of people who have found notoriety in game journalism. Most seem to be design/literature/art majors. They respect the surface-level, artistic intentions of creators because that is what they understand and aspire create themselves in their own work. Considering how tech savvy much of their audience appears to be, I’m surprised there aren’t more articles focusing on the artists, modellers and programmers behind popular games. The AI in Bioshock Infinite was praised by some, but apparently they had no interest in finding out how it worked.

  5. I think it can be important for a developer to have a cultured background outside of video games. I’m not sure that it needs to be exalted over all else, but I do think it’s important. I also wouldn’t call Levine a rarity in that field.

    On a related note, it is a bit silly to call Levine’s work “subversive.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s