Feature: The Games of Ken Levine Part One

As we draw closer to the release of the hotly anticipated BioShock Infinite, we’re going to take a look at how we got here. Over the next few days, we’ll chart the progress of Ken Levine and the games he has created, from Thief to BioShock. It’s quite the journey…

Thief: The Dark Project

Levine’s first job in the games industry, back in 1995, was at Looking Glass Studios. Hired to establish the fiction and design of their new title, Thief: The Dark Project, Levine, having worked as screenwriter had good knowledge of how a story should work – something we see a lot of throughout his career – and the skill to craft one. Thief was the first stealth game to use both light and sound as gameplay mechanics, and the first to always feature a first-person perspective. Combined with its non-confrontational style and focus on emergent gameplay, the title challenged the perception of what a FPS could be – and with titles like Deus Ex and BioShock its presence is still felt. Set in a land that is part medieval, part steam-punk, players discover more of the worlds settings by coming across notes and overhearing conversations – a hallmark of Levine’s world-building; Levine often wants the player to actively seek the story and not be a passive watcher. Levine has been credited as a key figure in the creation of Thief – two of his favourite games, Diablo and Wolfenstein, were cited as inspirations – but left to found Irrational Games before its release in 1998. His legacy lived on though, Thief II: The Metal Age was released in 2000 with Thief: Deadly Shadows following in 2004. A series reboot, Thief, has just been announced and is scheduled for release in 2014.

System Shock 2

In 1997, Levine, along with ex-Looking Glass developers Jonathan Chey and Robert Fermier founded Irrational Games. Working with old studio Looking Glass Studios, and eventually EA, they set about created an original IP that would eventually become System Shock 2, a sequel to the influential original released in 1994. Serving as writer and lead designer, System Shock 2 built on many of the world-building techniques found in Thief – logbooks and audio files for the player to find – but introduced horror elements and feelings of isolation and abandonment. Levine also looked to challenge conceptions of gaming storytelling – the dynamic between protagonist and primary antagonist SHODAN was ahead of its time. We also see now-familiar pillars of gameplay – exploration, emergence, RPG elements and upgrades – combined with the first-person perspective, pillars that Levine would continue to use for years to come. Although System Shock 2 did not perform well in sales, it was critically acclaimed and is often included in ‘Greatest Game of All-Time’ lists. A ‘collectors edition’ was released on GOG.com in February 2013 and BioShock itself has often been referred as a ‘spiritual successor’.

– Dave Green. Follow him on Twitter @davidpgreen83

In part two of Levine’s story, we take a look at Freedom Force and Tribes: Vengeance. Got anything to add on Thief or System Shock 2? Let us know on Twitter @lowfatgaming or on our Facebook page.

One comment on “Feature: The Games of Ken Levine Part One

  1. Pingback: Feature: The Games of Ken Levine Part Two | Low Fat Gaming

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