The video game BioShock Infinite received widespread praise for having a rich narrative packed with philosophy when it debuted last year. The game sold millions of copies.
But like many other headlining games in the last year, it was also incredibly violent. One critic even called it a "case study in unnecessary violence."
Ken Levine, the creative director for the BioShock series, tells NPR's Arun Rath that after BioShock Infinite came out, people used it as a launching point to talk about the changing nature of games. He says he was often asked whether they could have made a game that told the same story but without the violence. In retrospect, he says, it's an interesting question. But that was just the type of game he knew how to make at the time.
"I wouldn't have known how to make a game like Mario," he says. "I wouldn't have known how to take this kind of story and turn it into a game about jumping on blocks."
Levine says that one of the reasons there's been a lot of violence in video games is that it's relatively easy to simulate, but more importantly, like action movies, there's an "easily perceivable market for it."
"I think the reaction to the violence is more an expression of people building confidence in the industry's ability to express itself in more diverse fashions," he says.
Levine says with more powerful gaming platforms, that diversity of expression is increasing. Story elements being told today through a game's visuals and the worlds built around them were not possible 10 or 15 years ago, he says.
When the first BioShock game came out in 2007, it turned expectations for video games upside down. Set in a darkly imagined, underwater Ayn Randian dystopia and rife with deep narrative and philosophical themes, the game went beyond some standard video game tropes.
The gaming media had wondered if anyone would buy it, but 4 million sales later, even the mainstream press couldn't ignore it. BioShock was a video game that got non-gamers to acknowledge that the medium could be art.
"There was a tendency for publishers and developers to underestimate the audience," Levine says. "And they're really no different than any other audience. There's plenty of movies that are intended for people that aren't that interested in political philosophy and there's plenty that are."
The result of that misconception, he says, was a lack of games that appealed to an intellectual set, which then meant that intellectual set seemed nonexistent.
With the advent of digital distribution platforms, Levine says, it's now easier for developers to target a more focused audience, including making games for that intellectual set. Now even titles from the big studios can be downloaded directly to your gaming system of choice via the Internet.
"You can really try to have a one-to-one interaction with a smaller, more dedicated fan base and give them the thing they want," he says. "We realize we can experiment more because we don't have to hit such a broad common denominator."
Hopefully Levine will bring some of that experimentation to his next blockbuster game on the latest generation of gaming platforms.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
From the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "BIOSHOCK")
ADAM SIETZ: (As Jack Ryan) They told me - son, you are special. You were born to do great things.
RATH: When "BioShock" came out in 2007, a lot of people in the videogame world flipped out. Here was a blockbuster videogame that went beyond saving the princess or beating the bad guys. Sure, there was first-person shooting. But it was set into a deep narrative with philosophical themes, set in a darkly imagined underwater Ayn Randian dystopia.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEOGAME, "BIOSHOCK")
UNIDENTIFIED CHARACTER: Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? No, says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor. No, says the man in the Vatican, it belongs...
RATH: Before "BioShock" came out, critics were skeptical that anyone would be interested. Four million sales later, even non-gamers acknowledged that the medium could be art. Ken Levine is "BioShock's" creative director.
KEN LEVINE: There is a tendency for publishers and developers to underestimate the audience and what they're interested in. And they're really no different, you know, than any other audience. You know, there's plenty of movies that are intended for people who aren't that interested in political philosophy - whatever those themes are - and there's plenty that - that are.
RATH: And he says that status quo was self-perpetuating. A lack of games that appealed to the intellectual set meant the intellectual set didn't find games appealing.
(SOUNDBITE of VIDEOGAME, "BIOSHOCK INFINITE")
RICHARD HERD: (As Preacher Whiting) Brother, the only way to Columbia is through rebirth in the sweet waters of baptism. Will you be cleansed, brother?
RATH: The latest "BioShock" sequel, "BioShock Infinite," came out last year. It delivers more storytelling based, philosophically infused action. But like its predecessor, it's also incredibly violent.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEOGAME, "BIOSHOCK INFINITE")
RATH: Now, it's not like "BioShock Infinite" is unusual for its violence. The E3 Gaming Convention recently in Los Angeles was lousy with blood and gore. You could not get away from the sound of gunfire.
But some critics expected better from "BioShock Infinite." One even called the game - a case study in unnecessary violence. I presented that critique to Ken Levine.
LEVINE: You know, I think that it's - it's not particularly more violent than "BioShock" one. And "BioShock" one was a very, very dark game. I think the conversation in the game space was changed a little bit. And I think that people used "Infinite" as a launching point to talk about the changing nature of games in that, can you make successful games that don't have violence and things like that?
And now, one of the reasons there's been a lot of violence in video games is because it's relatively easy to simulate. And generally, it's been - like action movies, you know, there's an easily perceivable market for it. So I think when people are looking at "BioShock" as, you know, OK, could they have done it without violence? We got that question asked a lot after the game can out. A
nd, you know, it's an interesting question. I like games myself. Like, I've always liked gamey things. So I wasn't terribly interested in telling - in making a game that didn't have a game component...
RATH: But by games, though, I mean, specifically a violent game component, though.
LEVINE: Right. And actually - so I think, you know, when you have nonviolent components - it would have been odd. I wouldn't have known how to make a game like, for instance, like "Mario," which is - I want to know how to take this kind of story and turn it into a game about jumping on blocks. Or, you know, a Pacman - you know, eating dots. Or even, you know, there are games like "The Walking Dead," which don't have - they have some violence, but they're mostly - they're mostly about making decisions...
LEVINE: ...Like go - you know, remember the old "Choose Your Own Adventure" books when you were a kid?
LEVINE: But, you know, I think the reaction to the violence is more an expression of people building confidence in the industry's ability to express itself in more diverse fashions. And I think to some degree that's - we were able to do that with "BioShock" one.
We were able to say, OK, well, things can be more diverse. And then after "Infinite," they came back and said can't you do it without the shooting, maybe? That's not something we were able to contemplate at that stage because the game was done already. But it's certainly an interesting question in retrospect.
RATH: There have been other games aside from "BioShock" that have come out - had these really rich narratives. But also, always still having this first-person shooter quality to it. Is that like a formal requirement? Is it like, you know, a sonnet needs 14 lines, a game needs shooting?
LEVINE: I don't think it's a formal requirement. I think forms - art forms of all kinds have evolved through a series of accidents - or a series of requirements that evolve over time. And sometimes the form doesn't realize that something was sort of an artifact of a certain requirement.
Like for instance, video games traditionally were very, very difficult to play. And the reason they were difficult is that the original games were arcade games. They were there trying to eat quarters. So they really wanted the games to be difficult so you'd keep pumping quarters into it.
So when we started making games that didn't require quarters - that you buy and you - you know, when you play, it took us - it took me a long time to realize, like, wait a minute. Why are our games so difficult? And it was because we just grew up with difficult games because they had that quarter mentality.
And I think shooters, to some degree, are the same way. You know, we started - I started games by thinking about what is the game play mechanics of this? And a shooter was sort of - answers a lot of questions for you. It's sort of, OK, well, the main mechanics can be - you have this gun. You have weapons and you have enemies. You have conflict who are coming at you.
And as we got more power with the systems and more art, we were able to bring more things into it - like all the narrative that you see in "Bioshock"and all the visuals - like so much of the stories told in the world - right? - the visuals of the world. You couldn't have that 10, 15 years ago.
Then all of a sudden we're like, wow, people aren't really - I assumed people are coming for the shooting when we made the game originally. I think now we have a little more confidence that - especially, when you don't have to appeal to 8 or 10 million people. If you can just digitally distribute things like you can now. You can do that because you don't need - you don't need to spend the money to put it on trucks, to get it to a store and deal with retailers and the shippers and all that. So you can - you can really try to really have a one-to-one interaction with a smaller, more dedicated fan base and give them the thing they want. And you couldn't do that 10 years ago when I started - you know, 20 years ago when I started - same thing you see happen with cable TV.
Years ago, you had either - there were three networks, and you had to make things that would appeal to, you know, a broad - I don't want to say the lowest - but the broadest common denominator. And then when you started having cable - when they had, you know, they could make more artisanal products like "The Sopranos" or like "Mad Men" and things like that because you didn't have to hit those kind of audiences. You were able to do those more kind of experimental things. And I think that's what you're seeing with games now is we realize we can experiment more and because we don't have to hit such a broad common denominator.
RATH: That's Ken Levine. He's the creative director for the game "BioShock" and "BioShock Infinite." Ken, I'm really excited to see what you come up with next. Thank you.
LEVINE: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEOGAME, "BIOSHOCK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.