A letter to Ken Levine / by Stephanie Llamas

(In response to Ken Levine’s interview with Rolling Stone)

There is art in life that speaks a language only you can understand. It whispers in your ear all the secrets and feelings no one else can know. That’s what Bioshock did to me and, five years after the release of Bioshock Infinite, it still does.

I met creative director Ken Levine once. When I told him I was a market research analyst I had inadvertently misled him to think that I did game testing. With that I was able to schedule a half hour interview with him at the 2014 Game Developer Conference in San Francisco, where he gave a keynote that year. I wanted so desperately to tell him how his game made me determined to spend my career helping legitimize video games.

When I was young, girls didn’t really get to play hardcore games, so I generally stuck to Mario on my N64. My high school boyfriend and my much younger sister, who grew up in a time when girls were becoming more accepted as gamers, were both hardcore gamers but I never learned the appeal of the games they played. Later on, I told my college boyfriend (now my husband who is also a big-time gamer) that one of my favorite books was 1984 and he immediately mentioned how much I would love Bioshock. I was terrible at first-person shooters so I warily obliged. But after wielding my wrench at some Splicers, my life changed. The game motivated me to study the sociopolitical impact of games in graduate school which led me to SuperData.

So here I was, a fairly green but very fortunate analyst, at one of the gaming world’s most important conferences. When it was time, I approached Samovar Tea Lounge and there Levine was, wearing a hoodie that was practically cover his entire face. He looked chronically anxious; anxious like me. At this moment I was more nervous to meet someone than I’d ever been before.

When I sat at the table you could see that the day of back-to-back interviews had worn him out. We spoke a bit about games research and then he asked me what I thought could have been better about Bioshock Infinite. The creator of my favorite game franchise was asking me how it could have been better. He seemed to genuinely want my honest opinion, and sure, there were some kinks. But overall it was a masterpiece.

I didn’t want to lie about the game’s faults, but I wanted him to know how it changed me. I wanted him to know I truly felt I understood his vision. But I told him I wished the vigors had been more essential to the gameplay in the same way they were in the first Bioshock. He began to tell me he agreed, and so much more -- how the gunplay wasn’t up to par; how it had been difficult for the different groups of designers to seamlessly bring together all the game’s mechanics; how he wished he could have done it differently and made the game exactly as he’d seen it. I’ve never read or heard an interview where he hasn’t dissected all the flaws he sees in his games, and he was doing that for me. He needed me to know that he also saw all the things that were “wrong” with it so I wouldn’t think he didn’t see them, too.

The more I listened to him, the more I saw the same insecurities in me. It occurred to me that in many ways he knew me. When I send this article off I will wish I’d had more time perfect it. I will anxiously await strangers cutting it down and making me feel inadequate. It feel this way about everything I’ve ever produce, and I always will. Like Levine I will point out my shortcomings to others before they do so they know I see them too. I will always think I could have done so much better, and ask myself “why didn’t I?”

I left our meeting with those same feelings -- replaying our conversation in my head over and over and hearing myself say all the wrong things. It all felt like it went by so fast and like I had squandered the time he graciously gave me. I wanted to go back and make him understand that I embrace his vision and that I get him. But the thing is… maybe I don’t.

After our meeting I played Burial at Sea (the franchise’s final DLC) and realized it didn’t really matter if I understood him. He gifted me with a vulnerable glimpse into his mind, and then he let me embrace it as my own. Levine has taught me that I need to share my imperfect creations with the world no matter how hard it is. And every time I play his games they whisper, “Would you kindly be vulnerable too?” So I must oblige.