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None Of This Is New

An interview with Ken Levine is a relic of the past

Near the end of an hour-plus long interview, while Geoff Keighley looks on, IGN Executive Editor Ryan McCaffrey says to Ken Levine, “I think the gaming industry is such a young industry. You've been in it for a while and you're still a relatively young man, but you've also been doing this for a long time.” 

The three are assembled to talk about Judas, Levine’s decade-in-development game revolving around the concept of “narrative Legos,” which he first coined in 2014. Levine is best known for the Bioshock series, whose last major entry turned 11 years old yesterday. McCaffrey’s IGN bio states that he’s “worked in games media since 2002.” Keighley is best known alternately for 2012’s “Doritosgate” and being the very tired face of The Game Awards, which started in 2014; according to The Ringer, he launched his first games site when he was a teenager in 1996.

Levine once loomed large as the sort of (notably male) auteur media of all stripes problematically loves. His reputation isn’t totally undeserved: There’s no denying the impact 2007’s Bioshock had on games. Bioshock was followed by a sequel in 2010 and then the contentious Bioshock Infinite in 2013. In 2014, Levine closed Bioshock developer Irrational, with 75 people losing their jobs there, and shifted to what would become the smaller studio Ghost Story. Speaking to Polygon in 2014, workers at Irrational described tension with Levine, especially his tendency to scrap or rework features of games mid-development. In 2022, Bloomberg reported that that behavior continued at Ghost Story, leading to conflict, turnover, and slowed development.

I wrote all this out and then immediately wondered if I should cut it; there’s a good chance you, the reader, know it all already. But then again, maybe you don’t, because it all happened a very long time ago. For the record, I’m 42; Keighley is in his mid-40s, Levine is in his later 50s, and McCaffrey also seems to be in his 40s. For the sake of this argument, I would call us all roughly the same age, but I don’t feel, as McCaffrey calls Levine, like “a relatively young man” in this context. In video game years, either on the media side or the development side, I feel like all of us are ancient, not necessarily in our chronological ages, but for how long we’ve been around, though McCaffrey and Keighley’s careers are far, far longer than mine.

The thought of having a career in games journalism as long as mine (I started in earnest around 2015), much less as long as McCaffrey or Keighley’s, seems unthinkable in these days of site closures, layoffs, and unstable or hostile workplaces. That same instability is currently sweeping game development too, with mass layoffs driving out long-tenured talent and newcomers alike. In both fields, this is coupled with the hostility and harassment that’s long driven young, diverse people out in droves. If gaming is a “young industry,” as McCaffrey says, these days it can feel like it’s entered its twilight years, though it might be more accurate to say it’s being cut down in its prime. We are, I hope, not actually living through the end of things, but imagining a horizon for oneself as distant as the one the people seated around this table have reached feels tough.

Calling games “such a young industry” makes McCaffrey seem old beyond his years. Despite the upheaval and those much-touted economic headwinds, gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry that’s existed for roughly 50 years; it’s young if you hold it up to the first movie of a train rushing at an audience, but it’s far from the risky, misunderstood upstart it can’t seem to stop seeing itself as. Calling gaming “young” feels like the kind of thing a younger McCaffrey or Keighley would say on a stage somewhere a decade ago. It’s an idea that undergirds the same impulse that seems to drive Keighley’s career today, as he uses The Game Awards to elevate the legitimacy of a field that’s long since attained legitimacy all by itself. That the men around this table are relics of an industry so old that it has relics, but they still see themselves and the field as young or new, feels like a tired testament to how old all of this actually is.

IGN

And, from what I’ve seen, so does Judas. Levine says that with Judas, Ghost Story has “to make something that feels modern, it feels fresh, feels new, delivers on new things.” But “narrative Legos” aside, Judas looks like Bioshock in its world, its robot enemies and companions, its powers unleashed through a weird hand. The questions Levine describes it asking are the same old Levine questions: dystopias and their causes, why people do bad things, conflicting visions for how societies should run, how relationships rupture and are mended. There are cycles of trauma, with Keighley’s video on Judas beginning with a clip in which character Hope says, “Why repeat the cycle when there’s an easy way out?” before handing the player what looks to me like a poison cookie. One thing Levine purposefully calls out as new–he says of Judas, ”I think that's the first game we made where really the sort of fate of the universe hangs in the balance. We don't tend to make games like that”--is old, old hat for video game narratives. Keighley says that “even though the fact it's been in development for as long as it has, it feels very modern,” but that moderness, to Keighley, is in “the visual fidelity and the gameplay. It plays really well.” Even this feels to me like an old standard for what “modern” means. 

The things Levine says about the development also feel old. He talks about the game scaling beyond initial intentions, saying, “I started falling in love with the world and I started seeing more and more opportunity to tell a bigger story… I guess it kind of scaled.” This is an age-old problem that’s led to the ballooning, unsustainable budgets of AAA games today. He talks about replayability and how much bang for your buck a single-player game should provide. (In his own video, Keighley asks timelessly, “What if your favorite single player game could be infinitely replayable with story and even character that feel alive and active?”) Levine mentions things about the story of Judas that I struggle not to read as reference to the conflicts behind its development and his work style, saying of the game’s story, “I dunno if you've ever had the experience [with] somebody you've been hostile with in the past, you sort get thrown into a situation with them and often you overcome those… especially when you've been through a really bad thing with somebody, if you ever had that experience, it's really tough.” The mercurial auteur and his vision, of people contorting around his whims until they can’t anymore, feels like a story as old as games themselves, as does sitting in front of the press not talking about it.

At the very end of the interview, McCaffrey says to Levine, “Ken, you are attempting something new.” Keighley echoes that the fact that “we just got to play something, warts and all, and just talk with you about it I think was so cool and honest with us but also the audience.” But is there anything older than the laudatory, secret-laden roundtable (all three insist on not spoiling the game, despite the fact that Keighley says in his video that “the game is not done by any means”)? Is there anything less honest than calling all this same old stuff, made and presented by the same old people, new? 

I don’t resent any of these people a long career in their respective industries. Years ago, when things felt more stable, I might have thought more stridently that they should step aside to let younger, more diverse blood take their place, but the challenges facing a career in development or press these days feel bigger than three people sitting in chairs that could be occupied by someone else. To be fair, IGN employs a lot of people and has just formed a union; The Game Awards has The Future Class, though it’s never been clear to me what opportunities it actually provides. The problem this interview brings up is far larger than the people taking part in it, and perhaps, though not entirely, beyond their individual abilities to solve. But this interview aired yesterday, in 2024. If you closed your eyes, you could imagine it in 2014 or even 2004, when it would sound exactly as old as it does today.

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