Anyone familiar with the full scope of Ken Levine's resume probably figured out that the Irrational Games CEO is an old-school comics nerd from way back. Levine wrote for the fondly remembered Freedom Force RPGs and channeled a lifetime of four-color fandom into that game universe. The worlds he's created since then betray less comic-book influence than Freedom Force, but Levine still says that he learned thing that have helped the BioShock franchise come alive. I spoke to Levine—who've we've dedicated past comics coverage to—last week and he discussed how being a comics reader has affected his sense of game design.
Read on to find out why there aren't any BioShock comics (yet), the super-villain that inspired Andrew Ryan and which super-hero Levine dreams of writing adventures for.
Kotaku: What was the first comic you ever remember reading?
Levine: I don't remember what the year or the issue number was but my earliest significant comic-book memory is of an issue of Amazing Spider-Man featuring the Punisher. Since the art was by Ross Andru, it was most likely written by Gerry Conway. I started off as a Marvel guy but read both Marvel and DC nowadays.
Kotaku: Which comics did you have in the back of your mind while you were creating Columbia and Rapture?
Levine: You know, it's funny, I based Andrew Ryan on [Objectivist writer] Ayn Rand and when I was doing the research on her, I found out that she sounded a lot like Dr. Doom! There was that imperious, declarative sound to her voice that would brook no interference, just like in classic Stan Lee-written style. That was weird.
I think what's great about comics is they always created sort of a unified feel for the viewer. Some creators like Kirby and Ditko were quite good at creating a whole aesthetic for their worlds. If you look at where Dr. Strange would go into these alternate realties, they'd be incredibly bizarre yet totally readable.
Or you look at something like the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier or something like that, that Kirby or Steranko would draw, you get a real sense of a consistent aesthetic in a complete world. And there's a visual experience that's told, Especially when you get Kirby in the ‘70s when you look at, say, OMAC or The Eternals or something like that.
There's a very consistent visual look for the world. I think that was something we really strove to take away in making BioShock. The lesson was in telling as much of the story we can through the world and making sure that nothing we had from the world was "Yeah, we need a building here. Somebody make a building." We always try to think about what story we're telling with every visual element we introduce.
Kotaku: What can games writers learn from comics writers?
Levine: I think one thing that comic book writers do really well is they know that you have to have a reason to turn the page and they really get that. And I think one thing game writers do quite often is, there's a classic rule of writing, which is come into your scene as late as you possibly can.
You want to start the scene as late as you possibly can. You don't want to have a bunch of exposition that you don't need. You don't need to have the guy come into the room, knock on the door and say, "Hello. Come in." Start the action later than that when the actual interesting stuff is happening. And you want to get out of the scene as soon as you possibly can. And I think a lot of games, especially, I think the tradition of JRPGs especially, is like long silences and long set-ups and intros.
And I think that doesn't do a service to your storytelling necessarily. So I think there's a lot that you can take away from comics in terms of the economy they tell their stories with. And that's gotten much more economical over time, Frank Miller, for instance, coming along and really saying, "Do we need this many words?"
Kotaku: Yeah, absolutely. There are whole sequences in the Sin City books where nobody says anything. It's just action.
Levine: Yeah, and leveraging the visual medium as much as possible.
Kotaku: What are you currently enjoying that you feel like everybody needs to read?
Levine: I'm a pretty mainstream comics guy when it comes to it. Kind of embarrassingly so. I'm still reading the Ultimate Spider-Man and whatever other Spider-Man books come out. I'm really enjoying Jason Aaron's stuff. Both his Wolverine and his Punisher stuff. I think that's really nice.
You've already scolded me about not picking up the latest Daredevil stuff, which I need to dig into. Especially since I think Mark Waid's a great writer. And I think Marcos Martin is amazing. I don't think he's doing it anymore. I think he only did a couple issues, but he's really one of the best artists in comics going right now.
Especially, there's an issue of Spider-Man he did a while ago that was some dream sequence. I can't remember exactly. It was one of the most beautiful piece of visual storytelling. Do you remember that book?
Kotaku: It was right after J. Jonah Jameson's wife died.
Levine: Yeah, it was the funeral issue.
Kotaku: Yeah, it was like a two page layout. That was utterly incredible. I know what you're talking about.
Levine: Every artist working in any medium should be looking at that book. I was bringing it around to artists in the company, showing them. I was like, "Oh my God. Look at this!"
Kotaku: Did you read Batgirl: Year One?
Levine: Yeah, absolutely. I love him. I just love him. He's just great. Simplicity. His simple lines. He's a storyteller.
Kotaku: Would you say you prefer that in terms of art style? Like a clean line as opposed to a complicated hyper-detailed stuff?
Levine: It's really different. Because I really get into a...you go read something like Hush or something like that. Jim Lee. Really detailed lines. Really detailed background. Which is great. There's a whole range of really detailed artists that I like. But then there are guys who are quite simple like Marcos Martin that I adore. Or Bruce Timm, that I really like because they do so much with so little.
Kotaku: Tons of games coming out have comics attached to them. Is there ever going to be a BioShock comic?
Levine: Actually, there's been a lot of conversations about it, and we've had some really good productive conversations. The biggest problem is if there's going to be BioShock comics, I need to make sure that I'm either writing or on top of the stories, and right now I have so limited time.
If I need to spend time on a story right now, it's going to be on the BioShock Infinite story for the game. It's really tough. Because I don't want to just outsource this thing. All the stories in BioShock games really have to be things that I feel are of the quality level and are in the canon, et cetera.
I've learned through past experience that you really need to be on top of this stuff. It's one thing to do action figures or something because you can review that fairly quickly and make sure they're right on the money. Comics, you gotta be deeply involved.
Kotaku: Yeah, even if it's just a miniseries.
Levine: : Yeah, absolutely. Listen, you know me, I would love to see a comic book series. It's just a question of time.