On the opening day of the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, BioShock creator Ken Levine, continuing the trend of keynotes past, chronicled his rise to nerd-dom in a glorious salute to the game fan.
He began with a recent anecdote, from just after BioShock was released. He went to EB to buy a Rome: Total War expansion pack. He was checking out the box at a stop light, and two guys in a pickup truck started harassing him, reportedly saying: ‘Hey loser, what are you looking at, gay porn?’ “And I realized,” he said “that I’ve got this Fabio-looking guy on the cover. So I’m going to tell them what I think of them, and instead what came out of my mouth was ‘no, it’s not gay porn -- it’s an expansion pack to a very nice simulation game!’ And I was instantly transformed from a 40 year old guy into the nerdy kid I was in high school.”
“When my parents rolled my character, they didn’t get any 18s,” joked Levine. “They got a couple 12s maybe, maybe a couple 5s; strength, agility, charisma.”
“When my little playmates and classmates were learning to play drums, and unhooking bras, I was coming to the conclusion that swinging around Manhattan in a red and blue suit would be awesome.”
Comics were his geeky gateway drug into the world of geekdom. “More than anything,” says Levine, “I liked the way comics let me dip my toe into the adult world. Peter Parker had to earn a living. The X-Men dealt directly with racism. I thought I was way ahead of the other kids intellectually.”
But in fact, the eventually-to-be geek god was embarrassed of his pastimes. “The truth is, I was ashamed of these things, of these comic books. I wasn’t so nerdy that I didn’t know it wouldn’t help me win friends and influence people. This stuff never left my room now,” he said, after purchasing the original Dungeons and Dragons. “I was a stealth nerd, a closet dork. I didn’t want to like the stuff I liked, I wanted to smoke cigarettes. I wanted to be like my brother and be goods at sports. I didn’t want to go to bed dreaming about dragons … but I did.”
“There was something that set me apart from these kids, something irreconcilable. By the time I got to high school, I gave up.”
He joined up with a crew of D&D nerds during high school, and finally found his tribe, though it eventually fell apart due to each member eventually discovering the fairer sex. In college, he tried to find a new group. “Where the hell is somebody going to go who’s been playing D&D every weekend, with limited social skills, and a strength for improvisation? Only one place.” And then he showed an image of his drama club.
This is where Levine began writing, and after graduation, he cast his hand at writing screenplays. While pitching a vampire movie, which was instantly shot down, he was given a romantic comedy by the studio. “These were people who thought Dr. Who was their kid’s ophthalmologist, and that fantasy roleplaying was something you do with a very expensive prostitute,” Levine admonished.
After this sobering failure, Levine drifted around for 7 years, only finding happiness when he got home, as video games were evolving. “I was numbing myself,” he said. “I knew it.”
But one day he saw an ad for game designers for Thief creators Looking Glass Studios at the back of Next Gen magazine. “The moment I walked in the door,” he said, “I was just struck by this incredibly sense of déjà vu. My experience from working in offices had come from consulting at American Express and Citibank. Maybe through the fog of time I’ve romanticized it, and maybe it wasn’t literally true, but I saw people shouting at each other in a match of Soul Calibur.”
“I saw dozens of happy nerds at peace with themselves and with each other, with the knowledge that what once made them different and strange, now made them come together. I found my tribe again.”
Levine concluded his delighted shout to the galaxy of Penny Arcade Expo attendees: “We’re united by a common element, but it’s not the color of our skin that brings us together, nor the shared ideology, or our country of origin. No. What brings us to PAX is that we’re a giant bunch of fucking nerds.”