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Sympathy For The Devil: Irrational's Ken Levine On Villain Design
Sympathy For The Devil: Irrational's Ken Levine On Villain Design Exclusive
August 12, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

Irrational's Ken Levine and his teams take an exploratory approach to developing the characters in their games that has more in common with theatrical practice than with traditional game development -- it's all about a focus on empathy and motivation.

"Don't conceive of villainy," Levine suggests, on making memorable, nuanced antagonists. "You have to think about who is this guy, and what does he want?"

Suggesting he's uncomfortable with the term "villain," Levine recalls his work developing BioShock's distinctive Andrew Ryan, overzealous overlord of the star-crossed undersea paradise called Rapture.

"When I was working on Andrew Ryan, the two things that were most formative to me were reading [Ayn] Rand, and then I watched a documentary about Joseph Goebbels," he told Gamasutra, when we visited the studio.

"It wasn't his evil that struck me," Levine muses of the devout Nazi. "It was the fact that he felt like such a victim."

Reading Goebbels' diaries, Levine was struck by how unsupported and misunderstood Goebbels felt, despite the evil he was wreaking on the world during World War II. "Even though he's obviously a villain, in his mind, he wasn't," he says. "Everybody's the hero of their own story; if you can't find something that makes them great, you don't have a tragic character."

Irrational hasn't yet unveiled much information about Comstock, BioShock Infinite's antagonist. But Levine continues to be intrigued by "these characters that struggle between their view of the world and their realities of the world. There's that dissonance that turns them into an antagonist for the player. It's not just because they want to be."

Art director Nate Wells agrees: "What you never see from the mustache-twirling villain is what made him into the guy that ties the girl to the train tracks."

The life story of Hitler is another illustration, where a socially-disempowered, self-doubting young man, frustrated at being a poor artist, reacted by seeking to develop an extreme universe that would be more favorable to him.

"All these characters had an opportunity to say, 'maybe this philosophy I had isn't perfect,' and I think that's what makes these characters collapse -- their inflexibility," Levine suggests.

Quips director of product development Tim Gerritsen: "I think video games also have the added problem of then strapping power armor onto Hitler and giving him a jetpack and a giant laser."

He's referring to a "tribal approach" to enemy design, that relies on the assumption that the largest, baddest, most elaborate figure must be the story's villain. Levine concedes that the end of BioShock, wherein antagonist Atlas morphed into a sort of enormous blue-skinned "caricature" was the weakest part of the game.

Theater work demands a similar empathy for characters, an understanding of the extremes of their circumstances that makes them not intentionally evil, merely wrong while being absolutely convinced of their rightness.

Levine views the work he and his colleagues do as translating a fine arts background into games. "The encounter with Andrew Ryan in BioShock, that very much comes out of my theater background," he says. The dramatic contrast of the game's most iconic scene was intended to be more dramatic than realistic, a juxtaposition of shadow and spotlight that recalls the production of Death of a Salesman.

"The audience doesn't need to perceive these references; the reason it works is because we're standing on the shoulders of giants and not trying to take something from whole cloth," he says. And eventually it will be a "two-way street" between games and other media, he believes, wherein each exists on a spectrum of reference.

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Bart Stewart
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Good interview. It's also worth remembering that Levine was part of the Looking Glass team that gave us SHODAN, the wonderful villain of System Shock.

That said: in what way is the Andrew Ryan character "nuanced?" He growls; he thunders; as the personal manifestation of Objectivism his voice drips scorn for "parasites." The Randian philosophy that people are responsible for the consequences of their actions could have been presented in a neutral way, as Deus Ex (another post-Looking Glass production) did for the question of "how far should freedom extend." Bob Page, the villain of Deus Ex, was a much more plausible character than Andrew Ryan.

Some of this may be attributed to Armin Shimerman's brilliant performance of Ryan. The problem is that he was *too* good -- the extremes of Ryan's character, while no doubt a lot of fun to do as a performance, left no room to present Ryan as thoughtful, with the result that the philosophy he supposedly embodied had no chance of being presented in a way that let the player make up his own mind. The philosophy, like the character, was considered irredeemable; both had to be put down for BioShock's designers to feel satisfied.

I have zero expectation that Comstock will be any more "nuanced" than Ryan. But I might turn out to be wrong about that. Maybe BioShock: Infinite will have characters that present its designers' apparent distaste for American exceptionalism in a neutral way, respecting the ability of players to make up their own minds on the subject.

Does anyone want to bet that way?

Adam Bishop
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I certainly hope we don't get that. I interact with art precisely because I want to be exposed to others' ideas; I already have my own, and I don't need a game to make me think about them. As a general rule, I find art that has a point to make to be far more interesting and worthwhile.

In fact, by presenting a particular viewpoint, I'd argue that a game (/movie/book) *is* respecting the player by assuming the player is intelligent enough to bring a critical eye to whatever views they're being exposed to, rather than presenting milquetoast world in the hope that no one is offended or put-off.

Bart Stewart
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Well, there's "presenting a viewpoint," and then there's relentlessly hammering someone over the head with a distinctly positive or negative belief.

I think it's fair to say that BioShock, through its characters and story, was much closer to the latter presentation than the former.

Honestly, games can go either way -- whacking you with The Message like BioShock or putting two or more competing perspectives out there without pushing a winner -- and still be a good game. My argument is not that BioShock was a "bad" game; it's that it could have been a better game by letting players decide for themselves what to think about Objectivism, rather than deciding for them as it did.

Admittedly it's a lot more fun for a designer to take the opportunity to beat up on ideas they don't like. But who are these games for?

Glenn Storm
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Perhaps this bug is a feature. :)

The Shimerman performance is absolutely accessible, if a little over the top, while the construction of Ryan's argument/philosophy provides depth for those to seek it. Accessible depth seems pretty cool, but your point about the nuance being easily overlooked is well taken.

This interview with Irrational's team seems to highlight the value that can be wrought from theater. Along with Guy Hasson's blog, this reminds us how rich the vast history of theater is and where it can be appropriately applied to our craft.

Lulz: picture famous theatrical villains done in the 'tribal approach'.

Adam Bishop
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Would 1984 have been a better book if it had left open-ended the question of whether using language to control history was positive or negative? Would Catch-22 be a better book if it left open the question of whether or not war is ultimately pointless? Would American Beauty have been a better film if it had left open-ended the question of how surburban life affects the people who live in it? Perhaps this is simply an area where we disagree, but I prefer for a work of art to take a clear stand and try to argue persuasively for it.

Ian Uniacke
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I think Bart you're confusing a philosophical theory with a criticism. Bioshock is a criticism of Rand's theories. Their basic argument is that if you take objectivism to it's extreme this is what will happen. It's still up to the player to decide if that's a valid criticism or just rubbish.

E Whiting
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There's a difference between a work having a particular message it wants to convey, and a work being silly, wrong, or bad in its characterization. Your work can convey a message, but if your villains all wear black hats and twirl their moustaches, it's pretty safe to say that the critical thrust of your work is undermined by reliance on strawmen.

James Dunne
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The problem is that gameplayers expect a big, bad final three different forms no less. Looking at the original end of Fallout 3 is a great example of how, if the final battle is against "just some guy" it kills the feeling of accomplishment in the final moment.

But I can certainly see that, if handled correctly, a final boss who has more to reveal that would add to the story or provide that final missing piece to the overall puzzle (note I didn't say twist, it doesn't always have to be that), could be satisfying as an ending...

As long as he then releases the 50 ft giant robot with three different forms that you have to beat to win the game. :)

Aaron Truehitt
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A climatic story ending is disappointing when it isn't matched up by climatic gameplay that tests what all the player has learned.

With a lot of games that have had, well let's just say villains that aren't giant abominations with lasers, the endings tend to be interactive, drawn out cinematics. Plenty of instances where I thought "this fight back before in the game was much more challenging than this" crosses my mind way to often in games these days.

Ian Uniacke
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The villain in FEAR just sits on his knees and lets you walk up and shoot him in the head. This was, perhaps, the most impactful "boss" I've ever experienced in a game. It almost made me feel bad about what I was doing (which was it turns out kind of the point). They followed up by having an "exit level" which was also one of my most memorable gaming moments.

John Rose
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As far as video games go, I was really surprised and impressed with Andrew Ryan's character. His philosophical underpinnings were both emotionally compelling and tragically unrealistic, and the whole city oozed with that conflict. This would have all been lost if the game hadn't peppered the experience with recordings and messages from Ryan and his cronies. With sufficient distance we could have seen him as that trite villain from other games; instead, we had our own version of Goebbels' diary to fill in his complete and almost heroic personality. Inventing a character is one thing, but the Bioshock team was also able to seal the deal with a great supporting framework.

George Blott
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Interesting, as always.

When the game is released you should do a post-mortem on how Bioshock:Infinite has been 'marketed'.

From that first trailer with the magnificient fish tank bait and switch to today's slow-drip information delivery... How could you not be kept at, pardon the pun, rapt attention?

James Anderson
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Andrew Ryan doesn't come off as a typical villain because of exactly what John Rose said - Ryan's philosophical underpinnings is exactly why people don't view him as a generic bad guy. Ayn Rand's idea of 'Objectivism' deals within the context of selfishness being considered 'wrong' by the mass majority of society. Ryan's underwater paradise is the culmination of Rand's thesis - putting "objectivism" into action and manifesting itself into reality. Obviously Bioshock plays out as the definitive anti-thesis to "objectivism" but it really isnt any surprise that players can somewhat relate to Ryan's (and Rand's) idea of the selfish nature of humankind. I mean, in all reality, who doesn't want to have everything they desire? This philosophical concept casts a sympathetic light on the 'villain' of Andrew Ryan - playing on the greed and selfishness of society.