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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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