Earlier this week, Ken Levine announced he was moving on from Irrational Games after almost twenty years. In his time at the studio, Levine helped shepherd into being a number of games, from the groundbreaking System Shock to cult favorite Freedom Force. Those games had their fans, but it was his work as the main creative visionary behind the BioShock franchise that elevated Levine to legendary status among gamers, myself included.
In terms of gameplay, BioShock was an innovative but far from revolutionary game. Mechanically, it took the familiar first-person shooter model and juiced it up with sweet superpowers. Visually, it blazed some impressive new ground with its unusual art deco aesthetic. Storywise, it took a hard look at Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy, asking what kind of world we might create if we lived by those precepts and painting an ugly, violent picture of a dog-eat-dog (or mutant-kill-mutant, more accurately) existence where the powerful did as they pleased and everyone suffered for it.
You can say what you will about Levine's take on Rand's philosophy, but it's impossible to deny that the man created perhaps the only high-profile video games to ever seriously grapple with such philosophical issues, much less put them front and center of the narrative. That alone is worthy of recognition, but along the way he did something even more important, at least to me personally -- he helped me understand my own morality.
I loved BioShock. It was one of the rare games that I played straight through in a matter of days, then immediately restarted as soon as I finished it. In the game, you play the part of a man trapped in the ruins of Rapture, an undersea utopia-turned-dystopia based on Rand's philosophical gibberish. As part of the game, you are faced with a series of moral dilemmas early on -- you can either rescue the biologically modified Little Sisters you come across, or you can kill them to make yourself more powerful.
During my first playthrough, I chose to save the little goth girls with their sad eyes and sadder histories. When I reached the ending, discovering the last few little twists and the final cutscene that revealed what my actions had wrought, I teared up. I'm not ashamed to admit that it really affected me. I then immediately restarted the game for a second playthrough, intending to take the alternate path, killing the little girls to harvest their precious Adam and make myself as powerful as possible. A funny thing happened to that plan, though. The first time I was offered the chance to do it -- to kill a little girl for my own gain -- I hit a wall. Even though I knew it was just a game, even though the "girls" were just little bundles of pixels and code, I just couldn't do it.
Part of that was the memory of the ending I had just enjoyed, sure, but part of it was the simple realization that, despite my perception of self as someone with a flexible, pragmatic morality, I was, in reality, completely committed to being a "good guy." And once I realized it, I felt free -- sure, I could be a cynical, cold bastard at times, but when it came down to it, I knew I was going to side with the downtrodden, the lost and the fallen, even when it would benefit me to do otherwise. The game didn't change my mind, it just guided me to the point where I could realize, accept and embrace my own fairly conventional, black-and-white morality.
That, more than anything, is what I think of when people ask "are games art?" No other work of art, in any medium, has made me understand my own morality in such stark fashion. All the reading and watching and discussion of other art left me with ambiguity, but Levine's game put the action in my hands and made me realize, once and for all, who I am and what I am capable of. That's art. And that's why, when he makes an announcement that he's moving on to a new paradigm, making "narrative-driven games for the core gamer that are highly replayable," I find myself nodding along, happy to be on board to wherever he'll take me.
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