Ken Levine On Creating Compelling Antagonists

BioShock Infinite's creative director talks about creating memorable villains.

Erik Norrisby Erik Norris

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BioShock Infinite creative director Ken Levine is an intelligent individual. We at Crave are men enough to admit that we kind of have a huge crush on him. It’s not our fault, it’s just that whenever he opens his mouth to say something he seems so damn bright that we can’t help but fall head over heels for him. We also write daily letters to Ken to express our love, but we think the recent nude photos took it a little too far. He isn’t returning our calls anymore…

But back on topic: Levine is a genius. To illustrate this point, take Levine’s latest quote, for example. While speaking with Gamasutra, Levine explained what makes for a compelling bad guy. It’s not the nefarious deeds he plans to commit while twiddling his mustache, but is instead all about finding that aspect of the character that makes him a tragic figure. The best kind of villains are the ones who are heroes in their own mind. To express his point, Levine brings up BioShock 1’s antagonist, Andrew Ryan, who, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the greatest characters ever put in a video game.

“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,” explained Levine. “It wasn’t his evil that struck me, it was the fact that he felt like such a victim. Even though he’s obviously a villain, in his mind, he wasn’t.

“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. These [are] 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.”

Touche, Mr. Levine. Touche. The greatest works of fiction — be it in books, movies, comics or games — share this common trait. In the realm of gaming, if you reach the end of a title and question whether your actions were just, then you know you just experienced something special. That’s why I love the work of Ken Levine and Irrational Games. They get that. So it should be interesting to see what Irrational cooks up for BioShock Infinite. Here’s hoping we get another Andrew Ryan out of the experience.