BioShock Infinite sold millions of copies as one of the most popular video games of 2013, but did it have to be so incredibly violent?

Ken Levine, the designer of the game at Irrational Games (now defunct), talked about why the game was so violent in an interview with NPR’s Arun Rath on All Tech Considered. Rath noted that one critic called the game about a fictionalized version of early American history a “case study in unnecessary violence.” In that respect, it hardly stood out among the titles shown off at the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) tradeshow in Los Angeles.

Ken Levine

Above: Ken Levine of the now-shuttered Irrational Games.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

But Levine, who was the creative director of the original BioShock (2007) as well as BioShock Infinite, said he was often asked about whether he could have told the same story in the game without the extreme violence.

“I think that it’s not particularly more violent than Bioshock 1,” said Levine. “I think the conversation in the games space has changed a little bit. I think people used Infinite as a launching point to talk about the changing nature of games and can you make successful games that don’t have violence in video games.”

He said that violence is relatively easy to simulate, and, like action movies, there’s an obvious market for it. Making a game like BioShock Infinite without the violence would have been hard for Levine, who has been in the industry for a long time.

“I wouldn’t have known how to make a game like Mario,” he says. “I wouldn’t have known how to take this kind of story and turn it into a game about jumping on blocks.

“I think the reaction to the violence is more an expression of people building confidence in the industry’s ability to express itself in more diverse fashions.”

As game platforms get more powerful, Levine believes they can contain more diverse forms of expression.

“Video games were traditionally very hard to play” because arcade operators wanted players to keep pumping quarters into them, Levine said. “When we started making games that didn’t require quarters, it took me a long time to realize, ‘Why are our games so difficult?’

“A shooter answers a lot of questions for you: the main mechanic is you have this gun, you have weapons, you have enemies, you have conflict coming at you. I think now, we have a little more confidence that, especially when you don’t have to appeal to eight or ten million people, when you can just digitally distribute, you can really try to have a 1-to-1 interaction with a smaller, more dedicated fan base and give them the thing they want. You couldn’t do that 20 years ago when I started.”

Here’s a link to the full interview on NPR’s All Tech Considered website.

More information:

Irrational Games is an award winning video game developer located in Quincy, MA and founded in 1997 by Ken Levine, Jonathan Chey and Robert Fermier. The team made its name with the much loved first person shooter System Shock 2. This w... read more »

2K develops and publishes interactive entertainment software games for the console, PC, and handheld gaming systems through its three divisions: 2K Games, 2K Sports, and 2K Play. 2K publishes titles in today’s most popular gaming gen... read more »

Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc. is a leading developer, marketer and publisher of interactive entertainment for consumers around the globe. The Company develops and publishes products through its two wholly-owned labels Rockstar Ga... read more »

Ken Levine is a founding member of, and lead designer at Irrational Games. He previously worked at Looking Glass Studios, which he joined in 1995. Some of the games he has worked on include Thief: The Dark Project, System Shock 2, Trib... read more »

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