Famed game designer Ken Levine knows a thing or two about creeping people out. After all, he’s the creative force behind games like “System Shock 2,” and “BioShock” as well as the forthcoming “BioShock Infinite.”
And while you wouldn’t necessarily call most of Levine’s games horror games in the purest sense of the genre, each of his creations has delivered players to places filled with a gnawing disquiet, bone-deep dread and even breathtaking psychological terror.
“System Shock 2” brought players face to face with a menagerie of grotesqueries and a malevolent machine in the cold of outer space. The “BioShock” games haunted players with their hulking Big Daddies, eerie Little Sisters and a host of lunatics trapped in a utopia rotted from within.
In fact, Levine’s games can often be more unnerving than most true horror games out there.
With Halloween upon us, I had a chance to chat with Levine about what it is, exactly, that makes video games scary and how he and his team at Irrational Games go about infusing their work with gut-wrenching scares.
Interestingly, he was quick to point out that, in fact, video games don’t often scare him. This lack of fear, however, is merely a byproduct of the work he does.
“One of the bummers about what I do — and there are not a lot of bummers about what I do because I love my job — is that when you focus so much on making things that are weird or strange or scary, you end up having to become very analytical about those things,” he says. “So it’s harder as an audience to really let your brain go and disengage when you watch scary stuff or play scary stuff.”
That said, Levine believes that video games have the ability to be more scary than scary movies.
Power to the player
Sure, when it comes to film, the director has total control over the viewer’s experience — what you see, when you see it, etc. The director is the puppet master to your terror-filled experience.
But with a video game, some of that control is handed over to the player. You become the master of your experience — and that can be truly horrifying stuff.
“With a video game, you can’t point the camera exactly where you want it to go for exactly how long you want it to go, but you can also have that moment with the player where he’s like, ‘I don’t want to go forward, I’m nervous about going forward,'” Levine explains. “And then there’s that moment where he actually makes himself go forward anyway. You never have that disconnect where you’re shouting at the screen: ‘Don’t go into that dark room you idiot!’ because you’re the idiot walking into the dark room.”
Levine puts it this way: “The power you give the gamer is more important than the power you have over the gamer.”
Less is more
And though Levine finds himself rarely scared, he says those scares he has experienced are all the more satisfying.
One game that got to him in a big way: “Limbo.” The haunting downloadable indie game from 2010 is done all in gray tones and without any dialog. It delivers players into an unnerving world filled with mysterious creatures and hidden deaths that take you time and time again.
And oh that spider!
“When that thing started twitching and its leg started moving — I have a thing about spiders and I always have — I jumped out of my chair,” he says. “That game does such a great job setting a mood … and it was so moody without a word.”
“Without a word” being the key here. When it comes to horror, less can be so much more, Levine says.
“Limbo just decided that it was going to tell a very simple story and that it was going to do it almost all sort of through a poetic, simple style,” he says. “You didn’t know exactly what the guy’s story was or exactly what the kid was going through but you felt it and I think that was so effective.
“I think as game writers we tend to sort of overdo it sometimes, we tend to overtell our stories,” Levine says. “I loved the way it undertold that story.”
Stranger in a strange land
That lack of information — where am I and how did I get here — is another key to good horror, Levine says.
With Limbo, you don’t know much about where your character is or why he is there. And “BioShock” opens in a similar manner.
“With ‘BioShock’s’ opening, we very deliberately kept a lot of the information away from you because we wanted you to feel alienated and we wanted you to feel strange,” says Levine. “Information is sort of your enemy in a horror game.”
And Levine points to the first “System Shock” game as well. In that 1994 game — which Levine would go on to make the sequel to — players wake up on a space station with no friends and no support system. The only contact you have is with an artificial intelligence who has nothing good in store for you.
“I think it’s always important to feel that you don’t belong,” Levine explains. “We can all relate to that. Especially kids like me growing up nerdy. I always felt like I didn’t belong as a kid in school. So that sense of alienation is very powerful.”
The horrible and the normal
With his newest game, Levine finds himself facing a unique challenge — creating a game that is both disturbing and yet set in a seemingly bright, beautiful world. Take a look at the advance footage of “BioShock Infinite” (due to launch next year) and you’ll see gorgeous airborne vistas drenched in sunlight.
“A lot of people have asked me, ‘How are you going to make a game that has themes that are disturbing in a world that’s so bright?'” Levine says. “My feeling is that it is more challenging. You get a lot of free scares just by being dark. But we had already sort of done that and we wanted a different challenge.”
And so he and his team have looked to film directors such as Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch — master directors who know how to milk horror from putting the brightly lit ordinary side-by-side with an awful darkness.
“You look at a movie like ‘Blue Velvet’ and you think of the ear lying in the grass on this beautiful summer’s day,” he says. “It is incredibly disturbing because it’s this juxtaposition of the horrible and the very normal. And I think that there’s power there. I think it’s a harder power to tap into, but if you can tap into it I think you have a much better chance of being effective than if you just go for the dark and stormy night thing.”
A sense of loss
Despite all this talk of creating games that horrify, Levine points out that he never sets out to make a game that is scary.
“I think if you start by saying ‘I’m going to create a horror game’ you’ve already lost,” he says. “That’s going from the outside in rather than the inside out.”
Instead, he says, it all comes down to giving the player stakes.
“The way I think of it is, the thing that we all fear is loss,” explains Levine. “You can’t be afraid of losing something you don’t have. If you don’t have any money, you can’t be afraid of going broke. If you don’t have a wife you can’t be afraid of losing your wife. So the most important thing is you have to give the player stakes. You have to give them a sense of something that was good once, something that was of value once, and something that is at risk of being lost.”
One of the reasons survival horror games work so well, he says, is that the designers tend to make the player very low on resources. And so part of the terror comes from being afraid to lose the little that you have.
“In the original ‘Resident Evil,’ every bullet counted, and in ‘System shock 2’ we did something similar,” Levine says. “The player was so nervous about their own capacity to function in the world and that added to the stakes of what was going on in addition to what was happening in the story.”
Meanwhile, with “BioShock,” Levine and his team created the underwater world of Rapture to be a place that was once beautiful and populated by people who were once happy. And yet, it had all gone horrible awry. “We wanted to connect you to the loss of that world,” Levine says.
With “BioShock Infinite,” Levine says their goal will be to put players deep into the world so they can connect with the main characters Booker and Elizabeth.
“We don’t think, ‘Oh we have to scare people.’ We think, ‘We have to make people care about Elizabeth. Because if they don’t care about her stakes then they aren’t going to have any sense of that fear of loss.
“Without loss, what are we afraid of?” he says. “Nothing.”
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Winda Benedetti writes about games for msnbc.com. You can follow her tweets about games and other things here on Twitter or join her in the stream here on Google+. And be sure to check out the In-Game Facebook page here.