Ken Levine is one of the true visionaries of the video game industry. There is no doubt that his work has been critically acclaimed the world over, and that work has indeed inspired countless developers.
I love the Bioshock franchise, which always presents us with an extraordinary narrative and a memorable, often unparalleled, atmosphere and environment. When one plays a game directed by Ken Levine, one finds himself fully immersed and the result is a singular, even enchanting form of entertainment.
But I'm not sure I agree with his stance on the "responsibility" of games to authentically reproduce violence. During a recent Boston Magazine interview , Levine said that mainstream media sources have a way of hiding the brutal reality of violence and war. That's why it falls to all forms of art – video games included – to give people an uncensored look at the badness. It's to rectify the mistakes done by mainstream falsehoods.
"One of the responsibilities of art is to actually show this is what it looks like when someone gets shot, because it’s really obfuscated [in media reports]. War is about sending pieces of metal very fast at people and tearing them to bits on the most primal level."
That's true, of course. However, I always thought art was about elevating humanity beyond that "primal level;" instituting a form of sensitivity and intelligence unique to the animal that is a homo sapien. After the tragic 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, Levine was quoted as saying that violence is "going back to the dawn of narrative" and it's "part of the storyteller's toolkit." Also true, but is it not the duty of the artist to interpret reality, for better or for worse, and present it as a work of fictional creativity? Art is about showing, not telling, correct?
My point, Mr. Levine, is that anybody can show reality in its most brutal form, because that is reality. It requires no talent whatsoever to faithfully recreate a murder on a video game screen. The accurate blood spatters and the authentic animations of a body in the throes of agony don't tell us anything new about the human condition. It certainly doesn't tell a story. It just tells you what happens in graphic detail; i.e., "See, this is what really happens when someone gets shot in the head; as you can see, it's very different from what you may have seen on TV or in movies." Okay, so it's different. So what? How is that knowledge enriching my life and furthermore, how is that art?
Like I said, any fool can take a picture of something horrible and show it to other people. That's essentially all you're doing if you create a true-to-life example of disgusting violence in a video game. The role of the artist is to interpret the world around him, present that interpretation in any creative form he chooses, be it a sculpture or a novel, and give his fellow man something to think about. Seeing violence in its most primal state doesn't give me anything new to consider. Perhaps it may give me a fresh respect for life but at this point, given the inundation of violence we've all experienced in the past half-century, if I don't have that respect yet…well, something is dreadfully wrong.
I understand that to effectively tell certain stories, one shouldn't pull any punches. To make a point, it's sometimes necessary to show that which we don't wish to see. But that's part of a higher sphere; it's only one color on the easel that will eventually, ideally, portray a masterpiece. I can easily paint a black streak on that easel. That's the realistic image of death, which anyone can show you. It absolutely does not require an artist. The artist takes that black streak and magically creates a special symphony of matching and occasionally contrasting hues and shades. It's the talented individual's unique dance of communication.
That is the responsibility of art, I believe, Mr. Levine. I see no honor or duty in showing the worst parts of life as they really are. Such an approach benefits man nothing; of that, I'm 100% certain.