“Most creative people in the world labor in a quiet corner and don’t get people to see their stuff. I have. It took me a long time. It wasn’t until I was in my mid 30s till that happened. I was very fortunate to have it happen at all. I’m never going to look a gift horse in the mouth,” says Ken Levine, creative director of Ghost Story Games (formerly Irrational Games). During his 20-plus year tenure in the gaming industry, Levine has acted as a creative tour de force through his work on such games as Thief: The Dark Project, System Shock 2, SWAT 4, Bioshock, and Bioshock Infinite.
As a creator, Ken is a creature of extreme routine. “I haven’t missed a day of working out for close to five years until very recently,” he recalls. “It’s not necessarily healthy to eat the same things at the same times every day; it becomes obsession. It’s all a way to control your life. My wife pointed out to me on vacation in the Caribbean Islands, she wanted to do normal things like relax and have dinner once we arrived. I was like, ‘No, I have to go on a run, and…’ I trailed off and realized I needed to force myself to take the day off.” Levine believes that being such a creature of habit is not necessarily a positive aspect; that it is in fact quite the opposite. “Being a creature of intense habit forces you to rely on routine, and that can keep you from doing a lot of things in life. Listen, kids, don’t be a creature of habit like Ken Levine,” he jokes.
Running makes up an important part of Levine’s routine; and serves as the fulcrum through which he has his most creative ideas. “Most of the narrative and big ideas that I come up with on my own are almost always on runs,” he says. Ken often goes for long, two-and-a-half hour runs, and likes to mix up listening to music, podcasts and audiobooks with simply running in silence. He uses a voice recorder app on his phone to record the creative ideas he comes up with on runs. “If you went through my phone, you’d hear all these things from Bioshock Infinite, me on my run panting, ‘And then Booker says…’ and the rest is unintelligible because I’m out of breath,” he explains. “I’ll have these ten minute long recordings where I solve all of my problems, but it turns out I was running too loudly and you can’t hear any of it. I hope I didn’t say anything too smart, because it’s gone now.”
“I was on a run six or so months ago, and we had been working on the new game, and at the time, we were focusing on a lot of things besides the personality specifics of the main character. We knew a lot of things about them – we had the hanger that the plane fit into, but didn’t quite know all the details of the plane. Then I was on a run and all of a sudden this line came to me, a line that the character would say. I recorded it, and that ended up being the defining line of the character. At that point, we could start writing more lines and audition for the part.” Levine postulates that these sorts of things cook in the background of your brain for a long time before manifesting suddenly.
Why is this? Why do folks tend to be more creative when running? Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” In 2014, Stanford University researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz conducted a study titled, ‘Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking’. From the abstract, “Four experiments demonstrate that walking boosts creative ideation in real time and shortly after. In Experiment 1, while seated and then when walking on a treadmill, adults completed Guilford’s alternate uses (GAU) test of creative divergent thinking and the compound remote associates (CRA) test of convergent thinking. Walking increased 81% of participants’ creativity on the GAU, but only increased 23% of participants’ scores for the CRA.”
These studies empirically show that physical activity has a direct correlation with, and positive effect on creative thinking. Additionally, Keith Sawyer, author of ‘Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration’ writes that physical activity such as running allows one’s mind to be idle in thought while remaining focused on the running. This, he poses, allows the brain to make connections that it simply cannot when focused on more complex tasks.
Not too long ago, we learned that David J. Peterson, the language creator for shows such as Game of Thrones, The 100 and Emerald City has his most creative ideas in the shower. In the shower, our brains enter a mental state called the Default Mode Network, in which we become less aware of our environment and more aware of our internal thoughts. Sounds like physical activity, even activity as trivial as walking, enters our brain into a similar state; one in which creative ideas are free flowing and abundant.
Ken has been open on social media and in previous interviews that he struggles with anxiety. He sees anxiety as a tax on creativity and creative thinking. “Last year was the first time in my life that I started to actually enjoy writing because I was able to put my anxiety down to a level where it wasn’t intrusive,” he says. Levine’s previous experiences with anxiety caused him to count down the seconds until he could stop writing. Now, he’s able to enjoy writing by managing his anxiety. “There’s that voice in your head that says, ‘You’re doing the wrong thing. You’re writing is terrible.’ I shoved that voice down. And look, often your writing is terrible. That’s why we have re-writing.”
Writing, as Levine points out, is not permanent. We can always go and fix it later. If you’re a professional baseball player and you’re down in the bottom of the ninth, you’d better be there. You need to deliver. As a writer, you can go back and correct mistakes, and add or subtract content. That realization, Levine says, was a big release on the pressure valve. How else does Levine combat his anxiety? “Trying to be present. Trying to be in the moment rather than thinking about the moment. Your emotions are not fact, they are something you create that you have a fair amount of control over. I can’t walk through the table in front of me, but I can walk through this emotion.”
“Anxiety is the enemy of all good things. It’s the enemy of fun, the enemy of productivity, the enemy of sleep, the enemy of love, and the enemy of health. It’s this weird thing we have left over from the evolutionary adaption of fear. ‘Hey, there’s a tiger. Here’s some fear. Go run away from the tiger and you’ll live long enough to pass on your genes.’ Well, when we stopped being killed by tigers, we were left with this vestigial piece from fear we call anxiety. Anxiety can be helpful. When I ran Irrational, there were plenty of times I would worry, and that anxiety let me know ahead of time that something was wrong. The problem is, it doesn’t always trigger when there are actual problems. It’s like a spidey sense that’s going off 100% of the time.”
There is significant scientific evidence to prove a direct association between creativity and anxiety. In 2012, Swedish researcher Simon Kyaga, in partnership with the Karolinska Institute in Sweden conducted a study of 1.2 million Swedes using psychiatric patients. Quoting CNN’s 2014 article, ‘The dark side of creativity: Depression + anxiety x madness = genius?’, “[The study] found that people working in creative fields, including dancers, photographers and authors, were 8% more likely to live with bipolar disorder. Writers were a staggering 121% more likely to suffer from the condition…” This is a stunning and clear connection between anxiety and creativity, specifically in writers like Levine. One cannot, however, simply live with this anxiety at full strength and still remain in a healthy, creative state. As Levine stated, anxiety is the “enemy of all good things.” So how can this anxiety be managed to a healthy level in which creativity is abundant?
Earlier, we discovered that Ken goes on long runs on many days; and subsequently has his most creative ideas on those runs. Running, and exercise in general, happens to be an effective treatment for anxiety and other mental health conditions. In ‘The exercise effect’, a cover story by Kirsten Weir at the American Psychological Association in December 2011, Michael Otto, PhD, a professor of psychology at Boston University reasons that the link between exercise and mood is strong, and that exercise can help alleviate long-term depression. He and Jasper Smits, PhD, Co-Director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas co-authored a 2011 book, ‘Exercise for Mood and Anxiety: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-being’ claim that regular workouts help people who are prone to anxiety become less likely to panic when experiencing fight-or-flight sensations. They tested this hypothesis using a sample size of 60 volunteers with heightened sensitivity to anxiety. Volunteers who took part in a two-week exercise program displayed significant improvements in anxiety sensitivity compared to a control group.
Another medium used to both stimulate creativity and reduce anxiety is music. When he began work on No Man’s Sky, Hello Games’ Sean Murray had 65daysofstatic’s Debutante on repeat. When writing this piece, I had Tangerine Dream’s Love on a Real Train on repeat. When developing System Shock 2, Ken Levine’s business partner, Jon Chey introduced Levine to Palomine, an album by Dutch indie rock band Bettie Serveert. “I would listen to it over and over and over again. It became the soundtrack of working on that game. I don’t think any other album has been as much of a soundtrack to me.”
Bioshock Infinite has an iconic scene in which a barbershop quartet from the future plays an anachronistic version of the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows. “It wasn’t actually that song at first,” Levine explains. “I had been listening to Good Vibrations, which I had thought was this fun little pop song. When you really start listening to it, however, it becomes the soundtrack to Brian Wilson’s descent into the mental health issues he experienced. From a musical standpoint, there’s a lot of sounds that are counter-intuitive, which I think is an interesting reflection to his head at the time. He was in this place where his music was becoming strange and abstract and wonderful. I found that song fascinating, and listened to it obsessively. I wanted to use it in the game, but emotionally, God Only Knows stuck with me more, especially for the Elizabeth story.
When introducing new products into the market, designers and engineers often follow a design process. While this process differs from person-to-person, a typical design process begins with defining the problem, transitions to collecting information and brainstorming solutions, and ends with prototyping the solution, collecting feedback, and iterating.
Games, however, are not products that serve a practical purpose. They don’t solve problems like opening a can or operating a television. Those products are easy to test, relatively speaking. Questions such as: ‘does the can opener successfully open cans? how much time does the can opener take to open the can? Is the can opener ergonomic?’ lead to objective, actionable results. “With a game, you test for things like ‘is this fun?’,” Levine says.
“One of the first things you look for is, ‘are we properly conveying the idea we’re trying to get across?’ You’d be amazed how often people have no idea what you’re trying to say. These things may be entirely obvious to you as a developer and others can be oblivious to them. We had playtesters asking questions like, ‘What is this underwater city? Is it supposed to be in the future? Why are people dressed up like this?'” Levine goes on to explain that this is not their fault as players, is his problem as a writer/developer.
In fact, Levine’s greatest fear is in being misunderstood as a creator. “As a creator, you want your work to speak for itself,” he says. “Once you start having to explain everything you mean in a story, you probably haven’t done the story very well. I try to walk the balance between being very open in talking to people and making sure that I don’t say anything that’s going to take years to make sure everyone understands. It points out a weakness in communication skills – and those problems are amplified in the context of gaming.” When in the office, Ken makes an effort to be conscious of what he says to ensure miscommunication does not occur.
Ken Levine’s creative journey is far from over, with newly named Ghost Story Games developing an innovative storytelling experience under his helm. So, how do we judge creative success? And is there a formula to achieve that creative success? Can anyone just go on runs, take long showers, and expect to be a creative tour de force? These are important, unanswered questions that creators often ponder.