PAX 2008: Levine addresses his tribe

2K Boston head talks about growing up geeky and coming to terms with his nerdy nature during packed Penny Arcade Expo keynote.


SEATTLE --The 2008 Penny Arcade Expo conference program wasted no time in hitting top speed. Organizers scheduled the Ken Levine keynote address on the first afternoon of the three-day gaming convention. The creative director of 2K Boston and public face of BioShock has been making the convention rounds since the sci-fi first-person shooter shipped last year. He keynoted the Develop Conference in the UK earlier this year, and told a packed crowd of his peers how to get audiences to care about their stupid stories in a Game Developers Conference address.

Unlike those events, the crowd for Levine's address was filled with the enthusiastic, open-to-the-public PAX brand of rank-and-file gamers. Attendees proudly sported Half-Life headcrab hats as they filed into the cavernous Washington State Convention Center's main theatre. Even the prepresentation buzz was different, given that the crowd chit-chat was accompanied by commercials for Brawndo (The Thirst Mutilator), the Entertainment Consumers Association, and a variety of new and upcoming games.

Levine took the stage half an hour into his one-hour keynote slot, launching straight into his presentation as he talked about growing up as a nerd.

"When my parents rolled my character, they didn't get any 18s," Levine joked.

In the late '70s, Levine noticed that the kids around him in the seventh grade were into hockey, Rush, drug experimentation, and had even gotten to second base. Meanwhile, he was into Spider-Man comics. While the other kids were into Lennon and McCartney, he was into Claremont and Byrne.

Regaling the crowd with his love for comics, Levine said that he most appreciated the way that the illustrated books dealt with the adult world. Spider-Man had to make ends meet. Iron Man had to deal with alcoholism. The X-Men faced up to racism. Despite the array of issues out there, one took precedence in Levine's mind: women.

"In short, I wanted to **** the Scarlet Witch," Levine said, explaining the intersection of his two primary preteen interests.

Levine talked a bit about his nerdy shame, noting the deepening ostracism as he got into games with an Atari 2600 and Dungeons & Dragons.

"I didn't want to like the **** I liked," Levine said, saying that he wanted to fit in, to like sports, smoke cigarettes, and be normal.

By the time he got to high school, he said that he had given up and kept his nerdy nature a secret. And then one day he overheard some kids on the bus talking openly about saving throws, Owlbears, and other such nerdy D&D fare with no negative repercussions.

Levine hooked up with the kids for a bit of role-playing one night, and found a group of about 10 kids who were part of a group. Through that group, he got into Dr. Who, The Prisoner, Monty Python, and still more geek reference points. Levine said that after 14 years of searching, he'd finally found his tribe.

By 1982, Levine said that things had started to change. There were new faces in the regular adventuring party. Female faces. Levine warned that the days of any D&D group are numbered when members start "inappropriately buffing" or doling out primo loot drops to undeserving members named Heather, Kelly, or Pam.

With no girlfriend of his own, Levine's surprise and confusion gave way to a sense of betrayal. He understands now that his friends were just ahead of him on the road to adulthood and college.

With the tribe petering out, Levine needed something in which he could put his improvisation skills to use. He found the drama club, "bad Shakespeare, 'Greased Lightning,' and jazz hands."

Levine said that his life started taking off after college. He was a writer sharing an apartment with Marisa Tomei's brother, one of the Goonies, and the guy from Leprechaun 2. He was also trying to pitch an ultraviolent vampire movie. Although the vampire movie didn't make the cut, he was offered a gig writing a frothy romantic comedy.

The new crowd that Levine was hanging with thought that "fantasy role-playing" was something done with a very expensive prostitute, and that Dr. Who was their kid's ophthalmologist. Still wanting to leave behind his nerdy nature, Levine threw himself into the romantic-comedy project.

"And then, in what should be a surprise to nobody, my romantic comedy ended up sucking," Levine said.

He was out of a screenwriter gig and he bounced around doing odd jobs for the next decade, all supporting his gaming habit. Levine name-checked Metroid, Zelda, Herzog Zwei, and Ultima Underworld, saying that he'd go home every night and numb himself with games like a lush with a flask.

Eventually, Levine realized that people got paid to make games. He picked up a copy of the now-defunct Next-Gen magazine and found an ad listing for a game designer at Looking Glass Studios. He applied, and a little over a month later, he was on his way to Boston.

Upon arriving, Levine expected a cubicle farm with salarymen working a 9-to-5. What he actually witnessed was a group of gamers yelling over Soulcalibur and Magic: The Gathering, people making popcorn for a screening of Blade Runner, more than a dozen happy nerds--his new tribe.

"After so many years of running from the very things I loved, it's amazing for a guy like me to come here and see what Gabe and Tycho and the volunteers have built here," Levine said. "We're united by a common element... What brings us all together at PAX is we're a giant bunch of f****** nerds."

Levine wrapped up by telling the crowd to enjoy PAX, and thanking them for welcoming him into their tribe.

For more from the convention, check out GameSpot's complete coverage of Penny Arcade Expo 2008.

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