Ken Levine on BioShock's Narrative Drive
April 25, 2008 Page 1 of 7
The evocative 2K Boston/Australia developed first-person action title BioShock is renowned for delivering one of the most compelling narratives yet seen in gaming. And, at Game Developers Conference this year, co-creator and former Looking Glass Studios (Thief, System Shock 2) designer Ken Levine delivered a packed presentation on the techniques he used to make gamers care about his storytelling.
As the nature of game narrative evolve, gamers, critics, and developers demand more from themselves. As part of this evolution, Levine has decided to make an effort not just to improve game narrative - but to work to help the industry at large do so.
Christian Nutt: Your GDC presentation on narrative was well-received. Why do you think people are reacting so strongly to the narrative techniques that you employed in the game -- developers and gamers, both?
Ken Levine: The meta-question on narrative is, are we going toward this parallel model, which is "game, cutscene, game, cutscene, game"? Because it's a bit odd, if you think about it. It's an artifact from when our world was simple. I talked about wheat and chaff yesterday -- when we could only render the wheat. The cutscenes take up a lot of chaff space, because of storytelling stuff and little details and subtle emotions.
I guess you have to step back and look at and actually really look at... not where we should be, but where we're going. Are we more toward parallel structure, or more toward integrated structure?
I think the answer is the integrated structure. It occurred to me that I was fortunate to both make a game during this time period and start formalizing a discussion about this topic. I think it's easier once you have some credibility of making something that demonstrates it.
To talk about another GDC thing, it's always tough for people to ship games without having the opportunity to talk about things, because they can't demonstrate them... If I died tomorrow and I never said another word on it, you'd have the game to look at, and think, "Well, at least this is what that idiot was thinking." I was trying to formalize my thoughts, and I made the game into a presentation to share with colleagues so they can see the thinking behind it.
I was struck by, when you were talking, you said that people often come up to you and say, "Look at Square Enix. They can do Final Fantasy. They can do these cinemas." My response to that was, "But look at what they pour into being able to do that," in the sense that they stand out from the crowd in a lot of ways. They concentrate on that, and they hone that. I don't know. Maybe that isn't even a question. Maybe it's just an observation. I think that when you're talking to people about these things, context is important.
KL: Well, there are cost issues. Obviously... think about what it costs us to get to Dr. Steinman, versus how Square would do it. I think we would do it a lot more cost-effectively, and we can do it integrated into the game experience. Now look, I'm not blasting whatever they do. Clearly, they know what they're doing, and they do their own kind of thing. They're the best at what they do and how they do that.
The question I'm asking more is what excites me as a game developer? Exploring this space, or exploring the parallel space? The answer may be for any particular game developer, the parallel space. And God bless them. Go forth and prosper. I think, though, that games are uniquely their own media. It's about exploring the integrated space.
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