Ken Levine on BioShock's Narrative Drive
April 25, 2008 Page 2 of 7
Mathew Kumar: I was kind of interested in BioShock, especially because you explore the illusion of choice within games, as the metastory. It's over and above that. One of the things that interests me is that there's a point where you realize that's what's happened, but after that, you're not actually given any choice! Could you talk about that part?
KL: This is one of the things that was really interesting. The reaction totally surprised me after the game shipped. Both to have successfully worked with that scene with Ryan, that people got it. I was worried people would be baffled by it, be like... "What? I can't fight Ryan and jump on his head three times to kill him?" A boss battle.
But also the reaction afterwards... that A, we didn't have that part, and we had a mystery, and B, some people had an expectation that now that we've rubbed your lack of freedom in your face -- not just in BioShock, but in all games -- sort of postmodern, rubbing in the face, that we didn't open it up to give people more freedom. That would've required a vast implementation in the game design and things like that.
It never occurred to me that this would be an issue with people, that by having this thing which happens in the narrative space, you'd expect this giant change in the gameplay space. I think that looking back on it, that's something that I'd want to give a huge amount of thought to, but it was more like, "I think this would be a great commentary on games, and the world of BioShock as well." I didn't realize that it would change expectations.
MK: You didn't expect that people would understand the level at which the gameplay and narrative would be integrated by that point. Was that always the plan, to make this the meta-second level of integration?
KL: It wasn't always the plan from the start. I always wanted the notion of the unreliable narrator, which is a concept that I certainly didn't come up with.
CN: One of my favorite examples is Lolita. I'm sure it goes back beyond that.
KL: There's a million great movies out there that inspired that. Lolita, and The Manchurian Candidate, Fight Club... all these things that make the audience go... Rod Serling stuff. The Twilight Zone. It's the unreliable narrator.
It hadn't really been brought into games all that much. We did a little bit of it with System Shock 2, and I really wanted to explore that space here. It's about... I didn't mention this in my presentation, I keep forgetting to... it's about damaging not the character, but damaging the player. I think insulting the player is something... to put the knife in his back, not just the character's back. Because every game has the knife go in the character's back.
But if your perception of reality is screwed with, and you're basically played for a sucker, people have an emotional response to that. It's like when you read people saying, "I just put down the controller and walked away from the game for a minute." That doesn't happen when your character gets thrown off a roof and knocked unconscious, or gets shot at and wounded.
CN: Or dies.
KL: Or dies. Yeah. It happens when the player is engaged, when it becomes personal to the player. I think we wanted to do that. The particulars we worked out... are complicated, but I've always started with this goal of wanting to do that.
CN: Other games have toyed with this, in the sense that Eternal Darkness toyed with the idea of changing it more to a, "what you see on the screen isn't really there" perspective. I think there's a lot of work to be done that can toy with what games can do. Like, you can have collisions with objects that aren't visible, or you can have graphics that look like one thing, but in reality...
KL: Denis [Dyack] asked a question at our discussion at DICE.
CN: Yeah, I was there.
KL: I wanted to give him a little shout-out, because that was a lot of inspirational stuff in Eternal Darkness. I think you have to be careful with how much you do it, because once it becomes the norm, that the narrator's unreliable, you kind of have to do it in a rush, all at once. Well, not in a rush, but in a moment, and then blow the player away with that. Because by the eighth or ninth time that happens, it's no longer unreliable narrator -- there is no narrator. And you're like, "Stuff's wacky here."
It could become the lens flare of narrative.
KL: Yes. Yes. In BioShock, it's basically all held back. We built it up and we built it up and it all got released in this one moment. And that was good. I think if we had to do it again, it would've been tougher, in the context of that game.
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