Ken Levine on BioShock's Narrative Drive
April 25, 2008 Page 5 of 7
CN: I like when you talk about is using the world as part of the narrative. I think you're right, in that a lot of games don't. I think that you're right in saying that a lot of games could, and in an effective way. You pick up the world as you play through it. It's doesn't have to be just office buildings. All you get out of that is, "Oh, it's contemporary," or whatever. You could pick up details of the world when you play a game, and it would save time and they're already making textures, so why not have them make meaningful textures?
KL: Yeah. There's a reason, like -- there's all these posters in the world, ads for products and propaganda and all these things. That's what I always wanted to do back on Thief. Put propaganda, and not occasionally, but fucking everywhere. The more of the content message that you can send that defines this world, the better. Let's fill this space with PSAs and ads and all stuff and little moments like the Sander Cohen statue and all those things.
If you can technologically, build that space. I did a big document. Here's all these things I want to tell. How do I get this information across? Sometimes it was Atlas talking to you, and sometimes it was a non-interactive sequence, like the Big Daddy and Little Sister one I told you about.
Sometimes it was fine to put it on a PSA, or a poster. Sometimes it was mise en scene. The most important things, we put them around the player and put them up high. The more optional it got, the more we could put them in these other spaces.
CN: You were talking about how the story had to come late in development to be as effective as it was. So was it seeing what the possibilities were in the levels that gave you the wherewithal to do that?
KL: I'll give you an example -- the Sander Cohen statues. They weren't my idea. They were Nate, Jordan and Scott. They did these statues, and I saw the statues -- especially the one where Cohen's sitting in this closet with a bunny mask on, sort of looking at you. I freaked out. It was like, "That's awesome."
It ended up in the poem he has. The theme of bunny being the emotional changes he was going through or whatever when he was hiding, emotionally, I just took that from those masks and then I wrote that poem. There are so many little moments like that where I'd be inspired by art.
If I kicked that script over the fence a year and a half ahead of time and wasn't day-to-day reviewing levels and feedback on levels and working on the design, I never would've had the opportunity to come up with all those ideas.
MK: The interesting thing is, though, that we're using mise en scene and so on, but in general, the way that films are made is that they are written, filmed quickly and put together in the end. But the plot is really set quite early.
KL: And the plot in BioShock wasn't set. The mission structure was roughly set. The changes to the mission structure were based on "this isn't working, gameplay-wise," and not "I need to do this, story-wise."
I had somebody ask me this question yesterday, about... at the Ryan scene, because it was animation syncing and stuff, I had to come up with that really early and had it pretty much locked in place. When I do a PSA or a new audio log, I had a lot more time to do that, to write and redo and redo that.
In the same way with film, when you get on the set, the director has free license with the script, generally. He has the actors there, he has the editing room, and he can turn it into a different film, essentially. And everybody expects the director to do that.
The challenge with game writers is that people expect writing to not have any bugs. And by bugs, I mean things that could be technically better. In BioShock, we just fixed a lot more writing bugs than many other games. Narrative bugs. That's putting in more stuff, taking stuff out, redoing stuff... I was able to generate most of those bugs myself, by observing the game under development.
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