Ken Levine on BioShock's Narrative Drive
April 25, 2008 Page 6 of 7
CN: I guess the analogy I see is that it's like contrasting a film where the director works with the actors and says, "Ad-lib a little bit, work on your lines a little bit. We'll film extra. We'll film more takes." As compared to the film where they stick to the shooting script.
KL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Every film has an editing pass. Every film has multiple takes to choose from. We don't have any of that. We have to do all those takes separately. Generally, if you rehearse a play, you're constantly fixing things in the rehearsal process.
In general, the position of the [game] writer is, "Give us a script. Thank you very much." No rehearsal, no chance the work with the actors, and no chance to rewrite based on the performance. If you want a great story, guess what? You have to think along these lines. It's just not the normal industry approach.
CN: I think this what this speaks to -- and this is increasingly common -- is the multi-disciplinary nature of working on a game. Say, somebody writes a play, and who doesn't direct plays. They sell the play, then other people take it up there and move with it. It's collaborative, but not directly.
KL: But very often with plays, the writer is there in the rehearsal period, rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. Generally they have actors reading their lines and hearing them, and you go and rewrite based on that. None of that generally exists in the game-writing space.
KL: It's kind of weird, when you think about it. Imagine if a programmer couldn't fix bugs, or people couldn't tweak spawn points or monster placement once they got feedback.
CN: To me, it's how BioWare considers the writers part of the design team. It's sort of synergistic.
KL: I'm president of the company, so I got to consider myself as part of the design team. I was lucky. Maybe if I was working somewhere else, it wouldn't have happened. I tell you, BioShock wouldn't have been BioShock if I wasn't able to be in there every day and be as dynamic. I was allowed such dynamism in the project in terms of being able to rewrite.
MK: Do you believe in the auteur theory for video games?
KL: In terms of one guy?
MK: People always say "Peter Molyneux" or "Miyamoto", and that's all we think of. It's almost a given that these people are thought of as auteurs. Do you think that actually the truth?
KL: I don't think that really is an auteur... You have to have one person at the end of the day who is responsible for saying yes or no, creatively. That's his job. You can generate content, and he has to look at the content and art, and he has to look at that and say, "This isn't working. This isn't right." And he has to be able to overrule people.
Talking about an auteur? Sure. I think you need that voice, otherwise you have chaos. It's the same way with every department, and the product needs that one person.
However, to think that all the great stuff comes from that one person is a totally different calculus. No. Great stuff comes out of a great team. You do need someone as the arbitrator of how to follow the product. Besides writing, that was my job on BioShock, as the arbiter of quality.
Fortunately, I had guys who were generally giving me a path to follow. In case we didn't, I had to say, "No, this is not right." That's something people need to hear, I think. You need somebody, right or wrong, doing that. The question is whether you've got the right guy or not.
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