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Ken Levine on the Storytelling Craft of BioShock Infinite
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Ken Levine on the Storytelling Craft of BioShock Infinite

January 9, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

Did you learn anything from the experience of doing the voice work for BioShock 1 that you pulled into Infinite other than "I need to work with them in person this time?"

KL: Every time you go to bat you learn something. Every time I write a game, I think I learn how to write less -- how to get an idea across with less text. How to rely on the visual space, whatever the visual elements you have in the world, or in the characters.

People saying stuff is the last resort in a video game, especially if it's going to constrain the player from acting. You know, I want the player to be active. Active, active, active. So you just really learn, you sort of sharpen your toolset each time out. I try to get across the same amount of ideas, but I try to use less text to get that idea across. I don't know if I'll succeed, but I'm trying.

At your PAX Prime panel this year you spoke about being inspired by the Uncharted series. Can you tell me a little about what you've learned or picked up on regarding voice work by playing Uncharted?

KL: I think I was really inspired by the sort of scenes that Drake would have with other characters and just the sort of banter between them, and the kind of ease of that banter, and thinking that could work even in a period piece, and a first-person shooter. There's a lot of difference between the two. Our game is a lot more serious in a lot of ways, in terms of the themes and what the characters are going through. It's not nearly as lighthearted.

[Naughty Dog is] really on top of their game, in how they work with the actors and the writing they did. It gave me confidence that it could be done. Not so much whether I could do it, because they're very, very talented people with a different skill set... but it gave me confidence that it could be done.

Do you see the process of working on the voice recording as an extension of your editorial function as a creative director, or is this more "direction" in the sense that it's commonly understood?

KL: Before the session I'm at home writing our scripts, but the goal here is not to go in and say, "Hey guys! What do you want to do today?" It's to go in with a plan, and then be open to collaborating with the actors. I know where I need to go, I know what I want to do, but I'm not really leveraging the best talent we have if I go in inflexibly.

So, I try to go in quite flexibly, and I usually go in and get what I know I need. I get what's on paper. And then I say "Well, let's try something else," or Troy or Courtney pipe up and say "Hey, what if we did this?" I think it's foolish of me not to embrace that.

There is one sequence in the game, where I hadn't written at all, and I sat down with them in Seattle, and I said "Look, this is a scene I'm having a problem with. What do you guys think about this?" And they were very, very helpful in helping me think about that scene.

I had a rough outline for it, but there was an executional issue of how we'd actually do it, and I won't talk about it now because I don't want to spoil anything. But they were very, very helpful, and now I've gone off and I've written that, and they're going to come out next week for a recording session, and we're going to do some work on that scene.

It started with me, it [was] enhanced by collaboration with them, it went back to me, and now I'll go back in the studio, do it the way that I wrote it, and then we'll play around with other things.

Are you as comfortable writing for Booker and Elizabeth as you are writing for Andrew Ryan? Have you gotten to that point?

KL: [Before BioShock] I'd done a game with audio logs and radio messages, so I was very comfortable with the form. I had a lot of practice writing that form. Andrew Ryan, because he's much larger than life, I found him very easy to write. Also, I always had Ayn Rand in my ear while I was writing him, and she is quite articulate in her viewpoints. So he was a pretty easy character to write, for me.

Booker and Elizabeth, because there's a very different constraint set, because I haven't done this kind of writing for a game before, where you sort of have all this dynamism with a character you're walking around the world with, that you're speaking to, as Booker... just the mechanics of it!

How am I going to do it, how am I going to make it incredibly short what they say, and incredibly to the point, but still be entertaining, and still be meaningful, and still give them character? It's been super difficult. I think if I didn't have actors who really inhabited the parts it would have been impossible. I got very lucky to find Troy and Courtney.

How much background work did you do in creating Booker and Elizabeth? Has that been important to the process at all?

KL: I don't tell them a lot of backstory. I don't want them to know that. I know a lot about these characters, I know their arc, I know where they're going. I haven't told them where they're going yet, but there are parts of the game they haven't recorded yet, and they have not recorded the later parts of the game, and I withhold what's going to happen. I don't want them to know until the last possible minute. I want them to be fresh off of that.

I know a lot about these characters. I need to be able to answer any questions [Draper and Baker] have, but I try to tell them... I give them a lot of the outlying archetypes of what the characters are like. Elizabeth is this much sort of darker, more sinister life story of Rapunzel. And Booker having gone through what he's gone through... What I've described to them is that Elizabeth is a person who sees nothing and wants to see everything, and Booker is somebody who's seen everything and wants to see nothing. They're at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Then [Draper and Baker] have to find the truth of that. Because you know, if they just played on the stereotypes or archetypes, there's no interest in playing an archetype at the starting point. So I rely upon them to connect to those characters. I give them the information, the rough information, and I really count on them to connect. But I know the characters very well, and I know where they're going, and I know what's going to happen to them, but I haven't told them yet.

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Bart Stewart
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Good interview -- nice to see some insight into voice acting/direction.

I do have to add, as someone who enjoyed ST: Voyager and who really, really enjoyed Looking Glass games, that I will always wonder how awesome that lost Voyager game might have been....

Matt D
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Really enjoyed this interview. Always quite the challenge to describe a scene to the actors verbally as opposed to relying on storyboards and rough animations. I loved the first Bioshock and the voice acting and direction/writing from Ken is getting me excited for Infinite. Looking forward to experiencing the dynamic character relationship between Booker and Elizabeth.

Luke Mildenhall-Ward
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This is an insightful article. I'm preparing for recording some voice work for a game soon and some of the things Ken mentions here will be helpful. My biggest worry is that in the past when I've directed actors I've struggled to get across to them what emotion to use in the scene. Many times I try to explain it in different ways, yet their performance often doesn't always reach the right tone and I go home unsatisfied with the result. Hopefully I'll have better luck this time.

james sadler
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I've always found when directing actors in VO sessions where I don't have anything to really give them exact reference for in a game, that it is best to use scenes from movies or something like it as a reference. As actors they tend to see a lot of movies and such so it acts as a decent bridge to give them the reference they need for the scene.

Jan Kubiczek
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i was working as part of a filmcrew two years ago and the main actor would always try and come up with a metaphor for certain movements and feelings. i found that a very valuable tool.

Haris Orkin
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Rather then tell the the actor what emotion to play, it's better to help them find and reach that emotion themselves. Just like Ken Levine says. Trust your actors. If you set the scene and explain the character and what the character wants, a good actor will find the truth of the scene. That way the emotion will come from a real place.

Jan Kubiczek
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yeah, i thought that myself when i watched the making of for revolutionary road the other day. there is many possibilities if youre working in film like casting, crew members, processes, music on set, the set itself etc. - which all influence the actors hopefully in the right direction. in this sense i imagine it being a lot more difficult in voice overs. ive done them myself and i found that once you get a tone right its easier to keep because its just you and your imagination.