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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 Page 1 of 4 Next

The original BioShock stands as a sterling example of environment-as-character. The city of Rapture, with its mad scrawling on walls and atmosphere of deteriorated grandeur, told the story as much or more than the audio logs salted throughout the game, or the radio conversations with supporting characters. The strongest character in the traditional sense in BioShock, city founder Andrew Ryan, was mostly a disembodied voice.

Irrational Games is trying something different in BioShock Infinite. The floating sky-city of Columbia will be a character as much as the submerged city of Rapture before it, as a unique environment is one of the defining characteristics of a BioShock game. But in Infinite there will also be two traditional, human characters with face-to-face interaction throughout the majority of the game.

Booker DeWitt is a former Pinkerton Agency detective charged with the rescue of Elizabeth, a woman who has been held prisoner in Columbia for all her life. DeWitt and Elizabeth form a kind of co-op pairing in that they have suites of powers that can interact with one another during combat, but the emotional interaction between them is being touted as even more important than these mechanics.

The dialogue for the first BioShock was recorded remotely, with creative director Ken Levine speaking to the actors via telephone. Because the relationship between Elizabeth and DeWitt is crucial to the success of what Irrational is trying to achieve with Infinite, Levine is personally directing the voice sessions this time.

At PAX Prime in August, Levine appeared on a panel with Courtnee Draper and Troy Baker, who play the roles of Elizabeth and Booker respectively, and discussed the collaborative and often improvisational nature of both the writing and the voice acting.

In late October and early November, Irrational Games premiered another, two-part video which delved into what the studio hopes to achieve in BioShock Infinite with its experiment in dynamic character relationships, and into Levine's process of writing for and directing Draper and Baker. Gamasutra spoke with Levine about how his background in the theater arts prepared him for this task, how he drew upon prior experience with voice work, what he's learned about working with actors, and the limitations of creating character relationships within a first person shooter.

What, precisely, did you do in the theater, Ken? Were you a writer? A director?

Ken Levine: The first creative thing I ever really did was write plays. That's where I learned that was something I was interested in. I wrote a lot of plays, I directed a lot of plays, starting in summer camp, actually, when I was like just 14 or so, 15, and then I started entering into playwriting contests and doing pretty well in those, like national playwriting contests when I was you know, 15 or something. Something like that. I'm not sure exactly how old I was. Pretty young. And I was a drama major in college, actually. I just wrote and directed and put on a lot of plays.

How did you draw on that experience while directing the voice sessions for Infinite?

KL: It's very different in a lot of ways, because you have a very different constraint set in a game than you do a stage play. [In] the stage play, you can have a dialogue go on practically forever. In a game, unless you're writing big cutscenes, which I don't like to do that much, you really have to get information across [very quickly].

You also have to have a lot of redundant ways to get information across in case a player misses it, and so you really have to think about the text. You really think about how it's going to play out.

If you're rehearsing a play, you know how it's going to play out. You have some actors and you put them up there and it plays out. They'll be running different lighting, and you'll have costumes and things like that, but basically what you see is what you get, for the most part. It's totally different in games.

What I really took away from it is how to work with actors, and how to trust actors. You have to give them space, you have to make them partners with you, don't try to overwrite for them. You have to let them find good stuff in simplicity sometimes. It's really a lot about that.

Learning what actors can do for you, and how to work with them is really what I took away most from it, and that came back. I hadn't directed a play in, say about, since I was about 28 or 29, [but] that stuff comes back to you.

What was your biggest voiceover project before Infinite?

KL: BioShock 1 was pretty big. A lot of voiceover. A lot of actors. A lot of lines. You know, a big script, but it's relatively small, I think, compared to this, and we didn't have Elizabeth and Booker, which is what makes this one really complicated. You have these two characters who are just... doing an audio log is one thing. Characters who are walking around in real time is a much more complicated thing.

When you were doing the voice recording for BioShock 1, did you just elect not to get together with the actors, or did the nature of what was being recorded not really warrant it? Or is that something you regret now, that you wish you'd done?

KL: I think from a practical standpoint, given, you know, my job, I'm not just a writer on the game. Every day I'm doing art reviews and level reviews, as well as I have some responsibilities just in terms of managing. I'm the president of Irrational as well, so it's very difficult for me to get away. For BioShock it was just not practical, and I didn't think it was super, super necessary. It would have been better, but it wasn't required.

If we didn't have Booker and Elizabeth in this game, I don't know I would be able to take the time to do this, but I think I needed to on this game, so I elected to do it. And it's been very helpful. I've really built a relationship with Troy and Courtney, to the point where I do feel then that they're very collaborative in the process.

We're all pretty busy, everybody's got a lot of different things pulling on them, we have to make some judgments, but I think we got what we needed to out of the way we did BioShock 1, but it wouldn't fly with what we're doing with Booker and Elizabeth.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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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.