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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 3 of 4 Next

How much actual, committed-to-paper scriptwriting is there for Infinite right now?

KL: The whole game is outlined. Some of the game is written. Their entire path, I know where [Elizabeth and Booker] are going. I know what's going to happen to them. I know how it's going to happen. I know what's important about their story. It's now a question of me just sitting down and writing the words for those things. I'm doing that, kind of balance that against all the other jobs I have.

I also like to wait as long as I possibly can. The more I see of the game, the more it informs my writing. The more I see what's going on visually, the more I can bring those visuals into the writing, and reinforce those visuals with writing.

How much of your written dialogue has made it into the game as-is, versus improvised lines?

KL: A lot of it gets in. I tend to re-write a lot at the scene. I think that there are scenes that I asked them just to start, do the scene as written and alternate some lines. So they go with it, and it's a frustration sometimes... What it's really about is being open to opportunity in this case, and you need to trust your actors.

While I think there are directors -- look, I'm sure I've done this myself -- where an actor will say something and I'll say, "Yeah, shut up, I'm the writer." The vast majority of it is coming from the script, [but] some of the best moments, I think, come from an actor coming up with an idea. In terms of quantity, I think most of it is coming out of the writing process or the re-writing process on the fly, but there are some really key, great moments that are coming from the actor's response, responding to what's going on.

Have you laid your finger on what the space of a beat feels like in voice recording versus stage or film?

KL: What do you mean by "the space of a beat?"

Well, you know how when you're on the set, two actors are working, there's that space they can give each other between lines, or between moments...

KL: Oh, yeah. Well, a couple of things. First of all, we'll record a session, and we tend not to have long, extended dialogs between Booker and Elizabeth because those are always tough. You never know when it's going to be broken up by action or whatever, and we don't do a lot of cutscenes.

Our scenes tend to be very short with them, so you have a relatively limited number of beats in a scene. How the flow of that exchange happens, is very... We do a lot of work after the recording session. I'll work with Justin [Sonnekalb] and Kristina [Drzaic] on my team, they'll show me all the takes that we have, and they'll make some recommendations. It's almost like how a director works with a film editor.

We will take a little bit from here, and a little bit from there, we'll tighten up some pauses, we'll increase the pauses, we'll have a line that I wrote over here that like maybe the first part would go really well with the second part of a line from somewhere else. We just use the lines as a resource at that point, to fit the action as best we can, and sometimes we construct these lines out of just little bits that we never even intended to have before but we realized we needed, but we didn't have another recording session set up.

We just view the recording session as building up a library of great stuff we can do, and that's why I tend to do multiple, multiple takes of each line. I probably bore the hell out of the actors, but we do a lot of takes because I don't trust myself in the room to [decide] which take is the right one. I want to get a lot of variety, I want to get a lot of different flavors, and I want to go back in the editing room and choose there.

Do you ever play game visuals or audio for the actors before or during recording sessions?

KL: Yeah. Sometimes. The first time I worked with them I showed them their characters, what they look like. We didn't have the full, finished Booker at that point. I showed Courtney what Elizabeth looked like. You can show them things in progress, and they're usually very, very, very, very rough at that stage, and they have to use their imagination a lot. It's not like they're seeing finished film and they're just doing an ADR [voiceover recording] session on it. The recording is pretty early in the process.

Like, we're recording stuff next week that is, you know, I've seen grey box spaces for it. I show them the storyboard sometimes. I'll do a storyboard for certain sequences, and it's tough because... there's a lot of "Well, the player could do this, or the player could do that," but we try to get a sense of how it's going to feel. I can show them that sometimes. But usually it's a lot of me describing stuff to them verbally.

Where did you get the idea of having Troy berate Courtney to get her into her into character?

KL: That came out of not, as a director, [being] able to get her as an actor to the place I needed from her, and that was my fault. I try to trust actors. I came up with the idea that, "Well, what if we leverage Troy's ability as an actor to try to bring her to an emotional place?" That, even though the character Booker is not in the scene, this is leveraging Troy's ability as an actor to work with her on that. And his lines are all improvised, obviously.

That really comes back to trusting your actors. You have a resource there, and if you're a director, sometimes you have to admit you're not able to accomplish something, but you still need to get it done. You got to say "Well, what tools do I have to accomplish this?" I have other tools, and I looked around, and the other tool I had was Troy.

It took a lot of trust between those two. I think that was the first day, they had just met, basically. Well, they flew over from L.A. together, but they just met the day before or something. So that took a lot of trust on their part to do, but it helped a lot to get that scene done.

The reason it was so difficult for her to get to that place was because, as I said, these scenes are so truncated in a lot of ways compared to what you have in a movie or a play, that you have to often find the shortest way between two points. For her to get to that emotional state without a lot of build-up... if I was writing that as a play, that would have been a three page scene. As it was, it was like a quarter-page scene.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

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