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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 4 of 4

There are shots in the promotional trailers where Courtney is on one side of the screen, and Elizabeth is on the other. You see all the subtlety and all the emotion on Courtney's face, and it's just not there in Elizabeth. Does it ever get frustrating that you're getting these performances out of the actors, in their faces, and you can't get the same performance out of the characters?

KL: I'm not sure I'd agree. The scene with the horse was much tougher. Because of the way that scene was structured, we didn't control the camera. We just used the face effects to animate that scene. The scene in the doorway was actually hand-animated, and I felt that the animator Grant Chang did an excellent job with getting across the emotion through Elizabeth's face, but we have a lot more control because we knew where the player was, so we can set that scene in a very particular way, but the other scene was much tougher.

We expect animation from the face to get better in the actual game, because that was our first shot at it. The scene with the horse, in terms of animating her face through a systemic approach rather than a hand animated approach, we expect to get a lot better there, but at the end of the day you don't have an actor. You have an animator. And I think you get to a place like an animated film can get to, which is a different experience.

You gotta work with the tools that you have. You also have to make sure you're not trying to do things that you can't support. I think one of the first lessons I learned in the game industry, in my first few weeks, I was working on a Star Trek Voyager game that never shipped, and I wrote an opening cutscene for the game. I was a writer on it.

The last part of the opening cutscene I wrote in the stage directions, "The camera pulls in on Janeway's face, and we see her eyes widen in terror." Now this is 1995. Janeway's face was a bitmap that was approximately maybe 32 by 32 pixels.

[laughs] Okay.

KL: And my lead programmer said to me, "Dude. You're not pulling in on Janeway's face, and her eyes are not widening on terror. She's sitting there, 32 by 32 pixels, you know, doing nothing." And I was like "Ohhhh. Okay. I need to figure out different ways to get these emotions across." That was a very valuable lesson.

Now, obviously, we've come a long way since then in terms of characters on screen and emotion, but you still don't have the tools that you have with a human. You have to write for that. You have to put a lot of that emotion into what you've got in the words... so you get the same level of emotion across. You have to write differently.

What are the emotional limitations of a first person shooter? If all the scenes have to be fast, if you can't control the camera, if you have all those restrictions on the performance, is real drama always going to be difficult to achieve in an FPS?

KL: I don't believe there's any medium that doesn't have its advantages and disadvantages relative to other media. You just have to play to the strengths of the medium as best as you can.

I've made certain choices in how I tell stories that are a little different from some of my colleagues'. And I sort of made my life a little more difficult for myself by trying to avoid, wherever I can, doing non-interactive cutscenes. I'm not 100 percent, but I'm working on it. I've given myself some limitations, because I think what you lose in being able to pull the camera and show emotion, you gain in immersion, and you gain in mood. That's been my opinion.

I could be on a fool's errand. I could be being quixotic, you might say, but it's important to me. It's important to me to be working in that space whether it makes sense to you or not. I just know that deep down, I kind of feel like it's what I want to do. As a creator it's something that really matters to me.

What you're left with at that point is to then figure out what your strengths are in the medium, and making sure you leverage those strengths, and wherever you have to tell a story you say, "Okay, here's a beat of story I need to tell. Here are the 15 tools I have to tell it, whether it's animation, whether it's something you write on the wall as graffiti, whether it's a piece of art in the world, whether it's A.I. talking to you in your ear, or it's Elizabeth, those are the tools. What's the best way to tell this piece of story?"

And you sift through your toolbox and then find the best tool. And sometimes you go "Well, there's no good way to tell that story. Maybe I should tell a different story." Then you change the story so it fits your toolset better. Whenever you find yourself fighting against your toolset, you're not going to win that fight.

You say in one of the videos that you're getting better about process. Would you say that you're developing a method for directing voice actors?

KL: I don't know if I'd [laughs] call it a "method" at this point. I think I'm gaining experience, and hopefully I'm getting better at it each time I go in.

I wouldn't say I could teach somebody how to do it at this point. I would say that I'm managing to keep my head above water. I think I'm managing to give the actors what they need. I hope I'm managing to give the actors what they need, because if I can't give them what they need there's no way they can give me what I need. I think I'm doing a decent job and a good enough job at this state, but I don't know I'd say that it's a method.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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