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Ken Levine on the Storytelling Craft of BioShock Infinite

The creative director of Irrational Games explains why he's personally directing the acting between the two game leads, Booker and Elizabeth, for his upcoming sequel, and what he's learned over the course of working with the actors and the game script.

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.


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.


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.


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.

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