Ken Levine winds down Irrational to play narrative LEGOs + a comment on cynical twitter reaction

I offer some thoughts on Ken Levine's announcement and on his concept of "narrative LEGOs". Also a little comment on some cynical twitter reaction I didn't like.

Ken Levine announcement

So the big news today is that Ken Levine of BioShock and System Shock fame has decided to "wind down" the Irrational games studio. All but 15 members will be laid off. Bad news? Yes. It's always bad when people lose their jobs, and surely this could have been handled better. Levine could maybe have handed leadership for Irrational to someone else and left himself, taking those 15 people with him. Surely there must have been someone with vision and ability to lead Irrational in his stead?

At least he's promising to help those laid off to find employment as best he can. But this isn't about that aspect of the announcement.

Ken Levine seems to be really into the idea of what he calls "Narrative LEGOs", an idea I've briefly discussed here. I'm very much interested in the concept and let's be honest, things like this are the real challenges in game design and development. People think "next-gen" and are being told by big corporations and publishers that it's all about more life-like animations, less loading times or bigger worlds. Apparently it's about 1080p and 60 frames per second. Others would argue that real innovation comes in the form of tackling subject matter often ignored in games, such as same-sex romance (Gone HomeThe Last of Us DLCMass Effect). And others yet seem to see the real potential for games in upping the standard of writing and incorporating interactivity through branching script as in Telltale's recent The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us.

Those are all areas where games can and hopefully continue to improve upon. I found it incredibly refreshing to experience a smaller scale story in such an organic way in Gone Home, I'm as happy about playing prettier games as the next guy. And playing season 1 of The Walking Dead has been one of the most fun things I've done this past year.

But I think (probably because I'm a programmer myself) video games are still fundamentally the same thing they've always been: software.

Video games are software, and that means that there is always a need to allow for some form of input and generate some form of output in return. It's the core idea of interactivity. Now, what you do with that can vary wildly. Some games are about score chases and challenging the player's mental ability and dexterity. Some are mostly about providing a space to explore along with others, and yet others are about telling stories.

In terms of story telling, the frontiers in this day and age are mainly technological. How do we let players experience their own stories? Is it really story telling or rather story enabling? Again, Telltale offered an interesting solution: highly scripted and cinematic story telling. They decide when and how the player can choose how the story continues. They stripped almost everything away that doesn't support that design, except for the occasional QTE to shake things up. It isn't so much about interactivity as it is a very long chain of QTEs. Even their dialogues have some time limit imposed on the player.

I think the real frontier in interactive story telling lies in the opposite direction. Instead of more designer control, there should be less. Instead of defining with extreme precision where the player can do what, instead there should be no direct definition at all. There should be a range of actions a player can take at any time and any point in a game. And the game should be flexible enough to react.

When making any kind of software these days, it's often best practice to compartmentalize individual pieces that function independently from each other as much as possible. It's nigh on impossible to predict every use case the player can throw at the program, so it's always best to make sure that every point of interaction can handle itself. Otherwise, things break, and the player can see behind the curtain.

This is a very abstract way to look at it, but it's the same things that Levine is doing with his narrative LEGOs. He's trying to break down what a story consists of, so that the can then take these individual parts (which are now independent from each other) and reassemble them in countless combinations. But it isn't for Levine to reassemble them. Rather it's for the program, the game, to dynamically respond to player interaction and scrap together the logical continuation of a story behind the scenes.

It's interesting that this is in concept similar to the many-worlds theory. What if I finally muster up my courage and ask out the girl I always run into at work for coffee? Depending on my actions, my life takes dramatic (and less dramatic) turns in direction. Same thing applies for narrative LEGO games. For a Telltale-style game to incorporate above scenario, they'd have to write up all the dialogue, think up all the events for both of those possibility spaces. For a narrative LEGO game though, the game would be able to reassemble in much higher granularity not just these two possibility spaces, but any that could happen in between, depending all on what the player does, and all on the fly.

Of course, all kinds of problems come up. How will the game implement dialogue when the writers simply can't write every single possible line themselves? Do we have to teach the AI in our games to speak and listen to player speech? What about storytelling genres? How do you define things like horror, over-the-top action or comedy so that the computer can create such stories?

These are HUGE challenges and when game developers and especially the engineers can solve this problem, we'll truly have next-gen gaming.

I for one am quite encouraged that a designer of Levine's pedigree is taking a shot at it.

On the twitter reaction:

So respected game journalist Rowan Kaiser (@RowanKaiser) seems less than impressed with Levine's announcement and his games writing. A little chronicle of his and other's reaction on twitter is available here:

The reactions seem to have missed the point though. I'm one of those who've been disappointed overall with BioShock's story telling methods, and the ludonarrative dissonance so irritatingly apparent in them. But this isn't about Levine going small to make auteur indie games, as for example Steve Gaynor has done with his team members at Fullbright after finishing BioShock 2's DLC "Minerva's Den". Levine's ambitions are quite different and I'd like to see people discuss these things more rather than simply having a cynical go at Levine himself.

(originally published on my blog

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