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GDC: Ken Levine Speaks: Empowering Players to Care About Your Stupid Story

Ken Levine, president and creative director of 2K Boston and creator of the renowned story of BioShock, started his packed talk at GDC with a somewhat snarky revelation -- "I'm not really a fan of game story." He moved forward to explain the narrat

Christian Nutt, Contributor

February 20, 2008

14 Min Read

Ken Levine, president and creative director of 2K Boston and creator of the renowned story of BioShock, started his packed talk at GDC with a somewhat snarky revelation -- "I'm not really a fan of game story." But he thinks that's normal. "The first big secret is, the bad news is for storytellers is that nobody cares about your stupid story... no matter how detailed or lovingly you craft it." Even worse? "Details seem like the hard work, the important part... they're not your friend. Details drag you down." When trying to find the core of the story of BioShock during development, Levine revealed, "What we realized at some point doing he narrator is not a cutscene, it's not live digital characters, it's not lip-synching... it's the world. What is the thing we render best in video games? The world, all the benefits of graphics... this incredibly detailed world. What is your player honestly engaged in most of the time? Think about most games -- the warehouses, the sewers, the office buildings... think about the missed opportunities there, in the primary experience, to give the player narrative." A Prototype For Failure Levine showed a short demo of the prototype for BioShock -- it looked very much like a game that could be released on the 360 right now; a convincing corridor-crawler with creepy monsters to shoot and smashed crates. Levine's take? "The world is not saying very much to us. It's reasonably well-detailed... what is the world saying to us? Not very much." When it comes to the prototype, "I figured out the best way to make the team hate you -- which is to look at the prototype that they worked hard and earnestly on and say 'is this the thing we're going to go after?' We basically scrapped the whole thing and started again." Paring It Down In reference to the creation of narrative -- usually a process that builds up a wealth of information -- Levine had this to say: "I think this is counterintuitive for most storytellers.... as time went on, we made our story simpler and simpler and simpler." How did that work? "When we started the game it took place over 70 years, with three civil wars went on, and this group of savants in tanks that ruled the city... when I reread the document recently I didn't even understand it. In 2006 we took a knife to it. About a dozen scientists died." So what do you do? "This is the good thing to focus on: Who are your main character and what do they want?" When it came to embodying the themes of the game, Levine chose to create characters that represented them -- such as Diane McClintock, Andrew Ryan's lover who becomes disfigured in the civil war of Rapture. The impact on the little people of Rapture was encapsulated by a grieving mother whose daughter had been transformed into a disfigured, bizarre Little Sister. Push vs. Pull Levine thinks that you should build games that encourage the player to discover the narrative, rather than pushing it via cutscenes. Levine said, "What's the purpose of a cutscene? It's to push information at the player. It's the same as linear media -- it's not our advantage, it's not our strength." When it comes to optional story, "The answer is yeah, they may miss it. You have to accept they are going to miss maybe most of it. That's OK, because the people who engage and pull it toward them will be so passionate about it because they were involved in that decision." Three Levels of Story According to Levine, BioShock operates on three levels. "We did some focus testing on BioShock -- and their answer as a focus group of 40 people was... 'Uh... Madden? Halo 3?'. The truth is that people have no idea of franchises. It's so hard to understand the experience of actual guys. You have to make the game for people who don't care." Levine's three levels: Level 1 - "Where do I need to go, who do I need to kill? If you don't hit those people you will be making those games, as we did at Irrational, that sold 150,000 units." Level 2 - "I need to kill this guy Andrew Ryan, there's that Fontaine guy, there are those little girls. I'm usually in this group in games, some interest in the story." Level 3 - "Think about music. There's the weird kid in the back of the classroom who's writing all the Nirvana lyrics on his notebook. That's the hardcore fan... you have to give them all of that love, a novelistic level of detail. That has to be there but it can't get in the way of the experience of the guy who just plays Madden and Halo." "If you want people to follow your plot it has to be really fucking stupid." Levine thinks that non-interactive cutscenes are dead. "People ask me about Final Fantasy -- who can argue with that success? If you step back and look where we're going it's non-traditional narrative, I think." That's why the story in BioShock shyed away from cutscenes and veered toward the audio logs -- "Audio logs are an opt-in, opt-out for people." "Another important lesson that we learned -- we learned late into System Shock 2 -- don't do what you can't do. Games are not the real world. A lot of problem with people suspending disbelief is that they run into something that doesn't have grace. It doesn't work." This means doors that don't open, people that you can't interact with, walls that block off areas you should obviously be able to get to. "You want to put people into a strained, believable environment. System Shock 2 was a spaceship. It's obvious why you can't walk off a spaceship. In BioShock you'll notice a lot of people are dead, you can't interact with them." When it comes to BioShock's setting, its art deco undersea utopia helped set the scene more than it hurt. "As weird as it sounds, the utopia at the bottom of the sea was more believable than many game settings." As to the game's retro style? "Everybody was familiar with that period of time." Sad but true, says Levine, is that, "If you want people to follow your plot it has to be really fucking stupid. What are you going about in BioShock -- act 1, find the sub and get out. Well, the sub gets blown up. So you go find and kill Ryan." Comprehensible narrative makes for clarity. Citing a movie example, "If you stop Indiana Jones in any scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and ask him what he's doing, it's 'Looking for the Ark'." Why make BioShock a detective story? "Detective stories are interactive as a traditional form of narrative -- everybody is trying to figure it out, to game it. It's a very natural thing for a game because games are interactive. What do our graphics give us the ability to make? Wheat and chaff. We can render a huge amount of density and put in all that detail where the player can try to find what's important." And you have to tie together the narrative and gameplay intimately, Levine thinks. "It's important to integrate player's stuff with what the player is doing. What's the most important stuff? Big Daddies and Little Sisters and Plasmids. It's about what people did to each other and to themselves. They're also the two most important gameplay elements." And making those characters function was key. "You had the core narrative of child / parent, and people understood it right away." Using Mise En Scene and Mystery "What is mise en scene? Literally, to present or make a scene. Film does this. How did BioShock use this? To tell a story without words." Rapture was designed to sell the story, and this was accomplished via mise en scene. When it came to characters, like the scientist Steinman, "Through his scrawlings and his rantings, and what he did to people [he was built up immensely, but] by the time you meet him he's just some AI running around with a machine gun. We've set him up so the player has invested emotionally." According to Levine, mysteries form the core of narrative."Your goal as a storyteller is to answer questions for people. That's generally not always a great idea. Telling the player what's going on, answering questions, is not as interesting as asking them. Think of Lost? What is their entire stock in trade? It's asking questions they don't answer. What is Cloverfield? It's Godzilla with less information. The Ring? Is it really that interesting, what you find out in the end? It's banal, in ways, but the mystery is so interesting." Building that mystery for the player is a delicate balance, however, Levine thinks. "We think of the mystery balloon, you have to tap it up to keep the audience interested, but if you tap it too high you'll lose your audience... and if it gets too low. I underestimated the impact of resolving the 'who is Andrew Ryan?' question too early. We learned a big lesson there." The shipped opening of BioShock presents questions, with ambiguous information that allows the player to develop an interest in the world. Levine presented a humorous, Yahtzee-narrated "original opening" which listed off all of the game's backstory. "There's a million ways to present the same information... the question is how you do it." The Evolution of Concepts The first version of the 'gatherer' character concept wasn't the chilling, mutated Little Sister, but a glowing slug ... "This would walk around with Big Daddy and the Big Daddy would protect it. That was a big problem -- why the fuck would the Big Daddy protect it?" Originally the team developed dramatic ways to explain the system and function of these slugs, rather than simplifying and emotionalizing the characters, before realizing that this was the wrong angle. The right angle was emotional resonance. They moved through a fat, sluggy humanoid and a mutated dog with wheels for hind legs, which got a lot of dismayed laughter from the crowd. "As that narrative notion evolved -- her gameplay function didn't change -- the audience's ability to understand and relate to it evolved. The storytelling ideas that came out of it... it opened up all these opportunities by changing the narrative approach to this concept." Story Must Come Late Levine launched into a key point -- story needs to evolve based on the game, and come late in the process, he feels. "My story stuff comes very, very, very late. There are a lot of assets to build and a lot of questions to answer. I'm here to speak in defense of story being late. It evolved over years. It's really important that a writer working on a game be open and let the game tell him what the story is. Working on the game on a daily basis I would get so many ideas based on the levels and the art coming out that I would run off and write stuff based on what I saw. All these opportunities come up when you're working on things -- if you just expect to deliver a script a year ahead of time, you will not be able to integrate the gameplay and the story enough. Everybody knows you make balance changes late in the game, or move spawn points. Story is no different. If you feel the narrative of BioShock is successful, that's because we were able to make these changes so late in the game." In conclusion? "This is a new medium. The ability to put the story in the world and opt out. You have to respect and trust your audience. You have to trust mystery. And you have to empower the game... you give him that little bit of trust, he will give it back to you by engaging in your story, and engaging in your game world." Q&A Time The floor them opened to questions and answers. The first revolved around how BioShock avoided human characters, in contrast to Half-Life 2's empathetic Alyx Vance, who adds much to its story. According to Levine, "If you're going to do a character, it's good to be Valve -- nobody does it better than they do. But I think they realize that Alyx breaks at some points, if you shoot at her or do something she doesn't expect. It's no lack of intelligence on their point, but it's a problem -- making an AI that responds to things. My approach is that if you can't do it 100%, leave it on the table." One questioner confided that he didn't want to kill Andrew Ryan -- and then challenged Levine. "Are still doomed to make games where we have to use plot devices to clean that up?" Levine's answer was, "I never like to predict what people smarter than I are going to come up with. Games are essentially very linear things [right now.] Outside of combat and physics, things are pretty deterministic. We tend to have one plot at Irrational [in contrast to BioWare] because it's hard enough to come up with one good plot. Dynamically generated narrative might happen -- physics engine for a narrative... but there are challenges outside of the game space [preventing that.]" On the evolution of the main character, Levine offered, "Originally we didn't have any need to talk about the main character. The marketing guys asked who are you going to put on the box? I said the big daddy and they said people are going to think he's the big daddy. But they're right, people want to know now. Once we realized we had a problem there, that's where some of he plot twists came in. This guy is a cipher... what if he really was a cipher?" When asked if co-op could have been on the slate, Levine responded, "BioShock and cooperative would be a very stange mix. I think if you were to do that you would have to plan from the beginning. Resistance is doing something very interesting, planning a separate co-op from the single player mode. If you have the time and the money... if you are going to do things, do them well." When it comes to development leading the narrative, how do you get the team to work on the game so you can actually get things implemented in time? Levine said, "You have to come up with a bunch of things to get them going. There is a doctor you're going to kill to get this key to go to the next area. There's a forest that is destroyed. The story stuff I'm talking about is primarily the details. The story really didn't change against the mission because it's easier to change story." And the evolution of the story affected the moral compass of the game. Levine said, "I don't think we went into it [expecting to have such strong moral themes] ... really when the little sister came along the opportunity presented itself. It was an evolution of thinking about Ryan and Objectivism and where capitalism naturally goes... it came out of what the story was evolving into, not out of a certain goal we sent up ahead of time." If a game is too difficult, not all players can enjoy the story. Levine's solution? "We wanted to allow the player -- my feeling is as a gamer, that I want to finish a game if I can, and I don't want to be frustrated by it. Unlike a book, we have difficult levels. The instruction I gave to the guys is that I want my grandmother to be able to beat it on the easy level." Levine's points about how the lead character evolved based on the fact that he was a cipher was contrasted against Gordon Freeman in Half-Life 2, who's respected by everyone he meets -- a living legend. "We started not thinking about [our lead] -- I thought it didn't matter in a first person shooter. You see the awe people have for Gordon Freeman in Half-Life 2. We realized late would turn this into a strength. We didn't have the [opening] in the plane at first -- that came out of a focus testing reaction to 'Who am I? What am I doing in the water?' Very early on I knew I wanted an unreliable narrator. You see it in movies like Fight Club or The Usual Suspects -- what the audience sees is not literally true. It tied into the narrator -- who is he? He wasn't anybody. That turned into him literally not being anybody."

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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