GDC 08: Ken Levine on Storytelling in Games

By Chris Faylor and Nick Breckon, Feb 20, 2008 12:16pm PST "The bad news is, for storytellers, nobody cares about your stupid story," began BioShock designer Ken Levine, a divisive introduction to a talk on story in games.

"I know that's hard to hear, because you care about it a lot.. But the audience has no reason to be predisposed positively."

Despite the harsh words, the 2K Boston creative director and former Hollywood screenwriter was jovial throughout his lecture, taking the audience packed with gaming press and developers through an interesting dissection of storytelling in the video game medium.

"There are so many missed opportunities in the primary experience to tell a narrative," Levine noted, stressing that the game world itself is the best storyteller of all. "What is a player looking at most of the time? When you're not forcing him to engage in a cutscene? He is engaged in the world."

Another key concept: the pushing or pulling of information. The veteran developer argued that games which require players to pull story information are ultimately more engaging than those which push their narratives onto players.

"Hat-tip to Valve.. I think Half-Life was the pioneer here," he added, noting that while players may miss some available information under the "pulling" dynamic, it's something that designers must live with. "You have to accept they miss most of it."

Levine also expounded on the value of simplification, noting that earlier versions of BioShock were actually much more complex in terms of narrative, but were soon simplified in what he called "The Great Character Massacre of 2006," reducing each actor to the point that each represented a single idea or concept.

"As time went on, we made our story simpler and simpler and simpler," he said, comparing the process of story refinement to that of a sculptor cutting into a piece of stone. "It's really painful to chip away."

Surrounding the world of Rapture with as much mystery as possible was also a breakthrough.

"Asking questions is more interesting than answering them. Think of Lost," he said of the J.J. Abrams television show, and then referred to the Abrams-produced monster movie Cloverfield as "Godzilla, but with less information."

"We call it the mystery balloon because we're pretentious. Who am I? Where am I? Who are the Big Daddies?"

While calling the last levels of BioShock some of the best in terms of gameplay, Levine also realized that by solving the mystery of the player's identity early on, the ending of the game had less of an effect on the player.

"I underestimated the impact that would have on the game."

Levine detailed a three-tiered approach to story. In BioShock, the first level is the basic story: the need to kill Andrew Ryan. The second level--which, Levine noted, he usually fell into--details the secondary interest of Ryan vs. Fontaine. The third is designed for the hardcore fan.

"They want to get as much detail out of this world, they want a novelistic level of detail."

Even with all of these elements, Levine acknowledged that plenty of gamers aren't going to care at all.

"[Story] can't get in the way of the guy who just wants to play Madden," he concluded. "You have to accept that a lot of people just aren't going to care [about a deep story]."

However, true to form, he left the audience optimistic about the potential of story in games.

"This is a new medium. You have to trust your audience. Trust mystery. Last, we gotta empower the gamer."

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  • I think Ken Levine is one of the very few people in gaming who really understand the elements necessary for a good story. Games he's been involved with like Thief, System Shock 2 and Bioshock have really rich, fleshed out worlds full of great characters, but most importantly of all they are games with stories that are actually about something; ie they have underlying themes that they are attempting to discuss and the extent to which this element of narrative design is absent in video games as a whole is bewildering. In cinema, your average sci-fi film may on the surface seem to be about nothing but guns and explosions but usually there are deeper themes there too. The Terminator films clearly stress the dangers of hubris and over-reliance on technology, while those in The Matrix series discuss free will and spirituality. In gaming, 99% of the time a game about fighting the aliens etc will be about nothing more than its surface premise.

    One major criticism I'd aim at Bioshock's story-telling, however, is the over-reliance on the some-cunt-yammering-endlessly-in-your-ear method of plot and world illumination. Irrational commented frequently in the run-up to Bioshock on the extent to which they'd use mise en scène techniques to unravel the plot before the player, yet while this approach was inevitably used to some extent, much of the detail about the world, the plot and the player's goals was just rammed directly into his brain via his ear hole. You are now at location A to fight B because earlier C happened and if you don't do D the consequences will be E. It was Atlas for about two thirds of the game, then his alter-ego Fontaine, along with Tenenbaum for the rest, just as in System Shock 2 you had to listen to about 10 hours worth of Shodan telling you what was what at every turn. It's an incredibly crude method of informing the player what's going on and informing them of what to do in the world, yet sadly it's almost ubiquitous in first-person shooters, seemingly the result of lazy designers who would rather take the easy approach for conveying plot details and tutoring the player on game mechanics.

    It's worth noting that this device is conspicuous by its absence in Valve's games, where they positively go out of their way to not explicitly tell the player what to do in a given situation. It would be all to easy to say that the HEV suit contained a radio and camera, then have some random NPC guide you through every moment of the game, as is the case in other titles, yet Valve do the arduous, complicated work of ensuring that the player can decipher the world on his own and their games are much the better for it.