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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  • Done right, I'm definitely interested in the writer's story. I love the grounding that readables provided to Deus Ex - and I must say their almost complete absence (and replacement with "talk bullets) in Invisible War was both annoying and definitely contributed to the less convincing game world.

    Likewise, the various logs and email in System Shock 2 helped to give you the sense that there were other people out there struggling, even though you didn't generally get to meet them. It really helped hammer home some of the horror of what was going on.

    Atmosphere and the game world is a great way to tell a story, no doubt, and probably the most immediate way - and Bioshock definitely pulled it off very well. But these other things also work, and for some games, they'll be more applicable. I like the Half-Life games, and very much like the world Valve has created - but I find the worlds of Deus Ex or Thief to be richer, and look forward to revisiting them more.