GDC 2008

GDC 2008: Ken Levine's Storytelling Secrets

Russ Pitts | 21 Feb 2008 10:05
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"I pissed off a lot of people on the project because my storytelling came in late, " said Ken Levine, towards the end of his GDC lecture, referring to rumors, apparently true, he'd alienated a large portion of the 2K staff who worked with him on the critically and commercially successful BioShock. "I think it's important for a writer to ... let the game inform the story."

Levine described going into gameplay meetings to discuss ongoing design elements and coming out "filled with excitement and ideas." He said often the best story elements came as a result of seeing what the designers and technicians were doing with his original ideas, creating a back and forth of creativity that shines through in the resulting game. "BioShock is so different [from other games] because of the luxury of time."

To describe how he got there, how the team and the game got there, Levine picked apart his process, starting with characters. Each of the game's main characters has a role to play. Everything they say or do reflects a certain point of view, a point of view carefully tailored to tell a very specific part of the story. Individually, they're one-dimensional. Together, they present a complete picture, and a stronger whole.

"It's challenging when you have these characters that you've grown to love to focus them ... but it's important the audience understand ... what they're saying" and how what each character has to say impacts the world.

In making a game as rich and deep as BioShock, the problem arises of making "too much" story, of investing time and energy into elements a many or most people will never see. "We have to accept that they might miss most of it," Levine said. "We decided to give the player the option to opt out [of the story]. ... When you have a deep narrative, you have to allow for people not to care. We have to make it possible for people just to go in and kill people."

He described the "three levels" of story. The first and most basic is "kill this guy." This is for people who just want to fire up the game and shoot bees out of their hands. The second adds a bit more depth, to where you maybe understand the characters' motivations. And the third is for people who live on message boards, buy posters and write their own fan fiction. You have to play to those people, too, Levine said, "but that can't get in the way of the experience of the guy who just plays Madden and Halo."

"Another important lesson we learned from System Shock 2 was don't do what you can't do," he said, referring to trying to create technological wonders that are just out of reach of the technology. You ruin the experience that way. He described having to draw fake doors and windows to fill space in a city environment, but if the player interacts with those doors and windows, they don't go anywhere because there's no game behind them.

"One of the things we want to do is put the player in a constrained environment," he said. In System Shock 2 the environment was a spaceship. In BioShock, an underwater city. This solved a lot of fake door problems.

"Another thing we did was - you might not have noticed - a lot of people were dead," he said. "I think we catch a lot of heat for this. But people have problems." Problems like breaking things, and when things get broken, the player gets taken out of the experience, focusing instead, on the broken things. "Anything that lifts that veil should be avoided."

As a result of the game's constriction into a confined space, it became a lot more believable as a world, in spite of its completely fantastical nature. "A Ryandian utopia at the bottom of the ocean was more believable than a lot of game spaces," he said, and he's right. They didn't do what they couldn't do, and as a result, what they did do, worked.

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