Levine reveals plans for a new approach to narrative structure

Remixable NPCs could lead to infinite story possibilities, narrative as service

Ken Levine has outlined the strategies he hopes to pursue in the projects he'll be working on at his new studio, talking about a system of narrative blocks which could make a story infinitely replayable.

Levine began by discussing his history as a writer of firmly linear narratives in games like BioShock, expressing pride in that work alongside his desire to move towards a new model which allows players to experience a game in a different way each time.

"We were known for doing a lot of linear narrative games," Levine said of Irrational. "I'm pretty proud of what we did with in our narrative, we took it pretty far, So why change? Linear narrative puts a boundary between the developer and the audience."

Citing the example of BioShock again, Levine spoke about how his recent model of narrative twists make for great reveals, but can't surprise a player twice. "Would you kindly only works once," he explained.

In opposition to that model, systemic games like Civilization allow almost infinite potential experiences. Those games, favourites of Levine's, sacrifice authorial intent and narrative drive for the ability to continually surprise. What the writer wants to do is combine those two models, resulting in a strongly story-driven game without restricting that experience to a limited number of outcomes.

"What happened to Booker at the beginning of Infinite talked to what happened to him at the end in the player's mind, but there's nothing in the game to really affect that. In Civilization the choices you make at the beginning really affect the way the end in a meaningful way - what types of cities you've built, what cultural trees you've taken. They don't really do that in a linear narrative. Branching narratives do exist, although not really in our games, but they still exist in X number of states. What I want to talk about today is narrative that exists in X to the Y number of states."

Multiple paths and endings may mean you don't get exactly the same experience as your friends, but you'll have a shared narrative with at least some other people. You're still taking one of a set of pre-defined paths, rather than creating your own. Most importantly, said Levine, it's not player-driven. His plan is to create something which is.

"It's my way of contributing to a conversation that I already think a lot of smart people are talking about," Levine admitted. "It's my way of scratching at making player-driven narrative."

Levine described the nuts and bolts of the system he hopes will facilitate that as a broadly faction-based system, where groups of NPCs are motivated by various and often conflicting 'passions'. Those passions, when met or confounded, will affect an NPC's attitude towards players, granting advantages or causing difficulties for the player. Whilst those factors may be broadly aligned within groups, individuals within that group may have conflicting motivations. A village of orcs, for example, may have a broadly held animosity against a nearby elven settlement, but an individual orc could carry a secret torch for an individual elf. Slaughtering elves wholesale will broadly raise your profile with orcs generally, but lower that individual's opinion of you.

The complexity of that interdependent narrative web offers a significant variation of perspectives within a story. By appeasing different passions and affecting your relationships, a player experiences different journeys.

So far, so Fallout, you may think - or Elder Scrolls, or Fable or STALKER. What makes Levine's plans more interesting is his idea of shuffling those passions around each time, meaning characters change each time you play, forcing players to renegotiate that network of social interactions differently in each playthrough. NPC stars could have a list of 10 or 20 potential passions, a few of which can be randomly assigned at the beginning of each playthrough. Those passions will be related to the point of not being mutually exclusive, but could vary wildly in each iteration.

These passions relate to quests, which affect the passion 'sliders' of everyone who is invested in them, either positively or negatively. In Levine's system, goodwill is a limited resource, making appeasing passions a zero-sum game. You can't please everybody all of the time.

Levine went on to to ponder the ability to add content 'in' to a game, rather than 'on' to it. DLC for BioShock was an add-on, he says, because it's in addition to the original content. Adding new technologies or social systems to Civilization would be adding 'in', because it affects the path of the play through by creating new branches and paths. In the system Levine describes, this could take the form of new characters, passions for existing characters, entire new factions or races, or the imposition of external forces which unite otherwise warring factions, overriding passions or giving focus to certain motivations like survival.

By the time Levine had wrapped up, what his audience was left with sounded a lot like a loose plan for semi-procedurally generated narrative systems which could provide a basis for a game operated as a service. Whilst he didn't explain that explicitly, the outline here would clearly fit that mould: an iterative, easily updated game which would be massively monetisable, with obvious potential for user-generated content, scenario generation or modding. As he was very clear to point out, Levine wasn't revealing any specific game plans or making definite announcements, but this marks a considerable shift in process for a man who is famed for his authorial intent and grand narratives.

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Latest comments (16)

James Brightman Editor, North America, GamesIndustry.biz6 years ago
Fascinating stuff. Very curious to see where he takes this with his new project.
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Christopher Ingram Editor-at-Large, Digitally Downloaded6 years ago
Levine spoke about how his recent model of narrative twists make for great reveals, but can't surprise a player twice. "Would you kindly only works once," he explained.
I have to disagree with Ken's own sentiment here, to a small degree, at least. I've always thought of the BioShock titles as having "semi-linear narratives." While the narrative only flows in one direction as the game progresses, the revelation that unfolds at the end of the games is so complex that it has a similar effect that was found in the film Fight Club: you're left with a desire to go back through the entire film (game) again knowing the truth. For me, layer of complexity added a great deal of effect to the narrative as a whole and elevated these games' status in the industry. Yes, it's a linear narrative, but one where the exact same content still has more to offer the player after the end credits roll; a rare breed in the gaming industry.

Looking ahead, I can't help but to get excited to see something unique and fresh coming from same mind that created the two intriguing worlds of BioShock. I think there's a large risk of failure here, and that type of risk can be just the driver that can produce something excellent. Best wishes to the team, and I cannot wait to see the end result.
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Tim Clague Writer / Creative Designer 6 years ago
I'm working on this idea too - but only at a text based level for now with an 'evolving novel' - that is proving tricky. So I can imagine the impact upon other game elements (sound, graphic assets, vo assets etc) being very tough.
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Show all comments (16)
Edward Buffery Head of LQA (UK), Testronic6 years ago
I've always wanted to see this done well in at least a medium sized title if not larger. Making sure QA is done thoroughly before release on such a system would be a fun challenge ;-)
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Andrew Goulding Director, Brawsome6 years ago
Another good talk about breaking up narrative into re-useable pieces was in the talk about The Novelist by Kent Hudson - "The System is the Message". This complemented Ken's talk, though I doubt it was planned. Really got me thinking about replayable narrative in games.
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Taylan Kay Game Designer / Programmer / Marketer 6 years ago
So far, so Fallout, you may think - or Elder Scrolls, or Fable or STALKER.
Uhh, no, not really. I'm thinking Crusader Kings from Paradox. Someone should point Ken in that direction.
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Chris Crawford's been up to this a while now. Storytron's something to build on.
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises6 years ago
His idea sounds pretty cool from the programming side. But what's the point in having such complicated AI if you're still limited by the number of lines you've recorded your actors saying?

Mass Effect 3 was supposed to have tons of different endings depending on the hundreds of choices you made throughout the game, but in the end all you got was the red ending, the blue ending, or the green ending.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 6 years ago
Narrative as a service.

The concept is obscene.

Stalin said that "Writers were engineers of the soul." Similarly they now want to reduce the art of storytelling to an industrial, business process? A service?

God help us.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 24th March 2014 7:40pm

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Like our current relaity, humans are probably sprites like Lara Croft in a holographic construct, with all the pre programed outcomes already determined. We just keep playing and playing to sometimes get the good ending...roll out Groundhog iLife!
of course it would be interesting is Booker DeWitt or Lara suddenly realised they were not real...then what!
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Edward Buffery Head of LQA (UK), Testronic6 years ago
It's not so much about story telling, but story generation. Long audio sessions aren't needed for what he's talking about, nor are cut-scenes for that matter, though they are possible. I get way more stories to remember and tell my friends about after putting 20 hours into a good roguelike game such as FTL or an ASCII based classic than I do from playing the average FPS or RPG. Sure, the production value of games like that is a small fraction of that of a AAA title but there are multiple playthroughs of some tiny games that I'll remember forever. One of my friends was starting a new game of the ASCII based roguelike ADOM, wandered into the starting village and decided to see what would happen if he 'wielded' his sandals and threw them at a passing child. The child ran away and all the villagers within sight turned hostile and chased my friend out of town, preventing him from picking up the usual starting quests and forcing him to follow a different path. It was one of the most spontaneously funny things I've ever seen in a game, and there was absolutely nothing to encourage my friend's particular behaviour, the system simply allowed it to happen and reacted appropriately to permanently change the rest of that particular playthrough's path.

It sounds like Ken wants to take the core of how unique stories emerge from open environments, procedurally generated circumstances and reactive AI, but apply it to a large scale, high production value 3D title. Ensuring that the graphics and various engines needed to handle the huge variety of resulting combinations all somehow works smoothly no matter what's happening is massively challenging, there's a reason why a lot of the best games featuring procedurally generated stories have much simpler graphics and audio.

WB / Monolith are attempting something along these lines with the nemesis system in Shadows of Mordor:
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Steve Wetz Reviewer/Assistant Editor, Gamer's Glance6 years ago
I think if anyone else tried this, the publisher would undoubtedly say, "You want us to record hundreds of hours of audio that the player will only hear a fraction of? And create assets that the player might actively be directed away from?" But if anyone has deserved such latitude from a publisher in creating a narrative, it's Ken Levine.

My concern is that this will be incredibly hard to accomplish from a continuity perspective, but I am definitely interested in seeing the result, whenever that may be forthcoming.
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Yvonne Neuland Studying Game Development, Full Sail University6 years ago

Narrative as a service.

The concept is obscene.

Stalin said that "Writers were engineers of the soul." Similarly they now want to reduce the art of storytelling to an industrial, business process? A service?

God help us.
You obviously never read any "Choose Your Own Adventure" stories as a child.

I think this is an outstanding idea. Levine is absolutely right when he points out that linear stories can really only be told once. It is rather like reading a book. Once you know the ending, your done with it. Admittedly, there are some truly outstanding books that make you want to read them over and over again. For the most part, however, books only get read once. It is why books have no resale value. Just try selling some to a used bookstore. 5 cents trade in credit is about all you can get for the average book.

Considering how much more expensive it is to create a AAA game than it is a typical novel, and considering how much most developers seem to despise the used-game market, re-playability is a priority.

Additionally, video games are a much more interactive media than books, which causes the players to be much more invested in how the story ends than a passive reader. If the player has more control over how the story ends, they are much less likely to get angry with the developer for failing to provide what they desire the ending to be.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Yvonne Neuland on 25th March 2014 7:05am

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Thomas Dolby Project Manager / Lead Programmer, Ai Solve6 years ago
Sounds very interesting, but very hard to achieve without diluting the story. I don't think anyone plays Civilisation for the plot (it's more the internal narrative you build in your head anyway). To be honest, some of the other games mentioned there like Fallout or the Elder Scrolls that have multiple story arcs, I don't think anyone really praised these games massively for their stories, it was always more about the freedom and intrinsically rewarding gameplay. Any strengths those games had in narrative were in small sections of linear quests/stories if you ask me. I don't think either series has managed to provide an incredibly powerful or varied over-arcing story, more just something that provided a perfect backdrop to bring context to the rest of the events that unfolded.

From what I understand, Levine is thinking of taking these short linear stories and introducing further dynamic variables into them to create replayability. I hate to reduce storytelling to algorithms, but the more amount of moving parts you introduce into a story, the less impact each of those pieces can have (assuming you use a fixed budget and resources). I'd be really amazed if he found a way to combat this without resorting to huge budgets.
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I wish him the best of luck, this is something many of us have been hoping for , for a long time. I think for too long we have all been beholden to having to have this big overarching story laid out for the player. With this new push for mini dynamic driven stories, it allows for many more progressive stories to be told, and when all of them combine in the players mind throughout the game, the player will themselves create the overall story of the adventure by themselves. Each being slightly different then anyone elses. That to me is a big step in the right direction.. Lets just create worlds and let the players figure out and discover the rest :)

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 25th March 2014 2:05pm

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