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Telling Stories

Ken Levine on casual gaming, the importance of narrative, and the value of interpretation

BioShock was one of the success stories of 2007. Developed by 2K Boston / 2K Australia, the game was awarded "Best Xbox 360 Game" at Leipzig, won the 2007 BAFTA "Best Game" award, earned four AIAS awards at the D.I.C.E. Summit and won three GDC awards including "Best Writing."

Creative director Ken Levine has always been quite candid about his experience, noting that the story underwent numerous changes well into the development process. In fact, he indicated that BioShock's story wasn't nailed down until about eight months before the game shipped.

Following his GDC session entitled "Storytelling in BioShock: Empowering Players to Care about Your Stupid Story" we asked him if he would kindly chat with us. He discussed the need for analysis, the lure of casual gaming, the importance of talent and the difference between story and narrative.

GamesIndustry: Congratulations on your Game Developers Choice Award last night and the AIAS Award two weeks ago. For all the talk of difficulties surrounding BioShock's storyline, you appear to have done something right.

Ken Levine: Look, if you don't analyse...I love to say I'm really humble. I love the story in BioShock. However, if you aren't able to step back from your own work and say "What could we have done better?" If you don't watch your own game films, as in sports where they watch their performance and they post-mortem...

In Boston/Australia, my partner John and I have always been a big believer in honest post-mortem. We've just taken it out into the world a little further this time and said "Hey, look, we're not perfect."

Obviously, we're playing in the big leagues here. To even be recognised as competitors story-wise against the guys from Valve and the guys at BioWare and Infinity Ward...To even be recognised in that category is awesome. To win that category is sort of like a roll of the dice at that point because they're all so good.

But if you don't analyse what you do, you are never going to improve. We never would have improved from our last game. We never would have made BioShock.

How important are these awards to you? Do they boost morale? Do they affirm the value of your efforts after the fact?

It's a way for the industry to come together and to have a dialogue about where the industry is, I think.

What is very gratifying with the awards this year is that...We came out in August and you see all these other releases, and we're like "Oh, we've got this good response." But then "Oh yeah, there's Mass Effect and Portal and all that stuff is coming out."

It is kind of a crazy year because there are so many great titles. For the most part, none of them are sort of "Me too" titles. Most of the titles recognised are advancing the genre in one way or another.

I think that's really exciting. And they're all commercially successful as well. You know, I've worked on lots of beloved, overlooked gems. And, frankly, you know, hey...We're talking to You need to make some money, or you're not going to get these games made.

So I don't really take away as much from an industry award as I do from the fact that the successful games this year, critically and commercially, were generally risk takers. And generally those risks paid off.

Why do you think that is? We heard so much about the market expanding to focus on casual game players last year, but I wouldn't characterise BioShock or any of the award-winners as casual games.

The way I look at casual games...I think a lot of people view it as a threat.

I love playing Peggle. I've got Peggle on my iPod and I play it all the time. It's great. But that doesn't mean I don't want to go play WOW. That doesn't mean I don't want to play Call of Duty.

I think, what it is, it's a nice gateway drug. It makes people understand the principles of gaming.

Let's not kid ourselves. When I grew up playing on Atari - those are the casual games of today. Pac-Man is a casual game, Centipede...All those things would be considered casual games now. Tetris is a casual game. There was no concept of a casual game back then...

I think it is a nice gateway drug. I think it is going to strictly expand the market, which doesn't scare me very much.

I think what BioShock did was, we said if we're going to have a complex game we have to invite the gamer to explore that complexity rather than just throwing it in their face and saying "Deal with it."

I've had a lot of women coming up to me and say "Look, I don't play shooters. But I saw that beautiful world, I saw that mystery, and I wanted to get in there." And that's great.

Nothing on the scale of a Wii Sports, but again, Wii Bowling is like the ultimate gateway drug and God bless them for figuring that out because there is no barrier of entry. "Hey, can you go like that?" [swings arm] That's what you do in bowling, that's what you do in Wii Sports.

It's not that [casual gaming] scares me. It excites me.

Do you really think the Wii will be a new gateway into the industry? Gamers who grew up with the NES moved on to other consoles as they got older, so younger Wii gamers might move on anyway. And it is hard to imagine a grandparent who plays Wii Sports suddenly checking out a first-person shooter...

I think there's a much better chance of people who wouldn't normally be interested in games going in and thinking "I'm interested in the history of Rome. I'll buy that strategy game," whereas before they would have been overwhelmed by the very concept of it.

Looking at the PlayStation 3, there have been rumours that a PS3 version of BioShock was in development at one point. Can you confirm...

I'll just preface that by saying we don't comment upon rumours.

Have you made any announcements about future plans for that console?


GTA, delayed from last year, will be released soon. Apart from your success with BioShock, you could say that Take-Two really didn't have a good year last year. Does the state of your parent company worry you at all at this point?

Actually, they had a very successful title with Carnival Games. It sold a lot...I don't know the numbers exactly, but it was big units because it was exactly the smart product for the Wii.

I saw it at E3 last year. It was sort of over in a back corner. I very rarely do this. In fact, twice in my life - with The Sims I did it and with this game - I said everybody's going to get that, everybody's going to love that.

When I saw Carnival Games...In the same way with Wii Sports, everybody understands that experience and has a tendency to have a strong, positive attachment to it - they're going to want to play that game. I thought it was a really smart product for the company.

In terms of GTA, Rockstar is very secretive. I've heard only good things. As a gamer, I'm excited about the game.

As a developer, there would be no BioShock in every way without what Rockstar did...pushing the boundaries in terms of immersive gameplay, pushing the boundaries in terms of content.

They made the money that founded BioShock. I have nothing but respect and love for those guys and what they've done for me personally, in terms of being allowed to make BioShock, and for the industry in terms of redefining the audience for gaming and the kind of stuff you can deal with in gaming and the level of sophistication.

The reason I ask is that acquisitions were such a big story last year and there are continued rumours of takeovers. As a developer, does that worry you? Or - as you have the talent - do you believe that your games will find their way to market no matter who is funding them?

You know what? If people with the money don't realise that the people with the talent are critical to what they do, then the people with the talent go elsewhere. The end.

Look at the Call of Duty guys who came over from the Medal of Honor franchise. It's the talent. You can do a game, but if you don't have the talent, maybe you'll sell a lot of a sequel or something, but you need the talent to keep it going. The question is - are you building up the brand or are you damaging the brand? You have to be very careful with brands.

You don't need a f*cking genius to make the next can of this Diet Pepsi. You do need have the same level of genius - or more - to make the next iteration of a previously successful franchise.

The title of your GDC session was thought-provoking. It seems to both acknowledge and dismiss the importance of stories in videogames. Can you elaborate on the difference between narrative and story?

Story is the stuff you tell the player. It's the same experience for everybody in the sense that even if it is a branching story...There is a limited amount of space.

Narrative is sort of the story the player is able to construct on his own initiative. That's why so much of the story with BioShock is in the world and everybody experiences it differently. We tried to put as much of it in things that a player could either opt in or opt out of - see or not see, listen to or not listen to - rather than "Watch this cut scene. Watch this cut scene. Watch this cut scene."

And I think it is an excellent place for games to go. What is our best space for storytelling? Cut scenes? Characters? No. It is the world around you. What do we render really well? What is the player looking at most of the time? It is the world around you.

In BioShock, most of the story fits in the world around you. The whole world was a metaphor for the story. You have this beautiful dream that is literally falling apart by the seams - with the water coming in. The crushing weight of reality, you know?

That's a visual metaphor for the story, and I that games do this better than anybody else because we have all these resources.

Are there any other games that do a good job of this in your opinion?

I thought Portal did a really good job with it.

There are games that sort of step away from the traditional narrative model, like Civilisation, which tell a story of their own kind but without any script. You know, when you play Civilisation you always remember that night at four in the morning when the Egyptians suddenly stab you in the back. And that's a story.

I think that WOW does it, in a way. Last night I went to play it. After I won this big story award, I then went to play another game and had one of the best story moments I've ever had in my life.

There's a part in the early part of the Denai mission where you go on this big quest and you do all this stuff and, honestly, I'm not really reading the text. I know I'm doing something, I'm blowing something up - I don't really get into it.

But I get the award and I realise it is something special. They give me this tabard I'm wearing and I'm like "Whoa! I've never got a tabard before!" My character looks different now. And I walk out, and lined up down this path are all these NPCs clapping and cheering for me. And I was like, okay, I don't know exactly what I just did. I don't really care. I know I did something cool, and now there is a crowd coming out to adore me for it.

And that was a great story moment even though you could only do it in a game, I was totally surprised by it, and I have to say I kind of blushed a little bit, you know? Like "Oh. Aw, shucks!" And here I had just come from walking up to get an award [at GDC].

Which "award" meant more to you at the moment?

I felt inspired - and it is hard to be inspired by yourself - I felt inspired by the WOW award because it was an inspirational thing for me as a game developer.

I don't exactly know what happened there. I don't care. I don't what the "Burning Crusade" is. I don't follow the details of the story. I sort of have a basic idea of what I am doing.

But these little moments that are left for me to interpret - and we did a lot of them in BioShock, and there are a lot of them in Warcraft - I'm a big fan of their methodology of "beneath the surface" storytelling.

Ken Levine is the creative director of 2K Boston / 2K Australia. Interview by Mark Androvich.

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