Wednesday, February 20, 2008

GDC 2008: Deconstructing BioShock

Ken Levine, from 2K Games Irrational studio in Boston, has a reputation for being a bit brusque. He’s a man of clearly formed opinions, and he isn’t timid about sharing those ideas. Nor does he have any patience for those who may not share his viewpoint, it seems.

In demoing BioShock at E3 last year, Levine was quick, short, and blunt. He seemed like he needed to be somewhere else. It turns out, he did, because, he admitted during his presentation, they were making changes to BioShock right up until the last minute.

His talk, bright and early at 9 a.m. on the first day of the conference, was entitled, “Storytelling in Bioshock: How to empower gamers to care about your stupid story.” He was scheduled in one of the larger conference rooms, and despite the early hour, a nearly 1,000 people had crammed in the room to hear what he had to say.

“I pissed off some people on this project,” Levine admitted, “because my story came very late.” Levine likens the writing of a video game to any other process that goes into development, and he thinks that the development cycle needs to accommodate last-minute changes to the story in the same way a decision may be made at the last-minute to change a spawn point.

Levine also talked about how the thing that made BioShock such a great storytelling game was the fact that he had stripped out all the storytelling from the game, and instead used the gameplay to develop a narrative. “As time went on,” he explained, “we made our story simpler.”

It’s counterintuitive, because you’d expect the story in a game to get bigger over time, but Levine said that BioShock didn’t find itself until he had initiated the “Great Character Massacre of 2006” and gotten rid of any extraneous characters.

What’s important, said Levine, is to remember “Storytelling 101”: “Who are your main characters and what do they want?”

It’s a subtle, but important distinction, differentiating between story and narrative, and for Levine, the best narrator in a video game is the world. “The thing we render best in video games is the world,” he said. “The benefits of graphics have enabled us to create detailed worlds,” that can then take the responsibility for telling the story.

Maybe Levine isn’t the horror we’ve heard about, and is simply misunderstood. Maybe not.

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