GDC08: Levine Talks Story in Games

ken_levine_4643.jpgContinuing their GDC08 coverage, developer oriented website Gamasutra has an interesting story from Bioshock creator Ken Levine regarding the core story in games and how to get players to notice all the narrative your developers created to support the gameplay. Key among his points Levine describes the fact that the average gamer could care less about the story of a game or the details of the setting.

“The first big secret is, the bad news is for storytellers is that nobody cares about your stupid story… no matter how detailed or lovingly you craft it.”

Levine talks about how designers need to show and not tell in their design and concentrate on letting the gameplay inform the sort of story that you share with a player. The article is fairly lengthy and includes a run down using Bioshock and System Shock 2 as examples of Levine’s points about game development and story progression.

Levine takes and interesting approach to describing game story development and while I agree that most players gloss over story elements in search of gameplay, they remember experiences that say something to them. Engaging characters and a good tale are paramount to a game becoming memorable. Would we enjoy Metal Gear as much if Solid-Snake were a faceless, voiceless assassin? Maybe but I’d argue that it wouldn’t have much impact in the long run.

My favorite games and the emotions and memories associated with them all come down to my association with the story. I could have cared less about Gordon Freeman in Half-Life if it weren’t for the people around him.  Levine also talks about how the protagonist in Bioshock was the anti-Gordon because people loved Gordon and worshiped him in Half-Life and who Gordon became was defined by his interaction with others while his hero was much the opposite since interaction was limited mostly to combat and a one sided conversation. Levine instead found ways to make players connect with the lead character without using others to describe him externally.

We started not thinking about [our lead] — I thought it didn’t matter in a first person shooter. You see the awe people have for Gordon Freeman in Half-Life 2. We realized late would turn this into a strength. We didn’t have the [opening] in the plane at first — that came out of a focus testing reaction to ‘Who am I? What am I doing in the water?’ Very early on I knew I wanted an unreliable narrator. You see it in movies like Fight Club or The Usual Suspects — what the audience sees is not literally true. It tied into the narrator — who is he? He wasn’t anybody. That turned into him literally not being anybody.”


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