GDC '08: Ken Levine on BioShock's 'stupid story'

2K Boston creative director explains how his team got gamers to care about why they were shooting stuff in last year's hit undersea action game.

When 2K Games' BioShock arrived on the scene last year, it did so amid an outpouring of critical acclaim. Reviewers and consumers alike lauded the atmosphere of the game's underwater utopia-gone-wrong, the open-ended approach to combat, and perhaps most of all, the game's twisting, ethically ambiguous story.

2K Boston's Ken Levine.

That story was the topic of discussion during a Game Developers Conference session delivered by 2K Boston president and creative director Ken Levine this morning. An enthusiastic crowd greeted Levine, who spent the moments before his presentation posing for photos with fans, engaged in friendly chatting, and signing autographs. But once the presentation began in earnest, it was time for a little tough love.

"The bad news for storytellers is that nobody cares about your stupid story," Levine said. "Nobody cares about the thing you've been writing in your math notebook since you were in 11th grade about the dark lord Lagon and the fifth period of the Elven uprising, and all that crap you've been working on forever. I know that's hard to hear because you care about it a lot, but the audience is not your mom; they have no reason to be predisposed positively to the things you've been thinking about, no matter how detailed or lovingly you crafted it."

Details, Levine said, are not the gaming storyteller's friend. That would be the game's world, the thing with which players are constantly engaged, the thing they stare at constantly when they're not being yanked away for a cutscene or a menu. To give an example of how much the gameworld can say, Levine showed off an early prototype of BioShock. While some of the textures, water leaks, and the iconic Big Daddy certainly looked familiar, the dank corridors of the prototype seemed lifeless compared to the vision of Rapture portrayed in the final game.

Big Daddies were always in BioShock.

Levine said the team scrapped the prototype and started over from scratch, a painful process he said is common in games. Where sculptors take a huge block of stone and chip away from it to make art, Levine said game developers have to first make the huge block of stone, which makes it much harder for the creators to then chip away at their own hard work to find the art underneath.

It wasn't just the environments of Rapture that had to be gutted and rebuilt. Levine said the original BioShock story was a confusing mess that spanned more than 70 years and featured dozens of characters. In 2006, the development team realized the story had gotten out of hand, so they just killed most of the characters, or combined them with others. Levine said by the end of the process, each character represented a single story thread or theme, a unique idea that no other character embodied.

It wasn't enough to have a pared-down story; it still had to be told well. Levine said the story had to work for three different levels of players. It had to work for gamers who only cared about Madden NFL or Halo 3 and just wanted to shoot stuff. For gamers who get a little deeper into their games, Levine said there was a supporting cast of characters and interesting concerns that they can follow along with, such as Fontaine's uprising and Tenenbaum's experiments with the Little Sisters.

Little Sisters were a later addition.

Then there are the hardcore fans.

"You know how there are kids who listen to music, like it, dance it and get into it, but then there's that weird kid in the back of the classroom who'll be writing all the Nirvana lyrics on his notebook," Levine asked. "That's the level of the people who get into the game that you have to support."

That's the crowd for whom the developers threw in a host of wrinkles, obscure clues, and little touches to help flesh out the story. The key, according to Levine, is that all the extra depth for the hardcore fan cannot be allowed to get in the way of the experience for the more casual player who just wants something along the lines of Madden or Halo.

Another focus for the BioShock team was to not try to do what they couldn't do, Levine said. He didn't want things that could break the game experience for the player or pull them out of the experience, like doors that never open or are just textures on a wall, or people who don't behave in a reasonable way. That's one reason Levine said that pretty much every person in Rapture is already dead, and on the occasions where you do come face-to-face with other people who aren't insane with rage, they are typically killed off before there's any real chance for unrealistic behavior.

"If you want people to follow along with your plot, it has to be really f****** stupid," Levine said, drawing laughs. "What's your goal in Act 1 of BioShock? Get to the sub and escape Rapture. Everybody can follow that. What's your goal in Act 2? Well, the sub blew up, so I guess I have to kill Ryan to get out. Well, you got screwed over by Fontaine. What's your goal in Act 3? Kill Fontaine."

As straightforward as that plot sounds, Levine said it forms the basis for a detective story. Since a mystery novel is essentially interactive in the way it invites the audience to figure out "whodunit," Levine said the genre was ideally suited for games. The current generation of gaming hardware also contributes to the realization of mystery games, as developers have the horsepower to populate the world with clues both helpful and misleading, important and irrelevant.

Little Sisters originally looked much more like the slugs on the walls here.

In order to create a proper sense of mystery, Levine said storytellers need to strike a balancing act between asking questions and providing answers. Questions are inherently more interesting than answers, he said, but a game needs to provide answers sparingly to prevent the audience from getting frustrated and giving up on it.

When handled properly, Levine said that mystery can propel the audience experience forward immensely. He points to the final levels of BioShock as an example, saying that he thought they were among the best in the game from a gameplay perspective, but coming off the big confrontation with Andrew Ryan, players didn't have as much to pull them forward in the game and wound up enjoying it less.

One of the most compelling mysteries in the game at the outset was that of the Little Sisters and the Big Daddies. While the monstrous diving suit adversaries were in the game from the beginning, Levine said the Little Sisters were actually created only after a lengthy creative process and multiple iterations.

The game's original "gatherers" were actually sluglike creatures. The Big Daddies still protected the slugs, but the creatures didn't emote, and needed changing. The second iteration of the Little Sisters was a squat humanoid with the mutated face of a splicer, a uniform like a gas station attendant's, and a hose with which to extract precious fluids from corpses.

As the developers tried to make the gathering creatures easier to relate to, one designer went to one extreme of the empathy scale and mocked up an emaciated dog with crippled hind legs in a wheeled harness. From there the developers struck on a pallid, childlike creature with a defeated, hopeless demeanor, and eventually settled on the Little Sisters as they exist in the final game.

Just as the Little Sisters changed over the course of development, Levine said it was important for storytellers to adapt their tale to fit the game is it shapes up. He said he didn't actually have the story for BioShock nailed down until about eight months before it shipped, something he admits was a source of great frustration to some of his colleagues. However, he emphasized that writers need to be open to letting their games dictate where the story should go, as it's the intersection of storytelling and gameplay where the gaming medium can flex its strengths.

Written By

Want the latest news about BioShock?

BioShock

BioShock

Discussion

160 comments
frog154
frog154

The story in Bioshock was a very dumbed down version of the system shock's series and was hugely disappointing by comparison. However it made up for it in terms of gameplay and graphics

Lord_Tik
Lord_Tik

Damn good read. If only there were more games like Bioshock.

SrTVBR
SrTVBR

The book is great

nobeaner
nobeaner

I actually enjoyed reading that.

itBit
itBit

Levine really looks like Molder

Sammojo
Sammojo

First line, last paragraph. Should say "...as it shapes..." not "...is it shapes..." Storyline is good, but if there is no gameplay then no one cares about it.

imperial_agent
imperial_agent

BioShock IS a stupid story. It's laughable how Levine is getting all this credit for the "amazing" story in BioShock. All he did was twist Atlas Shrugged and gave the hero a bazooka. He didn't come up with the characters, he didn't create the world of Rapture (only it's name) or why it existed. Even the names of most of the characters are anagrams of characters from Atlas Shrugged. The little posters you see on the wall that someone earlier mentioned as an "incredible attention to story" are also ripped from the same book. He didn't create any of this, he just turned it into a game and made more demonic to justify the shooting aspect of it. This is exactly the sort off thing Atlas Shrugged villianized, people like Levine, who mooch of the ideas of others and get praised by the public for dumbing it down. /is not impressed by Levine //Levine is not the only one who has read a book or two ///BioShock was still a really fun game despite all these annoyances.

Yellowjacket77
Yellowjacket77

Is it just me or does ken levine look uncannily like steve carell.

pause422
pause422

Stop arguing that halo has an "amazing" or "great" story,while many including myself "think"(as in my OPINION) that halo's entire story is a bunch of garbage and is completely stupid,others who are unbiased,and even like the game should know,it at the most,has a generic story any copy cat "humans vs aliens" however I can say Resistance:Fall of Man has a much better story to it then Halo ever will,and Resistance 2 will blow it out of the water,but seriously,as far as Bioshock goes,stop bringing Halo into it,it doesn't even come close to comparing;Bioshock gameplay/story 10/10,Halo gameplay(same recycled gameplay from the first ,and story,generic humans vs aliens nothing special.

09231991
09231991

Whats the problem here? Bioshock had an amazing story, friggin awesome gameplay and plain fun things to do. I just understand some gamers these days. Oh and to people bashing Halo, stop it, please. Halo had an amazing story as well but this article is about Bioshock, not halo. Go argue about the awesomeness and just plain fun story of halo in a topic that deals with it.

metroidsax
metroidsax

This article makes some very good points. The poor story writers of games have to let the structure of the game dictate the story. The raw story that the game starts with only gets the game started, but because games are living despite the involvement of the gamer, we have to let the game mold the story. Because of that, I feel sorry for the people who write for games, but they have to realize that it's not like being the author of a book. The saddest part is that game makers are forced by dumb gamers to dumb down their story lines, and most gamers who consider themselves hardcore gamers are actually dumb gamers. The kids who only play Halo (which is a great game) and never step past that into something different or innovative, but that's the market and developers have to tailor the games to the market. So I guess what I'm trying to say is this: sorry story writers and sorry game developers for all the dumb gamers who make you take the wonder out of games.

smbius
smbius

Ken Levine is really Luke Wilson

Contemplator
Contemplator

Sigh, game makers != story writers. Get an awesome author's story plzzz. How hard is it to understand that: popular genre (FPS) + pretty graphics + popular/controversial book (I love Atlas Shrugged, but I know friends who hate it because they don't buy Objectivism) = WINZ

mongoose201024
mongoose201024

They should make a Bioshock book I for one would like to learn a little bit more about pre-disater rapture

Gen-Gawl
Gen-Gawl

spartan_418 said: "I wish people wouldn't bash Halo for having an overly simple story. For those Halo players who want to delve deeper into that type of that thing (like me), there's the novels," The trouble with that is... the books are not the game. We're talking about stories IN games, not stories about games.

Futil1ty
Futil1ty

SlortaHauz: I love the Halo story (including the books), but I will admit that "finishing the fight" was kinda lame. I'd say that all of the Half-Life games are equal to Halo...except that Portal and TF2 make the Orange Box better than Halo; I have yet to get HL1 for PC, and I NEED IT!

pause422
pause422

Even your Half Life comment for that matter,Half Life has a much deeper story then Halo ever will,as well as even just the first Half Life,is a better game then Halo 1-3 combined with no effort.

SlortaHauz
SlortaHauz

Halo has the best story ever! I can see the pitch: There's this planet that is shaped like a... A ring, or maybe a halo or something. And so you're this kinda generic super soldier who, who, who I KNOW! You kill a bunch of aliens. And it turns out the planet is a weapon! And then the aliens are attacked by another bunch of aliens, except these aliens are all zombie mutant things. So you kill another bunch of aliens, both old and new. And then you destroy the weapon planet and everyone is happy! Until the first lot of aliens invade earth. It turns out they're a religious group that has been subverted from within. By gorillas. So, after about 30 minutes on earth, you're on a new... what did we call them? Halo! that's right! You're on a new halo and you kill a bunch of aliens again, both the religious nuts and the zombies. And after you kill enough things, you get to speak to the head zombie. Turns out it's a big ball of.. something. Oh, and you get to play as an alien super soldier. He has a purple hud. /pisstake Spartan, seriously, halo had the most stupid story ever. The books might be good, but I'll never know because the Halo games killed my interest in Halo entirely. I didn't play Halo 3, but I'll bet the story is still a steaming pile of turds.

smfes
smfes

I truly love Bioshock, the story is extreme engaging and the detail of the game is just incredible! I love going around in rapture letting my mind free thinking i'm there my self and all this huge scenery it's just so beautiful! THe posters and everything it's so nice.

pause422
pause422

Jesus christ,of course leave it to someone named Spartan_418 to try to put Halo on a pedistal above Bioshock,the whole article here is about story,not gameplay.Don't even act for a second that Halo 1-3 has even close to as an engaging amazing story like Bioshock,anyone whos played it should easily agree with me.

filiwian
filiwian

It propably wouldn't have stick to the origianl but c'mon, it won best game of the year and has become one of the best games out there to get.

DMGarrett
DMGarrett

i enjoyed the game just as i had enjoyed System Shock 1 & 2. the only problem is i began it on hard. And just like System shock i don't want to play it again because i don't want to miss the feeling of the unexpected. A great game.. that didn't 'left' me to go to bed without thinking of what i will do next..

Spartan_418
Spartan_418

JediJon04. Re-read this article. He's talking about story, not gameplay. Anyway, Bioshock still had a great story in the same way that Half-Life 2 did. You just can't elevate it above Halo the way this author does.

Zee666
Zee666

shock horror... seriously. I guess i should've really seen it seeing as i right myself, but you just don't think about it. I always thought, in some childish way, everything was 'right' from the start and all that needed making was the game and stuff but... well...weird!

Soldaten027
Soldaten027

I've always admired Ken Levine ever since I read an interview that Game Informer had with him. I appreciate the seriousness he puts into creating these worlds, and Gamespot did a terrific job with a jounalistic twist to it. Kusdoes to you Gamespot!

JediJon04
JediJon04

Spartan_418. Re-read this article. He's talking about gameplay. Not novels. Anyway, I agree with this guy. Sure enough, after killing Ryan, I just about gave up on Bioshock. Sure, I'll replay it as "evil" but it seems like everything past Ryan seems just tacked on imo.

Spartan_418
Spartan_418

I wish people wouldn't bash Halo for having an overly simple story. For those Halo players who want to delve deeper into that type of that thing (like me), there's the novels, which by the way are all well written, satisfying reads with plenty of detail and story complexity- believe it or not, the ending to Ghosts of Onyx made me cry a little bit. Just because Halo happens to be extremely popular doesn't mean that Bungie doesn't care about delivering story. Bioshock, on the other hand, tries to cram a deep narrative into the confines of game that takes place only in first person and from the perspective of only one character. Halo's storyline is in reality far deeper than Bioshock's- and than the author here will admit.

majidok
majidok

"or people who don't behave in a reasonable way. That's one reason Levine said that pretty much every person in Rapture is already dead, and on the occasions where you do come face-to-face with other people who aren't insane with rage, they are typically killed off before there's any real chance for unrealistic behavior." Funny in an odd philosophical way . Good article , thanks gamespot .

mrfoo
mrfoo

Wow, a really great article. Kudos Gamespot for a good read.

lowkey254
lowkey254

That's a major process. No wonder there are so few great games out there. Storytellers aren't ready to part with what they originally had in mind.

ranum1997
ranum1997

Wow I didn't realize what a process deciding the final characters for the game really was. It sounds like lots of the characters started the process as someone completely different. Now I know why they get paid the big bucks.

lazymexican721
lazymexican721

This is a great example of the thinking that goes into video games. The same way any good medium of art has to have different levels of interpretation, video games are exactly the same. And parents say shooting a deranged psycho in the face with a shotgun is gorery and stupid? Psh, thats just a good metaphor... if you think hard enough

1vgfan
1vgfan

This guy is my hero. I love him so much. Bioshock is the greatest game ever. He's right about the story and environment. One of Bioshock's best features is its detail. You know how in Fort Frolic there are posters for a play called "Jack and Moira"? Little details like that that make you think is what makes games like Bioshock so unbelievably great. Kudos to you Ken Levine.

AzureWind213
AzureWind213

hahahaaaa he's right. He says something like "nobody cares about your stupid story" I love a good story in a game, but he's right about that in the sense that I have no reason to like it BEFORE I START PLAYING. I've got to be drawn in. Sounds like this game rocks, would love to play it sometime if I ever upgrade my laptop

NachoPSN
NachoPSN

One of the best reads on gamespot. We need more in-depth articles like this.

prioritymail
prioritymail

Writing for games and writing for shows or movies are completely different. Pretty soon, there will be writers that only write for games.

andalore
andalore

I Think The Story In bioshock is really good, It drew me in and when you get screwed over by fontaine Its confusing but it all made sense, and a good story draws you in so that you actually care about the characters and bioshock does that

k1DBLITZ
k1DBLITZ

I care about the story in games. It's what draws me in and keeps me playing to "find out what happens next". Baldur's Gate II is still my all time favorite game. I spent hours reading all the books one could find through the game world. It really made the world come alive with a sense of lore.

volcomstoner180
volcomstoner180

this is a cool look inside the making of a great game

WeWerePirates
WeWerePirates

"However, he emphasized that writers need to be open to letting their games dictate where the story should go, as it's the intersection of storytelling and gameplay where the gaming medium can flex its strengths." I think this just goes to show how much the process of making games is a discipline still in it's infancy. Personally I think there is too much emphasis on the writer in the creative process at the moment. I think this can lead to stories being told entirely by traditional mediums orthogonal to the game (such as cutscenes) where as those are only part of the tools available. What makes story telling in Bioshock so special for me is that it tells it's story through it's environment and embeds traditional mediums. It wasn't just the journals but where you found them that told a story. It's for that integration of story and environment that I think Bioshock deserves all the awards it has got.

Josepiphus
Josepiphus

"Ken Levine looks like Steve Carell." haha... he really does. Bravo to the team. Bioshock was in my top 3 last year and I'm looking forward to another playthrough when I find the time.

Kazona
Kazona

Great read, and I fully agree with Kevin Levine's points. Developers should allow a game to tell its own story, and not to try to force specific plot parts into it because they think it's a cool bit of story. One of the reasons I enjoyed Bioshock so much is simply because of the world. As I explored the world of Rapture I started thinking about how such a big under water city could be built--how it was shaped from beginning to end by it visionary, Ryan. But the nice thing was that while it the world spurred my imagination on how Ryan's vision all came together, it never forced all the intricate details about it down my throat. I was just given the state of the city as is to focus on, with pieces of the puzzle to Rapture's downfall to be explored voluntarily, and my imagination on everything before the city's demise left to roam free.

Paganstar
Paganstar

Maybe it is that I am an older gamer, but it is the story that really makes a game for me. I have played a lot of games over the 25+ years I have been gaming and all the best ones that stand out in my mind are the ones that had a really great story to it. Some use the story to guide you through a liner game (like Bioshock) while others (like the Elder Scrolls series) open a whole world to explore. The one issue I see with most games that do a storyline is the ending. They put all their effort into the opening or the story itself and many times the ending seems anti-climatic.

j2theboogy
j2theboogy

I agree with Atarii. Bioshock was the game of the year last year in my opinion. The story, the atmosphere, the gameplay everything was top notch. I'm a big fan of Mr. Levine and the folks at 2K Boston now. They appear to be truely unselfish and just want to make something that anyone can enjoy.

Atarii
Atarii

BioShock was simply a great game. I enjoyed it very much and to this day I still love it. To all the talented individuals who put effort into making BioShock the great game it has become, I'd like to express my appreciation.

johnb4467
johnb4467

This was an interesting article; he obviously made some very strong statements. I think his statement along the lines of "no one cares about your story" can be true, but should not be limiting to writers -- I think the point, that he made later, is that you have to be flexible & willing to let things go (like movie directors often say). But to say that no one will care about your "crazy, loving story" -- I wouldn't agree with that...think about if George Lucas had never penned the very original & fantastical first Star Wars script? But that again is an example, as a lot of revisions were made to the Star Wars story as things went along. Story should always be a primary goal (in my favorite genres, at least -- which doesn't include shooters)...but a detailed story doesn't make a good story -- following the "Hero Journey/Formula", much to Joseph Campbell's credit, usually makes for the most stimulating stories -- which Bioshock, to a pretty fair extent, does in fact follow. I think it would be safe to say that if there was still more story in the game, it still would have sold just as well -- if not better. Just because something ended up working well doesn't mean it still couldn't have been done better.

AncientDozer
AncientDozer

Taegra: To each their own. I liked Halo's overall story. It may not have been an epic but it was fun to watch. rctyke: Because they need to make money so they can keep making games. Select areas limit the number of people who have access to it. NearlPrescient: There are many different kinds of ways of telling a story. And you should totally re-read what he said.

epking
epking

@koishbob... yeah, we were kinda saying the same thing, but you added a lot of good stuff on top of what i was saying. Anyways, it's a shame people read "stupid story" in the headline and then assume Levine is saying games shouldn't have good stories....when in fact it was just a device to make a point to other game developers - in particular.....that the story needs to compliment the gameplayy and vice versa. Further.....story alone does not make a good game.

NearlyPrescient
NearlyPrescient

I would argue that Bioshock had an awful, almost completely non-existent story. I listened to most of the extra tapes and such, but there still wasn't much. if those were the extra tidbits he was talking about, he really needs to rethink how he's servicing his hardcore fans.