I Can’t Keep Up With Ken Levine

By John Walker on February 21st, 2008 at 5:04 pm.

The man confuses me. It comes down to this.

Mr Levine

When Ken Levine was interviewed by Kotaku’s Brian Crecente earlier this month, he explained to the site’s editor,

“I underestimated, way underestimated, the impact the story was going to have on people. I didn’t realize it would change people’s perspective on what to expect from gameplay. I didn’t think they became that invested in what was going on. You have this great mystery of your own identity and once it is solved the story is over. I think it was a miscalculation on my part.”

So why did Levine announce in his GDC speech,

“The bad news for storytellers is that nobody cares about your stupid story.”

Wha? Blubble flubble pardon?

He continues,

“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.”

Arguing that the environment is much better for telling the story, he then explained how the game’s early story drafts were elaborate with very many characters and threads, and it was all thrown out because it would have been too off-putting for players who want another Halo. Smatterings of extra details were left in for those who were more interested, but it couldn’t get in the way of those who wanted a shooting gallery – the presumed wider, more casual audience. He continues,

“If you want people to follow along with your plot, it has to be really fucking stupid. 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.”

This last quote isn’t as contentious as it first appears – as Kieron points out, simplicity does not mean uninteresting. But it does imply that Levine, after telling Kotaku that he had made a mistake in underestimating his audience, has reverted back to his previous position once more.

He does go on to echo his position that the mistake was to answer the game’s biggest questions long before the ending, identifying this as the reason people failed to enjoy the latter levels. But blimey, he doesn’t seem to have a fixed position on the role of narrative.

Are there two Ken Levines? One that believes his mistake was underestimating the role the story would play for players, and one that believes players are not really interested in the story and overall it doesn’t matter so much?

Which is it? My poor brain.

[Thanks to Gamespot for the quotes.]

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41 Comments »

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  1. Alec Meer says:

    If I was Ken Levine, I suspect I’d be annoyed that “I underestimated the impact the story was going to have on people” would be extrapolated into Kotaku’s “Levine Agrees, BioShock’s Ending Failed”.

  2. Alex says:

    I don’t think it’s fair to directly compare an interview with a speech – the speech is more like an essay in form, which would mean you’d probably approach your thesis more provocatively worded than in an interview – you need a good, shouty opener, so why not say something big like “YOUR STORY IS SHIT AND EVERYONE HATES YOU!!”.

    The speech is a presentation, a text constructed to make a view heads turn, the interview is more off the cuff, so I’d say he means what he says in the interview and you should take the speech with a couple of grains of salt.

  3. nabeel says:

    Yeah, I’ve been confused about this too. But this isn’t the first time that he’s gone both ways in an issue depending on his context – he’d talk about Shooter 2.0 in promoting BioShock, and then on forums he’d explain about how he had to talk about the game in terms that could be marketed to the press and mainstream gamers.

    I think in GDC talk he was talking more about being able tell a story to both kinds of players – those who would be interested in depth and richness to the story and those who just wanted to shoot things, and that the complex and deep storyline was becoming too prominent and ‘getting in the way’ of the pure gameplay, or something. Or something.
    nabeel

  4. Jonathan says:

    In his Gamespot GDC interview thing he talks about how the whole Would You Kindly storyline was a last minute edition because people just didn’t understand the motivations or their character.

    By the sounds of it his idea was to tell the story of Rapture but players ended up focusing on the Jack storyline and were then disapointed because there weren’t any big twists in this story after meeting Ryan so the last 3 or 4 hours aren’t as memorable. Personally I do find the story of Rapture and all the rivalry and dystopia making more interesting even if Jack’s story did have some great bits.

    Essentialy people focused on the wrong bit of narrative.

  5. John Walker says:

    Alec – agreed. Which is why I didn’t do the same disservice to the quote.

    Jonathan – I think this might have something to do with Rapture’s story being so thin, and the character’s story being shouted at you.

  6. Ferrous Buller says:

    Isn’t he just saying, “Keep It Simple, Stupid?” The game’s narrative should be layered like an onion: the major plot points should be easy for anyone to follow; but if you want to add depth to your game’s plot, the complexities are hidden for players to ferret out. That way, the game is enjoyable to the players who just want to breeze through and the players who want to take the time to savor everything the game has to offer.

  7. rb_lestr says:

    Did i just spoil Bioshock for myself :'[

  8. Dinger says:

    The two positions are compatible.

    “Nobody cares about your story” makes sense to me.
    Years ago, when introducing the writing assignment for a university course, I asked:

    “Okay, now how many of you had in high school English teachers who told you that writing was all about finding your inner voice, and expressing that on paper?”

    (most of the hands in the class raise)

    “They were wrong. Nobody cares about your inner voice.”

    Effectively Mr. Levine delivers the same message: “don’t get your literary jizz on the screen.” You write for your audience, not for yourself. And you need to convince your audience they want to endure what you have to say.

    If you want to write long, pedantic paragraphs on etymology and obscure French linguistic phenomena, fine, but don’t expect anyone to read them.

    And if you spend a lot of time paring the story down to the bits anyone cares about, you might be surprised at how much people end up caring about it. It’s a truism in Hollywood that actors keep bugging the director for more lines, and a good director is one who cuts dialogue.

  9. John Walker says:

    See Dinger, if he’d got up and said that, it would have been a great speech!

    While you may be correct, sadly he didn’t use such informative and clear words, but rather made a confusing speech that requires liberal interpretation.

  10. SwiftTheRedFox says:

    I don’t believe that Levine was talking directly about BioShock when he said that quote in his GDC speech. I believe he was trying to rattle the developers there by letting them know that gamers get tired of the way stories are portrayed. Most of us who have played BioShock discovered a different way to unearth a story with a bare minimum of cut scenes (2 or 3 max?). Thus why the first quote with Kotaku was said because the method was so different that more gamers appreciated the story. I hope my opinion helps somewhat.

  11. Sean says:

    I think that both statements speaks to different audiences. Certain gamers really got into the story and the meaning behind it, while some gamers just wanted to blast their way through. I have a feeling that a majority of gamers fit into the latter category.

  12. Dracko says:

    Short answer: Because his story was rubbish and meshed exceedingly poorly with the gameplay, compromising both, a flaw found in all too many titles. Kotaku is right on that one: it did fail. It failed horribly.

    Meanwhile, Call of Duty 4 showed BioShock that novel environments amount to nothing if you can’t hold up your narrative.

    In other words: Screw your story, give me gameplay. The way we look at games isn’t going to evolve if they still have to compromise themselves with didactic nonsense. The story isn’t important. At all.

    And I do wish gamers and developers alike would stop insulting players that expect to *gasp* play a game (“Haha, Halo players are retards because they expect to shoot stuff in an FPS!” Nevermind that the series’ weapon match-up system demonstrates far more emergent depth than BioShock‘s laughably forced level-up magic spells – because that’s all they are – and is entirely coherent with the established environment. Screw those dumb jocks, right?) instead of being patronised with shoddy cutscenes and cut-and-paste stories. This is not what I’d say as demonstrating maturity in the medium, and does it a disservice.

  13. Nick says:

    I agree with whomever said Ken needs to shut his fucking mouth.

  14. Jonathan says:

    Reply to John Walker: The story of Rapture put simply is that Ryan uses his personal fortune to build an objectivist paradise in international waters. Adam gets discovered and only Fontaine sees it’s potential and funds research using the profits of smuggling. As such Fontaine corners the market and ends up as powerful as Ryan. Ryan sees this and dooms Rapture by comprimising his beliefs and brings in capital punsihment for smugglers, instates paranoid security throughout the city and has Fontaines business put under state (i.e his) control. Fontaine with the loss of his ring and the approaching police fakes his death and assumes a new identity as one of the then faceless proles. With this identity he sets about building the underclass into a rebellious army fueled with religious fervour. Meanwhile Ryan’s nationalisation leads to further cuts to freedom and the attempt to control the use of plasmids. Rapture starts to split into haves and have-nots as Ryans inner circle become more powerful. The tension between the groups erupts at the new years party where the opulent haves are the victims of a terror attack. Ryan locks the bathyspheres and finally breaks his strongest belief, that of freewill, by using thermones to take control of the now mindless splicers.

    Theres more as well, but shallow? Really?

  15. Yhancik says:

    “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.”

    This is where (among a few other points) I disagree. Or, at least, it doesn’t work for me.

    First, it’s sounds weird to me to regard “depth” as “hardcore” and “shooting stuff” as “casual”.

    Secondly, sorry, but we’ll get nowhere with designers who are stuck in a “let’s not get in the way of people who just want to shoot stuff” mentality. See, I’m not saying that deep boredom means artistic achievement (I can’t stand post-rock most of the time :p), and I’m all for games that are both fun and deep. But if shooting stuff still sounds like a mandatory interaction in your revolutionary videogame, then I’ll pass.

    /or, to put it another way around.. it’s ok if a game doesn’t want to get in the way of people who want to go all master chief. If it doesn’t get in the way of people – like me – who are a bit tired that in most games the interaction with the universe is limited to shooting monsters and pushing buttons.

  16. Dracko says:

    Now someone tell me how BioShock, in any way, differs from “the usual fare” of blasting drones of enemies? Seriously? Or Deus Ex, for that matter? Or any of the countless other darlings?

    Why are you playing a first person shooter in the first place?

    Could you be any more insulting, really?

  17. Nick says:

    You could complete Deus Ex without killing anyone, maybe?

  18. Dracko says:

    Yeah, you could “tranquilise” them! Wow! And robots don’t count as human so it’s okay to blow them up or hit them with an EMP blast (Hint, that would ravage a system if Deus Ex was genuinely realistic.) And don’t forget the bosses!

    So no, that’s utter manure. You can’t talk your way through the game, navigate obstacles using anything over than physical confrontation, because diplomacy only counts for bonus equipment and XP, not directly affecting the story, and hey, oh, what constitutes the majority of your equipment?

    No one “died” in Super Mario Bros. either.

    (And that’s not even getting into how idiotic the plot gets. For all the talk of conspiracy theories and major secrets, it ends being yet another case of fighting major and armed invasive forces.)

  19. Flint says:

    Actually, AFAIK, you don’t have to kill any of the bosses in Deus Ex. Avoiding them by running/other means works, plus you could beat the final boss non-violently as well.

  20. Hypocee says:

    The parts where you use them against each other? The parts where you solve environmental puzzles?

    You’re right, you’re attempting to reach a goal by inputting a subset of all possible button presses EVERYTHING IS ALL JUST DOOM AGAIN AARRGH!

    Could you be any more insulting, really?

  21. dhex says:

    for someone raised on a steady diet of robert anton wilson, deus ex was basically super awesome.

    for those not, it is probably far less awesome.

    anyway, as a fan of the fps+ genre, we’ll see what the future holds. beyond clear sky, i mean.

  22. Alec Meer says:

    Careful your Deus Ex bickering doesn’t collapse into insults, chaps. Deleting all your hard-written words only takes us one button-press.

  23. Jonathan says:

    Oh Alec, you can be so masterful at times.

  24. Yhancik says:

    I don’t know how much the Bioshock demo was representative of the game, so pardon me if I’m saying horribly stupid things. But I rather quickly got, against my will, in shooting at waves of enemies, having my way back blocked, and a scene where my weapon was taking back. I hated that.

    Deus Ex, how unperfect it was, gave a better sense of freedom. Now, Ken doesn’t really sound that interested in sanbox-like mechanisms (or he doesn’t talk much about it :p), so it’s not really a surprise.

  25. Optimaximal says:

    Lets look at some Deus Ex bosses…

    NSF guy in the Statue – you don’t have to kill him… Talk to him until he gets arrested
    Castle Clinton ‘mob’ – sneak in the back way and Anna won’t kill all of them.
    NSF Captain in sewer – sneak up to him without alerting his grunts and he’ll surrender. All the NSF are then ur friends.
    Lebedev – let Anna do the work
    Anna – find her killphrase
    Gunther – find his killphrase
    Simons – trick him into killing himself with his own weapons in Area 51/walk him over the electrified rail in the Seabase.
    Bob Page – do another ending

    You never directly have to kill anyone. Yes, it can be a bit hard to take out the Cyborg Commandos with tranq darts or the nightstick, but it can be done if you’re mad.

  26. Dracko says:

    Hypocee: You could use enemies against each other in Doom. If by environmental puzzles you mean stacking crates, well, I’m sure Deus Ex was sheer bliss. If only jocks could understand the enriching delights of stacking crap up, gaming would be so much better!

    Optimaximal: Yes, I can see why outsiders won’t give us the time of day when we’re supposed to either break the game, avoid an ending entirely (Hah!) or do repetitive chores, which we’re all too willing to dub mad (or maddening).

    Circling around a guy with excessive hit points unloading magazines is not exactly what I’d call a highlight of the day, let alone the medium’s potential.

    No, if you want innovation in first-person, you’ve got, say, Thief, Portal and Penumbra. But of course, no one ever mentions those, because there aren’t enough guns or audio logs.

  27. Richard says:

    Yeah, you could “tranquilise” them! Wow! And robots don’t count as human so it’s okay to blow them up or hit them with an EMP blast (Hint, that would ravage a system if Deus Ex was genuinely realistic.) And don’t forget the bosses!

    You can get through DX1 without killing anybody at all, tranq guns or not. It’s tough, but doable. The only tricky part is that you’ve got to make use of a glitch to get past Anna during the escape from SPOILER CITY, and the game considers her dead even if you do.

  28. Scandalon says:

    Richard, seriously, you want us to give a game credit for an exploit/glitch?!?

    I have to (mostly) agree with Drako & Yhancic, this is not the great leaps/steps forward we all are awaiting…

    Now, Deus Ex was a very fun, involving game, and yes, you can complete it without killing most people…but the majority of those choices for non-major characters boils down to avoiding them or incapacitating them with a different weapon. According to Optimaximal, the majority of those options are just different (slightly more subtle, yes) ways of offing people. The “talk to a guy until he’s arrested” and “Sneak past everyone to talk to the guy” are the only truly interesting options there. The fact that the first one never even occured to me, and the second one I found mostly by accident (I played a mostly sneaky character/style, at least until I had beefed up my weapons/stats) points to how rare such choices are. (And when they are there, often they aren’t presented to the player in the best way…)

    Seriously, Duke3D was touted for its interaction – you can shoot trashcans and they react! You can shoot bottles and they break! You can flush the toilets! Heck, in that flushing the toilet at least had miniscule gameplay affect, flushing in Deus Ex…well, made a flushing noise. Nowdays we’ve advanced to the point of Crytek engine where you can…shoot folliage and break appart many buildings…

  29. Scandalon says:

    Oh, and to get back on topic: The setting/background, (and subsequent story) were the only reason I had any interest in Bioshock at all. And from the demo, the most interesting part really was the intro where there was no/little actual interaction. (And the transistion from “whoah, nifty” and intruiging to “Yea, that’s scary/sick/twisted” to “okay, I’m shooting things…” was pretty quick and a bit jarring.

  30. Nick says:

    Who said it was realistic anyway? Why do I need a hint as to what EMP does? You are very aggressive, relax.

    It offered differences to standard shooters. It’s actual combat was pretty bad, but it wasn’t a standard shooter by any stretch.

    Bioshock was fairly poor combat wise, had a wonderful atmosphere and setting but not much else that was that great.

    As for no one dying in Super Mario Brothers, I did. Many times.

  31. CplTurboTud says:

    I think those who have pointed out that the strident nature of the remarks is primarily a way of ramming a specific point home during what is likely to be a high profile speech are correct. It seems Levine’s main goal with the speech was to dissuade developers from following the path that many take, that of foisting great tracts of story on the player in one form or another, usually cutscenes, especially when most stories in video games are very niche, rather nerdy tales which the developer may be deeply wrapped up in and thus forget how tedious, and frankly shite, many players will find them. Hence the bit about “dark lord Lagon and the fifth period of the Elven uprising”, a method of mocking typical video game universes that I’ve seen him use in several interviews.

    While I don’t think there’s necessarily a contradiction between the two quotes taken on separate occasions that are used in this news post, significantly there is one between his speech and the way the story was conveyed in Bioshock. Imo, that game fell victim to precisely the approach Levine is criticising, in that it seemed rather too fond of its own story, and so rammed it down your throat at every opportunity. To copy paste from a post I made on Shacknews:

    One major criticism I’d aim at Bioshock’s story-telling, however, is the over-reliance on the some-cunt-yammering-endlessly-in-your-ear method of plot and world illumination. Irrational commented frequently in the run-up to Bioshock on the extent to which they’d use mise en scène techniques to unravel the plot before the player, yet while this approach was inevitably used to some extent, much of the detail about the world, the plot and the player’s goals was just rammed directly into his brain via his ear hole. You are now at location A to fight B because earlier C happened and if you don’t do D the consequences will be E. *SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER* It was Atlas for about two thirds of the game, then his alter-ego Fontaine, along with Tenenbaum for the rest, just as in System Shock 2 you had to listen to about 10 hours worth of Shodan telling you what was what at every turn. It’s an incredibly crude method of informing the player what’s going on and informing them of what to do in the world, yet sadly it’s almost ubiquitous in first-person shooters, seemingly the result of lazy designers who would rather take the easy approach for conveying plot details and tutoring the player on game mechanics.

    It’s worth noting that this device is conspicuous by its absence in Valve’s games, where they positively go out of their way to not explicitly tell the player what to do in a given situation. It would be all to easy to say that the HEV suit contained a radio and camera, then have some random NPC guide you through every moment of the game, as is the case in other titles, yet Valve do the arduous, complicated work of ensuring that the player can decipher the world on his own and their games are much the better for it.

    End paste

    While both System Shock 2 and Bioshock have worlds which are almost unparalleled in terms of the atmosphere, setting and characters, while also having the basis for a much better story than most video games because of the fact that they actually have underlying themes being discussed, I feel the narrative is undermined in both cases by the extent to which it’s piped incessantly into your ear, rather than allowing you to uncover events yourself. As the poster beneath me on Shacknews pointed out, it’s also a technique fundamentally unsuited to the interactive, emergent nature of video games, since short of locking the player in an empty room, the developers have no way of predicting what will be going on while you’re listening to Atlas/Fontaine/Shodan’s latest spiel. Thus, you often have the incongruous situation of listening to a soft, lilting Irish brogue merrily conveying his entire life story while you’re getting your skull bludgeoned in with a crazed splicer’s wrench.

    I suspect someone with a non-technical skill (writing) in a highly technical environment (video game development) can often end up going rather overboard when attempting to justify their own existence, and I have a suspicion this happens to some extent in Irrational’s games.

  32. Jonathan says:

    Reply to CplTurboTud
    Don’t you remember all the times you’ve stood around while Alyx talks to people on the vidscreen to tell you that you just did A and are at B and he says “B! But C will happen. Unless you do D.” . Or all those little hints she gives you like “Could you plug that cable in for me” or “Grab a roller mine and I’ll hack it”. Just because she has a pretty face doesn’t make her any different.

  33. Stromko says:

    I think the difference of whether a game should have a lot of narrative or not, is whether the story is crap or not crap, which is entirely subjective. A good story is absolutely worthwhile, it lives beyond the game, and also invests significance in what you are doing. A bad story gets in the way and drags the game down.

    Yes, peel away the story and the specifics and you can say that title X has you doing the same damn thing as title Y. So? Every movie ever made has you sitting in a chair for long periods of time and staring at a screen. Every book ever made has you reading text for HOURS. Oh man, why does anybody write?! It’s all the same!! Sarcastic remark!

    There are games that need a story, and there are games that work better with a short blurb of background and then let you have at it. Off the cuff, I’d say that games with a story do tend to have more formulaic gameplay. Compare a fun action-centric Flash game to the latest FPS du jour, and you could say that story is what props up the same old ‘push crate, shoot that’ mechanics.

    I should point out that Half-Life and Half-Life 2 are really no different, especially as the sequel often locks you in a room with a bunch of NPCs who jabber at you for awhile, say you’re great, and tell you to get a move on and do whatever. It’s immersive and it (usually) doesn’t take control away from you, but beyond that, it’s really no different than Bioshock or Halo 2. The main difference is that a lot of people feel HL2 has a really good story, and I agree there. I also think Bioshock had a really good story. Halo 2 had a completely horrible story in my opinion, the gameplay was same old, and so I didn’t finish it.

    I’d agree gameplay is king but story is important, and it’s where and why I draw the sited line between “jock” games and “nerd” games(edit: I should note those labels go a bit far, it’s purely a matter of taste and what expectations you’re holding a game to, not your frat membership or lack thereof). It’s really just the difference between good writing and bad writing.

  34. Radiant says:

    He’s right to an extent.

    Look at Halo 3.

    The story [which bungee were obviously so enamored by] just got in the way.

    I just wanted to shoot the FIFTY ELEVEN THOUSAND bits of mutant that were trying to kill me I couldn’t give a shit about the crazy bitch AI talking overwrought gibberish at me or the tribal machinations of the guys I was trying to shoot.

    Compare that to something as lean as COD4 which propelled me from one seat of the pants set piece to the next.

    Or Ninja Gaiden’s “these things are trying to kill you. It’s got something to do with what happened in the tutorial level” brutality.

    Halo 3’s story was like being punched in my imagination.

  35. CplTurboTud says:

    It’s a fair point, Jonathan, but having a believable, human character actually standing in the same room as you and occasionally offer advice should you appear to be stuck is distinctly less intrusive and obtrusive than having an unavoidable, hugely garrulous disembodied voice bark instructions at you for 10-15 hours worth of gameplay. In the original HL2 you’re on your own virtually the entire time and are generally only given vague directions on your next objective by the characters you encounter, then you spend the next couple of hours progressing in isolation, deducing plot details and game mechanics without assistance.

    I just think it’s worth pointing out the virtual omnipresence of the voice in your head in first-person shooters, and the significance of the fact that the best FPS developer around doesn’t use the contrivance.

  36. dhex says:

    the voice in yer head mechanic doesn’t really bother me (i find myself hiding in a corner until they’re done yammering, generally) but i can see how it would get on someone’s nerves after the 7th iteration.

    i also think it was probably most masterfully used in the first system shock, a game i loved but is now sadly pretty unplayable due to the UI. having to run about trying to reach the woman who’s been your only human contact for hours and…ooops, sorry.

  37. Mman says:

    “I just think it’s worth pointing out the virtual omnipresence of the voice in your head in first-person shooters, and the significance of the fact that the best FPS developer around doesn’t use the contrivance.”

    Except they do, Portal is part of the Half-Life universe, and was pretty much written by Valve (at the least, it was accepted by Valve), and is almost entirely based around the “voice in your head barking instructions” mechanic. Also, in Half-Life 2 itself there’s the section in Entanglement where Alyx speaks through your suit radio.

    Of course, many games use it terribly (or, at least, forgettably), but that applies to almost any gaming narrative device.

    (Could someone please edit that quote right? Blockquote doesn’t seem to work).

  38. Mario Granger says:

    I don’t really get that viewpoint Mman. The setup of the game’s narrative explicitly makes GLADoS’ presence completely believeable within the context of the game. She isn’t a disembodied voice due to poor game design or an inability to find a way to explain game mechanics. She’s in the game because they wanted a disembodied voice in the game.

  39. Mman says:

    CplTurboTud seemed to be slamming any type of “disembodied” communication (considering Shodan was referenced, and she’s easily as relevant as GLADoS to her respective game), so I was replying to that (the insane abstraction of GLADoS’ concept was intentional, as that seemed to be how he is regarding things).

  40. perilisk says:

    @Mman

    The main difference is that GLADoS is mainly for entertainment purposes, not as a crutch for delivering objectives that would otherwise be quite unclear. Aside perhaps for the first incinerator and the boss fight, it’s fairly obvious what you need to be do, or at least easy to figure out with a little trial and error.

    If for some reason (e.g., you lack a sense of humor) you don’t want to hear GLADoS’s comments, and you turn the volume down, you’re still able to make progress because, for better or worse, the game is a linear set of puzzles. Turning off SHODAN’s voice, on the other hand, is going to leave a lot of gamers saying “ok… so what do I do now?” or, assuming they muddle their way through it, “what was the point of all that?”

  41. Mman says:

    Didn’t notice a new comment after this long.

    Does that really matter? As you said, Portal is a linear series of puzzles, conversely, System Shock 2 (and presumably, 1) are set in a cohesive setting (as opposed to just a linear series of areas) you have no inital knowledge of and have find out the overall layout and function of as you explore; learning things from other characters is just part of that. They’re pretty incomparable in that regard.

    The important thing is that, in both cases, removing either SHODAN or GLADoS would have a huge (negative for the vast majority of people) effect on their respective games whether they are telling you what to do or not, as they are distinctive characters whose motivations have a large impact on the overall atmosphere of their games and imagining their games without them is almost inconceivable (which, it has to be said, is where most “mission barkers” fail miserably).