Keeping Up With Ken Levine

By Alec Meer on February 21st, 2008 at 7:15 pm.

Sometimes, we like to race. Today, John won, throwing up his thoughts on Ken Levine’s recent post-mortem natterings about Bioshock’s narrative before I could lay my oafish mitts to a keyboard.

After literally seconds of consideration, I’ve decided to do so anyway, as a) John’s kindly gotten the hard labour of summary and quotation out of the way for me and b) I’ve got some slightly different feelings about what Levine’s said/is maybe trying to say/perhaps failed to say. This isn’t at all a rebuttal to John’s piece, though there are inescapable elements of point-counterpoint.

Apologies, by the way, if we’ve gone a little September 2007 today: Bioshock’s one of those games that never quite goes away.

Apologies also if this is a bit rambly. I do like a good ramble.

First, what Levine says in his GDC speech is overwhelming positive, as far as I’m concerned. He’s saying that, although they need to be plot-simple to sell well and to have an overarching sense of purpose, mainstream action games should also build in a second layer of narrative to reward the more passionate player. While I have other arguments about the enormous problems even the finest fixed narrative can burden a game with, I think it’s safe to say that anyone reading RPS should be gladdened by that. Game plots have to be simple if they want mass appeal and a sense of focus to the whole endeavour – but throw in something meaty to reward the more attentive and/or analytical player too.

Granted, Levine’s a little less flattering to those guys (us guys) – “”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? That’s the level of the people who get into the game that you have to support.” Yeah, thanks Ken. Nevertheless, we’re important, and should be catered to: awesome, awesome, a thousand awesomes.

What Levine doesn’t say, whether by accident or designed ommission for the sake of conciseness is that there’s also a third strata of narrative in Bioshock. As bedrock, you’ve got your hunted, hunter, hunted, hunter and END core story, the one that actually drives the player onwards – which is nothing whatsoever to do with how smart the player is, but rather essential to give absolutely everyone an overarching sense of purpose. This is, after all, a videogame, not a novel. Sprinkled over the top of that you’ve got your fansite-friendly backstory of Rapture and nods to Ayn Rand, info-morsels for the players who want to deliberately employ their brains as well as their reflexes and base emotions. Just don’t let that stuff overwhelm the rest of the game, as most people plum don’t care.

In the middle is something else altogether, and the “miscalculation” that Kotaku chooses to interpret as an admission of failure. (By way of demonstrating my disagreement with someone claiming that’s what Levine said, an anecdote. I was playing Audiosurf during a visit to the PC Gamer office today, having another crack at winning the Wuthering Heights war without end. “SHIT”, I blare. “Cocked it up, eh?”, jibes Editor Ross. “No, it was a near-perfect run – I just didn’t beat Kieron’s score.” “So, you cocked it up.” he winks back. “Grrrrrrno’snotfairfckingkieron”, I mutter, or words to that effect. EdiRoss was jesting, of course, but the point is there’s a country mile of difference between FAILED and ‘could have done it better’. I do personally believe that Bioshock’s ending failed – but that wasn’t what Levine said.)

Anyway, the middle strata is the story of Jack, Bioshock’s protagonist. It’s a separate narrative entirely to both the story of Rapture, and to the story of Bioshock’s player.

SPOILERS BEYOND: If you haven’t played Bioshock through yet, stop reading when you see the kittens, and start reading again when you see the bear.


Photo by freeparking

Jack’s story is, for all the readings about post-modern commentary on the nature of first-person shooters, at heart pure sci-fi melodrama – straight out of Heroes or Spider-Man or something that’s similarly joyously pulpy. You’ve been mind-controlled all this time, you’re actually the son of the bad guy, except the bad guy’s not the real bad guy… It’s pure Hollywood plot-twist – and particularly effective Hollywood plot-twist at that – so it appeals most to the people who just enjoy fun fiction.

An Avatar of Horace the Endless Bear
Photo by artct45

There’s absolutely some crossover with the mindset that most enjoys shooting zombies and the mindset that most enjoys obsessively mapping out Rapture’s socio-political make-up, but those who are there primarily to Find Out What Happens are, I suspect, are a sizeable third group of their own (I count myself amongst their number, for the record). Were I in the habit (and I am) of stretching an analogy too far and knowingly misusing terms because it sounds good, I’d say Bioshock has separate narratives for the id, the ego and the superego. Shoot all the monsters/want to find out what happens/analyse why it happened.

Where I strongly feel his GDC speech doesn’t at all contradict his Kotaku interview is that his lead argument remains, in either case, the vast majority of people do not care about your silly story. Levine was doubtless booked for the slot with some expectancy that he’d jaff off about Objectivism or identity or something, and his reponse was to say, no, cleverthinks and soap operas are not the be-all and end-all of a game’s greatness and success. The action and the theme – and also the aesthetic, as Bioshock has successfully proven in the face of a thousand Killzones or Conflict: Denied Ops and suchlike – is still what sells hundreds of thousands of copies and keeps the player playing.

The “miscalculation” mentioned in the Kotaku interview is giving the pulpy middle layer of the driving narrative short thrift – suddenly curtailing that intriguing undercurrent to the game while leaving the shooty action running onwards. The basic story was more effective than intended – Levine underestimated how much some people would care about it, so didn’t think to round it off with finesse. And yet a more complex narrative did continue past That Moment – specifically the Sister/Daddy training labs seen in the late game, which very effectively flesh out the game’s signature foes with primarily visual cues.

When Levine says no-one cares about your silly story, he means don’t let reams of fine detail – which in Bioshock take the form of the audio diaries – direct the game. The player’s immediate goals matter more than knowing what year Fontaine was born in. So Bioshock succeeds on the most important level – action with purpose – but the middle thread, Jack’s story, is pushed aside too soon, leaving a very vocal minority (again, myself included) unsatisfied. Bioshock simply didn’t synchronise its threads well enough. As has been reported, the Jack story arc came very late in Bioshock’s development – and that’s no doubt why it’s not as intermingled with the other two narrative threads as it could be. As he admits to, the middle thread stops well before the game ends, the story of Jack and the story of Rapture completed in advance of the story of the player, so the weird Nirvana kids suddenly find themselves left with only a repeated la-la-la refrain until fade-out, and no more lyrics to scribble in their notebooks.

Another problem is that key elements of the top thread, the Rapture backstory, are oddly disassociated from the other two. The audio diary collection mechanic is distractingly abstracted to the events of the game – you can feel smug by collecting them all, keeping some notes in your head and reordering it all into a bigger picture, but that’s not the same as logically fitting into and around an effective beginning, middle and end core narrative. I’d blame that on the use of dirty great tape recorders left in patently absurd places. The silly backstory about Lord Whatever of Elf-Land, which Levine posits should never get in the way of the core player purpose, is so glaringly signalled in Bioshock that it almost breaks the fourth wall. It’s hard to tell whether Levine’s talking about how he made Bioshock or what he learned from making Bioshock – the awkward treatment of the audiologs has me suspecting the latter.

There’s a ton of deep and fascinating information in Bioshock for those who wish to know it, and the more curious player should certainly be grateful that Bioshock has such a detailed passive narrative alongside its active narrative. I just wish there’d been a slicker way of incorporating it than randomly scattering pages torn from a history book all over a theme park. I mention again the Sister/Daddy training labs, and how much detail and atmosphere they gave to some of the game’s key elements – and all told logically within the game’s world, rather than using an artificial device to spew optional exposition at the player. Half-Life 2 takes a similar approach to backstory (even so, I find HL’s world far less compelling than Rapture’s), and it seems to me the most effective way of simultaneously pleasing both Shoot All The Monsters guy and Why Am I Shooting All The Monsters And How Should I Feel About It guy.

Had all the narrative layers concluded in some sort of tandem rather than at different points entirely, the ending wouldn’t have felt as vacuous and anti-climatic as it did. That core Beat The Bad Guys purpose is the most important narrative to Bioshock, or any action game, but he underestimated how much the other two strata would matter to a sizeable subset of players.

So Levine’s intentions are fine ones, and I’m enormously glad he said what he said: again, “man behind very successful game says put stuff in for the passionate gamers as well as the triggerhappy ones” can only be a positive thing. However, I think Bioshock’s execution of this idea stumbled in its closing hours. That Levine is admitting to this, obviously aware that he’s on the right track but needs to tread it a little more firmly, is great news. And while all his recent talk could be read as contradictory or as damning to Bioshock, it’s made me anticipate whatever his next game turns out to be all the more.

[Edited a little for more clarity and less repetition post-posting]

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33 Comments »

  1. Dracko says:

    I’m vocal about BioShock‘s glaring flaws at the best of times, but you’re completely spot-on here. The influence will be felt. I just hope pretenders won’t stop there. Hell, Valve did it better, frankly. They just never made such a fuss about it.

    I’m still going to be keeping an eye on future Levin projects. Though I really don’t think a direct sequel would be apt for BioShock. They should just work on a Shock. I mean, imagine a SteamShock or the like.

  2. Kieron Gillen says:

    Alec: You were right. The Two Levines are deeply disturbing. We are PC Gaming’s scariest website.

    KG

  3. terry says:

    No spoilers or anything, but the voice acting (in Bioshock) was so corny it was hard not to notice. Now that statement seems cryptic – apologies :( But, it was a case of nice environment ruined by poor exposition. Or something.

    On the plus side, I enjoy the Levine eyes as a web usability standard.

  4. CrashT says:

    System Shock 2 might not handle the primary thread as well as Bioshock, that is the pure action element, but it does handle the relationship between the other two threads better.

    It’s always felt odd that for all Bioshock’s polish and aesthetic design, the events that supposedly happened in the world before the player arrived just don’t feel like they are part of that world.

    In System Shock 2 the audiologs really fleshed out the world and made the events that had happened come alive for me in much the same way that a good book does. To the extent that I could visualise Bronson’s last stand, or Prefontaine recording his final entries much better than I could any of the events described throughout BioShock.

    It’s potentially because the audiologs in BioShock mainly served as a source of background information (The third thread as you put it) and were effectively a collectable extra. There was some gameplay specific information in them but the overwhelming number were simply extra content.

    In System Shock 2 the audiologs again provided background information, but they did this alongside useful information on the environment and enemies, and included several plot threads and character arcs that forshadowed upcoming locations and likely appealed to both those concerned with the current story and those who enjoyed understanding the backstory of the world.

  5. Dracko says:

    And System Shock had all that and made you feel like you were achieving something every step of the way, instead of repairing elevators or some crap.

    Marathon does all of these perfectly, but we let id Software overshadow that franchise even back then, so a reassessment is disappointingly not to be expected any time soon.

  6. espy says:

    Very nice spoiler tag there. Kittens!

  7. Seniath says:

    Best. Spoiler tags. Ever.

    Crash; I agree about the nature of the SS2 audio logs in comparison to the BioShock ones, and even more jarring was the amount of people actually appearing in the BioShock ones. There were what, maybe 5 real recurring characters, compared to god knows how many in SS2. I never really felt for any of the characters in BioShock (except the Lutz couple), where as plenty of the logs in SS2 sent chills down my spine; Diego’s “my cup runeth over”, the conception and creation of the midwives, Polito’s last warning in the church… I could go on, but I wont.

    Back on topic, I’m liking this current trend of developers being honest and critical about their own work. Hell, even the head of EA is doing it. Lets hope it continues.

    Finally, yay for rambling. I do it all the time…like just now.

  8. j66 says:

    Kittens, Bears – Edge Forum?

  9. Leeks! says:

    It’s really amazing what hype can do. I mean, if Bioshock wasn’t as puffed up as it was before release, I think we’d be reading some very different retrospectives on it now. I’m sure you could find all kinds of “glaring narrative flaws” in games that are universally viewed as “classic.” (Let’s face it: Planescape had some stupid bits.) To me, the fundamental difference seems to be that Bioshock was commercially successful as well as critically, and that means that some people (rightly) feel a need to be more scrupulous in their dissection of it.

    The problem is that some (and I don’t mean anyone here, more of a general backlash thing) take it to the point of elitism. By way of anecdote: About two or three years ago I showed up at school to find one of my friends in a funk. I asked him what was wrong, and he was a bit put off that he just saw the Arcade Fire on MTV. I asked him what was wrong, I thought he loved the Arcade Fire.

    “Yeah…” he replied. “But I liked them more when their fanbase consisted of me and three other people.”

  10. Lacero says:

    BBFC Video Games research

    Section 3.6 (page 48) says, paraphrased: Nobody cares about your stupid story except industry professionals.

    More people need to read this, especially industry professionals.

  11. Pace says:

    Not entirely sure if this is relevant, but I thought the Halo series handled these ideas pretty well, though it seems to be rather regularly maligned on the issue. There’s the fairly simple, straightforward characters and story of save mankind from the ugly aliens, but there’s also the much deeper backstory of the forerunners and humanity. It’s there if you’re interested, like with the terminal screens in Halo 3, but doesn’t get in the way if you don’t care. I guess that would fall under Alec’s category of “analyse why it happened.” Clearly it also does the “Shoot all the monsters/want to find out what happens” well too I’d say.

  12. Kieron Gillen says:

    j66: I don’t understand what you’re saying, so I suspect no.

    Pace: I disagree strongly with the Halo point, by the way, at least in the third encounter. It never sets up at all what’s happening. It’s a clear destination if you’ve played Halo 2, but doesn’t explain anything whatsoever. Since I haven’t played the second, I still have no idea what that mind thing was.

    (I lie, I do. I looked at Wikipedia.)

    KG

  13. Pace says:

    True, the backstory and the, um, forestory, don’t come together or have anything to do with each other towards the end, but I thought at least the approach had its merits. That is, separating the two, so the deeper part doesn’t interfere with the “shoot the monster” part. But yeah, the story presentation wasn’t the best towards the end.

  14. Jonathan says:

    Dracko:

    System Shock 2 was a lot more linear than you seem to think. Don’t you remember collecting all the coloured keys? Don’t you remember having to go to the one power cell recharger on the deck to recharge a power cell? Don’t you remember having to repair a lift?

    System Shock 2 had a great atmosphere and maye the best villain in any game. But it’s obscurity seems to have given it’s players an indier than-thou feeling. Everything you could do in System you can Bio.

    AlsoI don’t get what Alec means by needing to listen to the audio logs to understand the back story. The audio logs tell seperate stories, the story of the lost girl being my favourite, but they aren’t mandatory to the story. The story of Rapture is written on the walls, in the cracked pipes and in the reflection of a security lens. Graffiti shows how the residents feel, the cracked pipes tell you how the place was effectively left to rust and collapse and the security shows the paranoia, fear and loss of control that brought the collapse of Rapture. Hey look there’s a smuggler beng hung, that isn’t much like the elite of society. It’s all there before your eyes, the audio logs tell the personal stories and usually don’t have any bearing on the story of Rapture that I still feel is the games focus.

  15. Alec Meer says:

    I didn’t say anything about “needing to listen.” I said the diaries are there for the people who want more detail (much more than the broad strokes provided by the game’s remarkable aesthetic touches that you mention) to analyse – for the kids scribbling Nirvana lyrics into their notebooks.

    That said, most of the protagonist’s backstory exists only in the audiologs. As does Tenembaum’s, Fontaine’s, Ryan’s, the Daddies’, The Sisters’…

  16. Jonathan says:

    Did you not notice the whole little sisters training facility? Or the Splicer, the one who makes you take pictures I’m no good at names, shouting “Atlas was one of us” and saying that “Fontaine double crossed us” meaning you. Or the other splicers who scream about being mutilated by Steinman (You promised me PRETTY Steinman). The splicers reveal a lot in their little out bursts about missing children and their religious fervour, something exploited and fueled by Fontaine, as do the ghosts such as Atlas’ rally outside his homeless shelter.

    I still stand by my point that you don’t need the logs to understand the back story, only for the personal stories which often don’t have a bearing on anything else. I must point out that the ending to the lost child series of logs, can’t remember her name but it ends in a bed in the fisheries hotel, always makes me cry. You can’t ask more from a story than that.

    Just like to add that my favourite aesthetic story touches are the “Who is Atlas?” posters, after the twist exiting a tunnel to see a wall covered in them was a highlight for me. My other favourite is the anti-nationalisation protest when you first arrive, lovely stuff.

  17. Alec Meer says:

    Yes, I noticed those things. You may have interpreted my saying “most” as “all.”

  18. CrashT says:

    Jonathan: The very fact that the logs contained stories that were basically unconnected to the main story is the reason I often felt they weren’t really a part of the world of Rapture.

    In System Shock 2, most of the characters whose stories played out through the audio logs were ones who’s actions had a direct impact on your progress through the game, or on the state of the world as you witnessed it.

    In Bioshock the audio logs told the stories of incidental characters who’s action never seemed to directly affect you (Even though some of them did, they still managed to feel disconnected somehow), or background information about major character that’s interesting but doesn’t specifically benefit you in terms of gameplay.

    I can see the benefit of playing to three subtly difference audiences but without some degree of interweaving the three elements can feel like three seperate entities, and they often did in Bioshock.

    As for the linear nature of System Shock 2, of course it was fundementally linear, but it was also possible to complete certain objectives out of sequence and return to previous areas to restock and resupply. Basically the world of the Von Braum \ Rickenbacker felt much more like a specific place than the disconnected levels of BioShock ever did and that adds to the artificiality of the events of BioShock.

    I really loved Bioshock but there’s a very distinct disconnection between the world “as it is” and the world as it “supposedly was”, a disconnect that’s not as obvious in System Shock 2. In the latter you can very easily visualise what the world must have been like before everything went to hell, but it’s much harder with the former.

  19. Nick says:

    “Everything you could do in System you can Bio.”

    No.

    Besides, System Shock 1 is still better than 2 and Bio.

  20. newt says:

    “Besides, System Shock 1 is still better than 2″

    No.

  21. Kieron Gillen says:

    “No”.

    No.

    Try harder, gentlemen! WE BELIEVE IN YOU.

    (I bounce back and forth between Shock and Shock 2, actually. I would love someone to dare to make a game structured like Shock now.)

    KG

  22. The_B says:

    There’s no limit?

    (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

  23. Nick says:

    But it was such an obviously false statement to anyone who has played both I didn’t see a point in elaborating.

    And to couterpoint newt: Yes.

    I love them both to bits, but the overall atmosphere in the first just feels more compelling to me, plus the many were a bit meh. The variety of objectives in the first were better too:

    “Ah ha! Foiled your laser plot!”

    “O rly?”

    “Fine, now I’ve stopped you from spreading nasty virii around!”

    “O rly?”

    etc.

    The constant mentions then run-ins with Diego are a nice touch as well.

  24. Tom says:

    i don’t really understand the problem with the tapes. i think it’s just a way of delivering narrative that people aren’t used to. But i think it adds slower, more engrossing moments to the game, where you visualise for yourself the word you’ve found yourself in.

  25. Tom says:

    anyone played penumbra black plague yet?

  26. Ben Abraham says:

    I didn’t like the tapes in Bio. I couldn’t understand what they were saying most of the time, as someone else was usually trying to impart story information to me at the same time. Add to that fact that I found I actually needed to turn the music down to hear what *anyone* said in Bioshock left me feeling a little bit… well, disappointed in the whole presentation.

    System Shock 2 has still not been beaten out for top spot in my favorite SP game of all time. Halo 2 is close (forget #3 – try to pretend it never happened, storywise) but not quite.

  27. Nick says:

    Wait.. I try to pretend Halo 2 never happened “story” wise.. (haven’t played 3 and probably never will).

  28. Jiki says:

    Aww, kitties. <3

    Meh, Bioshock was damn fun, but at times it awfully felt like a dumbed down SS2. The tapes might be a good idea to please all those 3 types of gamers, but the tape-thingy is getting kinda old already. SS2 had it, Bioshock had it, even Doom3 had it and it really isn’t the most interesting way to tell a story (mind me, I aint in the first group and am seriously interested in the story so maybe that’s why I’d like to get it in a more entertaining way). If he wants to continue pleasing everybody, then he should make up a new way to tell his story which only those who care notice.

  29. newt says:

    I think the relationship between original Shock and #2 is a bit like the relationship between Star Wars and Empire. SS1 broke new grounds but its core was still a standard cyberpunk fare (brilliantly executed, no arguing there). Irrational took that to a different plane of existence and set up a conflict that goes beyond genre boundaries and the traditional “hero vs villain” concept. To me, the result felt much more complex storytelling-wise.

  30. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    Newt:

    That’s actually an apt analogy, by my reckoning.

    Now, to eat some raw ginger to cleanse the palate of any notions of George Lucas anywhere near my Shock memories.

    And my sinuses, too, the bastards.

  31. Dean says:

    Awesome piece, really brings everything into sharp perspective.
    There is of course one big problem with the idea of catering to those who want to immerse themselves furthur in the plot, at least in the way Bioshock implemented it, in that the tapes that provided the backstory for gamers more concerned with story than mindless shooting, were hidden away and used as a reward for doing extra mindless shooting.

    I really, really didn’t enjoy the combat in Bioshock, I just found it dull and boring. But the setting was incredible and the concepts it dealt with great, the backstory fascinating. But the only way to get all that backstory was to painstakingly explore every single nook and crevice, there’s no option of rushing along the critical path just to see the next part of the story. For me it was the case of the more story I wanted to see, the more god-awful shooting I had to endure.

  32. Alaric says:

    Alec, please never mention the “id, ego and the superego” again. =) There are no such things. Freud invented them based on no scientific data whatsoever and had been completely discredited since. Why they still linger in the pop culture is unknown.

    Thank you, that was my rant for the day. =)

  33. ShaunCG says:

    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?

    It strikes me that, at least so far as this analogy is concerned, the former are the kids who will buy and listen to music, go to shows and so on, but the latter is the one who will go on to form his own band.

    Whether the same extends into games development I don’t know, but looking at the legions of enthusiastic mod projects and indie developers out there I’d wager ‘yes’.

    (No other comments, still mulling this all over.)