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I Can't Keep Up With Ken Levine

Mr Levine

The man confuses me. It comes down to this.

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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John Walker

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One of the original co-founding robots of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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