Ken Levine, Walter White and the future of videogame narrative

“Frankly, I still feel like a noob,” says Ken Levine of his lifetime achievement award, presented to the Irrational co-founder at the Golden Joysticks last week. The accolade does feel a little premature; Levine has released some important videogames in his career to date, but he is keen to point out that he’s nowhere near mastering his craft, and he certainly doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers. “We’re learning,” he says, graciously.

Levine’s studio is known for inserting unexpectedly weighty themes into what is so often that most crude and bombastic of genres, the firstperson shooter. From Randian philosophy in BioShock to American exceptionalism, race and more in Infinite, where other games concern themselves with thwarting genero-terrorist threats or extraterrestrial invasions, Irrational’s games represent more cerebral fare.

And that attracts a special kind of criticism. More than any other shooters, Irrational’s BioShock games invite a more meaningful kind of debate – they’ve even helped coin a new phrase in the game critic’s lexicon. It was in reference to BioShock that the charming term ludonarrative dissonance first emerged, and the debate around that notion – the tensions and inconsistencies that arise when you place the player’s actions within a game’s narrative – has flared up once again recently around Irrational’s second BioShock, Infinite. That conflict isn’t just confined to Irrational’s work, of course – The Last Of Us has been on the receiving end of a similar, belated backlash of sorts. It’s not something that came as any surprise to Levine, even first time around.

Levine prepared his team at Irrational for a critical backlash even as they were working on the first BioShock, he tells us.

“This happened with BioShock one, I told the team before it came out – ‘be prepared’,” he says. “We’re gonna get good reviews and then there will be a wave of people responding to those reviews. And I think that’s fine. Do I agree with it? Not necessarily. It’s good that people are criticising things, absolutely. It’s a good way of people making their mark as a critic, to come out with a theory and a contrary theory. It’s all subjective, right?”

Booker is a violent person in a violent world, says Levine, but he does accept that the further developers evolve the role of the narrative in their games, the more the “the extraordinary nature of the action that these games have can get a little harder to line up.”

“On the other hand,” he continues, “if you look at the vast majority of people, the vast majority of gamers, they would have no idea what we’re talking about. They wouldn’t even perceive that there was a problem. They’d think – ‘it was a cool game and that was a cool character and I got to shoot a bunch of stuff’”

Levine’s right, of course. Most players of BioShock Infinite will have barely stopped to consider the conflict between the story unfolding and the action they partake in – most folks just want a good time from a videogame. But for those who do want something more, there’s plenty to chew on and debate. For those players that thought a little deeper about the themes in these games, or maybe scoured Wikipedia to find out more about the people and ideas referenced, surely that’s a more valuable endgame than we find in most shooters? “I would rather experiment and find out where those edges are than not take the risk,” says Levine. It does seem a little churlish to burden the BioShock games with a fiercer kind of criticism for tackling grander ideas, especially while we give plenty of other shooters a free pass.

Bioshock Infinite’s world and narrative were among the game’s greatest achievements, but the violence within the game also inspired criticism.

What those critics wanted, it seems, was something like Gone Home, the indie game from former BioShock developers The Fullbright Company. The arrival of the Portland studio’s brilliant, atmospheric, combat-free firstperson game, whose story unfurls as you explore the environment, seemed to sharpen criticism of Infinite, especially considering the developers’ ties to the BioShock series. But it’s just not the kind of game Irrational will ever make.

“It’s a relatively short experience and because of the economic Steve [Gaynor, Fullbright co-founder] built it on I think he’ll probably be very successful with it,” says Levine. “He’s a really smart guy and a really great writer and a really talented guy. As you scale up though, if you work for a public company, could you make a game that worked under that model? Probably not.

“Irrational has this many employees and I don’t think we could have made a game that didn’t have a gameplay component and move the units we want to move, so that’s why it made sense for Steve to go do [Gone Home], right?”

Scaling down wouldn’t suit Irrational, anyway. What Levine wants to do with videogame narrative next is to make stories dynamic and able to evolve around the player’s actions. He wants stories to be replayable within a set of rules in order to stop them being a “one and done” deal, as Levine puts it. Sport, for example, creates great drama within a set of rules – it is essentially “narrative that’s replayable,” he says. For Levine, the next question is how to recreate that in a videogame with dialogue, characters and their motivations.

After finishing work on Bioshock Infinite DLC, Levine is tackling his dream job – writing a new Logan’s Run movie.

But first, there’s Logan’s Run. When Levine finishes his work on Burial At Sea, the BioShock Infinite DLC set in pre-fall Rapture, he’ll be taking a break from making games. Levine says he is going on holiday from Irrational, but where most would be satisfied with a couple of weeks on a beach, he’ll be writing a new Logan’s Run movie for Warner Bros. He’s adamant that he’s not about to disappear off into Hollywood, leaving videogames behind – while Logan’s Run is an obvious passion project for him, he is fixated on this idea of advancing what videogame narrative can do. We ask if a new generation of more powerful, more connected consoles will help Irrational to achieve that, but Levine barely seems interested in talking about platforms; he prefers instead to talk of where to go next after BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth, which he believes is a breakthrough in videogame characterisation.

But he acknowledges that, to use a couple of his favourite examples, we’re still some way from achieving the depth and resonance of characters like Walter White or Tony Soprano in a videogame. Levine distils Breaking Bad down into what seems like a videogame conceit: the story of a downtrodden character who finds something unique within themselves, and whose decisions – good or bad – drive the narrative by themselves. Surely we’ve reached the point where this can be achieved in a videogame?

“TV shows and movies have the advantage as you have total control over what happens,” says Levine. “We have different challenges in a dynamic setting but I think we’re making leaps, a bunch of games came out this year that are very character focused. The Last of Us, The Walking Dead, Infinite…

“We’ll make progress, but is there an endpoint? No, I don’t think so,” he adds. “But I think we’re getting closer all the time.”

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