Narrative Legos with Ken Levine
April 12, 2015 5:35 AM   Subscribe

It's clear that narrative is an important part of video games and something that the audience deeply relates to. However, the strengths of interactive media are player participation, the ability to experience content in different ways on different playthroughs and the fact that the content is not static. It's time for narrative to deeply embrace these elements.
Ken Levine, of System Shock and BioShock fame, explores player driven replayable narrative gameplay.
posted by Foci for Analysis (12 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Oh awesome. Very psyched to watch this. Thank you!
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 8:51 AM on April 12, 2015

Some interesting ideas here - I'd be interested in playing a gane that used them. It's the kind if thing that I would more expect to see in smaller, more experimental indie type games, and I suspect with AAA the need do deliver highly polished assets and shepherd the player through them all to show them where the money went is going to be limiting, but it's nice to know people with a foot in that world are thinking about this stuff.
posted by Artw at 9:46 AM on April 12, 2015

It's also ironic that Ken has said other, dumber things lately that have gotten GamerGate to claim him as a supporter of theirs, as this sort of thing is exactly the kind of thing they hate.
posted by Artw at 10:15 AM on April 12, 2015

Interesting talk, but I thought that they were doing a lot of that sort of stuff in RPGs these days anyway.

Not sure I approve of it being a zero-sum game though. I appreciate that you can't please everybody, but at least having the option to make everyone happy / unhappy seems reasonable to me (maybe not enough to max out everyone's approval, but if, say, you work really hard to build a temple to all gods, or save the world a couple of times, or some-such, I would hope that you please more people than you displease).
posted by YAMWAK at 10:21 AM on April 12, 2015

They sort of are, but I think it's most branching trees and a few flags without the generative possibilities? It's a pity that Betty and Veronica example is in there because it closely matches what RPGs do already with party selection etc, no complex actors with Passions required.
posted by Artw at 10:31 AM on April 12, 2015

I haven't actually played Bioshock Infinite (Bioshock didn't grab me), but having read several essays on it I'm not sure I'd trust Ken Levine on design:

Only a person with utterly compromised morals can equate the violence of Columbian society with the violence of the resistance against it, and say, in Ken Levine’s own word’s “a plague on both their houses”. The violence of resistance is the violence of a strangled man who punches his attacker.

More people died making the film version of the Russian revolution, than the event itself. Oppressed people don’t suddenly become hooligans, burning and killing everything in sight, when the guards are no longer there to flog them. Ken Levine believes they do, and wants everyone who plays his games to think so too. He believes there can be no bloodless revolution, despite history proving him wrong. In his world view, (and I come to this conclusion from his interviews as much as his games) progress is not fought for and won, it is a gift bestowed upon us by a few wise men. Be it the founding fathers or the Lutece twins.

There is a reason why Levine can not envisage the real forces of progress. He has spent his career describing dystopias, showing us the broken remains of societies and their demented inhabitants in great detail. He has given no time over to how just and egalitarian societies are truly created. That vacuum has been filled with fairytales. With his vision filled by statues of founding fathers he is unable to see the mass of ordinary people who are the real driving force of history.

posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:33 PM on April 12, 2015

There is the small matter of Bioshock (the first one, at least) being a fairly clear critique of "lone genius," Objectivism-style monomania. It's not surprising it's all about iconoclasm and not much rebuilding.

And of course it ignores "the mass of ordinary people who are the real driving force of history" -- it's a first-person shooter with what, like 10 major characters?
posted by lumensimus at 7:18 PM on April 12, 2015

I like "add ON" versus "add IN" distinction. It's fun to think about and I wish the general high level design talk had gone on longer.

I'm skeptical of "approval sliders everywhere", though, because faction/approval systems aren't what I call fun.

If faction/approval stuff exists I think it should be chunky. The big changes should come at decision points and milestones, and only resolve to ~3 states: friend, foe, or meh. By contrast, his examples of approval constantly drifting between 8 states based on the flavors of scutwork you are doing sounds really awkward. It sounds like it's inspiring Levine to think of things that can happen, though.

Not sure I approve of it being a zero-sum game though.

That does seem forced. I kinda imagine Peter Molyneux bandying these ideas around on a MUD in 1990.
posted by nom de poop at 4:54 AM on April 13, 2015

This framework is simple, subtle, and fascinating. It's also directly relevant to something I'm working on at the moment. Thanks!

I think mathematically, it would make sense to do something more like a sum (rather than an average) over the micropassions to determine the macropassion, that way you can max out one micropassion and then use the second to balance out any negatives on the third. RMS has some nice properties, too, and messing around, I quite like the square root of the mean of the cubes with a threshold around 20 (which could vary between stars).

Not sure I approve of it being a zero-sum game though.

I think he addresses the need for this in the Q&A section. Why would you want someone to dislike you? You wouldn't, but sometimes you don't have a choice if you want someone else's favor. The thing is, I don't think he's talking about strictly zero sum. The frost zombies example is a scenario where there's clearly a net gain, but there's still a penalty with some stars even when you do the right thing.
posted by WCWedin at 6:09 AM on April 13, 2015

I was in the audience for this talk, which incidentally came just a few weeks after Ken Levine announced the closure of Irrational and the start of his new, narratively-focused game studio. Naturally, I think attendees were expecting demonstration of some tech or something that would indicate the direction of this endeavor, rather than the more blue-sky pitch we received.

That said, I wonder if this is really the right approach for dynamic narrative in general. It has existed for a long time in video games, as they are present in every multiplayer game to some degree. MUDs and MMORPGs most noticeably, but also in some titles that are more focused in this direction, like Sleep is Death. The game Eve generates such compelling tales that they are making a comic book series out of the players' in-game exploits. However, that direction means the designer sacrificing control of the narrative, and having lots of stories that don't follow our idea of traditional story structure or necessarily have satisfying conclusions.

What he is really talking about here is advancing AI, which is certainly commendable, but in the end, it will be up to developers to craft these character's personalities and the narrative outcomes. I won't say that it's not going to work out or isn't a laudable goal, certainly I would like to see AI that's dynamic and advanced in some other area besides combat, but stories are at their core about characters interacting, and players can already do that as is.

It would be fascinating to see more games that were about collaborative storytelling. Maybe an MMO that rewarded role play above all else, or had paid "plants" that played the role of major characters. Anyhow, if game developers put the kind of effort into AI's non-combat activities as they do into fighting and tactics, it would at least give us supporting and background characters with believable AI. We've come a way since townsfolk who repeat the same line over and over, but not a very long one. Maybe Levine has the clout to get the kind of development effort needed to realize this sort of thing for single player games. I hope so.
posted by Durhey at 7:44 AM on April 13, 2015

To achieve deep narratives in open ended worlds, why not invite the community to create quests and story lines from the very start? With game engines being free, you the game developer could give them all the tools and assets they need to create complex and engaging stories and quests that feel organic and meaningful.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 1:03 PM on April 13, 2015

To achieve deep narratives in open ended worlds, why not invite the community to create quests and story lines from the very start? With game engines being free, you the game developer could give them all the tools and assets they need to create complex and engaging stories and quests that feel organic and meaningful.

User generated content. Several MMOs have tried it (Neverwinter, Champions Online, Star Trek Online, off the top of my head).

Sturgeon's law generally applies pretty strongly to user generated content. Some of it is designed to be unbalanced (open this unguarded chest for a pile of loot and exp!), some of it is boring (hey, win this nasty, buggy, time-consuming fight for 20 cp), some of it is trolling, abusive, or just there to waste people's time, and some of it is almost as good as the professional stuff. Only, without the voice acting. Or the unique graphics. Or the clever scripting. And you have to wade through an ocean of mediocrity to find it.
posted by YAMWAK at 1:28 PM on April 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

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