The lights are on
Ken Levine shocked many when announcing he would be
"winding down" Irrational Games, keeping only select members to start what he called "a
smaller, more entrepreneurial endeavor at Take-Two."
Things might be changing professionally for Levine, but his
passion for rich storytelling isn't going away. At his GDC panel, Narrative Legos: Building Replayable Narrative Out of
Lots of Tiny Pieces, he discussed systems to build characters, looking to go beyond the linear narratives he's been known for in the last 19 years. While
Levine stated very quickly in his panel that his idea is not a game
announcement, it's clear he's experimenting with new ways of thinking for
He believes it's time for a change, and notes that linear
narratives put boundaries between developers and audiences. Audiences want
to be a participant in the process, but linearity doesn't allow that. Levine loves games built around systems, like Civilization, but noted the challenge of how narrative
and game structure often fight each other. He also discussed how the tech
approach has always been to simulate a person, not a character. For Levine, these
are problems, and he says it's time to go back to the drawing board and search
for new solutions.
Levine offered some suggestions for developers, such as not
modeling everything, but only a limited set of believable and impactful things.
He especially emphasized that narrative elements should be non-linear, interact
with each other, and have all the story elements trigger off player action. To
prove his points, Levine showed the audience a design reminiscent of Skyrim,
working off of quests, factions, and choosing alliances. Every NPC, or as
Levine labeled them "stars," should have a set of passions. Passions must be
obvious to the player and must respond to their actions. For instance, Levine
used the example of an orc who hates elves and likes you more or less based how
you treat the elves.
Setting up these systems allows developers to build out the
characters through the player. As you grow relationships with allies, you must
pick and choose who you want by your side. Players can't have the best of both
worlds. He discussed using a zero-sum strategy, where player choices impact more than one faction. That means characters should have
opposite goals that directly conflict with one another, forcing a choice
This setup ensures replayability as long as the system can build a
web of nearly infinite relationship states. He also experimented with putting
gameplay perks in conflict with characters. He used an example of choosing between
two characters named Betty and Veronica to marry. Choosing them gives you
different perks, like better combat or crafting, forcing players to consider
their gameplay strategy. The way the system is set up is if you're pleasing
Veronica, you're upsetting Betty. Betty will then start to remove any previous buffs
she gave you. But in Levine's eyes if you also write two interesting
characters, you're going to see the player making choices between what
character they like and how they want to play, both of which lend themselves to
replayabilty. Levine's presentation
ended discussing ways to have players get to know characters by going on
special quests where they would obtain new insight into the them,
learning more of their passions and secrets.
What was seen at the panel isn't his next game announcement,
but his thought experiment proved that Levine is ready to try something new and
that he's already pondering how to go about it.
Email the author Kimberley Wallace, or follow on Twitter, and Game Informer.