Ken Levine Talks Player Participation and Breaking Away From Linear Narratives
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 future projects.
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 between them.
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.