Ken Levine’s GDC 2014 Talk


It’s been a few months, but I fall behind on video-games every year. A few names and companies consistently circulate in my mind — Harvey Smith, Retro Studios, Rhianna Pratchett — and one of the major guys is Ken Levine of Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite fame. When he first started talking about truly replayable game narratives, it sounded pie in the sky, very theoretic, but at the latest Game Developers Conference in March, Levine fleshed out this shifted direction he’s taking with Irrational Games, the Boston-based company now closed and evolving into an independent group.

One of the things Levine talked about was the development of NPCs, or Non-Player Characters, controlled by artificial intelligence, who are not reaching toward the replication of a person but the creation of an actual character. They aren’t composed of endless minor traits like ‘has OCD’ or ‘is vegetarian,’ if these things have no relevance to the player. These characters will instead be driven by ‘passions,’ which are driving motivations mapped to each virtual person that determine how they’ll interact with the player avatar based on their choices and actions.

He used Skyrim as a jumping off point, using orcs and elves as examples in this ‘passions’ discussion. The idea that Levine’s new characters (themselves merely building blocks for how a new type of narrative would operate) would be so complex is in a strange way reinforced by the wandering thought that at any time the player could kill these characters, and thus the player experience is made that much more unique. The thought, for me, comes up because of Skyrim, where quests can be cut off to the player if NPCs are needlessly slaughtered — call it the GTA/Postal kneejerk.

If characters take on passions, if NPCs actually become characters, as we see in older forms of storytelling media, perhaps even the kneejerkers will see their virtual violence reduced.

A friend of mine killed all the doctors in the room at the end of The Last of Us, and was shocked that I didn’t. “Why not? It’s fun.” Implicitly, he wanted me to understand that this didn’t make him a sociopath, or cultivate anti-social behavior in him, but general wisdom holds that it might in someone else, someone in a different environment with a different psychological makeup. The idea that violent media has no effect on society, or is merely a reflection of society, is not totally true, as decided upon in 2000 by a joint effort between the APA and several other American academies and associations of psychology. Interactive media that simulates killing may be about venting for you, but there are plenty of people more fucked up than you.

The evolution of the game narrative hopefully means what it seems to, looking at the indie game space right now, moving away from how Gears of War developer Cliff Bleszinski views touching the virtual world — by shooting. Combat is the major form of interaction in video-games, but in other media, not every film for example is an action movie. How do we get a video-game that’s like the film Nebraska, where most of the content is talking, save for one instance of punching Stacey Keach?

A common sentiment you’ll hear from fans and critics of RPGs is guilt about ‘being Renegade,’ so to speak, of making choices that piss off or kill NPCs. I understand that — in the first Mass Effect, you can actually turn Garrus down from joining the squad, and I kind of want to experience that, but I don’t want to hear Shepard be turian-racist, or see Garrus’s reaction. That’s a lot different than a ‘game over’ screen governing the player’s behavior. Part of it is escapism and immersion — my Last of Us buddy liked the game but didn’t involve himself in the way I had.

Involving the player in a deeper way is video-games offering to a wider audience what movies and TV shows can, a spectrum of experiences. If player-interaction with the NPCs is more than combat, what could the ever-child-rearing medium of video-games teach us and our impressionable young?

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