With Ken Levine’s next project taking shape, questions are asked over whether the linear storytelling of BioShock can be emulated in an open world environment.
Ken Levine is seen by many as one of the top tier video game designers. Responsible for cult classics such as System Shock 2 and the massively acclaimed BioShock series, projects with Levine at the helm have typically revolved around a tense, involved story full of urgency and turmoil. Now, after leaving Irrational Games and the iconic BioShock series behind, the designer has been steadily revealing more and more details about his next game.
Those expecting another linear story akin to BioShock are in for a surprise, however, as Levine has said that the days of a route one narrative are behind him. The game in question, which is yet to receive a name, will consist of an open world, with a divergent story that will revolve around a ‘passion system’ with non-player characters. Levine’s project is an attempt to create a world where character motivations are fluid, and based around interactions more than an arbitrary path to follow.
It’s a bold move, and one that is far away from the style of development that Levine is known for. Swapping from the tight, concise story of BioShock to something that allows much more flexibility is going to be an extremely tough task. Therefore, as excited as BioShock fans may be to learn more about Levine’s next project, there is still a niggling doubt over just how well the success of the BioShock series can be replicated in a new style of game.
Levine has warned that the new game is going to be an entirely different beast from its predecessors, even critiquing his prior works with the bold statement that “linear narrative puts a boundary between the developer and the audience” when discussing his latest project. But that’s not to say that Levine cannot learn – and build upon – what made the BioShock series so great. There are even some storytelling techniques that can easily transcend the boundaries between linear narrative and open world experience.
Chief amongst these is the idea of environmental narrative, a technique that BioShock utilized to great effect. In short, this is the developer’s use of the game’s setting and props to tell a game’s story, away from the typical video game narrative functions of dialogue and action. Rather than simply relying on the player’s actions to tell a story, BioShock is passively a hugely impactful tale in its own right, and one of the best modern horror games to boot.
Ever wonder how BioShock’s Rapture felt so immersive and foreboding simply by existing? That’s partly because of the sheer level of environmental features included. Everything from posters on the wall to the haunting voice recordings scattered around the underwater city paint BioShock’s picture of loss and death, all the while compelling the player to find out more.
The amount of player control over their own actions in the original BioShock also has a tremendous affect on the game’s quality, with the user able to decide exactly how much of Rapture’s back story to take in. Those wanting to stop and smell the augmented roses can do so, whilst those who would prefer to power through the game’s plot are equally free to go at their own speed. This strategy would work even better in an open world game, where the player not only has choice over action and speed of play, but also over general location.
One of the pitfalls that Levine’s team will have to look out for, however, is the rationality of a player’s decisions. Crafting a compelling narrative within an open world game has been done plenty of times before, but as Fallout 4 has unfortunately discovered, it’s extremely hard to make that story tie up with the actions of the player. The end of the world may be nigh, with stakes at the highest possible point, but that is not going to stop the player character hoarding expensive items or completing menial side quests when it suits them.
What’s more, crafting an interesting back story for the main character is a hard task for the developer of an open world game, for similar reasons as those listed above, and this can potentially clash with any environmental narrative in place. Often, this is diverted through the simple technique of making the player character a newcomer to the situation. Once more looking at the Fallout franchise, both Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 made the player character someone who had never witnessed the wasteland before, whilst Fallout: New Vegas called upon the trope of character amnesia.
Levine has also used this technique before, in BioShock. The player’s character, Jack, is a plane crash survivor that finds themselves stranded with no choice but to explore the terrifying darkness of Rapture. The player and Jack are one and the same, facing this daunting situation together – at least at first glance, before the truth of the game’s plot is discovered.
The eventual reveal of Jack’s role is a reason for BioShock fans to be cheerful about the chances of the next Levine-helmed title also reaching a high level of quality. BioShock’s twist, and the true identity of the player’s handy helper Atlas, is one of the most shocking video game twists of all time. More than simply being a fantastic bit of storytelling, the reveal also showcases Levine’s understanding of the tropes that make video games tick.
Atlas’ true persona, and in particular the “would you kindly” explanation, answers one of the oft-asked questions of any gamer playing a linear game: why, exactly, is the player going through these terrifying tasks on behalf of another character? BioShock answered this in a wonderfully subversive way, mocking the use of this gameplay mechanic through explaining it as a psychological trigger. It’s not the only time that Levine has pushed the boundaries of what makes a linear story, including a fascinating meta moment in BioShock Infinite.
Given the developer’s history of bending traditional gaming rules and tropes, it’s easy to wonder exactly how Levine is going to work this magic within the design limitations of an open world experience. The answer there perhaps lies with the project’s themes and topics, particularly given the game’s science fiction setting. Levine himself has admitted that the title will explore the idea of artificial intelligence, which could open the door to all kinds of questions being asked.
In fact, the developer has already given a fairly strong indication of where the game will sit, with Levine stating that the title will explore the idea of what it means to be programmed. With such a strong focus on the role of programming restrictions versus a being’s freedom, this could potentially be used to answer the bugbear of why an open world, free game limits players to a number of quest lines, setting an initial, scripted focus that cannot be ignored.
All in all, this project is looking to be an intriguing one. Although more details need to surface before any idea of the game’s subject matter can be perceived, the plan for a Shadow of Mordor-inspired open world RPG with some intense philosophical questions to ask may well have the blood racing. Between now and then, though, there are plenty of hurdles to jump to ensure that the game has the level of quality that the gaming community expects. Let’s see whether Levine is up to the task.