Eight months ago, BioShock creator Ken Levine made headlines when he left developer Irrational Games to work on a project of his own. Although 75 employees had been laid off before him, Levine’s decision to leave still came as a surprise, especially as he’d been at Irrational Games for over a decade.
His departure has also thrown up questions about the future of BioShock and Levine’s career. Irrational Games closed down when Levine left but the BioShock legacy has lived on in a mobile port and a BioShock: Infinite repackage but Levine’s new project has very much remained a mystery.
When he left Irrational, Levine detailed plans to make games with “narrative elements that are non-linear and interact with each other” where “all narrative elements to trigger off player action.” His current project will be the first to deliver on that and he has now revealed more info on the game’s foundations in a new blog post.
Writing on Medium, Levine was clear in his game development intentions. The industry veteran explained that action RPG Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor helped him to discover exactly the sort of narrative form that he’d like to pursue.
“Even as we’ve made huge inroads into our design, even as we work on our prototype, there are days when I wonder: Will it be fun? Is there a there there? Even if there is, will the audience give a shit?
And then Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor showed up. On the most simple level, it’s Arkham City meets Tolkien. You go around a map, using a fighting system nabbed from Rocksteady’s amazing Batman games to take down what more or less amounts to a criminal family of orcs: first the street thugs, then the captains, and then the boss, orc Tony Soprano himself.
But here’s the great part. Nobody tells you how to take down this crime family. You wanna take down Lorm Metal-Beard first to undermine his master, Dharg the Black? Go to it, pal. You wanna turn Horhog the Armorer into a double agent so he backstabs his boss Goroth Caragor Tamer? More power to you, sister.”
He also expressed fondness for the way that Shadows of Mordor breaks down “the elements of character into small chunks and re-combining them based on randomness and, more important, responses to the player’s choices.” Levine notes that the game “heals” itself and creates new characters that are made of “dozens of bits of micro-content that can be mixed and matched” to keep everything in order.
Other games that fit into Levine’s idea of “Narrative Legos” (which he spoke about at Games Developer Conference 2014) are games like Civilization, XCOM and Minecraft that give players plenty of choice even if “it doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to traditional narrative.” Meanwhile, Levine had criticism for “games like Dragon Age” saying that they don’t “offer truly player-driven narratives” despite their “branching paths and complex dialogue trees.”
It’s clear that Levine’s new game will offer plenty of freedom in terms of both gameplay and narration and so we could very well end up with the gaming equivalent of The Butterfly Effect. Few other details are known but as Levine has outlined a goal to make “a flexible narrative that is broadly replayable and strongly adaptive to player choice” there’s very good reason take interest already.