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GDC08: Ken Levine says to keep the story simple

Justin McElroy

"Details seem like the hard work, they seem like they important part, but they're not your friend. They really just drag you down."

It's a surprising message from BioShock developer Ken Levine, who spoke this morning at the GDC. But despite how intricate his game was, he said that plotting details are (with a few exceptions) best left out. He says that the best storyteller is the one that might seem the most benign: The world.

"What is he engaged in all of the time? What's right there in his face? He's engaged in the world," he said.

Gallery: Ken Levine Storytelling Gallery | 32 Photos

He shows, to illustrate his point, an early demo from mid-2006. It's still strikingly similar to the final product, but the world feels hollow, with few of the details that set the game apart.

"What's wrong with this world is that it's not saying anything to you," Levine said. "We basically decided to scrap the whole thing and start again."

The game originally took place over 70 years, spanning three civil wars and including dozens of characters. When the team decided to start fresh, they took the knife to most of these characters, choosing to leave certain ones to communicate specific aspects of the story.

What 2K Boston discovered was that they more cuts they made, the more details they trimmed, the stronger their story was.

"We gave the player the option to opt-out, with the hope that for those who opted-in the experience would be all the more powerful because they were invested in it," he said.

Levine also cautions against the long-winded intro, which he illustrates with a hilariously verbose version of the BioShock story as told by Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation fame.

In the end, all of Levine's points hearkened back to a central point, and it's perhaps a surprising one coming from the developer of one of if not the strongest game narratives of 2007: In almost every way, smaller is better.

Or, as Levine (as if to demonstrate his point) put it so succinctly:

"If you want people to follow your story it's gotta be really f***ing stupid."

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