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Ken Levine talks storytelling and character authenticity

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The underwater city of rapture, the stories that happened inside are still being analysed today.

Storytelling in video games has come a long way in the years since arcade machines ruled the land, and the story of a game could be summed up in two lines in a game manual. Now, in the modern-day industry, we have developers and writers creating intricate and emotional stories, containing characters with real substance and are believable. Games such as The Walking Dead from Telltale, or Naughty Dog’s Last of Us, stories defined by the characters, and not just the events of the tale are evidence of well thought out characters, with complicated backgrounds and not just stereotypes.

These are the stories which really capture the attention of myself and the industry as a whole, and show video games can be a medium in which truly beautiful and emotional stories can be told. However, it is often the characters which define these stories for us. When I think of The Last of Us, Joel’s and Ellie’s relationship and interactions are the theme which resonates with me, and leaves a lasting impression.

In a recent interview, Mike Futter of Gameinformer, talked to Ken Levine, the creator of the Bioshock series, about creating real characters with true authentic diversity and what he is planning for his new project.

Creating real characters – Bioshock origins

To begin with, Ken Levine talked about the lives of the main characters in the original Bioshock, and how creating in-depth and meaningful background stories, helped to shape the game and the theme. Explaining how previous events in the character’s lives led to the creation of Rapture, and gave real meaning and substance to the choices made by these characters.

Levine explained how in Bioshock, a majority of the main characters were in fact Jewish, and although this did not define them, it did have an influence over them throughout their lives, and events that affected the Jewish race often affected them.

Ken Levine, the lead creator of the Bioshock series and a world renowned writer has strong ideas about character creation

Ken Levine, the lead creator of the Bioshock series and a world-renowned writer

Andrew Ryan, the creator and visionary of Rapture, was born in Russia, was middle class, and during the Bolshevik revolution his families’ lives were destroyed. This left a lasting impact on Ryan, in regards to how he thought about government and nationalization. Even after moving to America, Ryan still felt a feeling of rebellion to authority and government control.

“He had a mistrust of government, a mistrust of socialism, a mistrust of all those things. That led him to becoming the guy he was. Even America was too government-oriented for him. It’s why he created Rapture. It’s all a response to this thing that happened when he was a kid, and because he was Jewish.”

The group of people Ryan gathered together to create Rapture, had similar experiences, and they had Jewish backgrounds, which led to events in their lives which would change them. However, it was also the rejection of some of the beliefs and structure of the Jewish culture which led to the choices they would make in creating Rapture.

In regards to Dr Steinman, the Jewish plastic surgeon whom is found lurking through the medical ward of Rapture, after losing his mind to Adam, this is especially true. In Jewish culture, changing the body, through tattoos or plastic surgery is frowned upon and prohibited.

 “You can imagine maybe he had some disapproval from his family and much more observant parents. This is the field of medicine you go into? This is what you choose? You go into a field where your profession is to alter the body?’ That was the first interaction he had with people saying, ‘There is a problem with your work. You need to be restrained by some force: by God, by government, by regulation.’ The reason he eventually becomes a monster, especially when he starts taking Adam himself, his mind starts collapsing. It’s an expansion of his desire not to be held back by any outside force.”

Although, many of these characters share a religion, and they were influenced by the culture and events surrounding their race, it is their ambitions and goals which brought them together.  The ambition to be independent from rules or structure, to be able to create without judgement or fear, is what brought them together, not their race. They were not defined or solely influenced by the Jewish culture, but are multifaceted people, who are believable and interesting and often have their own believes and goals.

“The first thing you think about is, ‘Who is this character, and what does he want, and what’s in his way?’ That’s how you develop a character.” Levine told Gameinformer. “If you start from, ‘This is a black dude’ or ‘This is a Jewish dude,’ you’re kind of missing the point. I try not to look at characters as their skin colour, race, sex, creed, or their gender. I think that’s an inauthentic way of thinking about character, because that’s not what defines people. What defines people is their experience.”

Ken Levine also talked about how there is often an outcry for more diversity of characters in video games, and people often request for very generic character types, such as wanting a ‘positive gay character’, but simply stating a person, and defining them by one aspect of their personality, does not make for interesting characters. There needs to be more to their story, they need to have ambitions and needs, not just filling a character stereotype in a story to make it seem more diverse.

A new start for irrational

Futter and Levine then went on to talk about Levine’s new project and how he is trying to create a new type of narrative experience for players.

In February 2014, after the release of Bioshock Infinite, and all the downloadable content for the game was released, a majority of the studio was ‘let off’, as Ken Levine took the developer into a different direction with a much smaller team.

Irrational games was founded by Ken Levine and is known for its character creation and storytelling

Irrational games were founded by Ken Levine and is known for its character creation and storytelling

For Levine’s new game, he hopes to implement a system, which is in order to make an interesting character, the character needs to have a number of passions, wants and needs.

“The player now has the ability to facilitate those wants or needs or go against those wants or needs or ignore those wants or needs. The reason I think the system is going to work is because it’s a very organic way to look at a character. It’s a quite systemic game. The system we’re in, the character’s feelings about you change, they go up and down. But the heart of a character is still wants and needs, and that makes it no different than anything I’ve ever written before.”

His new approach to character creation aims to make players more aware and caring of other, non-playable characters and how those characters react to you is based on the player’s actions. If you work against the needs or ideals of characters you will push them away and they will dislike and disregard you.

When asked whether Levine could give any more specifics about the project or the name of his new studio, he said he was excited about it, but wasn’t ready to give Gameinformer the full picture yet.

Are you excited about Ken Levine’s new project? Let us know in the comments!

Keep up to date with OnlySP for new details about Levine’s project by following us on Twitter and Facebook.

Sourced from Gameinformer interview with Ken Levine – Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview

Seamus Mullins
Gamer of every genre, but often prefers just buying games and looking at them and the pretty covers rather than ever playing them. A writer from Australia, currently studying Journalism and hoping to make it big one day in writing.

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