What is BioShock creator Ken Levine’s next project?
Ken Levine has always been a story guy.
The creator of System Shock 2 and BioShock spends a lot of time talking about storytelling in games. Today, the narrative of the studio he co-founded in 1997 is reaching its end. Irrational Games has been reduced to 15 people, who Levine will take with him to start a new studio under Take-Two to work on a digital-only, story-driven game.
“While I’m deeply proud of what we’ve accomplished together,” Levine wrote of his former team in a message on the company’s website, “my passion has turned to making a different kind of game than we’ve done before. To meet the challenge ahead, I need to refocus my energy on a smaller team with a flatter structure and a more direct relationship with gamers. In many ways, it will be a return to how we started: a small team making games for the core gaming audience.”
Levine has made hints at his next project for a few years. It’s a concept he calls “narrative LEGO”, and it’s all about story.
Speaking to Polygon last October, Levine explained the idea that’s been floating around his head. At the time, the rumors of his next project said it would involve taking a computer-controlled character like BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth and making a game out of it. Levine was quick to deny it as a game.
“Look, I’ve been thinking about narrative a lot and the future of narrative and how to make narrative,” Levine said. “…The last thing I would say is that I’m thinking about making Elizabeth into a Milo. There are some components and I’m going to be starting to talk about this. I want to make clear this isn’t a game design.”
“I’ve been working on a concept I call narrative LEGO which is how do you take narrative and break it down. What are the smallest part of narrative that you can then remix and build something out of? Mix and match.”
The goal, Levine said, is to create something like the emergent narrative that spawns from all the interlocking systems in a game like Civilization with pieces of story that can combine and trigger based on your input.
At the Gaming Insiders Conference in San Francisco a week after Polygon, Levine explained its purpose.
“I spend five years [working on a game] and 12 hours later the player is done with it, and that is heartbreaking,” he said. “There are some fans who will replay it but you can’t expect that from the average gamer because it won’t be meaningfully different the second time, and that is an important challenge.”
Today’s news suggests Levine’s thought experiment has finally become an actual game. Coincidentally, he’ll be talking at the Game Developer’s Conference next month about “narrative LEGO”.
As with most of Levine’s work, it’ll likely be ambitious, something worth talking about, good or bad. And in a time where game stories are rapidly evolving, his idea could change how we think about game narratives. Right now, it’s clear that he already is.