Modern Video Games Go Beyond 'Jumping On Blocks' : All Tech Considered The creative director for BioShock Infinite, one of 2013's biggest video games, says as technology improves, so does the ability for games to tell complex stories with rich narrative structures.

Modern Video Games Go Beyond 'Jumping On Blocks'

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From the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath.


ADAM SIETZ: (As Jack Ryan) They told me - son, you are special. You were born to do great things.

RATH: When "BioShock" came out in 2007, a lot of people in the videogame world flipped out. Here was a blockbuster videogame that went beyond saving the princess or beating the bad guys. Sure, there was first-person shooting. But it was set into a deep narrative with philosophical themes, set in a darkly imagined underwater Ayn Randian dystopia.


UNIDENTIFIED CHARACTER: Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? No, says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor. No, says the man in the Vatican, it belongs...

RATH: Before "BioShock" came out, critics were skeptical that anyone would be interested. Four million sales later, even non-gamers acknowledged that the medium could be art. Ken Levine is "BioShock's" creative director.

KEN LEVINE: There is a tendency for publishers and developers to underestimate the audience and what they're interested in. And they're really no different, you know, than any other audience. You know, there's plenty of movies that are intended for people who aren't that interested in political philosophy - whatever those themes are - and there's plenty that - that are.

RATH: And he says that status quo was self-perpetuating. A lack of games that appealed to the intellectual set meant the intellectual set didn't find games appealing.


RICHARD HERD: (As Preacher Whiting) Brother, the only way to Columbia is through rebirth in the sweet waters of baptism. Will you be cleansed, brother?

RATH: The latest "BioShock" sequel, "BioShock Infinite," came out last year. It delivers more storytelling based, philosophically infused action. But like its predecessor, it's also incredibly violent.


RATH: Now, it's not like "BioShock Infinite" is unusual for its violence. The E3 Gaming Convention recently in Los Angeles was lousy with blood and gore. You could not get away from the sound of gunfire.

But some critics expected better from "BioShock Infinite." One even called the game - a case study in unnecessary violence. I presented that critique to Ken Levine.

LEVINE: You know, I think that it's - it's not particularly more violent than "BioShock" one. And "BioShock" one was a very, very dark game. I think the conversation in the game space was changed a little bit. And I think that people used "Infinite" as a launching point to talk about the changing nature of games in that, can you make successful games that don't have violence and things like that?

And now, one of the reasons there's been a lot of violence in video games is because it's relatively easy to simulate. And generally, it's been - like action movies, you know, there's an easily perceivable market for it. So I think when people are looking at "BioShock" as, you know, OK, could they have done it without violence? We got that question asked a lot after the game can out. A

nd, you know, it's an interesting question. I like games myself. Like, I've always liked gamey things. So I wasn't terribly interested in telling - in making a game that didn't have a game component...

RATH: But by games, though, I mean, specifically a violent game component, though.

LEVINE: Right. And actually - so I think, you know, when you have nonviolent components - it would have been odd. I wouldn't have known how to make a game like, for instance, like "Mario," which is - I want to know how to take this kind of story and turn it into a game about jumping on blocks. Or, you know, a Pacman - you know, eating dots. Or even, you know, there are games like "The Walking Dead," which don't have - they have some violence, but they're mostly - they're mostly about making decisions...

RATH: Right.

LEVINE: ...Like go - you know, remember the old "Choose Your Own Adventure" books when you were a kid?

RATH: Yeah.

LEVINE: But, you know, I think the reaction to the violence is more an expression of people building confidence in the industry's ability to express itself in more diverse fashions. And I think to some degree that's - we were able to do that with "BioShock" one.

We were able to say, OK, well, things can be more diverse. And then after "Infinite," they came back and said can't you do it without the shooting, maybe? That's not something we were able to contemplate at that stage because the game was done already. But it's certainly an interesting question in retrospect.

RATH: There have been other games aside from "BioShock" that have come out - had these really rich narratives. But also, always still having this first-person shooter quality to it. Is that like a formal requirement? Is it like, you know, a sonnet needs 14 lines, a game needs shooting?


LEVINE: I don't think it's a formal requirement. I think forms - art forms of all kinds have evolved through a series of accidents - or a series of requirements that evolve over time. And sometimes the form doesn't realize that something was sort of an artifact of a certain requirement.

Like for instance, video games traditionally were very, very difficult to play. And the reason they were difficult is that the original games were arcade games. They were there trying to eat quarters. So they really wanted the games to be difficult so you'd keep pumping quarters into it.

So when we started making games that didn't require quarters - that you buy and you - you know, when you play, it took us - it took me a long time to realize, like, wait a minute. Why are our games so difficult? And it was because we just grew up with difficult games because they had that quarter mentality.

And I think shooters, to some degree, are the same way. You know, we started - I started games by thinking about what is the game play mechanics of this? And a shooter was sort of - answers a lot of questions for you. It's sort of, OK, well, the main mechanics can be - you have this gun. You have weapons and you have enemies. You have conflict who are coming at you.

And as we got more power with the systems and more art, we were able to bring more things into it - like all the narrative that you see in "Bioshock"and all the visuals - like so much of the stories told in the world - right? - the visuals of the world. You couldn't have that 10, 15 years ago.

Then all of a sudden we're like, wow, people aren't really - I assumed people are coming for the shooting when we made the game originally. I think now we have a little more confidence that - especially, when you don't have to appeal to 8 or 10 million people. If you can just digitally distribute things like you can now. You can do that because you don't need - you don't need to spend the money to put it on trucks, to get it to a store and deal with retailers and the shippers and all that. So you can - you can really try to really have a one-to-one interaction with a smaller, more dedicated fan base and give them the thing they want. And you couldn't do that 10 years ago when I started - you know, 20 years ago when I started - same thing you see happen with cable TV.

Years ago, you had either - there were three networks, and you had to make things that would appeal to, you know, a broad - I don't want to say the lowest - but the broadest common denominator. And then when you started having cable - when they had, you know, they could make more artisanal products like "The Sopranos" or like "Mad Men" and things like that because you didn't have to hit those kind of audiences. You were able to do those more kind of experimental things. And I think that's what you're seeing with games now is we realize we can experiment more and because we don't have to hit such a broad common denominator.

RATH: That's Ken Levine. He's the creative director for the game "BioShock" and "BioShock Infinite." Ken, I'm really excited to see what you come up with next. Thank you.

LEVINE: Thank you very much.


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