Monday 18th February 2019,
XP4T Brave.Bold.Banter.

Interview with the Devs: Ken Levine

Interview with the Devs: Ken Levine

JONAS: You’re not just a writer, of course – as the overall creative lead on your projects, you have many other duties. How much of your work time would you say is spent on writing as opposed to your other responsibilities (management, high-level game design, etc.)?

KEN: It depends on where we are on a project. About 1/2 to 3/4s of the way through , I’m all writing all the time if I can.  Otherwise it’s pretty mixed up with high level design and management.

JONAS: Other than narrative design, which part of game development do you enjoy the most?

KEN: Systems design. Lot of that on the new project, way more than any other of our games.

JONAS: Your games are known for involving a large degree of environmental storytelling. How do you coordinate across diverse team disciplines (environment art, level design, etc.) to make sure that the world tells the story you want it to? Do you prefer to get everyone on the same page and then trust them to support your work through theirs? Do you prefer to get your hands dirty and work out the details yourself?

KEN: The best people I’ve worked with require very little from me except setting a direction and giving some feedback along the way. They usually amaze me all the time and make me wonder if they need my help at all. But the real job of a creative director is to make sure everybody is informed of what the game/story are and trying your best to keep everybody on that same page.

JONAS: In a similar vein, much of the narrative in your games tends to be conveyed through posters and art in the game world. How much of your time spent writing do you estimate is spent on fleshing out environmental details like that as opposed to script writing? Of the two, which kind of writing do you enjoy the most?

KEN: It’s all a writing task, in my head. I don’t really divide them as two separate activities. We first decide what needs to be communicated and then we decide HOW it will be communicated (dialog, audio logs, posters, narrative scenes, etc.)

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JONAS: It seems I’ve caught you at an exciting time – you’ve just started releasing information about your new project, and you’ve stated that you want to run a more open development process than you’re used to. What do you expect to gain from open development? When you say ‘open development’ what are you aiming for: Do you mainly want to release more information earlier, or are you hoping to receive input along the way that might influence your design?

KEN: We’re new to it, so I’m learning as I go. It’s never really been possible for us before. But basically we don’t have a lot of secrets. Sometimes its hard to figure out how to share, but we’re working on that. I’m making my Twitch debt soon. But I’ve been on Twitter, Facebook, etc a long time. I dm with fans all the time, as well as interacting publicly. I’m very committed to highlighting cosplayers and other talented younger folks. I kickstart a zillion things. I’m a huge believer that games are awesome.

JONAS: You’ve refined the art of making strong, linear plotlines work in games with largely nonlinear levels. The best way I know to describe the dynamic would be that your games have been linear on the macro-level but nonlinear on the micro-level. Your new project sounds like a very different beast from your previous work. What made you decide to go in a completely new direction?

KEN: Well, two reasons. One is, I think we’ve done it the macro level linear thing well, but we’ve done it.  Maybe we’ll return to it at some point. But I don’t think we have a ton more to say right now about it. I think story games tend to have a very short life span, one and done. We’re trying to substantially leverage systems  to make narrative replayable in a big, meaningful way.

JONAS: From what you’ve said on Twitter, it seems like you’re going to try for a more open-ended modular storytelling method in your upcoming game. It must be quite a paradigm shift to go from constructing largely linear and heavily character-driven storylines to piecing together more of a system that creates the potential for story to arise. Has your writing process changed accordingly, or have you found that your existing methods and habits have translated well to this new approach so far?

KEN: No, everything has to change. The stories will still be character driven, but it’s really about the push and pull of a relatively large group of characters and the player having to play them off one another in a microcosmic way. It’s a very hard problem. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of our expectations along the way are confounded and we have to fail a lot to get there, if we get there at all. That said, so far so good as we approach a prototype. We’ll see.

JONAS: You once talked at GDC about narrative in games in terms of Push vs. Pull – that developers should encourage players to discover the narrative for themselves rather than push it on them in cut scenes. Do you expect that players will have to take more responsibility for their own story in your new game than for example in BioShock?

KEN: It’s very much a player driven thing in the new one. In a lot of ways, BioShock games are conceptually about getting from the first trigger volume to the last, with system spaces to explore along the way.  This new game is much more rule oriented. It’s about navigating a system, not geometry, and the geometry can’t be linear if the approach is going to work.

JONAS: If you’ll allow me a small digression, I read once that you’re largely responsible for the original setting in the Thief games. It certainly fits the pattern of your own games, with the three factions overtly representing wildly differing philosophies. What exactly was the nature and extent of your involvement in the Thief trilogy?

KEN: So, I conceived the hammers, the trickster and Viktoria, Garrett (though he was called palmer in my time on it) and the rough plot with Garrett’s eye, etc. I set the tone for the fantasy noir stuff with a bunch of example scenes I wrote. And I worked with Doug on the design for the initial stealth stuff, like noise arrows, enemies “sorta” hearing you (Is somebody there?). There’s a pretty good summary of it on the Thief: The Dark Project Wikipedia page.

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About The Author

Jonas Wæver is the Creative Director of Logic Artists, a small independent game studio in Copenhagen, Denmark. Jonas was the writer and lead designer on Expeditions: Conqusitador, a turn-based tactical roleplaying game that was released in 2013. Currently he is working on Clandestine, a stealth/hacker spy thriller which is available now in Steam Early Access.

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