Ken Levine on writing games: a "depressing process, but afterwards it's the best thing ever"


In a fascinating episode of the Irrational Interview podcast , creative director Ken Levine discusses the art of games writing with Uncharted writer Amy Hennig. They talk about the how the technical requirements of the development process enforces a haphazard approach to scripting. Levine uses Bioshock's most famous moment as an example.

"I'll write a scene like the Andrew Ryan scene in Bioshock 1 before I've written most of the game, and because of the animation requirements, because it's a big animated scene we had to get started on that very early," he says. "I really don't exactly know how the hell I'm going to get to that."

"I don't know exactly how I'm going after that scene, but that scene is going to be set in stone to a degree, because of the animation requirements of it. You have to trust yourself, too, to say "this is okay, I'm going to figure this out!""

Hennig explains that key scenes are decided very early on to give the rest of the team something to develop, but the overall arc surrounding those points tends be altered as development continues. "I think people also underestimate how flexible stories are, in terms of problem solving," says Levine in response. "I think people think that stories are a lot more rigid than they actually are."

"It's the easiest thing to change, to some degree. You can be much more adaptive. You have a scene that's already written and recorded and animated and then something needs to change. The easiest thing to change is something in the story."

Levine and Hennig also reflect on the the constrained nature of game writing. While games are four or more times the size of a film, the time allowed to deliver plot points and move the story forwards is much more limited. "As game writers we have to work in an extremely, extremely compressed format," says Levine

Levine explains that the Bioshock team decided to "use the visual space" more when delivering plot points, as demonstrated in the Andrew Ryan scene and the ghostly interludes that appear as you explore Rapture in Bioshock. "You can't take for granted how patient your audience is going to be with your storytelling," he says.

It doesn't sound easy. Early on, Hennig describes games writing as "a massive and communal act of faith." Ken Levine admits that putting a game script together is a difficult and uncertain task. "I find it to be a miserable, depressing process," he says. "But afterwards it's the best thing ever."

You can download the 50 minute podcast from the Irrational site .

Tom Senior

Part of the UK team, Tom was with PC Gamer at the very beginning of the website's launch—first as a news writer, and then as online editor until his departure in 2020. His specialties are strategy games, action RPGs, hack ‘n slash games, digital card games… basically anything that he can fit on a hard drive. His final boss form is Deckard Cain.