He says he's "scratching around in the dirt," trying to find a way through from linear narratives to something more systemic. But Ken Levine gives the impression of a fellow who won't allow any ground rocks to get in his way.
Last year, Levine began talking about "narrative Legos" or ways in which NPCs could be created to react to the player on an almost molecular level, rather than merely following scripts.
At GDC today, he offered more details on what this slightly esoteric idea means in practice.
Speaking to a large audience, he said that his ideas, at this point, do not gesture towards any specific game ideas or even genres. He was not at GDC to reveal a new game. He just wanted to talk about how narrative based games could be built differently, in such a way that they are deeper, broader and, crucially, repayable again and again.
In his last hit game, BioShock Infinite, the character Elizabeth is always going to react to the player-character Booker in predictable ways, based on a very small number of player actions. But with narrative Legos, NPCs react across an almost infinite array of possibilities.
Briefly, Levine referenced his recent decision to close down his development house Irrational, along with the loss of dozens of jobs. Many of his former teammates were in the GDC audience. He said that the problem he has given himself demanded that he "go back to the drawing board" with "a smaller group of people." He added that "we need time to fail. We can't have 150 people asking for something to do."
So what does this new system look like?
Imagine an RPG. You wander into a village and strike up a conversation with an orc blacksmith. You understand that he has three main passions, which include a devotion to the old gods, a romantic interest in another NPC and an utter loathing of elves.
From this point on, everything you do that addresses the orc's passions affects how he feels about you, and the ways he will interact with you. If you decide to go on an elf murder spree, he may give you bonuses. If you marry an elf, he may try to kill you.
Other orcs in the village, known as "stars" in Levine's demonstration, behave in much the same way. Each has his or her own passions. They are not always aligned.
Essentially, this game is all about worrying over other people's feelings. The way the stars view you shapes how lesser NPCs, like village grunts and guards, view you. They create a kind of macro village feeling about you.
Naturally, there are other villages and other NPCs, so the strategy in this world is going to be all about playing characters off against one another, and picking friends and enemies.
Levine said that this can get really interesting when the player is given emotionally fraught decisions. Perhaps you have the option of marrying a character who has access to great riches, but is kind of a jerk. There is another suitor who is lovely, but offers little. The choice you make lies somewhere between emotional fulfillment and strategic thinking. Of course, you can go back and choose differently in later play sessions.
It becomes even more investing in, say, a co-op multiplayer game. Perhaps your real life friend is best mates with the elves, who hate your guts because of that earlier elf murder spree. Does your human pal sacrifice your friendship? Or the goodwill of the elves?
Levine said that he is not trying to create games in which every NPC is like a real human being. Most characters in fiction come with a fairly limited number of known attributes. "People ask me, 'when is an AI going to be like a person?' That is fundamentally too ambitious a way to look at characters. A character that can act to any situation and say funny or robust things is too far," he said. "But there are major steps we can make here and we have to focus our steps."
He compared the work he is going to the earliest simulations of real world physics in games. "When it first appeared, we weren't, oh fuck this, it's no good," he said. "I am just contributing to a conversation that a lot of people who I respect are thinking about."
He said he wanted to create a simulation that reminded people of being inside a fictional world of conflicting relationships and loyalties, like Game of Thrones. The point, he said, was to get to a place where narrative games are endlessly repayable, creating worlds in which characters behave more like real humans.