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How a love of film helped BioShock and Her Story's creators change games

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And how making games could help them change film

Few would argue that Her Story and BioShock are especially similar games. One is a package of short full-motion video clips that, when strung together, unravel a mystery; the other, a first-person exploration game set underwater and filled with existential dread (and guns). But in a talk during this year's Tribeca Film Festival, both games' lead writers sat side by side as they discussed what makes their best-known titles similar.

Ken Levine (BioShock) and Sam Barlow (Her Story) participated in a panel called "From Film to Game," speaking about how their education and experience in the former medium contributed to their work in the latter. It's through their cinematic qualities that these titles stand apart from other games — as well as through Barlow and Levine's backgrounds in filmmaking.

Levine talked about how he studied playwriting before entering the game industry. Yet an ad at a game company led the self-proclaimed lifelong gamer to a position as a game designer. Despite not knowing what that job entailed, Levine began work on his first game, Thief, at Looking Glass Studios.

He described how his playwriting background inspired the script of that game and later projects, like BioShock predecessor System Shock 2. Using dramatic conventions common to cinema and theater, Levine wanted to craft stories that, in his mind, video games rarely told.

"When I started in games, storytelling wasn't that sophisticated," he said. "The bar was pretty low. Unreliable narrators were things I was very familiar with, but those were entirely new concepts in games at the time."

Yet the unreliable narrator of BioShock is one of the things that made that game memorable, he explained. Combined with his love for genres like film noir — an influence on Thief — these techniques became the cornerstone of his design career.

"the audience today is so densely exposed to story"

Barlow's entrance into the industry bears a resemblance to Levine's, and Levine nodded in recognition as Barlow recalled the beginning of his own career. Barlow told of how his love for Hitchcock films combined with his early art career helped pave his way into games and define how he designs projects like Her Story.

"We're in a fascinating point where the audience today is so densely exposed to story," he said. "Knowing the audience would go into [Her Story] knowing every murder mystery setup" inspired him to play with how that story is constructed; Levine and Barlow both expressed their desire to tell stories in novel ways, like Her Story's nonlinear "atomized chunks" and BioShock's environmentally unravelled narrative.

Exploring subtext, they said, was also key; that's something film does well but games rarely touch, Barlow said. He said that making Her Story in the style of playable movie scenes helped bring this more cinematic mode of storytelling to the fore.

tribeca film fest

Now the pair is contributing what they've brought to game design back into the film industry. The three panelists — director Will Gluck (Easy A) was also present — are united by their involvement with Interlude, a media company that explores interactive video. Barlow signed on as executive creative director in March, and is currently working on an updated WarGames experience with the company.

Levine and Gluck have similar projects in the works at Interlude; just before Levine's Tribeca Film Festival appearance, news broke that he is developing an interactive version of The Twilight Zone. Gluck's project is a Choose Your Own Adventure-style series for PCs and smart devices, although he offered few specific details.

How, exactly, each of these will work remains to be seen. Barlow stayed mum about the WarGames project, although he did drop a hint that his WarGames could star a woman, unlike the original 1980s film. Levine's version of The Twilight Zone remains similarly vague, with the writer saying earlier this week that viewers will be tasked with making choices for the film's characters.

interactive experiences featuring subtle choices

All three creators explained that they hope to change how choices are made in interactive works. WarGames will offer "implicit choices" to the player, Barlow said. He compared how WarGames will pick up on the player's decision-making to how a stand-up comic customizes his or her set for each city, throwing in local references to subtly change things up.

These projects are due beginning later this year. How Barlow and Levine have made inroads in gaming thanks to their interest in film has given them their first successes. Just how their more film-like work with Interlude will impact the movie industry remains to be seen.