Bioshock Infinite’s Ken Levine knows what he can and can’t do

, | Games

One of the most valuable lessons for videogames to learn is that they aren’t movies. I love this Gamasutra interview with Ken Levine about working with actors for Bioshock Infinite, partly because it digs deep into a process that eludes too many videogames: how to effectively use actors to capture the human element. But I really like the following anecdote, which gets to the heart of the matter that videogames can’t just do things the way movies, comic books, or TV shows do them. Understanding the limitations of a videogame is a fundamental part of the design process.

You gotta work with the tools that you have. You also have to make sure you’re not trying to do things that you can’t support. I think one of the first lessons I learned in the game industry, in my first few weeks, I was working on a Star Trek Voyager game that never shipped, and I wrote an opening cutscene for the game. I was a writer on it.

The last part of the opening cutscene I wrote in the stage directions, “The camera pulls in on Janeway’s face, and we see her eyes widen in terror.” Now this is 1995. Janeway’s face was a bitmap that was approximately maybe 32 by 32 pixels.

And my lead programmer said to me, “Dude. You’re not pulling in on Janeway’s face, and her eyes are not widening on terror. She’s sitting there, 32 by 32 pixels, you know, doing nothing.” And I was like “Ohhhh. Okay. I need to figure out different ways to get these emotions across.” That was a very valuable lesson.

Too many videogames are still trying to “pull in on Janeway’s face” in some manner or another. As Levine puts it at the end of the interview, “Whenever you find yourself fighting against your toolset, you’re not going to win that fight”. And now I will resist the temptation to reel off a list of recent videogames that should have known better and still lost that particular fight.