One of the most important aspects of any visual medium, be it films, games, graphic novels, machinima, etc- is story. While many people put an emphasis on the kinds of images and effects they can put into their production, it’s ultimately story that leaves a resonating impact on the viewer/participant.
While gaming has come a long way in recent years, I still find this to be one of the more lacking areas in the industry. Game makers just don’t seem interested in telling great stories. Sure, they’re interested in gameplay, physics, art, mechanics, coding and so forth, and if they can slide a decent story into that framework, then great. But it always seems to be an afterthought.
After reading a great article from Gabe Newell about Left 4 Dead’s design and the idea of using “procedural narrative” that simulates a story that is unique to each player, rather than a traditional scripted narrative that unfolds before the player’s eyes, some of my suspicions were confirmed. Namely, that Valve might be the best storytellers in gaming today.
Allow me to unpack that statement a little. Does Valve make the best stories in gaming? That’s not what I’m saying. Are Valve’s games the best games out there? While their track record is pretty freaking hot, I’m not even saying that. What I am saying is that Valve understands perhaps better than any other developer the role that story can play in a game, and how it can be told and influenced by the gamer in a unique and exciting way.
I think one of the prime examples would be Portal, which is maybe one of the most understated examples I’ve seen of using the FPS genre to tell a story. Without giving you a single cut scene to watch or even a single line of actual dialogue, Valve created a story that unfolded for the player, all absorbed through osmosis subconsciously, rather than through obtuse explanations. You discover, you learn and you make decisions, based only on what you know from the game’s world.
As a player, you wake up in a clean chamber, and are forced by a cold mechanical voice to complete certain tasks. Along the way, you discover that this facility is perhaps more menacing than it seems on the outside. Hidden rooms, writing on the walls, cryptic language from GLADOS, all of these things contribute to the story of Portal, in a way that doesn’t beat the player over the head with the exposition stick. Rather, the player discovers and influences the story on his own. And later, the player chooses to break free of the confines of the Aperture Science Center, and the story takes a whole new turn. Suddenly, it is man versus machine, it is a struggle for freedom.
All without a single cutscene.
Half-Life 2 is the same way. Sure there are moments when people are conversing, where Gordon Freeman is observing the characters around him. But you are never pulled out of the action. Questions are posed to you, problems are brought to you, and you effect every aspect of the story. The opening train sequence of Half-Life 2, for instance, isn’t a cutscene that tells you the history of everything you need to know to play the game. But rather, it’s a ride through this world that you inhabit, and you learn just by watching, whether you’ve realized it or not. I think it’s one of the most striking and innovative openings I’ve ever seen in a game, and it isn’t thrusting you into ball-busting action. It’s just you riding a train, and then walking around City 17.
Left 4 Dead continues in this tradition, but through a different apparatus. As Gabe Newell writes, players aren’t watching the story, the story is their playthrough, and it will be different for different gamers. Already, I’ve experienced my own set of unique stories as I’ve played through Left 4 Dead’s campaigns, and I’ve been recounting them to anyone who listens. And I know that other gamers will know what I’m talking about, but for them, they’ve got their own to share as well. Each of these stories is wild and unscripted, and I’ve even heard them described as mini-movies by other people.
Like when I tried to escape from the hospital roof only to be grabbed by a smoker at the very last moment and pulled away to my death. Or when my friend was vomited on by a Boomer, and then ran off by himself into the woods in order to draw the zombies away from us as we were reviving each other. These moments go on and on. Valve understands that what makes Left 4 Dead (or any solo game) memorable isn’t the cool guns, or the hordes of zombies, or even the locales. But rather, it’s the story that the game tells. And the unique thing about Left 4 Dead, is that you create the story as you play. It’s brilliant, really.
The encouraging thing I think in the industry is that more and more, we’re seeing developers focused on telling great stories. Bioware, for instance, has created one of the more unique universes that gaming has yet seen, and we’ll continue to explore that in Mass Effect. Halo has some of the more underrated lore in gaming today. Resistance gives us some of the coolest alternate history that I’ve ever heard. Storytellers are emerging in gaming, and I for one can’t wait to see the stories that we have yet to play.
So what do you guys think? What do you think about the use of story in today’s gaming world? Is there enough emphasis? Should there be more? Who’s the best storyteller out there?