Valve: Gaming’s Best Storytellers?

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?

Source- Edge

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I write about samurai girls and space marines. Writer for Smooth Few Films. Rooster Teeth Freelancer. Author of Red vs. Blue, The Ultimate Fan Guide, out NOW!

13 thoughts on “Valve: Gaming’s Best Storytellers?”

  1. Without a doubt, Valve is one of the best storytellers out there, if not THE best.
    Portal was one of the most inovative games of the decade, through both the story and the gameplay.
    The HL series are just awesome… you can almost feel the story like if you were there… (Eddy, if you played HL2:Epi.2 , even you got a little sad when Alxy was attacked by that Hunter… I know I did.)
    And now L4D just takes everything to the next level… Make your own story, live your own zombie massacre… Valve know what the player wants, because of it’s constant contact with the gaming community.
    And I would love to see more developers focus more on the storytelling.
    Oh, and by the way…
    Valve rocks 🙂

  2. I don’t have enough good things to say about Valve. I don’t know how they do it, but with each new game, they seem to take a genre and rebuild it from the ground up. It says something that they were able to breath new life into a zombie survival shooter.

  3. True Pro-Boy. I think we talked about this once at gamersushi, that HL2 should be in the blockbusters. I really think valve is the best in storytelling.

    “Daddy? Can you tell me the story about the man with the orange suit and the crowbar?”

  4. They are definetly one of the best. But I think that without all the inovations in graphics and physics, it would be much more difficult to tell stories. Think about Bioshock, how immersed you are in the atmosphere really brings the story to life. As goes with HL2, or even Portal. The more convincing the surroundings, the more believable the story becomes.

    In terms of story telling, its always amazing to go back to Deus Ex and replay through its story, even as horrible as it looks now, its story is simply beautiful.

  5. valve are the best. the storys are origonal and captivating. i think bioshocks story is one of th best though. you learn by playing through. this is something valve lacks. you don’t learn something new wverytime like you do with bioshock.

  6. Valve is awesome. They are great at figuring out new ways to tell a story.

    I don’t mind cut scenes, but the problem with game stories is they suck.

    They are always too convoluted or trying to set up a sequel and so on and so on. Just tell a freaking story and have it make sense!

  7. I know what your saying about Left 4 Dead. It creates a story that is different for every one and you just have to tell your friend about what you did and how you did it. Ever since the demo came out my friends minds have been full of the stories created.

  8. I think the people at Valve are great storytellers, but it’s not the story itself that makes it great. When you think about it, there really isn’t anything to the stories they tell. It’s the way they tell it to you that makes it great. Also, Irrational games (now owned by 2K) are great storytellers.

  9. I love Half Life’s storyline, but isn’t my favourite story (MGS ftw!). But the way that Valve let you approach the story is the best executed I’ve yet seen in a game. They must have just thought, ‘You wanna just shoot some pretend alien overlords? You can. You wanna be absorbed in the whole universe? Be our guest.’ Stories (when well written) really make a game WORK. There are so many that benifet from it. Shadow of the Colossus and Ico had the whole cliched, but beautiful, ‘save the girl’ setup, but the gameplay worked well in those too so it shows that games need a good balance between the two.

    BTW, I know MGS is pure hokum, but having followed it from the start it’s just sooooooo good!

  10. It’s nice to see that games are starting to become a serious media of entertainment, but more importantly, of storytelling. Gears 2 had professional writers and actors which told a story that rivals blockbuster. Sure it was action-packed, but it wasn’t run-and-gun testosterone death-fest. Anyway, you’re right, Eddy. Valve has a tendency to pwn. It has great gameplay, graphics, AND story, and while most of that can be attributed to Valve having an array of amazing and talented creators onboard, another notable part of Valve’s awesomenss comes from understanding its audience and what they really want and how games can move forward. With gameplay, the Half-Life series always expanded on what it did right, as well as keeping the story exciting and continuous, and very deep. I believe that Valve and possibly future companies will lead the industry on the right paths and develop games that become as much classics as old movies or books. In fact, it’s arguable that many classics to media in general or even literature have been created. So mainly my point is that I’m interested to see how Valve and the rest of the Industry takes gaming from a pastime to an artform.

  11. Although they are great storytellers, they have been known to take some time with the HL series (cough HL2 cough), which might be why the games are great. lol.

  12. I completely agree with this. And we also got to think about that fact that they’ve been using the same engine for about four years now and it still is something that millions of people spend money on to play. We can look at games like Crysis, Far Cry 2, Bioshock, DeadSpace and all of those games which have great graphics but I can almost guarantee Left 4 Dead will sell more copies because people want gameplay not graphics. I mean ya, if you’re not up to par in the graphical realm then you won’t sell as much but still if you have a great game that is fun to play people will buy it.

    We also have to take into account the whole Steam system. I’ll be honest, when I first used Steam back when I was playing CSS I hated it. It never worked and had no features worth using. Now it is like the must-have program (aside from Xfire). I mean you can pretty soon by every game known to man, you can have a friends list and easily find out what your friends are playing and join their games, have groups, even chat within the game and add friends within the game. It is quite revolutionary. The next thing they need to do is take the ideas from GotGame Rogue and integrate it into Steam so you can browse the web.

    To put it simply, the people at Valve are genius. They know their audience and they know how to make them happy with constant updates and constantly listening to the community. It is amazing…if only EA could follow in their footsteps…

    Great article by the way, very interesting to read.

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