Drama, not Prose: Storytelling in Games

People say there’s not much good storytelling in games, but I think that’s simply not true. I think, instead, that most people are looking in the wrong place.

The other day I was playing Left 4 Dead 2, and something awesome happened: a narrative of altruism, sacrifice . . . and ultimately, betrayal. The stuff of epic storytelling.

But no one wrote that story – at least, not as it happened to me.

Stories that happen in games aren’t prose. They’re drama. And drama needs players. Players create the good stories in games. And some of those stories can be very good indeed.

Left 4 Dead

If you haven’t played Left 4 Dead, let me set the scene. Four players take the roles of four random survivors of a zombie apocalypse. As usual in this trope, a quickly spreading infection has turned most of the human population of the planet into shambling, groaning automatons, hungry for your flesh. Only a tiny percentage of people are immune – in this case, you and three random co-survivors. The four of you must battle your way through hordes of the undead to escape and safety.

It’s a simple story, but there’s nothing wrong with simple stories. Soccer, one of the most popular games in the world, has a very simple story which is always the same. It’s the old “two tribes meet, they fight, one wins” story. The reason we watch sports is to see this story happen. It’s story at its most basic: the unstoppable compulsion to see what happens next. (Thanks to Tassos for pointing this out to me.)

In the Left 4 Dead case, the story is “Four strangers fight through a zombie-infested city to escape and safety.”  You might think this is a simplistic shoot-em-up with no sophisticated or meaningful story to speak of.

But you’d be wrong.

Story Opportunities Through Mechanics

The Left 4 Dead designers did something different with this game.  It’s designed so you have to work together to survive. You simply can’t win if you ignore your teammates and play alone. Some zombies will instantly immobilize you if they attack, leaving you helpless and dying unless a friend saves you. You can – and often must – share weapons, health and other power-ups to make it to escape.

This one change, small but fundamental, gives rise to profound dramatic opportunities.

As it happened that night, I was playing on a public server, with three random people.  We were fighting our way through a fairground overrun with zombies. Over the course of the game I saved Alastor27, one of my teammates, several times, and he did the same to me, shooting zombies off my back or reviving me when I was knocked down.

Once, after a big fight, Alastor27 healed me with a first aid kit – despite being heavily wounded himself. It was a little gesture, in the grand scheme of things, but reciprocity psychology is pretty powerful stuff. I had never met this person, and was unlikely to ever again. Our connection was the most tenuous possible: we saw each other only as our avatars, and could only talk in text chat.

And yet, at the first opportunity I repaid Alastor27’s favour. It seemed only right. This set off a continuing gift exchange that lasted the rest of the game. Alastor and I started looking after each other. Every time one of us helped the other or gave up a weapon, the other would take the time to open a chat channel and type “thanks”. In the frantic, gore-soaked environment of Left 4 Dead, with hordes of screaming zombies and flailing death in every direction, typing this one short word was a high-cost signal, and thus meant a lot.

Finally, beaten and torn but still (barely) alive, the four of us made it to a stadium in the fun park. The place was set up for a rock concert that had never happened. As we entered the cavernous arena, the game’s music swelled dramatically, indicating that here, at last, was to be our last stand.

We’d seen a helicopter circling nearby. The plan was to set off the rock band’s pyrotechnics, which would signal that there were still some living humans down among the undead. It would take the chopper some minutes to reach us, though – and in that time, the thundering fireworks would attract every zombie for miles. it would be a hell of a battle until the chopper made it to us.

As the fireworks screamed into the air, the horde attacked. We fought them off bravely for a while. The helicopter finally arrived, thudding to an unsteady hover at one end of the stadium. Only one thing remained: a dash across the zombie-filled breadth of the stadium, to where the chopper was hovering.

I carved a path through the grey-fleshed mob with my katana and got to the chopper first. Elated, I turned to see where my friends were.

At that moment, they all went down at once, overcome by mobs of zombies. Rochelle and Nick were far away, on the other side of the stadium, surrounded by huge mobs of zombies. I knew immediately that they were beyond help.

But Alastor27 had fallen less than 10 meters from the chopper door. He was down but still fighting – but he’d definitely die, as there was no one else to save him.

No one but me. I had barely any health left and was out of ammo. If I left the chopper, there was little chance I’d ever make it back.

But I still had my katana.

I jumped out of the chopper and layed into the mob around Alastor. In seconds, they fell in a heap of severed decaying limbs. I started helping Alastor up.

As I did, we were attacked again, by another wave. I turned to face them too. But I was too weak, and they were too many.

We both died there, in the stadium.

Peak Moments

That moment remains one of my best gaming experiences ever. I remember being conscious of the moment of decision: I could escape, alone, by the skin of my teeth – or I could die trying to save my friend. I knew what would happen, and I chose the honourable course.

The fact that I don’t know Alastor27 very well makes little difference. He helped me overcome challenges, and I helped him. In the hour or so we played together before that moment, we depended on each other. Thanks to the mechanic of the game, he had become in a very real sense a friend. In that moment, my sacrifice gained meaning and dramatic power. We had built a story together – a story so strong that I was purposefully losing a game, because I didn’t want to finish without my friend.

I had a chance to choose the difficult path, and that choice was very real. Alastor and I wrote that part of the story. The designers provided the environment – the stadium, the zombies, the chopper – but we created the drama.

The Player as Storyteller

When you’re looking at a film or a book, you can explore the artefact as a text, a complete thing in and of itself. A play or screenplay, on the other hand, isn’t ‘finished’ – in order to appraise the writer’s work, you need to see the work performed. The acting, lighting, cinematography and many other arts and crafts all come into play.

When dealing with video games, you have to consider one more thing – the player. Games are defined in part by their interactivity. The value of the medium springs from the iterative exchange between players and code. Because of this, players in video games take a role similar to actors in improvisational theatre, shaping the narrative as the game goes along.

Betrayal

Excited and on a high after the stadium episode, I logged on again and started another game. This time I was with three different team mates, sneaking through a swamp. Within the first three minutes a zombie jumped out of the bushes and pinned me to the ground. It was a hunter, a powerful type. If one pins you, you’re helpless. Your teammates have to shoot it off you, or you’ll die.

But they didn’t. They saw what had happened but simply walked off, deaf to my typed cries for help. As my character’s vision faded, my cries turned to angry remarks. Then I was booted from the game.

Though game experiences are fictional, the relationships with the other players are very real. Even if though are short, those relationships naturally create dramatic situations because the game dynamics force players to deal with particular situations. Indeed, one of the reasons we may like playing games is to see how our friends deal with stressful situations in a non-threatening context.

In the swamp, I was deliberately abandoned and left to die by my co-players. The rejection by other people was real, and the sense of betrayal I felt was something I hadn’t experienced since grade school. They had violated the very spirit of the experience, and that made me realize just how powerful the drama in that game is.

Earlier I said that the story of Left 4 Dead is “Four strangers fight through a zombie-infested city to escape and safety.” That’s not quite true. The real story is “Four strangers fight through a zombie-infested city to escape and safety – and become friends in the process.” That’s why it’s such a powerful game – it’s not the graphics, or the fighting, it’s the story you experience with and through other players.

10 thoughts on “Drama, not Prose: Storytelling in Games

  1. I’ve just had the same experience designing a SW tabletop run for the rest of OBJ514. My design process tries to mirror Deus Ex – a game with very strong prose narrative, but extremely open-ended environments and situations through which to experience it.

    You may or may not have heard that IW’s robot character got killed saving my padawan a few adventures back. His new guy is a charming scoundrel – just the kind of PC he’s best at playing. The storytelling process is a happily organic one – I put words in an NPC’s mouth and IW comes up with classic dialog. At the end of the new guy’s first session, the other players comment on how much fun it is to play around the new PC.

    It’s a very happy circumstance that we do not need to worry about the quality of player that we interact with. This is a good thing – designing a good campaign is hard enough as it is.

  2. Indeed it is, and I think table-top role playing games are an excellent example of game-based storytelling. Maybe the best.

    Table-top RPGs are basically communal storytelling endeavours. It’s really close to improv theatre, with dice and without an audience – LARPing takes this up to the next level, when the players actually act out their player’s feats.

    RPGs of the pencil-and-dice kind will always be the foundation of good gaming experiences for me. All those hundreds of hours I spent as a kid and a teenager playing RPGs left their mark, in the shape of an awareness of how mechanics can affect fun and the progress of a story.

  3. Fascinating. Found you through the Game Writing Group LinkedIn and their link at Facebook for my group there Game Writing Exchange.

    This is how ALL lit that is to be FELT is to be written, whether as setup and game interaction or as an actual fully written text.

    Character is everything and drama (the interaction of personality and motives) rules the best writing.

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