Other games let you create your own story by presenting you with environments to negotiate and enemies to overcome and allowing the story to emerge through how you face these challenges and deal with them. Left 4 Dead 2 provides a brilliant recent example of this approach, with high drama emerging as groups of players fight for survival against incredible odds.
The relief of a narrow escape, the despair of defeat and even the sacrifice of one player demanding they be left behind so that the rest of the group can get to the rescue chopper: these are great, involving stories, and although they're only made possible by clever design from Valve, they are brought to life by the players.
Although Left 4 Dead 2 outdoes even its feted predecessor, it takes the player to unearth the real story on offer here. It's not the thin story of the main game, but the haphazard camaraderie that arises as you play that is most compelling. In storytelling terms the game treads similar territory to 2004's remake of Dawn of the Dead, or the comic book The Walking Dead - this is the story of four mismatched survivors, fighting their way across undead America.
Shooters have difficulty telling stories, as there's not much opportunity for dialogue and character when you're running down a corridor with a shotgun. With a multiplayer shooter like Left 4 Dead 2, the problem is even worse, as any cut-scenes or dialogue are likely to be chatted over rather than slavishly followed, which tends to break the atmosphere. I've never paid the slightest bit of attention to the cut-scenes in Halo 3, for instance, and couldn't tell you anything about it beyond "aliens bad, shoot aliens."
Left 4 Dead 2 gets around this with storytelling that's subtle, environmental and sufficiently unobtrusive that you can just ignore it. Cut-scenes are limited to brief sequences at the start and end of areas, while character interaction is built unobtrusively through snappy little exchanges between the characters. In terms of in-game dialogue, the lines are well-chosen and context sensitive - when my character complains he needs health, or swears at the number of approaching zombies, most of the time it's just before or after I've said exactly the same thing over the mic.
Is this the future of games storytelling? Has detailed plotting in games had its day as too restrictive? All those gamers raving about Heavy Rain would tell you otherwise, but it's far too early to tell. Along with graphics, sound, and all those other technical elements, storytelling in videogames continues to evolve.
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