I’m into the concept of storytelling in a big way. I consider my specialty interest to be video game storytelling, and this, I think, is where the cutting edge of narrative evolution lies. Anyone who dismisses games outright while claiming to care about the development of art and culture is probably worth ignoring in all their future endeavors.
Why? Because of organic storytelling, the ability to give a unique narrative experience to every player. It’s why I appreciate games that take a lighter touch with exposition, leaving us to fill in the blanks for ourselves, and I’ve taken an interest in procedural generation in a narrative format. Games that have fixed stories exhaustively told with lengthy cutscenes can have their charms, I suppose, but they’re over with when the script ends, and a story that is being crafted on the fly around me and my actions seems to get me invested much more efficiently with considerably less effort.
Happily, Shadow of Mordor contains within it a comparison that proves my point. It’s a game set in Middle-earth with what I hesitate to call an ‘original story’ running through the campaign, in which a generic grim hero gets some kind of generic grim revenge against something that we already know he’s not going to beat because there wouldn’t have been a Lord of the Rings film otherwise. In case I haven’t made it clear enough yet, it didn’t exactly fire my intrigue. As I write this, I’m having trouble remembering important details, like what our wife’s name was, or why we were hanging out with that blonde lady. I remember a whole section where you went hunting with a dwarf but I couldn’t tell you what it had to do with anything.
Meanwhile, I have very strong memories of what I was getting up to outside of the story, when I was messing around with the rather lovely ‘Orc hierarchy’ feature that defines the game. At various points throughout the campaign the game simply instructs you to sort out the local Warchiefs and leaves you to do it however you wish, and I appreciated that opportunity very much. I’d make a point of taking out each Warchief’s bodyguards with elaborate plans that exploited their randomly-assigned weaknesses, partly to make the final Warchief assault easier, partly to imagine them feeling the noose tightening around their big sweaty necks.
Later on, though, the game grants you the ability to brainwash Orcs, and they stay brainwashed even when you’re not around, allowing you to insert agents into the Orc hierarchy that can be activated at any time in battle, Manchurian Candidate style. And I remember very clearly what I got up to with that: it allowed me to forge the legend of Khosh the Drunk. I had created him in a sense — he had been Random Orc #57 during a difficult fight earlier on, and had landed a lucky killing blow on me, which granted him immediate ascension to the low rank of named captains.
For a while, he was something of a bugbear. I made a point of going after captains who had killed me, because nemo me impune lacessit and all that jazz, but my first attempt failed thanks to his unexpectedly big entourage and he gained even more power. Things turned around on my second attempt, when I went to interfere with a duel he was having. I watched, unseen, to see which direction the duel would take, but Khosh realized he was in over his head quicker than I thought. His health reduced sharply, he became fearful and fled, losing the duel. While his opponent and the audience remained where they were to cheer and make like victorious football hooligans, Khosh ran blubbering into the wilderness, where I was able to catch up to him, grab him around the scruff of his neck and brainwash his fat arse.
Khosh became my man on the inside. His humiliating defeat in the duel had reduced his stature somewhat, so I helped him out with a couple of hunting missions to build his power back up, which I remember in my head as a sort of montage of me massacring zombies while Khosh bumbles about in the background, to the tune of Push It To The Limit from the Scarface soundtrack.
I successfully inserted Khosh into the entourage of the Warchief I was targeting, and through him, was able to kill or turn to my side all the other bodyguards. The time had finally come to strike this Warchief off the list. So I made my way to his stronghold and lured him out by killing and brainwashing my way through his low-level underlings.
But this is where the second act twist comes around. While the Warchief’s official entourage was thoroughly Manchurianed, ready to be turned and start stabbing him up with a snap of my fingers in what would have been a rather marvelous “Trapped? Ha ha, you fool, ’tis I who has trapped you” moment. But what I didn’t realize was that there were two powerful captains in the stronghold that I hadn’t brainwashed, who weren’t officially part of the entourage but were hanging around for, I dunno, a cribbage tournament.
What should have been a swift and painless stabdown turned into a messy prolonged melee battle, but in the end, the triumph was Team Yahtzee’s. The Warchief died at my hands, and one of his brainwashed bodyguards took his place. Not Khosh, though. Khosh lay dead, killed by one of the rogue captains, although he’d been able to reduce the guy’s health enough that avenging his death was little more than a trivial moment of cleanup in the battle’s aftermath. But I was genuinely sad. Khosh was dead, having sacrificing himself to keep a difficult opponent occupied so that I could concentrate on the main target. Was this truly the same orc who’d fled blubbering from a duel, moments before I’d taken him under my wing? He’d had a true arc with a heroic end, leaving aside that whole ‘forcibly rewriting his free will’ business.
This was an incredibly strong bit of storytelling, and the fact that it was unscripted, and generated by random game mechanics, makes it all the more significant. It’s the same trick Animal Crossing uses: get the player invested by giving them something utterly unique to them. Despite being a random assembly of traits, Khosh somehow ended up being a stronger character than the protagonist of the game’s actual scripted narrative. Firstly because he had flaws that he’d had to overcome (note to game writers: ‘being overly determined’ and ‘having no qualms about killing things en masse’ do not count as flaws). And secondly because he was capable of dying; he wasn’t lent indestructibility by the necessities of the plot.
Even at the very end of the story, Talion doesn’t get much more than the usual “NOW WE CONTINUE THE FIGHT FOREVERMORE” weak-ass conclusion to send him off with. But I couldn’t have given less of a shit, because there was a new star in the sky that night. A little sweaty green one that drank too much.