Making Emergent Stories Matter: Considering ‘Left 4 Dead’ and ‘Medal of Honor’

A couple weeks ago I wrote about how giving shooters a real world context could make their violence feel more real and less like mindless entertainment (“Why Do I Cheer For War?”, PopMatters, 9 July 2010). So I was very interested in trying out the Medal of Honor multiplayer beta because the game seems very committed to its realistic setting, separating players into teams of US forces and Taliban soldiers. I was curious to see if fighting against the terrorist group and not just vague “insurgents” would add some kind of poignancy to the common emergent stories of multiplayer shooters.

This did not happen. All poignancy is lost within the strict rule set of a competitive online game. In fact, it’s specifically because it’s competitive that the game part of the experience takes precedent over everything else. While not surprising, this tendency does expose the inherent limitations of storytelling in multiplayer games. You can’t tell a story in a competition; the message gets drowned out. That’s why most emergent stories that come out of multiplayer games are really just “cool moments.” There’s no narrative arc in a match, no rising and falling action, no climax, and it seems impossible to accomplish until you play Left 4 Dead or its sequel.

Every aspect of Left 4 Dead lends itself to telling a complete story: the small cast of actual characters, the A.I. director, the objective based missions, and the structuring of each campaign as movie with a climatic escape.

The small cast means that every player is important, everyone has a major role to play in surviving, and all of this allows for each player to feel like the main character in their own emergent story. When what you do actually matters, it’s easy to feel like the hero, and this greater sense of importance makes a player more invested in the outcome. The small cast also gives you and any audience opportunity to learn about your teammates. Since there are only at most three other people to keep track of, it’s easy to notice personality quirks over the course of a match. Who’s impulsive, who’s cautious, and who’s strategic? Teammates cease to be faceless fodder and become characters in a story, which in turn makes the action more dramatic because it’s now personal, happening to people you know instead of strangers.

The objective for every match may be the same, get to the exit and don’t die, but the mere fact that you have a tangible objective to work towards makes for a more compelling story. Most shooters task your team with reaching X number of kills first, but this is an abstract goal with no obvious way of evaluating progression. Without that little onscreen meter displaying each team’s kills, you’d have no idea how close you are to winning. By forcing players to run to an exit, the environment itself becomes a means of evaluating progress. It’s always obvious (both during play and when retelling the story) exactly how close you are to the end.

Most multiplayer games try to keep players entertained by offering all action, all the time, but constant action makes the pacing predictable and makes for a boring story. The A.I. director in both Left 4 Dead games remedies this flaw by lowering or raising the difficulty depending on players’ skill. It knows when you’ve just fought off a horde of zombies and will purposely hold off more danger to allow you time to regain your composure. This creates a rising and falling action. Tension builds during the slower moments, which makes the action more exciting when everything suddenly goes to hell. Varying the pace keeps players and any audience in constant suspense.

However, the dramatic tension falters when a dead character comes back to life, revived in a locked closet. Even in Left 4 Dead, character death doesn’t carry any real weight. Nonetheless, the games prove that emergent stories can have compelling narratives, but it depends entirely on how the game is structured. Left 4 Dead has a unique and brilliant structure that makes a story out of each match. Medal of Honor is just a free-for-all between faceless soldiers and no amount of real world context can make that compelling.