War stories are one of my favourite things about gaming. These are moments that you can share with your like-minded friends who, with knowledge of the game/gaming in general, will know the significance and think it’s just as amazing as you do. They’re like water-cooler moments, but rather than something that’s scripted into the storyline of a TV programme or film, it’s something that happens naturally as a result of how the game works. It’s emergent gameplay at its finest.
In a circle of gamers the merest mention of Left 4 Dead/2 is an invitation to share how you managed to beat a tank and revive all your friends that one time, or that other time a charger knocked all four of you into a river, immediately ending the round. These are the kind of things I’m thinking about when I talk about war stories.
Whilst Modern Warfare’s excellent post-nuke level Aftermath was pretty spectacular, it’s something that everyone who has played the game has experienced – it’s scripted into the storyline, it’s a whole level and everyone has seen it. Conversation doesn’t really stretch beyond “yeah, that was amazing” before you’re done looking for something else to talk about.[drop]Part of the reason I have used the Left 4 Dead series as my original example is because it seems almost like it is designed around these moments. Every level is randomised to a certain degree, including the weapons you find and the zombies you face, and it’s based around cooperative play.
Exactly what you will be facing is unknown, whether it’s huge hordes of zombies or an eerily silent and empty area that puts everyone on edge, and as a result you have to communicate to effectively deal with the threats you encounter.
This is taken to a whole other level when you’re playing Versus mode. The Director in Left 4 Dead is good at responding to your group’s play-style, but when there are other people playing as the zombies the danger increases greatly.
Left 4 Dead almost feels like it is purpose-built to produce these kinds of stories as the mechanics lend themselves to it perfectly. Anything that routinely involves planning is ideally suited, whether it’s Tribes Ascend, Planetside, Left 4 Dead, pretty much any strategy game ever, but it’s not specific to these kinds of games. Whilst reading about someone crashing their plane into 12 team mates in Planetside 2 immediately after take-off is hilarious, these are not the only kinds of stories.
Something like Skyrim or Fallout is perfectly suited to this kind of thing due to their open worlds. A sandbox that has many different mechanics all interacting with each other is a large collection of stories just waiting to be encountered, and while a lot of those are scripted into the game it’s the ones that happen on their own that are really special.
Once when I was playing Skyrim, I was playing a Dark Brotherhood mission (no spoilers, I promise) in which I just had to kill an NPC. I decided to use fury on the target so other NPCs would finish her off for me. When it came time to casting the spell on her, however, I missed and it hit someone else. Not too bad though, as the person my spell hit then pulled out a knife and killed the NPC I was supposed to be assassinating. I just walked off thinking “that went well” and smiling.
Incidentally, it’s silly things like this that make me love games, but that’s for a whole other article.
There are other moments when I’ve accidentally killed a few NPCs by launching a fireball at them, or when I was wandering through a forest on the side of a mountain and saw a bear go rolling past me (turns out a dragon had just killed it).
War stories might not be an appropriate term, as they’re more like just funny anecdotes than anything else, but whether it’s silly things that happen in open worlds or the kind of war stories you get from multiplayer games, these are specific to gaming and can not be found anywhere else (that’s using the term “gaming” that includes the likes of dungeons and dragons).[drop2]Everything you read in a book, see in a film or watch on TV is specifically made to look or read like it does, and whilst they all have moments you want to talk to people about they are always the same moments that everyone else who has seen it wants to talk about.
There’s no variation or uniqueness to the experience, whereas when I try to fly something in Planetside 2 and immediately flip it into a small group of allies who start talking about how hilarious it was, that is a little more…special.
When a dragon appears and saves you from the giants that were about to destroy you in Skyrim, or how you rescued your flag just in time in Tribes Ascend, the moments are specific to you and, whilst similar things may happen to other people, it still happened to you because the game allowed it rather than explicitly made it happen.
A game works best when it sets down some rules and just lets you do whatever you like within those rules. Scripted moments aren’t really bad, but overuse of them is the opposite of what makes gaming special in the first place.
Give me some toys to play with and just let me play with them. The shouts in Skyrim, the powers in Dishonored, the options in Left 4 Dead; that’s emergent gameplay at its best – here’s some stuff, experiment with it. It’s not just about what the game does, it’s about what it lets you do with what it gives you.
Please do seize upon this opportunity to talk about your own war stories, I never tire of reading them.