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Valve's Faliszek: Not All Game Stories Need 'Evil Masterminds'
Valve's Faliszek: Not All Game Stories Need 'Evil Masterminds'
September 11, 2008 | By Chris Remo

September 11, 2008 | By Chris Remo
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Chet Faliszek, writer on Valve's upcoming zombie co-op shooter Left 4 Dead, has been talking to Gamasutra about why he wanted to avoid pinning its zombie invasion on an "evil mastermind," instead honing in on the actual effect the invasion has on the game's characters and world.

"The evil mastermind at the end is never as good as whatever you had in your head when you were coming up with it," Faliszek says, arguing that trying to over-explain the cause of a disaster often detracts from its more tangible impact.

He cited Jan de Bont's 1996 disaster film Twister. "They had evil weathermen to justify their plot," he said. "Evil weathermen."

"What the hell? There's no evil weather men!" Faliszek exclaimed. In Left 4 Dead, "we don't make evil scientists that have created a zombie infection to stomp out the USA -- the evil Russian scientists or whatever post-Cold War enemy you want to use."

Instead, Faliszek says, it is more effective to create resonant gameplay experiences that players will remember, particularly if the setting in question, such as a zombie invasion (or a tornado outbreak, for that matter) is already familiar.

That is even more applicable in a cooperative game such as Left 4 Dead, when players have the same moment-to-moment experience.

"I think everyone knows what the zombie apocalypse is," he says. "They register what it is and they, playing it, make the story, because, since you're so close to each other when you play, you see the same things. You have the same experience. You can talk about it afterwards, and it's not like, 'You missed this. When this crazy thing happened, we were over here.' Instead it's, 'We were all right there, and we all saw that.' That's much better writing than I could ever do."

Still, Faliszek notes, it was important to craft dialogue that heightens the experience and gives each of the four protagonists unique voices, even by way of the sporadic dialogue cues heard during combat encounters.

It's a process that the writer has been honing during his work on Half-Life 2: Episode One and Episode Two -- for which he wrote battle chatter -- as well as on the multiplayer-only Team Fortress 2.

"I'm really excited," he said. "How, in a multiplayer game, do you leak a little story, give a little about a character? [TF2] was a great testbed there. I wanted to add some of the things that I had learned."

Left 4 Dead's characters have slightly different reactions to the traumatic events that unfold. For example, some of the characters are familiar with the undead, having seen countless horror films, but some are not. "We have one character, Frances, who gets confused between infected being zombies or vampires," says Faliszek, "because he's not of the world of zombie movies."

But defining elements like that shouldn't become belabored, he pointed out, or they become tiresome: "You don't hear that every time. You're going to hear that one in every ten or twenty times."

In the end, the writing focus for this type of game was clear. "You can't have the story get in the way. People don't want cut scenes. I think too many of the zombie games get caught up in [that]," Faliszek said. "People don't want this heavy handed story. They want the zombie apocalypse."


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Comments


Carlos Obregon
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I am a big claimer of "games needs better storytelling" Of course not every game but games that put a story, need better storytelling. The industry lacks a game which story "transcends".



If you want to create a great story you must use every tool you have to develop it, cutscenes included.



I think we haven't come to a conclusion of if cutscenes are bad (even 40+-minutes-in-lenght ones) and how to replace them so we must take it in a game-by-game basis.



Absolutism is dangerous indeed.

Bill Redd
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In the original Night of the Living Dead, the dead just rose up, there was no master-mind except maybe God. This is not new to story telling at all. The claim that we, the game players, don't want cut-scenes is such a broad stroke, I think he should say "I don't want cut-scenes".



However, game designers and writers for large companies must be absolute and tough when stating what they want or they will never get any of their ideas done in a game. If they show any weakness or doubt about an idea it will be pounced on and destroyed by other team members.

Bradley Lusenhop
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"You can't have the story get in the way. People don't want cut scenes." I believe what he means here is that he wants the user to create the story and experience it through their own actions, something along the lines of Bioshock. As a game writer part of you definitely wants the player to enjoy/remember the cut scenes but you can derive that same satisfaction if you can integrate it seamlessly with the game play. Instead of pulling control away from the user to tell them a story, you want the user to become the story.

Robert Casey
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It should be pretty evident that in zombie movies, the antagonist is not a central mastermind, but the protagonists themselves as they struggle to survive. You gather a collection of random people, put them in a life or death situation, and observe both cooperative and self-serving behaviors at play. It serves as an excellent treatise on man's struggle with self-preservation and the need to be with others of their kind. It also highlights people's suspicions of each other and predjudices, which can have deadly consequences. The moral of the story in the end is that the group has to work together, make selfless, sometimes difficult choices, and to maintain cohesion through mutual trust. Most of the time, though, these movies end tragically for the selfless and the selfish alike, and the group as a whole becomes whittled down to virtually nothing as one mistake after the next is made.

Chris Remo
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"You MUST use every tool you have to develop it, cutscenes included." "Absolutism is dangerous indeed."

Hmm.



Also, generally: Valve has never used cutscenes in the traditional sense, and likely never will. This is a Valve writer talking about his studio's mentality and the parameters of this game. I don't see him making any prescriptive absolute demands. The closest thing to that is "People don't want cut scenes," and that's immediately before he says "I think too many of the zombie games get caught up in that," so I think the context on that statement is pretty clear.

Robert Casey
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...it also serves to ask a fundamental question: who's more the monster here?

Joe McGinn
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Absolutism is unhelpful, sure. I can think of exceptions.



But it is hard to think of a more over-used cliche in game stories than the evil genius, and I think that's the point here. Usually going hand in hand with equally cliched boss fights. As someone else pointed out these are also the kinds of things that typical marketing departments have come to expect from developers. So any argument to improve this aspect of our games is a useful tool.

Christian Allen
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Actually, the original Night of the Living Dead did have a cause, a government probe from Venus exploded in the atmosphere, releasing a strange form of radiation. So, in effect the mastermind was overreaching science/government.



Anyways, the title of the article was "Not ALL Game Stories Need 'Evil Masterminds." So I don't think there is anything to debate. I agree.


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