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DayZ and Player Driven Stories

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“I like story-driven games.” You’ve probably heard this before, likely from someone gently caressing their PS1 copy of Final Fantasy VII. We often think of story-driven games as those where exceptional amounts of dialogue and cinematics drive the gameplay through an intricate plot. Poignant writing makes us laugh or cry – sometimes both. Emotional moments stab us in the heart, and we say, “Wow, this game has a great story.” These are stories crafted by a skilled writer on the development team. But what about games that don’t have a pre-written story? Are those any less driven by stories? Maybe all games have the potential story; only the storyteller changes.

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In this GDC talk from 2011, Kent Hudson discusses his idea of player-driven stories. He raises the point that a growing number of games today are losing sight of what separates video games from other entertainment media. “Most stories in games aren’t taking advantage of interactivity; they’re merely copying Hollywood-style linear stories,” the Gamasutra article paraphrases.
Many games released in the past 5-10 years are considered to be under the influence of Hollywood. They tend to be restrictive, only allowing players to explore and progress in the direction the story wants them to go. Players are led down a path to their next objective, often with obvious indications of what to do next (with friendly tips on how to do it). The idea of player-driven stories is all about giving players the freedom to explore and discover things for themselves, as opposed to being told what to do. This allows players to make meaningful choices that affect the world around them. Games like Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress give the player free rein to go where they please or die trying. It’s a liberating feeling to be free of obligations and objective markers. That said, most of these games still have rules designed to motivate the player in some way. In Minecraft, you either find shelter or end up as target practice for skeletons (among other things). In Dwarf Fortress, it’s basically the same case, except you’ll probably get mauled much more gruesomely. And more often. And during the day.

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There are games in which the player makes their own story, and then there are games in which the story finds them. Christian Nutt of Gamasutra posted this interview with Dean Hall, developer of the popular Arma II mod, DayZ. Hall knows exactly why people like his game, and it’s not because it has zombies.

“… Players had these emotional experiences, these crazy stories, and because the stories were unique and not scripted, they talked about them on forums, and 4chan, and stuff like that.”

Gamers share their own stories based on their experiences in games. Especially in a world where everyone is connected, these stories can reach millions of people. DayZ is a great example of a game in which the stories come from the players. The game itself certainly has no integrated story to speak of. You are spawned into a desolate world filled with AI zombies and human players. As they are real people, the other players are never predictable. They may want to team up, or they may want to send you back to your spawn point for your last few bullets. And the zombies pretty much just want to eat your brains. These encounters in the world of DayZ generate individual stories that urge a creative spark in the minds of players. They run back to the internet to post a new thread in their favorite forum, fingers still sweaty from escaping a crack shot sniper or zombie horde, and spill forth an eloquent, 2000-word tale.

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Player-driven stories are not new (The Sims is a classic example), but they are rising in popularity because of the possibilities they hold and creativity they can unleash. This type of game has helped to further the notion that games are an excellent vehicle for storytelling, because they create unique experiences through interactivity – without having to lean on the crutch of Hollywood.

[Written by contributor Cameron Stark]

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