Seven for a secret never to be told.

In the past month I have invested over eighty hours in two games: Fallout 3 and Left 4 Dead (the ratio is currently 3:1). While both certainly have their qualities that draw me in and make me enjoy playing the games, this is not what this post will discuss. What I’m interested in for this post is not the narrative told by gameplay, optional quests, or personal investment; what I am interested in is the story told in the nooks, crannies, and little details. Those moments that I just pause and think about what was or could have been, particularly in a post-apocalyptic world.


Call this reading the story between the lines, or creating it myself. What’s great about this element in games is that it can be ignored by any who so choose, and offers a minefield full of possibilities to those who are interesting in pushing their own narratives and interacting with the story a step further by creating even more stories. What am I talking about exactly?

This scene from above is rather familiar in Fallout 3: a skeleton on a bed. The variance comes in whether or not there is more than one skeleton, what items are strewn on the bed with him or her, and where this location is. Just as likely for the player to find is a skeleton in a bathroom, sunk down in the tub; while the skeleton who is surrounded by empty bottles of whiskey in the bathtub offers a morose sense of humor, it makes me wonder what happened to those skeletons who don’t have that sense of liquid courage. Were they peacefully taking baths when the nuke hit, cowering in fear because they couldn’t get into a vault?

One of the portions of the game that just had me stop and laugh for a good while (then take a screenshot) was in a later communications tower, where I came across a makeshift game of chess played out with garden gnomes and bottles of alcohol (the variety of alcohol in the game is true to gaming form). Did someone find a pre-war book on chess and put together this rather odd game? Perhaps it was put together by a survivor who kept the tradition alive via introduction of the board to new people. Chessboards are one item that proliferates the world, but what context does it offer the player, who may have never encountered it, or at the very least, the pieces with which to play it?

I have yet to write out an actual story based on these secret stories which are never really told, but add them up over the course of a game and I’ve created my own world based on the story I placed into these images. Fallout 3‘s humor is not often to be found in its dialogue, but in the small idiosyncracies that populate its world–or perhaps I just have a very comical way of looking at the world. I’m certainly never bored, even while waiting.

Waiting happens from time to time in Left 4 Dead, or so I’ve found if I’m on a good team. We take a moment to discuss the strategy of a known horde that will rush at us. On our way to Mercy Hospital, a teammate remarked on how he just now noticed the spinning Tank Burger sign across from the gas station. His words, paraphrased, were to point out how this game’s polish comes from the little details while you have a moment to breathe.

In my day to day life it is quite common for me to look at grafitti and what people have written on walls, bathroom stalls, or any other locale. I’m attracted to the written word. The walls in Left 4 Dead are strewn with such distractions. Walking into a safe room, I get the feeling that the level designers listened in on teamspeak servers, polished it, and gave us what they imagined survivors would write to each other.

“We’re the real monsters,” is followed by a person pointing out that the above has not seen the infected, obviously. “I hope I die in my sleep,” is rudely followed by an arrow commenting, “I hope he does too.” There is a church in working your way through the Death Toll campaign which has a list of deceased, scrawled in passing, marking on those who failed as survivors. The idea of needing to communicate and commemorate persists, even if the means to which we have become used are no longer apparent.

There is a moment at the end of the Dead Air campaign where I always pause. Each time so far has netted a different story: who was on that plane? What happened while I was fighting my way to get to this point? The game provides an excellent distraction from anything but the here and listening for the telltale signs of the next special infected. Speaking via microphone, I am much more interested in talking and communicating effectively with my teammates than worrying about the few other survivors that exist in the world.

Living in this world, I don’t have time for those who cannot aid me in some fashion (read: teammates who go running off and getting us nearly killed). I dread the world in which I’d become a survivor.

After realizing that I was doing this for these two games, especially considering the loose connecting thematic genre, I began to wonder if other games do this more often and I just space out (though it also caught my attention in Portal), only recently having rediscovered some of my analysis skills after working in a detailed design department for a full year. Does this happen in other media? Yes. Whole critical essays and works have spawned from the minute details of a Shakespearean drama to George Bellows‘s paintings depicting amateur boxing around the turn of the 20th century. Videogames just happen to have an element whereby I am creating the story myself, in some fashion or another.

This seems to occur (based on recent games I have played) more frequently in a game where the surrounding plot is either merely passable with a few great moments tossed about (e.g. Fallout 3) or virtually handed to the player to construct (e.g. Left 4 Dead, Portal). It is by no means a requirement for everyone, diminishing dependent on one’s enjoyment of the title and what one’s aim is (for a person enjoying the ludic elements of L4D, it plays hardly a role). Hopefully this will not result with my writing copious amounts of fan fiction.

About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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