Low Stakes, High Drama

This article originally appeared in Volume XX, Issue XII of the University Observer

LSHD- Cart Life

Video games need to break out of their rigid power fantasy narrative loop in order to reach their true storytelling potential writes Niall Gosker

The vast majority of video games that feature a prominent narrative component can usually be boiled down to battling a world ending evil and in the process of this, becoming the saviour of humanity.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this template, one which has sustained the medium for a long time now. However, it has become too much of a crutch to lean on and the expectation of its implementation, combined with its ease of use, is stunting the growth of narrative potential in video games. The way to high power drama is in fact, low key stakes.

The grand hero story is certainly not unique to games but it seems to be much more consistently prevalent here than in other forms of entertainment. Perhaps it is acting as a holdover from the primordial days, where simplicity in game design was made a necessity by technological limitation.

If running from left to right and stomping on enemies’ heads is the primary gameplay mechanic, then something as straightforward as saving the princess and in turn, the kingdom, slots in just fine. There’s so much more that can achieved now though.

If there truly is the possibly to go deeper then why do so many developers stick with a formula that has evolved into something closely resembling a Hollywood blockbuster? It’s likely due to simple risk assessment, with the cost of game development having increased in recent years.

It makes sense then, that most of the experimentation has occurred within the independent community, where sales forecasts are often of much less priority and risks can be taken.

Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life stands as a shining recent example of what can happen when the player is placed in the shoes of an ordinary person and asked to live out the common and banal, a street vender of food in this case.

It is described as a retail simulation but the unique circumstances of the different playable characters’ lives outside of work play a big role too. The single mum has to pick up her child after school every day while the dream seeking immigrant has a cat to feed and take care of.

These responsibilities, and more, are placed on the player and have the effect of transposing them with the game’s characters in way far more effective than is usually seen.

LSHD- Gone Home

Papers, Please from Lucas Pope has a similar approach although uses a wider lens, without losing the deeply personal feeling that is essential to such stories. A dystopic totalitarian setting isn’t exactly foreign to gaming but how many feature a protagonist grinding away at the desk of immigration control?

Excessive attention to detail in document examination is demanded in what is certainly a novel gameplay mechanism while the desperate pleas of would be citizens and the troubled fate of the player’s family ground everything in distinctly human sensibilities.

Telltale Games’ deserved award winning The Walking Dead from 2012 shares a good deal of DNA with Papers, Please. Like the latter it takes a common gaming trope, the zombie apocalypse, and channels it into something of its own.

It does this by adjusting focus, worrying not about the salvation of the world but by presenting a set of well realised characters who simply want to survive. The Walking Dead wasn’t only a critical success but it managed to sell extremely well too, standing as a satisfying midpoint between widespread appeal and defiance to compromise artistic vision.

The 2014 BAFTA award winning Gone Home is another wonderful example, deliberately toying with players’ expectations of tired tropes but ultimately brushing them aside, making for a story that is all the more remarkably affecting for it.

While indie games may be spearheading the movement, there has been the occasional big budget blockbuster that has attempted to blend both traditional heroism and rich character relatability. BioWare’s sci-fi trilogy Mass Effect is very much an evolution of the company’s earlier philosophy of grounding the epic in the personal although here they attempted to take it a step further.

LSHD- Mass Effect

In many ways they succeeded, with the crew of SSV Normandy rightfully taking their place as some of the most memorable characters of the generation. Ask fans of the series and the majority will say that their favourite moments were the smallest ones.

These one on one interactions have little consequence in the grand scheme of the galaxy but by tapping into a human universality, create an emotional bond that resonates more powerfully than the vanquishing of any malevolent force. It’s a terrible shame that the series ultimately favoured grand over granular.

It is entirely possible that the reason this low key drama ends up so effective is because it stands in such contrast. If the impossible occurred and the polarities somehow flipped themselves, would the same sense of fatigue now present, set in with the low key?

Without actually having been through the scenario for a considerable amount of time, it’s difficult to predict. Even if the outcome was a disappointingly familiar one, it would undoubtedly result in many new and previously unthought-of experiences. The epic might then be seen as a welcome return rather than as a lazy excuse.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to storytelling in games evolving is the narrow and limiting definition of what does and doesn’t constitute a video game. There’s a seemingly constant anxiety to have things fit within stiff boundaries, boundaries which are limiting growth and hurting the medium.

These need to be relaxed if games are ever to reach their true unique narrative potential. If they are, there might be a midway point between the two extremes that can satisfy both those who wish to retain the traditional and those who seek something genuinely new.




  1. Great article – Papers, Please is an amazing game not just for the gameplay itself but also the emotional depth that it contains. Reading this I also started thinking about the Stanley Parable and the way it plays with narration, which is very engaging and interesting. Great post 🙂

    1. Thank you!

      I hadn’t thought of the Stanley Parable but you’re right, it’s an excellent subversion of traditional narrative components in games.

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