How to Tell a Story

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After a decade of fiction classes, a degree in English, and hundreds of hours reading books and essays about writing, I’ve learned dozens of rules writers debate over. I’ve also found a few common threads that, for stories I care about, apply to almost all storytelling mediums. Terry Cavanagh’s Don’t Look Back demonstrates all of these threads perfectly and manages to tell an emotionally fulfilling story in (for a video game) a short amount of time.

This issue of The Backlog is going to explore Cavanagh’s masterpiece by exploring its story beat-by-beat. Since the main element of a video game narrative that separates it from any other medium is the interaction, I highly encourage you, the reader, to play the game before reading this zine. The game is available online for free here. It takes between 15 and 30 minutes to complete.

If you’ve already played the game all the way through, or you just don’t want to, then please keep reading. Otherwise be warned: the story will be spoiled. Unfortunately, it’s absolutely necessary so that I can demonstrate how Don’t Look Back is the perfect video game example of how to tell a story.

Start in the middle of things.

Terry Cavanagh’s Don’t Look Back starts the player facing a gravestone on the left side of the screen. From a gameplay perspective, the player knows that most 2D games move from left to right. By facing the left side of the screen, the player knows they should move right to start. If they wait too long, some text will prompt them. Even without the prompt, the game illustrates where to go without the player needing a prompt. Often, the idea of “in medias res” is confused as a way to start off in the most exciting manner possible. In reality, storytelling is all about conveying information without explicitly stating it, i.e. “showing” instead of “telling”. Different mediums “show” in different ways

Man Standing at Grave, Facing left

Give your characters goals.

Not only does the player know where to go, they are given a mystery: who’s in the grave? By moving to the right side of the screen, they expect an answer to that question, as well as answers to so many other questions they might ask themself, such as “How did this person die?”, “Am I getting revenge?”, or “Did I cause this death?”

The player learns the game mechanics through short prompts and experimentation. They fall down a long cliff, jump over a ravine. Before too long, the player encounters the game’s first enemy: a snake. If they touch the snake, they are sent to the far left of the screen, forced to try and cross again. So they jump over the snake and move to the next screen.

Then they find a gun. With a gun, the player can make the player character shoot enemies. The game never assigns this goal, but the player quickly realizes they have another way to avoid enemies. Instead of simply trying to jump over the enemies, now the player can learn how to use their newfound armament to neutralize threats. Along with discovering the identity of the person in the grave, the player has new goals: avoid obstacles and/or kill enemies.

Make your protagonist fail before overcoming obstacles.

One of this game’s main criticisms is that it’s too difficult. In fact, the whole reason that I wrote this zine is because even though it tells an amazing story, I’ve known too many people who don’t play it through to the end.

The game is challenging. Based on two simple mechanics (jump and shoot), the game gives little room for error. If the player can’t pass a screen, they can’t continue the game. There are no alternative paths or “cheat codes” to make it any easier.

On the surface, this is a problem. Narratively, it mimics the struggle and reward system that a person experiences in life. I understand why this is important to the story. Unfortunately, it also prevents too many people from experiencing the story.

Either way, that’s why we have this zine, so that we can experience the story. So, for the next few pages, imagine that you are experiencing the same challenges and obstacles as the player character that you would otherwise control if you were playing the game.

Obstacles include small enemies as well as the environment.

There are even boss fights.

Say something important.

After defeating the giant boss, the player meets a new character. This new character has long hair, so the player might assume it’s female. The player character is male, the new character is female (i.e. the “princess”), and she follows behind the male character as he walks left.

The game introduces the last mechanic: walking left. The entire game, the player has been allowed to walk both directions, but if they walk right, the princess disappears and the player starts at the beginning (this time the right side) of the screen. The game is based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but that doesn’t matter. All that matters for the player is that, if they look back, they lose. They can’t look back, so they don’t.

Now the player navigates their character back through the game world. Fortunately, this isn’t as hard as before, and it takes less time. Oddly enough, this mimics the way we experience time throughout our own lives. It takes forever for us to grow up; then when we grow up, we race to the end.

Finally, the character makes it back to the first screen of the game, where they began, and notices that someone else is standing at the grave, so the player walks all the way over…

…and then…

…you disappear.

Then the new person turns around and the game starts over, with the new player character walking right.

Ultimately, the point of the story isn’t to find out who was in the grave, or to solve some mystery. The point was to understand that we are all characters in someone else’s story.

While we’re busy exploring our own world, it’s easy to forget all the people in it. The player character of Don’t Look Back ends up being someone else’s “princess”, just like we play so many different roles to so many different people. We forget that we are someone’s child, sibling, neighbor, coworker, or friend. And then we get wrapped up in our own lives, in our own stories.

And that’s why we like stories. Some people say it’s because we like to get lost, to escape. But that’s not true. We like stories because they keep us grounded. They remind us that everyone plays a role, no matter how small we might think that role is.

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