Left 4 Dead - A Matter of Context

Context: n.
1. The part of a text or statement that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning.

The very best games deliver powerful experiences within clearly defined and believable contexts. In the case of Left 4 Dead, Valve's zombie-shooter, context is so important, it nearly overshadows the game.

Left 4 Dead begins with the best produced and most relevant opening cinematic I can recall. Yes, it is well written, animated, directed and voiced. But much more important than that, it immediately took my preconception about the game as just a co-op zombie shooter and gave it just a shove. "The game you are about to play," it implies, "is not a zombie game. It's a zombie movie simulator."

This subtle shift in context is constantly reinforced. The most obvious example is the movie posters preceding, and the credits following, every campaign. In both, I'm ascribed not to a generic character model, but to an actual part. I am not "Julian, playing a tank." I am "Zoey, the token plucky female."

The most important thing isn't just that the context is set, but that it is set accurately. Many, many games establish elaborate settings. Liberty City, Rapture, Azeroth - these are places with enormous depth and back story. But most often, those settings do little to inform what I'm supposed to actually do as a player. They are worlds to explore, not guideposts or for my role in those worlds.

As Zoey, I not only have a character model that looks like the plucky action heroine on the movie poster, I voice the part of Zoey, pointing out obstacles, goals, enemies and weapons. I'll make snide remarks, console the wounded, and cry for help. I, as Zoey, do these things with no more choice than I would have in viewing a cut scene. Out of context, this lack of agency in Zoey's actions would seem odd, perhaps even unintentionally humorous. But in context -- really as context -- the acting drags me in deeper, much deeper than I have been in the role of protagonist in games with far more detailed stories or more traditional role-playing: Gears of War, Fable 2, Bioshock, Fallout 3, Half-Life, or any MMO.

In context Zoey's lines don't feel repetitive (which, of course, they are.) After hours of play, they feel rooted in the evolving story itself. When Marcus Fenix mumbles "sweet" on picking up ammunition in Gears of War 2, it's nothing more than background noise and auditory cue. When I -- as Zoey -- see ammunition, I do indeed mutter to myself. But I also signal to the other players. The connection is so finely tuned that I find myself constantly saying exactly what Zoey says in team chat, at exactly the same time. "Heal yourself up." "Ammo's over here." "Watch out, it's the witch! Turn your light off."

These offhand comments and canned lines of dialog live inside the biggest surprise of the game: the music. I'll confess that while I appreciate good sound design -- the booms and crashes and chings and grunts -- sound in a game is not something I pay much attention to. I don't fret about getting my speakers perfectly set up, and more often than not I play with the sound turned as low as possible so I can chat with teammates. In Left 4 Dead, this would be a terrible mistake. Throughout a movie--a linked series of levels--the music changes according to the action on the screen, rising in moments of tension, entering peaceful, almost bucolic lulls at times of safety, echoing crescendos of triumph after a particularly brutal fight. It's subtle, and because it's subtle it ceases to be a feature of the game, and becomes a tool for providing context to the experience. Like a movie soundtrack, it's not part of the setting, it's a backdrop of sound that provides cues on how you, as the player, should be feeling at particular moments in the experience.

The visual cues are also there. Instead of focusing on hyper-realistic special effects, the design team chose to put their efforts into reinforcing the sense of being in a movie, instead of being in the real world. The use of color and contrast, film-grain, and vignetting all vary based on the tone and tension of a given moment. If I pop pain medication to get through a tough scene, the world brightens and saturates. When wounded, not only do I limp, but my peripheral vision closes in and color bleeds form the world.

From context to content

Not one of these things has any impact on how the game actually plays. In fact, through masochistic PC configuration and deliberate pigheadedness, most of it could actually be avoided.

Which leaves Left 4 Dead for what it is, when boiled down to it's one line description: a relentlessly linear co-op shooter.

It must be said that much of Left 4 Dead feels generic, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It shares convention with virtually every Half-Life 2-based multiplayer game. This is a tremendous leg up for gamers, because whether they've played Portal, Half-Life 2 Episodes, Half-Life 2 Deathmatch, Team Fortress 2 or even Counter-Strike, I imagine the game will feel familiar. All of the subtle cues about how to move, how to react, how weapons fire and reload, they all feel "right," and thus they completely disappear into the background. There is nothing particularly revolutionary about the weapons, the environment, how I interact with the environment, or how any of the game systems work. A shotgun is a shotgun.

What is different is how the world reacts to my presence. The "director," Valve's name for the global AI engine, is aptly named. More than any game I've ever played, I feel like I am playing against a skilled gamemaster. Instead of simply walking through a world pre-populated with bad guys, set on trigger points or scripted to arrive at predetermined intervals, a session of Left 4 Dead feels individually crafted. More than that, it feels crafted just for my team, exactly where we are. It never feels easy; there's a constant sense of tension. But at the same time, it's rare that the odds are so overwhelming as to be untenable. Every time I fail, I can pinpoint exactly where it all went wrong. I sit in the the audience, watching the young ingenue run into the woods in her nightdress, reach for the popcorn and whisper "oh, this isn't going to end well."

Like the gamemaster of a pen-and-paper role-playing game, the director isn't out to kill the players at a particular level of challenge. The director's job is to instead deliver interaction into the context established by the sights, sounds and conceits of the game. It's not just good AI. The AI for the individual zombies is quite predictable -- after all, these are zombies we're talking about. There's no need for them to work out complex tactics against the survivors. Instead, the artificial intelligence is in how these enemies are deployed to carefully create and maintain the tension.

How good the director is at crafting these experiences is made clear when I try and do it's job. In the 4-on-4 versus mode, the zombie team takes a small portion of the directors job, deploying and controlling the elite zombies that have special abilities (grappling, exploding, tanking, and leaping). And while four competent zombie players can wipe out a team of less skilled survivors, the experience is entirely like the near-magical pacing and action provided by the director. It's the only game I can recall in which the AI is consistently a better partner, and humans a poor imitation. It seems nearly impossible to set up the kind of coordinated attacks that aren't lethal for the survivors, but exciting.

Ultimately, Left 4 Dead succeeds because of context. It establishes not only a world, but a conceit within which it should be judged. And then, with that context brilliantly delivered and relentlessly reinforced, it puts me in a position to be the protagonist in a kick-ass zombie movie.

Comments

"Every time I fail, I can pinpoint exactly where it all went wrong. "

I feel the same way, and this is a huge factor that happens to exist in most of my favorite games. I hate it when I play a game and die for seemingly no reason. Even if I eventually pass the part, I don't see the value unless I can pinpoint the exact problem and formulate a solution.

It reminds me of some of my favorite older games, even though those older games don't have the dynamic feature of an AI director. Games like Mega Man, R-Type, and Gradius were hard as hell but I always felt like I could BEAT them. I get the same "one more time" feeling from Left 4 Dead.

rabbit wrote:

Every time I fail, I can pinpoint exactly where it all went wrong. I sit in the the audience, watching the young ingenue run into the woods in her nightdress, reach for the popcorn and whisper "oh, this isn't going to end well."

This is what I love about the game the most. Whenever the team loses, you can't really blame it on the Director for screwing you over. You are presented a situation, and how well you handle that situation determines if you live through the fight or not. As some people can attest to last night, sometimes we need to adjust our plan in order to make it through the fight. Sure, the idea we had seemed to work, but it had a flaw that the Director exploited. It wasn't because it was unfair, it was because we were unprepared. Great game, and great write-up.

The opening cinematic was way better than the actual gameplay. Actually diminished what came after. A big letdown.

I agree.

rabbit wrote:

Like a movie soundtrack, it's not part of the setting, it's a backdrop of sound that provides cues on how you, as the player, should be feeling at particular moments in the experience.

You sure like this "cue" word.

I might disagree here. While I feel that background music and sounds do nudge the player's emotions, I'm not sure they provide the initial impetus. Rather, I think background sound reinforces and encourages emotions that have already been triggered by other game elements.

Is it too early for a semantic argument?

wordsmythe wrote:

Is it too early for a semantic argument?

Never. Ordinarily, I would agree with you. But in horror movies in general, and in L4D, I think the soundtrack actually precedes the action most of the time. How many times have you been in a movie theater and just before something bad happens, the music changes. It gets you nervous before anything even shows up on screen, because you know something bad is going to happen.

Now, whether this timing difference is in the game, I'm not sure. I'll have to really focus on it playing next time. But I do know for sure that when I hear the first whimpers of the witch, my testicles shrivel long before I see her.

rabbit wrote:

my testicles shrivel

Time to lay off the 'roids, Julian the Tank.

You're probably right when it comes to horror movies. "All clear" sounds might be the same. In games that incorporate sounds that indicate safety (e.g., Gears), I can't relax until I hear that tone.

wordsmythe wrote:
rabbit wrote:

Like a movie soundtrack, it's not part of the setting, it's a backdrop of sound that provides cues on how you, as the player, should be feeling at particular moments in the experience.

You sure like this "cue" word.

In this case his use of the word is perfectly valid

I am [...] the token plucky female.

Oh, Rabbit! You're such a girl!

Good article though, i agree with the importance of sound in this game. The games industry has been very slow with regards to integrating sound into games as an important part of the experience but i'd argue that Left 4 Dead has done for the industry what Half Life did with story and Half Life 2 did with the phoneme facial animations for during conversations.... truly revolutionary stuff.

Now, if they can just adapt this director to make their future games have adaptive difficulty (eg. HL 3) then they've got pretty much the perfect game right there!

I agree, one of the biggest surprises for me about Left 4 Dead was that the characters were actual characters, and that I really liked them.

This game thrives on tension, and I've found myself going back on higher difficulty settings after I've played everything, something I don't normally do. Playing on advanced or expert is like coming back to these levels again for the first time because all the tension comes back.

rabbit wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

Is it too early for a semantic argument?

Never. Ordinarily, I would agree with you. But in horror movies in general, and in L4D, I think the soundtrack actually precedes the action most of the time. How many times have you been in a movie theater and just before something bad happens, the music changes. It gets you nervous before anything even shows up on screen, because you know something bad is going to happen.

Now, whether this timing difference is in the game, I'm not sure. I'll have to really focus on it playing next time. But I do know for sure that when I hear the first whimpers of the witch, my testicles shrivel long before I see her.

In my experience, the timing difference IS in the game. When a horde is coming, you hear the music signaling it before you see the wall of zombies rushing at you. Same with a tank. You hear the tank music and the roar of the tank long before you see the actual tank throwing rocks and cars.

benu302000 wrote:

I agree, one of the biggest surprises for me about Left 4 Dead was that the characters were actual characters, and that I really liked them.

I was also surprised at how well they give the characters personalities. It would have been very easy to make these throwaway players. Instead, they make them interesting and engaging.

benu302000 wrote:

This game thrives on tension, and I've found myself going back on higher difficulty settings after I've played everything, something I don't normally do. Playing on advanced or expert is like coming back to these levels again for the first time because all the tension comes back.

Again, I totally agree. Normally, I lack the desire to go back and repeat what I've done before, but the AI director makes every playthrough different, and the only other game where I've found co-op so engaging was Crackdown.

Man, if they can ever make a free-roaming zombie survival game (ala the latter part of the GTA series), I would be all over it in a heartbeat. Singleplayer would be okay, but MP would be gold.

On topic, I have to agree with the musical cues being paramount to my enjoyment of L4D. Every time I hear the dread of the slow bass buildup all the way up to and including the crescendo of the horde swarming toward me, just does "it" for me. I love seeing that wave of infected humanity getting so close that I can smell their fetid breath, then opening up with the auto shotgun, it's cathartic.

This game really is a zombie movie simulator...! I love it.

If you think the soundtrack gives it away-- you can always turn down/off the music...

Gemini Ace wrote:

The opening cinematic was way better than the actual gameplay. Actually diminished what came after. A big letdown.

I gotta agree. I was so pumped for this game, even going out of my way to READ MULTIPLE PREVIEWS. And then the demo hit Xbox Live and all I could say was "huh". I think I was expecting the boss zombies to be more visually significant (although the tank was right on), and the fact that zombies were hanging out on top of beds and levitating above sofas didn't help.

Gears of War 2 really upped the visceral ante, I guess.

The developer commentary in the Extras menu really goes out of it's way to point out many of the things mentioned here. I love the look inside the decisions at Valve.

You have nailed one of the core aspects of this game that have made me drop everything else for the nonce, and focus my wee few hours of actual play time on L4D. Another chunk of the core that keeps me coming back is the co-op play (even in versus, working with your team).

For me, this game is just a big, fun, on-the-edge-of-my-seat romp, and it's so easy to get into, both literally since Steam makes it so, but also figuratively precisely because of the way in which Valve gets you to buy-in to the premise, the environment and the gameplay.

Gemini Ace wrote:

The opening cinematic was way better than the actual gameplay. Actually diminished what came after. A big letdown.

1) That's true of every cinematic so you could say this about every game.
2) Minus the destructible fire escape, just about everything in the cinematic was gameplay. In fact, it was a quick tutorial for the game. You can't say that about every game.

Duoae wrote:

Good article though, i agree with the importance of sound in this game. The games industry has been very slow with regards to integrating sound into games as an important part of the experience but i'd argue that Left 4 Dead has done for the industry what Half Life did with story and Half Life 2 did with the phoneme facial animations for during conversations.... truly revolutionary stuff.

It's very well done, but it's far from revolutionary. Game composers have been creating adaptive soundtracks in FPS games for more than a decade, going all the way back to games like No One Lives Forever. Left 4 Dead is the first Valve game to make overt use of that approach, but it's not the first--or even the best--example.

What I appreciate most about the music in Left 4 Dead is the way it occasionally evokes horror movie soundtracks from twenty to thirty years ago. It's a refreshingly different stylistic approach for a horror game soundtrack, and it beautifully compliments the "zombie movie simulator" theme of L4D. It's also nice to see Valve devote that kind of attention to the soundtrack, since they have historically gone for a very minimalist approach to in-game music. I'm told that the Left 4 Dead music came from one of the audio guys at Turtle Rock (now a part of Valve) so that would partially explain the difference.

wordsmythe wrote:

I might disagree here. While I feel that background music and sounds do nudge the player's emotions, I'm not sure they provide the initial impetus. Rather, I think background sound reinforces and encourages emotions that have already been triggered by other game elements.

Not when you hear that tank music start up. It's the first indicator that he's coming, usually before you can hear the thundering footfalls. If that music doesn't make your blood run cold, you haven't faced the tank often enough!

Rabbit wrote:

As Zoey, I not only have a character model that looks like the plucky action heroine on the movie poster, I voice the part of Zoey, pointing out obstacles, goals, enemies and weapons. I'll make snide remarks, console the wounded, and cry for help. I, as Zoey, do these things with no more choice than I would have in viewing a cut scene. Out of context, this lack of agency in Zoey's actions would seem odd, perhaps even unintentionally humorous. But in context -- really as context -- the acting drags me in deeper, much deeper than I have been in the role of protagonist in games with far more detailed stories or more traditional role-playing: Gears of War, Fable 2, Bioshock, Fallout 3, Half-Life, or any MMO.

I fully agree. I remember late in one level where I (as Zoey) was the only survivor left and was very, very low in health. As I stumbled forward, Zoey cried "I...I'm going to die..." and it really affected me. "Damn, I AM going to die!" I thought, as the fact that my character said this implied some larger consequence than a level restart. Just the way she said it evoked the feeling that all the hard work we had been through was for naught, that all her friends were dead, and that she was alone and totally screwed. It was amazing.

It was actually a big wake-up call that immersion is JUST as important as agency for good role playing. Valve really knocked it out of the park on this one.
(Hint to Bethesda - good voice acting + dialogue is important for immersion).

I've been really impressed with the use of exposition to give directions to the player. There's very few game breaking flashing HUD elements saying "HEY OVER HERE", most of the time you enter a room and Zoey says "we need to take the Air Bridge to the safe house". It's subtle, but brilliant.

I think Left 4 Dead is moving gaming forward a noticable step in storytelling, it's head and shoulders above other "story" games in terms of actually telling the story of the game that you're playing, instead of telling a story incident to the game you're playing.

Podunk wrote:

It's very well done, but it's far from revolutionary. Game composers have been creating adaptive soundtracks in FPS games for more than a decade, going all the way back to games like No One Lives Forever. Left 4 Dead is the first Valve game to make overt use of that approach, but it's not the first--or even the best--example.

What I appreciate most about the music in Left 4 Dead is the way it occasionally evokes horror movie soundtracks from twenty to thirty years ago. It's a refreshingly different stylistic approach for a horror game soundtrack, and it beautifully compliments the "zombie movie simulator" theme of L4D. It's also nice to see Valve devote that kind of attention to the soundtrack, since they have historically gone for a very minimalist approach to in-game music. I'm told that the Left 4 Dead music came from one of the audio guys at Turtle Rock (now a part of Valve) so that would partially explain the difference.

Oh i knew the technique wasn't new but the way it was applied was what i was talking about.... i mean if we're going to go back as far as i can remember first knowing of this type of system it would have to be imuse (or whatever Lucas Arts called it). However, i've not come across a game were the music was so tightly integrated into the experience from changing up the music within the level depending on survivor status, cues for incoming enemies, survivor interaction and environment commenting and the overall lulls and highs of combat (which is the only part of the system i can ever remember experiencing in other games that used similar systems).

The whole game was designed hand in hand with the audio and it complements each aspect of the gameplay in a similar style to how movies do it. I can't remember another game that successfully achieved this integration of sound as a design feature rather than an 'experience' add-on.

Similarly the story in Half Life wasn't anything special but it was presented better than other stories had been to that point.... the facial animation systems had been done before HL2 but none quite took it to the same level that Valve did. Believe me, i'm not a valve fanboy and i have criticisms of steam and their model of developing but there are some things that i can't take away from them.

Holy crap I forgot this was a Valve game, and thus there would be commentaries!

There goes my weekend!

Duoae wrote:

Oh i knew the technique wasn't new but the way it was applied was what i was talking about.... i mean if we're going to go back as far as i can remember first knowing of this type of system it would have to be imuse (or whatever Lucas Arts called it). However, i've not come across a game were the music was so tightly integrated into the experience from changing up the music within the level depending on survivor status, cues for incoming enemies, survivor interaction and environment commenting and the overall lulls and highs of combat (which is the only part of the system i can ever remember experiencing in other games that used similar systems).

The whole game was designed hand in hand with the audio and it complements each aspect of the gameplay in a similar style to how movies do it. I can't remember another game that successfully achieved this integration of sound as a design feature rather than an 'experience' add-on.

Halo did all of the things you mention with amazing transparency back in 2001.

rabbit wrote:

Holy crap I forgot this was a Valve game, and thus there would be commentaries!

There goes my weekend!

Is there a way to turn up only the commentaries on a 360? I wanted so desperately to listen to the commentaries on the Orange Box, but I couldn't hear the developers over Alex reminding me that I needed to keep following her or the sound of my gun or what have you.

Quintin_Stone wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

I might disagree here. While I feel that background music and sounds do nudge the player's emotions, I'm not sure they provide the initial impetus. Rather, I think background sound reinforces and encourages emotions that have already been triggered by other game elements.

Not when you hear that tank music start up. It's the first indicator that he's coming, usually before you can hear the thundering footfalls. If that music doesn't make your blood run cold, you haven't faced the tank often enough!

Or you need to vote up the difficulty.

As for the music, it's all done client-side for each specific player, and if you spectate, you'll hear the music for whomever you're watching. At least, according to the commentaries you will.

Podunk wrote:
Duoae wrote:

Oh i knew the technique wasn't new but the way it was applied was what i was talking about.... i mean if we're going to go back as far as i can remember first knowing of this type of system it would have to be imuse (or whatever Lucas Arts called it). However, i've not come across a game were the music was so tightly integrated into the experience from changing up the music within the level depending on survivor status, cues for incoming enemies, survivor interaction and environment commenting and the overall lulls and highs of combat (which is the only part of the system i can ever remember experiencing in other games that used similar systems).

The whole game was designed hand in hand with the audio and it complements each aspect of the gameplay in a similar style to how movies do it. I can't remember another game that successfully achieved this integration of sound as a design feature rather than an 'experience' add-on.

Halo did all of the things you mention with amazing transparency back in 2001. :)

I don't remember Halo's music being dynamically controlled.... i remember it being highly scripted and while i enjoyed Halo a lot i don't think it has the same level of design going into the music/sound: it was more, lull = soft music, action = title music the same as in X-wing. I agree on the humans and Covenant saying random lines according to the situation (as well as prescipted lines) but there was no dynamic interaction between those different random situations.... i.e. If Zoey has healed the player twice in quick succession she will say, X and if player has healed her in the past player says, Y. Otherwise something else, Z, might be heard instead. I don't remember any sound cues as to when certain enemies were approaching in the fight - it was just the 'action' music all the time and that action music didn't change depending on how the fight was going.

HaciendaSquish wrote:

As for the music, it's all done client-side for each specific player, and if you spectate, you'll hear the music for whomever you're watching. At least, according to the commentaries you will.

Another thing that afaik no other game as done -especially not Halo.

rabbit wrote:

Holy crap I forgot this was a Valve game, and thus there would be commentaries!

There goes my weekend!

You don't have to respond - you usually ignore me quite well

The talk here of emotional response to the contextual clues the game provides really makes me think about what I really look for when I'm playing a game, and what the all powerful term "immersion" really consists of.
Games like Oblivion often seem to get the "immersive" label but frankly I found Oblivion sterile and completely lacking when it came to making me feel like I was part of something. Because I could do whatever, whenever, I had nowhere to throw my anchor and just drifted around aimlessly.
The Bethesda approach to immersion is to throw in everything plus an extra kitchen sink into the world, but free up the player to travel whichever route they wish. I suppose the reason "immersion" is often bandied about when considering this approach is that in reality a person is not normally constrained by invisible walls and there really is something always over the bend if one chooses to go there. I find, though, that despite this empirical reality, most people don't go all Into the Wild and take off into the sunset just to see what's there. What really binds people to the world are the emotional bonds we make. These bonds tend to drive us and constrain what we'd realistically choose to do in a given situation. Oblivion utterly failed to make me feel like I was doing anything other than manipulating a user interface and looking at pretty pictures. I never felt connected to the world because I never felt connected to the characters inhabiting it.

Now, I understand that they are not quite making the same type of game from the standpoint of mechanics, but Valve's approach is to minimize the scope of the experience while creating lots of complexity to those items they do chose to emphasize. It's a breadth versus depth argument, I guess, and frankly Valve certainly seems to be taking the winning approach for me. Valve's game characters have an emotional depth that puts me into the world they created, all without throwing in gobs of backstory and thousands of quest options into the mix.

It's important to note that you should never, ever play this game on normal or in single-player.

I experienced a complete turnaround on the game when I bumped it to advanced and starting playing it co-op. If you're not doing this, you need to. Now. As in, get up from your chair, go to the parking lot, drive home, make a grilled cheese sandwich and fire up Left 4 Dead so you can play with three friends (or even random yahoos) on advanced.

Go, I have given you a command.

Tach wrote:

If you're not doing this, you need to. Now. As in, get up from your chair, go to the parking lot, drive home, make a grilled cheese sandwich and fire up Left 4 Dead so you can play with three friends (or even random yahoos) on advanced.

One thing I've liked about pubbing in L4D is that teammates essentially have to work together, even if it means dragging someone along. I suppose that's the nature of co-op, but it's true even in versus mode.