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

Duoae wrote:

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.

You probably don't remember Halo's music being dynamically controlled because it is so seamless. I've seen Marty O'Donnell demonstrate the adaptive music system that Bungie created for Halo and Halo 2 with actual cues from the games, and it most definitely addresses all of the elements you mention, and then some. It is obviously more scripted in terms of the triggering of musical cues than L4D due to the linear nature of the Halo games, but in terms of reacting to player actions and conditions in-game it is every bit as adaptive as L4D.

Duoae wrote:

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

You're especially wrong, at least in Halo's single player campaign. The soundtrack plays back differently every time depending on the player's experience.

Yes, many games have used dynamic musical cues. What impresses me in L4D is not the fact that these cues exist, but how much information they convey. Off the top of my head, here are some events that I can distinguish by music alone:
-tank incoming
-horde incoming
-boomer horde incoming
-teammate grabbed by smoker
-witch nearby
-witch attack
-low health
Now on top of that, throw in other audio cues such as boss infected noises (which also convey information, for example if I hear a hunter growling I know he is crouched and ready to pounce), survivor talk, the distant roar of an incoming horde, etc. On top of that, add in visual effects like the coloured outlines around weapons, teammates, and boss infected, and suddenly you realize that you are being presented with a wealth of information without reliance on HUDs, text, or anything else that might distract you from killing zombies.

Consider the following scenario:
I hear a smoker coughing. I now know that a smoker is nearby. One of the survivors yells "Smoker!" I now know that someone saw the smoker, so he potentially has a line of sight on us. The "smoker grab" music starts, and now I know that the smoker has grabbed a survivor. Even if I didn't notice the music, one of the survivors will yell "Smoker's got Bill!" and now I know not only that the smoker grabbed a survivor, but which survivor he grabbed. Finally, if I look around I will be able to see the orange outline of the person being grabbed, so I know where to go to rescue them. No voice or text chat necessary.

There's been a lot of recent discussion over things like dialogue trees, and how to convey information to the player in a non-annoying way. L4D is an excellent example of how to keep the player informed as they play the game: the information is all there, in the world, exactly when you need it most.

Yeah, I really don't mean to dismiss the great work that they did with the audio in L4D. It is really, REALLY well done. I love the Mike Patton infected noises too.

I recently wrote an e-mail to the show about telling my own story to myself when I play games. Left 4 Dead was a big example for me, but I didn't mention it for the sake of brevity. Julian totally nailed this subject; a well-utilized context can pull me into a game in the way a fleshed out story independent of me won't.

Also, the first time I heard Zoey crying over a dead survivor I felt pretty bad. I can't remember the last time I was emotionally affected by a multiplayer game.

Duoae wrote:
I am [...] the token plucky female.

Oh, Rabbit! You're such a girl!

Quit taking rabbit's article about context out of context.

Podunk wrote:

You're especially wrong, at least in Halo's single player campaign. The soundtrack plays back differently every time depending on the player's experience.

Then i stand corrected. I never noticed any difference playing through the game the three times i've done so and certainly not the level of complexity i've noticed playing through the two maps on L4D that i've only played so far.

Tach wrote:

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

Completely agreed. I've never before whipsawed as much as I have with this game. I started a normal difficulty, single-player game when the demo came out, giddy as a school girl, and left feeling disappointed & deeply underwhelmed.

About an hour before the game went live, I figured I'd give another shot on advanced co-op, and ended up pre-ordering it with 5 minutes on the clock. Haven't looked back since.

Duoae wrote:

Then i stand corrected. I never noticed any difference playing through the game the three times i've done so and certainly not the level of complexity i've noticed playing through the two maps on L4D that i've only played so far.

Not to continue the derail here, but what this illustrates is the difference in function between the music of Halo and Left 4 Dead. The adaptive nature of the music in Halo is meant to be transparent to the player. I remember Marty essentially saying that ideally the player wouldn't notice the adaptive soundtrack at all--it would just seem to be the way it was meant to be. The fact that you didn't notice it happening is simply a testimony to how well Bungie's audio team did their job. In contrast, the soundtrack to Left 4 Dead is meant to be jarring, alarming and chilling. It is meant not just to react to the player, but to inform the player about events in the game world. The player is supposed to notice the soundtrack, and the fact that it works so dramatically is a testimony to how well Valve's audio team did their job.

Great review, except for the part about the author feeling just like a girl or something.

Podunk wrote:
Duoae wrote:

Then i stand corrected. I never noticed any difference playing through the game the three times i've done so and certainly not the level of complexity i've noticed playing through the two maps on L4D that i've only played so far.

Not to continue the derail here, but what this illustrates is the difference in function between the music of Halo and Left 4 Dead. The adaptive nature of the music in Halo is meant to be transparent to the player. I remember Marty essentially saying that ideally the player wouldn't notice the adaptive soundtrack at all--it would just seem to be the way it was meant to be. The fact that you didn't notice it happening is simply a testimony to how well Bungie's audio team did their job. In contrast, the soundtrack to Left 4 Dead is meant to be jarring, alarming and chilling. It is meant not just to react to the player, but to inform the player about events in the game world. The player is supposed to notice the soundtrack, and the fact that it works so dramatically is a testimony to how well Valve's audio team did their job. :)

*Group Hug!*

Podunk wrote:

In contrast, the soundtrack to Left 4 Dead is meant to be jarring, alarming and chilling. It is meant not just to react to the player, but to inform the player about events in the game world.

Personally I don't like being informed in that way. It's like using a 3rd person camera to look around a corner without the possibility of being spotted. Or it's a lot like how poor enemy AI just knows the players' coordinates. It's an asymmetric, non-intuitive flow of information. Anything that allows an entity in the game to have a psychic power takes a great deal of justification. For me, it reduces tension, just like it did in FEAR.

It's odd that the same team that decides to implement the Director which eliminates a kind of player psychic power, level memorization, would then introduce a different kind of psychic power through audio cues.

Danjo Olivaw wrote:
Podunk wrote:

In contrast, the soundtrack to Left 4 Dead is meant to be jarring, alarming and chilling. It is meant not just to react to the player, but to inform the player about events in the game world.

Personally I don't like being informed in that way. It's like using a 3rd person camera to look around a corner without the possibility of being spotted. Or it's a lot like how poor enemy AI just knows the players' coordinates. It's an asymmetric, non-intuitive flow of information. Anything that allows an entity in the game to have a psychic power takes a great deal of justification. For me, it reduces tension, just like it did in FEAR.

It's odd that the same team that decides to implement the Director which eliminates a kind of player psychic power, level memorization, would then introduce a different kind of psychic power through audio cues.

I think for most games I would agree . But I also think Rabbit is right in that this game is about being in a zombie apocalypse movie more than it is about being in a zombie apocalypse. So in the former case, the music is used to great effect to ratchet up the tension of a "scene." Though you obviously disagree, it appears to matter very much about the perspective in coming to the game.

Pretty much all of the musical cues are accompanied by other audio cues, e.g. distant tank roars or zombie howls, boss infected noises, an incapacitated survivor's cries for help, etc. They're not providing information that wouldn't otherwise be available to the player, they're merely emphasizing that information. No "psychic powers" needed.

Duoae wrote:

*Group Hug!*

:D

HedgeWizard wrote:

I think for most games I would agree . But I also think Rabbit is right in that this game is about being in a zombie apocalypse movie more than it is about being in a zombie apocalypse. So in the former case, the music is used to great effect to ratchet up the tension of a "scene." Though you obviously disagree, it appears to matter very much about the perspective in coming to the game.

Yeah, so the player is both an actor in the movie and an audience member of the movie at the same time. It works for what they're going for, the movie-game. It's the decision to go with the movie-game that confuses me. Maybe I just don't like zombie movies.

Podunk wrote:

I love (..) Mike Patton and would have his babies if I could

Fixed for man-crush correctness.

I need friends on steam to play L4D with.

I have yet to get the game but

anybody who wants to add me please do on steam I'm MCBOB78

Danjo Olivaw wrote:

Maybe I just don't like zombie movies.

Burn him! Put out his eyes!

In seriousness, aren't the witch & tank the only zombies which get their own distinctive music? And for these enemies, it's important that their presence be known to the players before they run in to each other. On the other hand, surprise is crucial for the smoker & hunter to be effective, and no prior warning is given for these types.

*Legion* wrote:
Podunk wrote:

I love (..) Mike Patton and would have his babies if I could

Fixed for man-crush correctness. :)

PWNT!

johnny531 wrote:
Danjo Olivaw wrote:

Maybe I just don't like zombie movies.

Burn him! Put out his eyes!

In seriousness, aren't the witch & tank the only zombies which get their own distinctive music? And for these enemies, it's important that their presence be known to the players before they run in to each other. On the other hand, surprise is crucial for the smoker & hunter to be effective, and no prior warning is given for these types.

The Boomer and Smoker have their own distinctive music, it just doesn't start until they vomit on or snag someone.

Actually, there seem to be a couple of bass piano notes that are played whenever the boomer is lurking close by.

Shea wrote:

Actually, there seem to be a couple of bass piano notes that are played whenever the boomer is lurking close by.

Just in case the constant stream of "glorp urrgh bleeargh gurgle blurp" noises wasn't a good enough indicator.

Quintin_Stone wrote:

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!

My strategy for dealing with tanks is to think, "Please let there not be a tank, please let there not be a tank..." to myself as I progress through the level.

As well as all the other things that are spot on in this game (I've been playing the demo on the 360) I think the animation of the zombies is superb. There's an incredible pathos in the zombies leaning quietly with their head against the wall or in the way some of them drop out of a run and stagger like a broken machine, when hit. Some of the ordinary zombies throw up from time to time indicating the biological turmoil that is going on inside them.

Seeing the zombies in Police and military uniforms makes me think about the police and then the army, who must have fought the infection and lost.

Danjo Olivaw wrote:
HedgeWizard wrote:

I think for most games I would agree . But I also think Rabbit is right in that this game is about being in a zombie apocalypse movie more than it is about being in a zombie apocalypse. So in the former case, the music is used to great effect to ratchet up the tension of a "scene." Though you obviously disagree, it appears to matter very much about the perspective in coming to the game.

Yeah, so the player is both an actor in the movie and an audience member of the movie at the same time. It works for what they're going for, the movie-game. It's the decision to go with the movie-game that confuses me. Maybe I just don't like zombie movies.

It's cinemaction!

Higgledy wrote:

As well as all the other things that are spot on in this game (I've been playing the demo on the 360) I think the animation of the zombies is superb. There's an incredible pathos in the zombies leaning quietly with their head against the wall or in the way some of them drop out of a run and stagger like a broken machine, when hit. Some of the ordinary zombies throw up from time to time indicating the biological turmoil that is going on inside them.

Seeing the zombies in Police and military uniforms makes me think about the police and then the army, who must have fought the infection and lost.

I agree, I've found that to be surprisingly affecting. That and the graffiti in the safe rooms, stuff like kids writing messages to their parents.

God I miss the internet.
Makes me smile every time.

I haven't played Left 4 Dead yet (hasn't fit into the budget) but I must admit that this is the kind of thing I always look for in games. I have asserted for a while now that games have evolved to the point where they can begin to rival movies as a story telling medium and it is exciting to see game embracing that.