Left 4 Dead - A Matter of Context
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.