Thursday, June 18, 2009

left 4 dead, a shining example of show don’t tell

the zombie apocalypse, updated for our timesMaybe you were expecting a continuation of last Thursday’s post about fine-tuning your computer? Well, remember how long and caveat-filled it was? Compared to desktops, doing a similar post about laptops is like running headlong through a minefield while every bully from your childhood pelts you with pee-filled water balloons. Also your head is on fire but the pee will not put out the fire.

Anyway, it’s coming.

In the meantime, I thought I’d talk about Valve’s Left 4 Dead, a game which has been on the periphery of several of our posts but has been the express focus of none.  After picking up this game several weeks ago, I quickly fell in love with its cooperative nature, its randomly generated enemies and item drops, and the dulcet tones of the Tank music. As I became familiar with its four campaigns, though, I began to notice some of its less obvious qualities, namely that this game had a story to tell.

The game’s developers note in the game’s commentary their decision to excise traditional story-via-cutscene from the game – they were trying to make a game that was infinitely replayable, and they knew that people firing up Blood Harvest for the thirtieth time were not going to stop and smell the cinematic intro. So, with the exception of a short introductory sequence at the very beginning of the game, Valve avoided them entirely, plopping the player down at point A and telling them only to make their way to point B. Oh, yeah, and mind the living dead.

This is certainly not the first game to thrust you into the center of an apocalypse, but unlike the distant death throes of the worlds surrounding the player in Half-Life 2 or Bioshock, Left 4 Dead puts you face-to-face with an apocalypse in progress – the world is in shambles, but just weeks ago it was still the place where you and I live and work. The game is filled with little touches that bring this eerie point home – the unmade bed of a child, the scrawls of graffiti on a safe room wall, the ubiquitous advisory posters warning against infection. These reminders of order and normalcy are far more effective storytelling devices than all the FMV produced by Squaresoft between 1997 and 2001, and stand in stark contrast to the barren landscapes you run and gun your way across.

I hate to admit it, but I’m That Guy – in the middle of a heated multiplayer battle, I’ll be the one who stops to read the diary entries and the conveniently unencrypted Secret Documents on abandoned computers. I made no exception for Left 4 Dead – while my teammates were healing and stocking up on ammo and auto-shotguns, I was standing in the corner reading the writing on the wall. Your band of survivors is not alone in the world – there are others immune to this infection, and they’ve got the same objective: to escape at any cost. Lots of them stop to make their mark, though, mostly via hurried, regretful scrawls to loved ones on the walls of safe rooms. These messages are another blunt reminder of a world turned upside-down – things like the kids are safe or I waited as long as I could are written everywhere, addressed to people who almost certainly didn’t make it. Even more melancholy, you know that anyone surviving in the current climate can’t take the time to mourn.

Take a moment toward the end of the Dead Air campaign as another poignant example – a plane approaches the burned-out husk of the airport you’ve just gunned your way through, but it’s coming in too erratically and too fast. It crashes in a burst of flame and debris, always prompting an unanimous “holy shit!” from your ragtag band of misfits. On the surface, this is Valve giving you an “OMG WTF?!” moment, but think about that plane for a second, and put on your Cape of Deduction. It was in the air. The Infected you’ve fought for the last hour have no interest in anything but your demise. Thus, at takeoff, this airplane was likely full of normal people hoping to escape from the very same apocalypse you’re running from. Of course, things don’t go as planned – first one passenger becomes symptomatic, and the close quarters of coach class ensure that the rest of the passengers follow shortly thereafter. It’s only natural that the plane would crash if it were full of Infected, right? Hold on there, don’t take off your cape just yet! This plane is trying to land in the runway of an airport, you know, where planes are supposed to land, and next time you play Dead Air, take a really good look at that plane as it comes down, taking special note of the lower right wing – its right, not yours. That plane’s landing gear comes down, but as you’ll recall the Infected have little presence of mind. There is something human on that plane, maybe already in the final stages of the disease, and it’s trying to make it home.

Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it – maybe sometimes a fast-paced action game with zombies and guns is just a fast-paced action game with zombies and guns. Still, whether they intended it or not, the guys at Valve might be onto something with Left 4 Dead. Maybe this, a simple game with a one-track mind if ever there was one, is the beginning of a trend toward games that approach storytelling with subtlety, not cutscenes. One of the main differences between movies and games is passivity versus activity – you watch a movie, you play a game. Left 4 Dead doesn’t tell you its story, but it leaves it laying around for gamers to find, and maybe that’s the approach that we need to take.