April 16, 2012 by wcparti
Three Scenes from an Apocalypse: A Gameplay Reflection on Left 4 Dead 2
These three scenes from my time playing Left 4 Dead 2 are written in two parts (a & b). “A” is written from a perspective inside the diegesis (mostly), so the voice is not analytical and fairly informal (expect some rough language). “B” is my own commentary on the particular in game moment just described. By having both of these, I am trying to capture both the experience of playing a game and thinking about a game.
Were I ever to die in a tunnel of love, I always assumed it would be of embarrassment, either by rejection or being seen there in first place. Oh man, was I wrong.
At this moment I’m having an out of body experience, staring at my soon to be corpse as a hooded zombie tears out my torso one crimson ice cream scoop at a time. Still embarrassing I guess, but a perhaps little more visceral. Or maybe evisceral. That’s not a word, but you get the idea. As if humor matters at the end of the world.
But then again, I guess it does. As the edges of my vision fade to black, the glorious (Lord, give me strength…) Admiral Boobfart himself comes running through a horde of zombies, wielding an electric guitar (I think it’s a Jackson S series) and decapitating the walking dead wholesale. Quite an achievement; Valve seems to think so too. The hunter that pinned me bursts in a miasma of blood and entrails that dangle in the air like streamers on a tricycle. Maybe that’s why Pantera only played Jackson guitars. The good Rear Admiral helps me up, my strength returns, and another survivor, GosuRaeguPlayguuuuuuu (What the hell is wrong with these people?), tosses me a health pack. Our fourth, the mercifully named Simon, is nowhere to be found. Boobfart informs me that he was torn to pieces by a demonized ten year old girl, whom Simon had the audacity to startle. Having only a younger brother, I can’t relate. I’m told he will be rescued soon though (turns out, he was hiding in a broom closet around the next corner the whole time).
It’s the zombie apocalypse and I’m stuck with these people? And I thought the tunnel of love was embarrassing…
The scene above comes from a late night gaming session with three Emory friends, who, for the sake of their dignity, will obviously remain unnamed. It’s a good story, and it’s a funny story, but I think it also sheds some light on the nature of what makes Left 4 Dead 2 such a rewarding game to play. It is a game that is meant to be played with friends, even though the computerized teammates are, frankly, just as effective (with friends like these, at least). Besides the obvious reason that unscripted teammates are more exciting, the game really rewards the construction of Tom Bissel’s excellent term “ludonarrative.” It’s not just the adipose Coach whom I am saving from an errant Smoker, it’s [Name Withheld]. The game emphasizes the mechanical and enterainment benefits of playing with friends, and no doubt it’s part of the reason that the “4” (as in, you need you and three other friends) is used so heavily in the marketing of the game.
I, Shuttlecock the Abdicator, am standing in the lobby of a burned out apartment building. I’ve been here before. To my right VanLove14 is brandishing his cricket bat at the zombies whose hands jostle through the front doors bars like tweens at a Justin Bieber concert. To my left, SuperTeamGay is leaping up and down in place, holding a double barreled chrome shotgun completely disproportionate to her body. Finally, SlumdogKillionaire opens the door, throws a bile bomb, and we all rush past the horde clamoring to get a piece of the green goo. To conserve ammo, we leave them untouched as we round the corner. VanLove14 snipes a hunter as it leaps across the street trying to pin down SlumdogKillionaire, while the three of us strafe, so as to keep moving while maintaining vision of all directions. Through a door, and down a flight of stairs we go, picking off the straggler zombies with single, well aimed shots to the forehead. Under a freeway overpass, two of us take adrenaline shots, while the other two cover slip ahead and crowd control the zombie horde with a chokepoint between two overturned SUV’s. With the majority of the walking dead distracted, we slip by mostly unnoticed (the pain from a few errant swipes is shrugged off by the rush of adrenaline), and once behind, I mow down the zombies with the last few clips. In this moment of repose, we quickly scan the area for any useful pickups and, finding nothing, we make our way towards the safe house on the other side.
This is Left 4 Dead as it is meant to be played. Technically speaking, we (a group of high school friends playing over Steam with the benefit of Skype) had the difficulty level on the highest setting and realism mode engaged–you don’t find survivors after death, you die much faster, pickups are not highlighted, you are limited in what you can carry, etc. The challenge is diabolical; the run I described in brief above took about thirty tries to get right.
But drilling is not the way to success in Left 4 Dead. The game’s Director (as Valve calls it) varies the content of each segment each time you play. On the surface, this means increased replay value. But more importantly, it forces the player to to make decisions on the fly, and thus, increasing the immersive experience. There is no complacency in Left 4 Dead.
Furthermore, the cleverness of the game at this level forces you to abandon much of your “literary repertoire” for shooting games. Simply going room by room and methodically clearing enemies is a sure way to get yourself killed. The Director will not allow it, and should you ever tarry too long, you can be certain that there will be a horde coming in from every direction. Instead, the game engages your fight or flight reflex. With limited health, ammo (and frankly, sanity), every engagement is costly, and judging its worth becomes critical to success.
I’m fucked. Completely fucked. I’m barely limping up the stairs and there is something fucking huge around the corner. A menacing tetrachord of french horns informs me that, yes goddammit, it is a tank, and my chances of getting around it are just about nil. Like I said, I’m completely fucked.
The tank storms around the corner, rips a chunk of mortar from the floor, and hurls it into my chest, knocking me down the stairs and incapacitating me. I pull out my nine millimeter peashooter and start busting completely ineffectual slugs into the bulging abomination.
But do you know what the worst part is?
My partner, the only other survivor in this God-forsaken city, is whirling around erratically, alternatingly looking straight up into the sky or down into the earth, and I’m the one who gets punished for it. Just my luck. Life isn’t fair, and neither is death, as it turns out.
The tank runs down the stairs, and goes straight for my hapless partner, who is still spinning like a top, occasionally sending a bullet towards the non-existent zombie seagulls flying overhead. One punch, and she is tossed backward, smashing unceremoniously against the wall.
Those of the class who were in my group the day we played Left 4 Dead 2 might remember this incident. Phyllicia, brand new to console shooters (and doing quite well for her first time), was familiarizing herself with the controls midway through the level. As her avatar stood outside, I walked into the next room, and well, the rest is history.
What’s important about this event, I feel, is that I was the one punished for my teammates’ inexperience. Despite being the more seasoned Left 4 Dead player, I was killed several times, while Phyllicia remained relatively unscathed. If this indicates anything, it’s that there is a more mechanical reason to play Left 4 Dead with friends than simply the augmented Ludonarrative. Left 4 Dead suspends its requirements for successful play in the space between players, obscuring individual fault and success. The result is,
If I’ve noticed any trends while writing this, it’s that Left 4 Dead puts the ludos first at every moment, and the result is total absorption. And it pays off; it’s one of the most played games on Steam, and I’ve found very few gamers who didn’t hail it, despite its status as being nowhere near a AAA title. When interactivity is on top, and everything grows from that plot of fertile dirt, great things happen. I might not have had the words to describe it then, but this is in essence what I was trying to get at with Mirror’s Edge; interactivity driven by and feeding upon itself. This is modernism in gaming, and Valve found it about 650 years faster than painters. Pretty incredible, really.