Monday, 31 January 2011

#4 Left 4 Dead: How A Videogame Makes You Act Like You're in a Movie

I’m going to start this blog the way I start most things- by talking about Batman. Specifically, Batman: Arkham Asylum, the videogame by Rocksteady Studios. What I really loved about this game was that when you were playing it you felt like Batman. Rather than being a stand run and punch ‘em up where the protagonist happened to be wearing a batman costume, the gameplay has you scoping out enemies, gliding over them dramatically, swooping down and picking them off one by one as if you were being directed by Christopher Nolan. An ingenious use of Batman’s gadgets, “detective vision” and an enemy AI that is that special kind of stupid reserved for evil henchmen, bring you as close to being Batman as you can hope for without watching your parents bleed to death in an alleyway.
Actual game footage
This is actually an astounding achievement. Storytelling in games has come along a pretty much infinite amount since I started playing games and the exposition amounted to “The princess is in another castle”, but something they still very rarely accomplish is getting a player to take on the role of somebody else. Even in games that are admired for their storytelling achievements, such as the Halo or Half-Life series, the protagonist is still a faceless or voiceless cipher for us to project our fantasies onto.
These two are basically the same character
Even in games where the protagonist is well-drawn, all the work of the artists, writers and voice actors can be fucked up by the universal truth that gamers are basically dicks. In Grand Theft Auto IV, the main character is one Niko Bellic.
Niko is a tortured soul who survived an abusive upbringing and the horrors of the Yugoslavian Wars and has now come to the United States to escape his bloody past, however circumstances tragically draw him back into the violent underworld he has tried so hard to free himself from.
Except when I’m playing he also tends to be the sort of person to crash a helicopter into a hot dog stand for shits and giggles. Now Niko is clearly a many faceted human being, but it’s hard to reconcile these two sides of his personality.
Chris, Your Commentary is Insightful and Though Provoking and Incidentally, Your Hair Looks Amazing, but isn’t This Blog Supposed to be About Zombies?
You make an excellent point Sycophantic Voice Inside My Head. So let’s take a look at the Left 4 Dead games, which manage, ingeniously, to manipulate the player into acting like a character from a zombie apocalypse movie.
So Left 4 Dead is a game where you play one of four survivors, fighting your way across a zombie infested wasteland hoping to get to safety.
In the first game the survivors are Bill, a grizzled ‘Nam veteran, Francis, a badass biker who hates things, Zoe, the movie geek, and Louis who most people remember for his upbeat, optimistic attitude.
Now you mention it, she is a girl and he is black. I never noticed that before.
The characters all have distinct, if broadly drawn personalities and quickly worm their way into your affections, but this shouldn’t surprise you coming from the company that introduced us to the Companion Cube (who you killed, you bastard).
As I’ve mentioned before, in most zombie movies the zombies are almost incidental- they are merely an excuse to put a bunch of people who don’t get on together in a room and force them to cooperate. Having such distinctive characters with clashing personalities helps build that kind of atmosphere, but that’s not where the stroke of genius comes from. That comes from making the game cooperative. It won’t be the characters arguing, it will be YOU.
Just How Much Do You Like Your Friends?
As you progress through the game, there will be supplies, such as first aid kits, pain pills and grenades that will come in finite supply, and need to be divided up fairly among your survivors. In the second game this is expanded to include special weapons and ammunition.
What’s more, the game is full of situations which you simply cannot get out of without the help of other players. As well as the regular hordes (fast moving zombies, for those keeping count) there are also a variety of “special” infected. Rather than go through the whole list here, I’ll just give you one example of a special infected, and how it manipulates the player into playing the role of a character in a zombie movie, while also encouraging team play.
You know how in horror movies there is always one self-serving prick who flees for his life leaving everyone else to a horrible death? He usually has slicked back hair and probably wears some sort of suit. What happens to that guy? Every single time? That’s right.
In Left 4 Dead, the same thing happens. If you decide to leg it and leave your pals to die, the moment you’re out of reach of everyone else a special “Hunter” zombie will leap out of the shadows, pin you to the ground and proceed to rip you a new arsehole. If you’re lucky your team mates will come along and kick him off.
If you’re not, they’ll get distracted by something shiny while your entrails are being yanked out, and yet they’ll still have the gall to ask you to plug their band’s website. 
Moral Dilemmas. For Those of us with Consciences. Tom.
There are a lot of games now, such as Bioshock, Fable and Fallout 3, that like to pretend to give you moral dilemmas, but these choices are nearly always black and white- do you save the nun and the band of orphans in her care, or do you hand them over to the evil lava demon because it pays better and is funny?
None of these dilemmas will give you as much pause as when you have the last first aid kit and your friend is limping along with their character constantly grouching that “They don’t think they’ll make it much longer”. Sure, you could heal them- but you’re down to half health yourself and you might need it later. You’ll face the same feeling when, after a mad dash for the finish line you’ve made into the safe room, only to realise you’re on your own and the other three survivors are being swarmed by the undead. Do you go back and help, or simply close the door and wait for the sound of screams to die out? (This dilemma can be harder when your team mates take longer to die.)
That is how you put a gameplayer in a moral dilemma, they are the sorts of dilemmas zombie movies thrive on, and they are far more compelling than the usual “pick an alignment” choose-your-own-adventure choices most games give you. These situations aren’t carefully scripted or staged events put together by the programmers, they arise naturally out the rules of the game and just how much you like the people you’re playing with.
Tell Us A Story
One of the things I love about the zombie apocalypse genre is that it isn’t a genre prone to huge amounts of plotting. More often than not, characters are simply dumped in a room together, surrounded by the undead and left to bounce off one another, and Left 4 Dead is a game that thoroughly embraces this spirit. It has some strongly drawn characters, and while other zombie movies tell the wider story of the apocalypse through TV and radio broadcasts, Left 4 Dead tells its story through the signs posted around the deserted city, the corpses of less fortunate survivors (either ripped in half or carefully covered over by their companions) and the messages scrawled across the walls of the Safe Rooms.

The true cost of the zombie holocaust
But the real stories in Left 4 Dead are the ones the players make themselves, the anecdotes of close escapes and horrific deaths. One of the scariest games I ever played (and more than once have we finished a late night zombie-killing session and decided we needed to watch some cartoons before bed) didn’t feature hordes of zombies or even that much violence. Instead, it was when me and another player were stuck standing completely still for an age while a Tank (kind of like a zombified Incredible Hulk) ran round in circles in the room beneath us. Think the T-Rex scene from Jurassic Park but without Jeff Golblum’s calming influence.
If you want to read more about emergent story-telling (in the context of killing zombies, of course) I heartily recommend this article.
In the mean time, we should tally up the drinking game scores. So, the end of each level in Left 4 Dead ends with you under siege in some manner of building (One shot) waiting to be rescued. When the survivors finally get picked up by the military at the end of the first game, this happens so it’s fair to say the rescuers are both incompetent and more dangerous than the zombies (Two shots).. When you do come across the army they call the zombies “Whiskey Deltas” for “Walking Dead” so it’s fair to say they are the walking dead (One Shot) although they also run and can be killed by shooting them pretty much anywhere. Oh, and is mankind the real monster? Does mankind include Tom? (One shot)
It’s occurred to me that of the last four blogs, three of them have featured running zombies, so next week we’re going to be looking at a slightly more traditional zombie apocalypse, for those of us who want to live like kings in the post-apocalyptic wasteland without all that jogging.

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