Left 4 Dead – this r srs lit review

January 13, 2009 at 1:09 am (Tom) (, , )

I promise, I’ll talk about politics, or unionism, or some other big boy topics soon. But I haven’t finished (or, to be honest, properly started) any of those posts yet, and one reason is a game you may remember from my previous post – Left 4 Dead.

Yeah, I know. DISCIPLINE! However, game design is also a field in which I profess a passing interest, so I thought – well, I might as well write about it. But I’m not exactly the first to do so. Of 2008’s offerings, L4D pops up in just about every Game of the Year thread there is; and every self-proclaimed expert and their sobriety-challenged blog-buddy has passed judgement on exactly what makes it so special. So, instead of pretending that all thoughts spring unsullied from my pristine forebrain, I thought it might be a good idea to filter out the stuff worth reading, say why, and give it some credit.

So, given that my audience of 5 (6 on a good day!) is probably pretty clued in on what the game is; and how it works, I’ll cut straight to the point. What’s interesting and why?

Here’s what I’m interested in:

  • Co-operative Play, for its own sake, and because it borrows from MMORPGs in a way I find intriguing.
  • Pop Culture, because it doesn’t actually tell a story, or build a world – it appropriates them from the zeitgeist.

Co-operate or die

I’ve been playing first-person shooters for some time now, but the first one I spent any serious multi-player time with was Team Fortress Classic, followed shortly by Counter-Strike. Prior to those, I had the Dooms and the Quakes, and a handful of generic titles I can barely recall, but I didn’t have a connection to play over. So my experience of online gaming has always involved team-based play. However, just being on the same team doesn’t mean you’re actually co-operating. That’s why L4D is interesting and different. So here’s some bare-bones, appallingly generalised history to help explain why:

Historically, most of the first true multiplayer arcade games were co-operative. 1942, Gauntlet, Marble Madness – the big hits of the early 80’s were either single-player or co-op – if they were competitive, it was by alternating turns and comparing scores.  With the technological limitation of a single screen, unsophisticated pixel graphics and controls in close quarters, head-to-head competition was an ugly problem. Sports (like Pong, and the countless iterations of tennis clones, as well as early boxing and car racing games) were the earliest head-to-head games, because there was no need to hide information from the opponent built in – both sides could have access to the same input, have symetrical goals and still compete. By the mid-80’s, fighting games had put some muscle behind competitive multiplayer modes; but team-based beat-em-ups and shoot-em-ups remained far more sophisticated and popular – because, IMHO, arcade technology suggested teamwork. Double Dragon beat Street Fighter hands-down.

The early 90’s saw this change, for a couple of reasons. One was the phenomenal success – in the West – of Street Fighter II. Why that happened is an essay in itself; but it involved some brilliant branding, marketing, and distribution by Japanese publisher Capcom, as much as anything integral to the game. However, it did rewire a new generation of gamers to see gaming as an essentially competitive sport.

In 1993, the previously niche market of networked PC gaming exploded into prominence with Doom. Essentially, this conquered the single-screen problem, and pushed players apart. Competitive gaming, strongly established outside the sports genre by SFII, was the hawtness. The supposed elitism and fixation on “skill” of the largely mythical hacker subculture was mirrored by the bona fide gaming public – largely teenage boys.

Communication in real time via these early connections was nearly impossible; and limits on processing power meant that managing multiple player sprites on top of AI sprites was a pretty big ask. Deathmatches were basically the order of the day. Other emerging genres with multiplayer capacity – RTS and turn-based strategy, chiefly – drew heavily from board gaming, where competition was virtually mandatory to achieve any kind of useful gaming tension.

Team-work re-emerged in a serious way via Counter-Strike in 1999. There had been “team deathmatches”, and even team CTF prior to this, but no game that did much more than grouped targets into “good and bad”; no asymmetrical objectives, and no games slow-paced enough for real-time communication via text to work properly.

However, insofar as co-operative FPS gaming goes, CS has been the last word for some time. Team Fortress and its derivatives certainly had some claim to innovation; but real progress was being made in a related area from about 2000 onwards – MMORPGs. Ultima Online, Everquest, Ragnarok Online, and finally, the juggernaut that is World of Warcraft. UO and Everquest both evolved towards the co-operative “raiding” model successfully finally codified and utilised by WoW. PvE was born – multiple humans fighting an asymmetrical computer opponent.

Where in CS, you could essentially abandon your team, set up in a safe position and snipe your way to victory; or achieve a level of skill that would allow you to simply blast your way to victory against the entire opposing team, MMORPGs utilised (Conciously, in the case of WoW) the social psych advancements being driven by the business world, and built rewards for altruistic behaviour into the gameplay basics. A healer needs a tank and a tank needs a healer, and both need a high-DPS character to get the problem solved. It’s teamwork, stupid – in a way that FPSes (TFC included) just were not. MMORPGs showed that, with sufficient anti-griefing safeguards, a team could be designed to be greater than the sum of its parts, and be a challenging and fun experience for players.

L4D’s leap is to take that divergent evolution, and reintegrate it with the FPS genre. Returning (interestingly) to the non-class based symmetrical ability formula of older FPSes, it uses the mechanics of rushing horde, and the disabling effect of the various super infected powers to make team-play not merely handy, or useful, but absolutely vital to completion. Moreover, the oppressive atmosphere, and last-humans-alive tropes of the zombie genre give a chilling psychological impact to seperation from the group, as well as the obvious mechanical drawbacks. The addition of the AI director reduces the predictability of levels, and requires continuous communication throughout the game – which is now possible via voice communication, thanks to technological advance.

So, what’s worth reading? Don’t worry; most of these are pretty short – I tend to skip the long stuff.

Wired has a broad view, with one of the more thoughtful reviews.

Gamasutra’s futurologist tells us that the future is co-op.

The human interaction in L4D creates procedural narrative, which is a fancy way of saying that the story is what you and your team-mates do; not what the cut-scenes tell you.

Complete focus on the co-op mechanic, to the exclusion of all other complexity – is what makes the game work.

Game, set, watch

The obvious down-sidepeople suck, and use exploits. Don’t cupboard, kids.

Why do they glow?

Voice acting and vocal cues.

Emotional response in team-based play

Penny Arcade’s 2 cents

Story by mashup

The other neat thing about L4D is that it doesn’t tell its own story. As explained in L4D’s own blog, the intro movie is not so much an intro story as a tutorial; there are no cutscenes, and no explanation is ever made of the apocalypse that has engulfed the globe. Yet, there’s really no confusion about what’s going on, because you already know the story. Valve takes as read that you, the player, have a working knowledge of Night of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Army of Darkness, Reanimator, and/or The Last Man on Earth; and are capable of filling in the immense blanks yourself.

Instead of building a world, it taps into an archetype that you already know, and sets its world directly into that. The stereotypical characters (young woman, office worker/black man, grizzled vet, tough guy), the carefully constructed visual and audio clues that mimic the movies you’ve seen, and the movie-poster conceit of the loading screen. The only specificity in the zombie tropes used are mechanical – it’s an infection, not a resurrection, and they’re fast zombies, not the slow kind. The invention of the special zombies is about the only original content in there; which makes them all the more shocking the first time you run into each of them.

Just like WWII games get to use Nazis as a shorthand for unfathomable evil and the senselessness of war, L4D consciously taps into the zombie trope to set up its themes – isolation, co-operation, time pressure, and apocalypse, without wasting time on the details.

Game, Set, Watch on having no story

So, yeah. L4D – not just fun, also interesting.



  1. da10x said,

    Great article, this is the pure truth of Left 4 Dead. This is truly a game that can redefine the co-op gaming genre. This is really effective with a zombie survival game, for even though there may be no set story besides “Go here and run away!” the gamers create their own story every time they open up the game. And if there is poor teamwork or no bond between the players, the experience quickly turns sour. And although there are some exploits and bad players out there, this game is a really polished experience. Props to you, man.

  2. misterfinn said,

    From what I remember, there was originally supposed to be a story, but it was canned. I personally think it was for the best!

  3. chromefist said,

    Thanks, da10x. Out of curiosity; how’d you find this blog? Was it google, or WP’s “Possibly related” function, or something else? I’ve noticed a few hits coming in, and I’m wondering where my traffic is coming from.

  4. da10x said,

    Well, I received a pingback from my blog, and I checked it out.

  5. chromefist said,

    Oh, right, of course. Serves me right for not clicking on your name. 🙂

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