Left 4 Dead: Guided Emergence

Last night my fiance and I were playing Left 4 Dead, and she gave voice to a question I’ve often silently asked myself, in the dead of night, when dreams are hard to find:

“Why is this game so good?”

Now, a lot’s been written about Left 4 Dead, but its all been from an entirely mechanical standpoint. Yep, shooting those zombies sure is fun. Love those rag doll physics. Awesome decision to have permanent friendly fire. Very few essays actually analyze the game from a design perspective, and that’s where its brilliance lies. Why is Left 4 Dead so good? Let’s examine that.

First, we’ll need to imagine a spectrum, sitting in a straight line. We’ll call it the “Linearity Spectrum”, or “LS” for short (though please don’t call it the “LS Spectrum”; that would be silly). On the far left of the LS sits a game like Modern Warfare, which represents the height of linear gameplay. The developers funnel you through a corridor, you shoot some mans, and on you move. Simple and drool-inducingly satisfying. On the far right of the LS sits a game like Minecraft. The developer gives you a fucking planet eight times the size of Earth and says “go for it”. Simple and face-meltingly open.

Left 4 Dead sits firmly to the right of the LS, though it seems to be a linearly-funneled manshoot on its surface. We’ll come back to why that is in a moment, but this quality is at the heart of its brilliance. For now, lets examine some pros and cons to sitting on either side of the LS, for they are many and complex.

In the past I’ve been vocal about narrative’s place in video games (sometimes on this very blog!), and while I’ll hold onto that position until someone pries it from my cold, dead fingers, I admit there are a few advantages to a linear, dev-driven style of game design, even if they’re largely illusory. Linearity allows the developer to control the pace in such a way that the game is consistently entertaining and satisfying. It’s a sad but true statement that gamers don’t know what they want. Game developers, on the other hand, do. That’s why they develop games, and people like you and I don’t (for the most part). As the medium matures, game development has grown a convenient shorthand for making games that are consistently above average in a technical sense, and that, to use a horribly imprecise phrase, push all the right buttons. This is known as “doing what works”. The easiest way to satisfy a confused and indecisive audience is to wrest control from them at every given opportunity and just bloody show them where to go, and often the easiest way to do that is linearity.

What am I supposed to be doing again?…Oh, right.

If all this comes off as being a bit “holier-than-thou”, then I’d entreat you to turn your gaze to the distant right of the LS, a point far off in the hazy horizon; this is open-ended game design.

If free-form gameplay seems to get rid of all the hand-holding and condescending ass-patting that modern games are fond of, and that we all whinge and pule should just go the hell away already (note: we don’t actually mean it), then it seems strange that “emergent gameplay” has somehow become a dirty phrase in the modern gaming vernacular. After all, what could be bad about a game that doesn’t funnel you down a corridor? Look! There’s no gun attached to my face! Nary a man to shoot in sight! Just me, my pickaxe, and the open, New Zealand-esque countryside, waiting to be conquered.

The problem is that without the guiding hand of a developer, who is most likely much better at crafting interesting, intense or emotional experiences in games than I am, large swaths of this free-form paradise become intensely boring. This is the devil’s bargain of emergent gameplay: if you want the freedom to craft the experience yourself, then you also have the freedom to sort of wander around listlessly, punching trees or flipping cars into helicopters and wondering “What’s the goddamned point?” It seems that if we’re going to escape the conundrum of either extreme of the LS, we’re going to need a game that stays consistently intense, but random enough to feel player-crafted; guided emergence, in other words.

Which brings me back to Left 4 Dead, which does all this and more, and does it with such verve, grace and manic style that you don’t even realize its happening.

Left 4 Dead’s level design is intensely linear, by necessity; if there were too many routes to take you’d never get anywhere as the game is intent on throwing as many zombies your way as you can possibly handle. Much like in Portal, the objective is literally as simple as “get from one end of the map to the other”. Akin to Modern Warfare, this simplicity in design and objective guide the player, keeping the developer’s loving-but-firm grip upon his shoulder at all times. “Shh, it’s alright,” Valve whispers. “Here’s a gun. Over there are some mans to shoot.” You know the drill.

Those sure are some mans I’m shooting. Yep.

Except that at the heart of Left 4 Dead’s rote, reassuring mechanics sits The Director. The Director sees everything. It knows when your team is standing about idly. It knows when you’re taking potshots at each other for fun. It knows when you’re low on health, ammo and probably what color underwear you’re sporting and whether you’ve cheated on your taxes. And The Director has myriad ways of punishing you for the smallest oversights. Taking too long to move? Zombie horde. Getting too far ahead of your teammates? Special infected. Near the exit with your entire team intact? Zombie horde, special infected, and a spitter pooping a pool of acid inside the safe house. Just ’cause.

The Director is what elevates Left 4 Dead from being just another game about shooting zombies to a higher plane, where emergence and constant, intense, near-death gameplay merge into a single, blood-soaked clot of gaming brilliance. As far as I’m aware there is no way to cheat The Director (though I’m sure that even as I type this some teenaged power-gaming dick-knock is out there proving me wrong), and no way to predict what will happen in any given moment. Left 4 Dead is the gaming equivalent of that awesome, crazy uncle who shows up once a year and buys you fast food and plays video games with you; except every once in a while, in between stories about seeing Sabbath in a club with six other people and getting stoned with Mick Jagger, he reaches across the table and pops you in the damn eye. And then he laughs about it, and you laugh too, uncertainly, wondering in the back of your mind if this crazy bastard is having fun with you or at your expense.

And if you remain unconvinced, think about this for a second. What if, while you were playing Modern Warfare, the game randomly exploded? What if there was no discernible pacing, but the intensity remained, unhindered by your pathetic attempts to cheat it? What if at any given moment all of those little cardboard cutouts of A.I. soldiers you were shooting decided to pop up behind you, or beside you, or oh-my-fucking-god they’re crawling out of the goddamn ceiling?

Bet you’d hear a lot less complaints about linearity in shooters then, wouldn’t you?

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