Sunday 18 September 2011

A Family Game

If I were called to remember Left 4 Dead by one defining image, I would think, oddly enough, of red doors. The front door to the Brindle household was painted red, but in L4D each red door leads to a safe place. Every red door, in fact – every identical red door – has the same reliable function. Amidst a ruined and shadowy world, these doors are bright reminders that the game’s authentically grim tone and its touches of mechanical realism are employed only and fully to the extent that they bring players together as a unit.
By the time Left 4 Dead was released, our own family was scattered across the world. Most of us had no more desire to get back in touch with each other than the British MoD does with their old pal Gaddafi – but this was also the period in which I began to re-establish contact with my brother Jimmy. Most of our catching-up took place in the haunted woods and ruined estates of L4D’s campaigns. Sometimes we invited other Brindles, and we were able to put away our quarrels for a while in subordination to the goals of the game.

Why did this game work so well for us? In distant times our father made us play in competition with each other on the family’s first SNES. For him this was an easy legal alternative to putting his kids together in a bare-knuckle ring, but for us it was a rare experience of stability. When children play together, they spend 50% of their time arguing over the rules of the game, or more specifically whether the rules should apply to them. These videogames, by merciful contrast, had bones of iron: you either fucked up or you didn’t, and no argument was possible. Moreover, their rules were clearly articulated, even to the younger brothers who couldn’t read (or the older who couldn’t be arsed). Once you know what an angry-eyed mushroom or a question mark crate is, you recognise it every time and understand what to do with it. This was in stark contrast to our normal experience of ‘rules’.
We like to think we grew out of such cartoons, and sure enough Left 4 Dead strives to create an entirely believable world – to the extent that such a thing can contain the living dead. Cloaked in smoke and shadows, littered with plausible debris, the game’s environments are consummately bleak. So this feels like a realistic, an authentic reproduction of what an apocalypse might look at, with skilled use of pandemic tropes and incidental storytelling to enhance the illusion. With its evocative loading screens and screen grain effect it is attempting specifically to be cinematic –to emulate a medium which strives to appear real while being very far from our experience of lives that have no cuts. Even the radio messages that signal finales abortively try to hide the fact that they’re in a game:
“If there is anyone out there, this is John and Amanda Slater; we are a small fishing vessel anchored off riverside. If you can hear me, pick up.”

“Attention anyone with ammo and firearms, if you can hear me, PLEASE RESPOND.”

 “Is there anybody out there?!”

John and Amanda Slater, come in please!”

 “If you’re out there, and you’re armed, pick up.”

“Come on, anyone armed, please pick up.”

“Anybody! Come on, please respond!”

As the Slaters (of ‘Death Toll’) get more and more desperate they begin to hector you. It is as if they know you’re there, and are impatient to begin, but cannot possibly admit it. In this case there’s an uneasy balance between the demands of the game (getting the players to respond) and the demands of the realistic aesthetic. It’s like they and all the other radio operators are paid actors in a reality TV show subjecting some four poor suggestible psychopaths to the illusion of a guilt-free apocalypse.
But what they can’t disguise is that they’re all effectively the same, that, like the typewriter save points in Resident Evil, every trigger is a radio and every radio is a finale trigger. Likewise, most objects that the players can interact with – beyond, say, walls – are iconic elements that persist, unexplained, across levels; red doors will always mark a safehouse as distinct and contained as an airlock.
In some sense this disrupts or contradicts the authentic/cinematic aesthetic. Repeated assets are common in film – from the Wilhelm Scream to the Bradbury Building via pretty much everything else – but viewers are not usually supposed to notice. By contrast, L4D’s repeated symbols are fully intended for players to read as a visual shorthand. While the game presents a dark, ‘cinematic’ experience, it maintains at its heart a clear, stable, and flagrantly artificial iconography which governs the gameworld.
That’s important to co-op play because it means that crucial elements of the game are mutually intelligible to all players. There is no chance of anyone missing the safehouse or failing to understand the significance of an ammo crate. A player looking at one of these icons can safely assume her friends see things the same way she does, and therefore that they’ll react in a complementary way. Valve’s subtle use of lighting – whereby players are lured to safe areas by the presence of illumination and warned away by darkness from dangerous dead ends – functions in a similar fashion, luring all players in a common if often unconscious direction. When something that used to be a man is attacking you in a fit of rage and forthing at the mouth, it’s good to know that you know the rules. You don’t want to deal with an insane system, where identical actions in identical circumstances provoke savagely different responses.
So the game creates atmosphere by employing a realist aesthetics which it drops whenever necessary for co-operative clarity. This selective use of realism also exists at the level of what game theorists sometimes call ‘verbs’ and IGN calls ‘gameplay’: the actions the player can perform. Compared to a shooter of the last decade, a certain realism qualifies the player’s vocabulary.  Your weapons are actual models you might buy (or loot) from the sporting goods section of a local Wal-Mart, and they can penetrate thin walls. But you can only carry one, and only a single health pack; reloading the former and using the latter take precious time and render you temporarily impotent. If you do get injured, you’ll move more slowly, even begin to limp; even the emplaced miniguns made available in crescendo events are liable to overheating.
Of course, this just indicates how far down the Fackler Scale of FPS Realism the mainstream centre ground has slipped since Doom. Having to bother reloading your weapon at all, let alone deciding whether to carry it, is standard where it was formerly exceptional. But the game isn’t realism-oriented: it doesn’t emphasise authenticity in its weapons and their handling nor in its treatment of damage and health.  For example, the humble pistol (like the minigun) appears to incorporate whatever technology allowed pre-Zed society to develop infinite ammunition boxes. There are no iron sights and all guns are fired from the hip (including, if one prefers, the hunting rifle); firing while standing or running incurs only a small hit to accuracy compared to crouching still. Likewise, injuries grave enough to floor a player can be shrugged off with a little help from her friends, or by gobbling pills like skittles. Clearly its realisms are applied selectively, not for their own sake but for a special purpose.
 The purpose is of course to make players depend on each other. Friendly fire naturally demands co-operation on a basic level, while miniguns, in practicality, require both a shooter and a ‘guard’ to safely operate. The limitations of carrying just one weapon lead to combined arms tactics and carrying just one health pack means the team must spread its load. But most significant are those long reloads, laborious healing animations, and harsh injury penalties – because they ensure that at some point in the normal course of the game every player will be made temporarily helpless.
Sometimes these moments approach a line that conventional developer wisdom would never cross: the line where they become ‘unfair’. When a special infected strikes from cover, there may not be much warning, and only a very small window in which to escape or evade it. Their attacks deprive you of agency so completely and so suddenly that it would be experienced as a flaw in single-player; since games are supposed to be fair, we cherish opportunities to bounce back. But L4D doesn’t need to be fair to the individual at all. Its design is unashamedly multiplayer, and if you’re knocked down or wrapped up in a horrible tongue, you will die without intervention from other players.
Their presence is thereby made crucial rather than incidental, and the game gleefully uses its realisms to shift the balance of power between them at a moment’s notice. These moments come as quite a shock, as players are normally able to fend for themselves without considering what their friends are doing. It’s instructive here to employ Duncan "3am" Thinkings' theory of co-operative gaming, which proposes placing co-operative game mechanics on a spectrum from ‘loose’ to ‘close’.
Loose co-op gameplay: your actions and thinking need not take any account of what your partner/allies are doing. You can happily move things forward by acting independently of your group/team and without having to coordinate your activities or respond to what everyone else is doing... this is a bare minimum of ‘all being on the same side’.

Close co-op gameplay: your actions and thinking have to take account of what your partner/allies are doing in a direct, sustained and (at least relatively) deep way. You constantly have to read the situation you and your partner/allies find yourselves in, take stock of what resources and abilities you have between you, think about how you should all respond to take care of things, carry out your part in this, and then monitor the situation to see how it develops. This is not a solo activity.
In normal play, Left 4 Dead’s hordes of enemies are engaged through (in Duncan’s words) “combat at its most simple and homogenous”, with “one stack of hit points that has to be munched through”; this is “co-op at its loosest”. Your tactics essentially boil down to a casual agreement to duck when taking point and a constant exhortation to stick together.  But as we’ve seen, special infected ram the needle to the other end of the scale. In essence, then, Left 4 Dead is a ‘loose’ co-op game that uses special attacks and circumstances to suddenly induce regular periods of ‘close’ play. It is selective not only with its deployment of aesthetic and mechanical realisms but also its mode of co-operation.
These closeness spikes work by assigning and reassigning agency. If we think of actions in gameworlds as ‘verbs’, then a grammatical description of action in a first-person shooter typically takes this form: “I (subject) shoot (verb) a soldier (object). But in L4D that formulation is frequently reversed: ‘the smoker (subject) wraps me (object) in its horrible tongue and strangles me to death’ (verb). For the most part, you’re able to function alone, if against difficult odds, but when you enter into these particular situations your agency is entirely revoked.
The significance of this reversal lies not in the reversal itself but in its effect on player-party dynamics: it makes you the object, the done-to, not only of its automated rule-system and its AI avatars, but of other players. Thus: “Jimmy Brindle saves Me from a Hunter”. Or, more likely, “Jimmy Brindle allows me to be strangled to death by a Hunter”. This is not a unique situation; a player becomes the object of another player’s verb every time she dies or is shot at in a multiplayer shooter. But in the context of team-play it’s these grammatical transformations that give texture to the co-operative interaction – and they are raw material for the debts, resentments, disappointments and redemptions of which interpersonal relationships are composed.
It may actually be extra-effective to switch so rapidly.  To have the ‘close’ style suddenly imposed when one is used to loose play is to be forcefully and reminded that your life depends on your fellow players and that – curse their names, damn them to hell – you really need them, whatever you prefer to think. The reminder is all the more striking because it deviates from the norm: we take for granted the people we see every day but are hit harder by the unexpected or unwanted intrusion of old ones back into our lives. It’s almost as if the game is calibrated not necessarily to maximise co-operation, but to maximise your awareness of it, maximise its narrative dimensions. It’s also possible that the combat’s general looseness lulls players into a reckless mindset that makes them particularly vulnerable to this sudden imposition – but on that matter I cannot extrapolate from my own experience without certain siblings casting foul aspersions against my skills.
Either way, this continual switch of roles from victim to saviour is what weaves a ‘team’ together: limping, wheezing, and undergoing an unwelcome insight into how dogs see the world, a player on her last legs is necessarily the object either of others’ charity or of what she would call their cold-hearted betrayal and I (cocking my rifle, turning away) would call necessary pragmatism. The former generates bonds of sympathy and gratitude, the latter, drama, but either binds you to your companions. You don’t need to be blood relations: play it for long enough with the same three friends and, within the specific institutional confines of post-civilisation volunteer population management, it will make you a family.
At three levels, Left 4 Dead’s realism is a design approach selectively deployed to ensure the team is speaking the same language. ‘Gamey’ abstractions cut through the shadows of a convincing film set, harsh limitations curb the players’ ludic independence, and ‘close’ mechanics are imposed into a generally loose co-op game to create a shared drama. The visual and verbal vocabulary shared among players ensures that their focus is on their relationship to each other when their syntax suddenly shifts.
It’s a curious coincidence that if you want to see our old house, you need look no further than the finale of ‘Blood Harvest’ – which is almost identical.

No comments:

Post a Comment