Chungking Espresso

5.2.2 Structure as Literacy

Posted in Game Analysis, Papers by Simon Ferrari on April 7, 2010

This is a section from my critique of Left 4 Dead in my Master’s thesis, “The Judgment of Procedural Rhetoric.” I’m posting snippets here on my blog to drum up interest in the rest of the work. If you’d like a copy of the full document, please email me: chungkingDOTespressoATgmailDOTcom (because of copyright issues, please make sure to give me your full name and your website when you send the email).

Anybody familiar with the work of Anna Anthropy might recognize this as an introductory attempt to do for 3D maps what she does for 2D maps.

Structure as Literacy

Left 4 Dead alternates narrow interior spaces with open exteriors. While moving through the interiors, players often have multiple distinct avenues to choose from. These multilinear spaces encourage exploration, but they also have the potential to feel like mazes that disorient and separate players. It is also difficult to see upcoming dangers when indoors, as special Infected have numerous ways to hide themselves around corners or behind objects until they are ready to strike. The exteriors, on the other hand, provide better visibility and a single general axis of motion. These spaces afford strafing—the ability to physically pan sideways around an obstruction or threat—but they typically funnel the player to a single ultimate destination. In exterior spaces, disorientation comes primarily from partial decreases in visibility due to foliage or detritus.

In order to understand various types of modular level design in Left 4 Dead, we will make use of a series of maps below. The blue line represents the most efficient pathway through the level. Red lines represent distractions from this optimal path. White highlights delineate accessible space, and white lines signify obstructions (some of which can be entered or climbed upon). Yellow lines in the fourth map signify the “scatter” pattern needed to survive Tanks during the scene’s finale. Yellow dots represent places to remain still during attacks from Hordes. One must understand a few things about the way the AI Director works in order to understand why experienced players would ever stray from the blue, optimal path.

First, items such as ammunition, explosives, pain pills, and med-packs can be scattered anywhere throughout the level. The Director decides which of these items to provide, then randomizes their location throughout the level. This selection and location process changes on each attempt at the level, meaning it cannot be memorized; therefore, the primary temptation to follow red lines is to look for these items. The major secondary causes of diversion are Witches. Passing next to a Witch usually ends in disaster, but they typically rest in places that can be wholly avoided by choosing a less optimal path. Our only purpose for even recognizing paths as non-optimal is that enemies never stop spawning in Left 4 Dead (except right before finales). The best way to minimize casualties—the implied goal of the game’s design—is to move at a constant pace, as a group, along the shortest path possible.

Figure 5.1 “Blood Harvest” Intro

Figure 5.1 shows the first level of the “Blood Harvest” campaign, which takes place primarily outdoors.[i] Players begin at the bottom of the map. The white dots at the beginning of the stage represent dense forest. Movement through the first half of the map often proceeds slowly, as the group clusters together to eliminate straying common Infected that come running out of the woods and onto the path. Boomers and Smokers hide among these trees, pulling players into the darkness or leading them astray through blindness. Midway through the level is a trailer, which sometimes contains medical supplies. Lingering here often triggers a Horde, exacerbated by Boomers that hide behind the trailer or off in the woods to the right. The final L-shaped sprint to the saferoom opens visibility but also threatens to pull the team apart as injured teammates lag behind. Play in this level is much more complex in Versus than it is in Campaign mode, because the foliage and surrounding ravines provide tactical opportunities for the Infected team.

This level is basically a “track”-type space in Nitsche’s dichotomy.[ii] This is one of the best maps for new players to run in order to learn basic mechanics. It’s early in the campaign, so it’s a straight, narrow line in an exterior setting designed primarily to set the mood and help a newly formed team build trust. It affords only optimal, unilinear movement. The one major distraction point (the trailer) is one of the clearest learning opportunities for players who don’t understand the importance of constant motion. Even if the team becomes mired in a Horde onslaught, they will almost always have enough medical supplies to make it to safety. It is uncommon for Witches and Tanks to spawn in this level, but if they do the straight bath forward or backward provides ample opportunity for escape and defense. We can conclude from all of this that track-type spaces are the best for developing basic literacy and team dynamics.

Figure 5.2 “No Mercy” Intro

Figure 5.2 is from the “No Mercy” campaign, which is typically the first campaign played by new players and the most popular Versus mode map; therefore, it mixes interior and exterior spaces to form another kind of tutorial. Players begin on the roof of the southernmost building, and they work their way quickly to the ground floor. Following an alley, the team exits onto a street. A witch typically sits right around the corner from where the alley exits out; there are also cars that will summon a Horde if shot. Players choose here whether to proceed along the street itself or through the building in the middle marked with red lines. Moving through the building will increase overall travel time; it holds a higher density of common Infected, but it also might contain health packs. Wrecked trucks litter the streets, creating little pockets of space to entice players away from the optimal path. At the end of the level, a staircase tempts players to linger just before the protection of the saferoom.

The brevity of this level makes it a relatively safe place to learn the tradeoffs between searching through cramped hallways for items and simply charging forward to the safehouse. Because there is only one mini maze-type space with clear entrances and exits, the consequences of slowing down are minor. The only significant danger of this level is the event of a Tank or Horde spawn in the street crowded with cars. Cars that can set off alarms are placed nearby the entrance to the safehouse, meaning that in the event of an accident it is fairly easy to beat a hasty retreat.

Figure 5.3 “No Mercy” Sewers

Figure 5.3 is the beginning of the third level in “No Mercy.” It begins in a series of warehouses connected by darkened alleyways. The way forward is obvious once one knows in which direction to move, but non-optimal paths through ancillary warehouses may contain health packs. Proceeding along the blue line, players enter a courtyard. At one end of the courtyard is a gas station that explodes when shot. Once again, trucks create pockets of space to distract players from the blue path. Right next to the gas station, at the yellow dot, is a forklift that slowly ascends to allow access to the rooftops. The forklift triggers a Horde, and players must run along the rooftops to get back inside at the top left of the map. Smokers, hiding in between the trucks, can easily pull players off the rooftops before their teammates know what’s happening. Soon after this scene, not pictured, is a figure eight-shaped sewer system.

This is a moderately difficult area due to the need to stop to raise the forklift and the added vertical element of running along the rooftop, where there is a hazard of being pulled downward by Special Infected. This forces the rest of the team to track backward to protect the fallen player, and it’s one of the most common causes of a wipe. Before coming to this level, players have already encountered a hard defense point where they must wait out a Horde in order to proceed, but the forklift is much more open and lacking in supplies than previous defense points. The rooftop shows how much more complex a level gets when verticality comes into play. Players must simultaneously keep an eye on enemies descending from up and over a higher rooftop while keeping guard on the Special Infected lurking below. This area primes the team for No Mercy’s finale, which occurs in a two-story building with an open rooftop.

Figure 5.4 “Blood Harvest” Finale

Figure 5.4 is the final level of “Blood Harvest.” Players proceed down a narrow railroad track and climb on top of some train cars at the end. The mid-point of this section often contains a Tank, which requires players to backtrack or ascend the car to the right marked by a red line. Rounding the corner, players drop down into a cornfield to trigger a Horde. Players only have to travel in a straight line to exit the field, but the corn obscures vision almost completely. Considering this is the end of the campaign, multiple teammates may be injured and limping. Enemies can attack from every direction, further disorienting the player. Exiting the field, the team comes upon a house and adjoining barn that serve as a base for the finale. Players can hole up either in the house or in the barn, but they’ll probably have to run circles around the house during two Tank phases.

The house and its surrounding open field are the closest Left 4 Dead gets to the “arena”-type space in Nitsche’s dichotomy.[iii] A tacit assumption is that, by this point in the campaign, the team has learned to work together. The conceit of the finale, wherein the team holes up against overwhelming waves of enemies, takes much of the burden of providing challenge off of the level design—explaining the use of a somewhat nonlinear space. There is also much less clutter in the final arena, emphasizing tactical fluidity.

With the exception of the winding, track-type map of 5.1, it is simple to identify the discrete rectangular shapes used to construct all of these levels. One can observe in most of them a sort of pulsing between interior and exterior, wide and narrow. Interior spaces tend to have multiple avenues of possible movement, but they also feature dead-ends. Exteriors generally only afford unidirectional motion, but all of these open spaces feature objects such as trees or cars used to distract the player from that single direction. When placed in sequence, these basic variations create a rhythm of attack and defense, motion and pause, and centripetal and centrifugal force upon the team’s unity.


[i] Image source for all Left 4 Dead maps: http://l4dmapdb.com/, modified.

[ii] Michael Nitsche, Video Game Spaces (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009), 173.

[iii] Nitsche 183.

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  1. [...] Rhetoric, which isn’t fully available online, but you can find the section about Left 4 Dead here. He breaks content and design into multiple categories that overlap while the foundation is still [...]


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