Assignment: analyze a videogame as if it were a cinematic artifact.
Sergei Eisenstein, a Russian constructivist filmmaker and theorist interested in the idea of intellectual montage, conceived of editing as the major method available to a filmmaker for conveying ideas to a viewer. Left 4 Dead, a 1st person cooperative survival shooter, must rely on something other than editing in order to convey its rhetoric of mutual reliance to players, because it presents a seamless cinematic experience with little editing akin to the long takes celebrated by Andre Bazin. The game communicates its message through redundant visual and sound cues.
This article deals with the construction of the videogame Left 4 Dead (referred to as L4D) as a cinematic experience. This analysis draws from the fields of visual rhetoric and sound design in both cinematic and ludic arts.
L4D is an important recent example of the first-person shooter and survival horror genres. Relevant games in these genres include Half Life 2 and the Resident Evil series, respectively. Specifically, my analysis of the construction of this cinematic artifact will show how a redundancy of visual and sound cues, in the form of image overlay and sound effects, works to encourage players to depend on each other for survival.
Visual Rhetoric and Cinema
All media use rhetoric in order to convey an argument or expression. For a film or a videogame, this rhetoric does not have to come, as one might believe, from explicit dialogue between characters. “Visual rhetoric” – the way that images express or argue – is a term that can be generally applied to any film or film theory. As explained by Ian Bogost, videogames have procedural rhetoric to work with as well as visual; this is the ability to express an idea through the very programming of the game; however, for now we will consider L4D as a cinematic work.
Bazin’s Objective Reality
Film theorist Andre Bazin is best remembered today for his “auteur theory” – the idea that great directors employ unique styles and techniques that can be examined across their career. His other major contribution to film theory is a visual-rhetorical argument that deep focus and long takes will somehow construct “objective reality.” The shots Bazin loves can best be described as “exploratory,” such as the multi-layered, wandering sequence during the party scene in The Rules of the Game. This is convenient for us considering we often use the word “exploratory” to describe our engagement with the kind of realtime 3D spaces constructed by a game such as Left 4 Dead.
Bazin’s theory explains the aesthetic pleasure we experience when playing Unfortunately the notion of “objective reality” does more to idealize and celebrate cinematic artistry than to explain how a sequence of images can convey an idea; thus, we move to another school of film theory in our search for understanding.
Montage: from Kuleshov to Eisenstein
One tool for conveying an argument in the cinema comes from the style known as Soviet Montage. Theories of montage began with studies by Lev Kuleshov exploring how editing can communicate cues for understanding space, time, and action linkages between shots – the “Kuleshov effect.” Pudovkin’s early films employed this version of montage: he conceived individual shots as “bricks” to be constructed into a cohesive structure.
Eisenstein moved the theory of montage forward by recognizing that editing could also make arguments. Taking a cue for Marx’s version of Hegelian dialectics, he saw montage not as construction (piecing together “bricks”) but as conflict (among “cells”). Simply by placing two compositionally or conceptually disparate images together in a sequence, Eisenstein was able to convey complex ideas about the struggle of the proletariat against the Tsar.
Because Left 4 Dead is an almost seamless first-person experience (it does cut to a 3rd-person view when your character is restrained by a Smoker enemy or hanging onto the edge of the level geometry), it cannot rely on editing to convey its argument about mutual reliance. Soviet Montage films were created before the advent of sound in the cinema, but in order to explain how L4D functions as cinema we must also take its sound design into consideration (Stockburger, 176).
Redundancy, Not Always a Bad Thing
The art of redundancy is one aspect of montage theory that I believe helps explain how L4D work. In many of Eisenstein’s works, he capture individual actions multiple times from different angles and then edits them together. This helps place emphasis on the action, highlighting its intentionality and consequences. L4D employs a redundancy of visual and sound cues in order to make its argument for mutual reliance between players. This is to say, information about the world is conveyed to player/viewers in an overlapping, cooperative way.
An Artificial Image: HUD and Overlay
The HUD is something I ignored in my discussion of L4D as a photographic image, but it bears mention now. A HUD is an artificial construct placed “between” the visual representation of a game’s action and the player. In L4D the HUD communicates information about the status of one’s teammates: their health and their inventory. This information is redundant, because it can also be gleaned simply by looking at them: they stagger when they’re injured, and one can see their equipment strapped to their belts.
Working together, the HUD and the visible state of the player avatars help one quickly gauge the state of the team before a firefight. A visibly staggering avatar, or a character displaying a health bar “in the red” on the HUD, sets the pace for the team. Leaving her lagging behind or unprotected will result in her imminent death and a weakening of the team; therefore, the image itself encourages the other players to protect her.
Finally, the HUD also informs players if they are currently being attacked from behind or the side. This primarily informs one to turn and beat off the attacker oneself, but in some situations it acts as an important cue to announce multi-angle attacks over the headset so that a teammate can direct their fire to assist the overwhelmed character.
“Backlit” haloes, a form of artificial image overlay, communicate various types of information to a viewer/player depending on their hue. Blue haloes (0:39 in the video) stand in for teammates whenever one’s view of them is blocked by level geometry. This both enhances tactical knowledge and encourages players to keep track of each other, because characters too far away can be easily incapacitated before a teammate can run to help. Blue halos also surround items such as ammunition, bombs, and medpacks concealed by darkness. Carefully distributed by the game’s AI Director, such items are essential to surviving upcoming encounters; therefore, the game clearly wants players to be able to find them without undue searching in shadowy recesses.
Other haloes appear around teammates when they become adversely affected. An orange halo (0:46) means that the player has recently been blinded by Boomer bile, constrained by a Smoker’s tongue, or pinned down by a Hunter. If constrained or pinned, a character must be rescued quickly by a teammate or suffer incapacitation. If an avatar has been blinded by bile, hordes of Infected will be attracted to them. This cues one to pay attention to this player and defend them from multiple angle of attack. Players blinded by bile lose the ability to see overlay haloes on top of the general decrease in visual clarity, so the orange halo also serves in this case to alert others that they must communicate with the blinded character to avoid friendly fire.
A red halo surrounds a character who has been incapacitated or a Hunter currently pinning someone (0:46). An incapacitated character will slowly bleed to death on the floor unless another player runs over to help them stand up. Thus, we see that the green, yellow, and red of the stoplight have been modified here to become the blue (all safe), orange (caution), and red (stop everything and help) haloes. Despite the wealth of information provided by image overlay, it only becomes truly redundant when sound effects have been added to the cinematic experience.
Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Sound
Sound design stands as one of the most important components of AAA videogames, the elusive capstone to a work that can either make or break its market and critical success. In survival horror games, designers use sound expressively to convey feelings of danger or uncertainty: even a sudden lack of non-diegetic music in these games communicates to a player (usually, it’s an upcoming surprise scare). In this respect, Left 4 Dead conforms to the norms of the genre; however, added levels of detail in this game hammer in the message of mutual reliance through redundancy of cues and match Stockburger’s definition of the spatialising “indexical function” of sound objects (208).
Most of the sounds in the game, including the unique growls of different types of Infected and character dialogue, are diegetic; only the crescendo is non-diegetic. “Crescendo” means exactly what one would think – a term coined by Valve to describe a climax in their game’s procedural soundtrack. L4D features three kinds of crescendo: horde (5:17 in the video), tank (3:05), and witch. All three of these send cues to the players that they must stick together (if they’ve been separated) and prepare a strategy for the encounter to come. In the case of the witch crescendo, there is also a diegetic element – the noise of her sobbing. This sound practically commands players to turn off their flashlights for fear of alerting the avoidable yet devastating killer (she incapacitates humans in one swipe).
A crescendo seems to lie somewhere in between Murch’s “flat” and “dimensional” audio-visions (xxii) it begins seconds before one can make visual confirmation of an attack (the sound of the door slamming coming before the image of it).
Humans Chatter, Infected Growl
Diegetic dialogue and sound effects lay at the heart of the game’s sound redundancy. The dialogue between characters in L4D has been lauded by critics and designers, and a fan of the game has even programmed Twitter feeds between bot accounts to emulate their simple banter.
When a player grabs ammo her character announces, “ammo over here!” When an Special Infected, such as a Hunter, spawns it emits its unique growl; this sound cue is then reinforced by dialogue stating, “Look sharp, I hear a Hunter!” A wounded character will not only begin to visibly stagger, but he will also call out to his teammates: “Ugh, I’m in a lot of pain… wait up for me!” These redundant sound effects constantly draw player/viewer attention to changes in the game state, while simultaneously making the avatars more “human.” This is how L4D embodies Chion’s synchresis (Murch, xix).
Because it is a seamless first-person experience without cinematic editing to express its argument (as in Soviet Montage films), Left 4 Dead relies on something other than editing in order to convey its rhetoric of mutual reliance to player/viewers. A redundancy of visual and sound cues, in the form of image overlay and sound effects, works to encourage players to depend on each other for survival.
As with even the most well-designed implementations, the redundancy of information in Left 4 Dead quickly becomes old to players who have experienced the game multiple times. For the rhetoric of mutual dependence, we can paraphrase Wittgenstein’s assertion about his own philosophy: once one understands the argument being made, they must abandon it as a ladder already ascended.
Once players have grasped the idea that they must stick together to survive, they are able to compete against the game’s AI at higher difficulties (higher degrees of realism in damage to the player) and concentrate on developing emergent narratives through their gameplay. The necessity of sometimes abandoning one’s teammates at the finale of a scenario has already been written about as a particularly difficult and heart-wrenching decision-making process – only after understanding the game’s argument would one even be able to see the game in this light.
Murch, W. Foreword, in: Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, by Michel Chion. Columbia University Press, 1994, vii-xxiv.
Stockburger, A. PhD Research into the Modalities of Space in Video and Computer Games. 2006, 175-206.