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:
[ii] Michael Nitsche, Video Game Spaces (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009), 173.
[iii] Nitsche 183.
The Judgement of Procedural Rhetoric by Simon Ferrari
Committee: Ian Bogost (chair), Fox Harrell, Michael Nitsche, and Celia Pearce (in absentiae)
Thursday, 18 March 2010, 1:30-3:30p
This thesis establishes a theoretical framework for understanding virtual spaces and roleplaying in relation to Ian Bogost’s theory of “procedural rhetoric,” the art of persuading through rule systems alone. Bogost characterizes the persuasive power of games as setting up an Aristotelian enthymeme—an incomplete argument—that one completes through play; however, I argue that the dominant rhetoric intended by a team of game designers is subject to manipulation through player choice. Discrete structures within the play experience cause the meaning-making possibilities of a game object to pullulate in a number of directions. Procedural rhetoric is not comprehended or created when reflected back upon after play: we interrogate it, piece it together, and change it through play.
If rules are how the designers express themselves through videogames, then the player expresses herself by forming a personal ruleset—a modus operandi or ethical system—in response to the dominant rhetoric. Furthermore, game space is not merely the place where this dialectic occurs; it also embodies a ruleset in the way it organizes objects and directs the flow of play. The thesis proposes a model by which games, which are “half-real” according to theorist Jesper Juul, can be judged intersubjectively—that is, in a way that accounts for the objectivity of their rulesets and the subjectivity of player experience. By fully understanding the dynamic between the three procedural influences of rules, space, and identity, we can learn more about designing persuasive game systems and enhance the possibilities of subversive play.
Required reading: Persuasive Games, Half-Real, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, Video Game Spaces, and The Ethics of Computer Games
Core Ludography: Far Cry 2, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and Left 4 Dead
Short Essay: Analyze and compare the narrative grammar of Propp, Greimas, and Aarseth.
From earlier studies in film history and comparative literature, I’ve been familiar with Vladimir Propp’s narrative grammar for quite some time. Propp broke down a selection of Russian folk tales into 31 functions and 7 generic characters, elaborating possible combinations and causal sequences. That Propp was able to create his typology was no surprise to me, because I had already learned about oral mnemonic techniques used in commedia dell’arte and the codification of Platonic dialogue and Homeric epic. Once you understand that oral storytellers memorize a set amount of objects, characters, and events along with a structure for connecting them and then improvising, the revelation that folk stories carried down from an oral tradition follow such a grammar is almost trivial. My major problem with this grammar is that it ignores everything that’s wonderful about folklore—the flourishes and improvisations. In the face of Mark Turner’s ability to create compelling prose building upon otherwise stale research in cognition and early childhood development, Propp’s grammar strikes a dull chord. I am reminded of Janet Murray’s ability to find personal meaning in the rote act of manipulating the falling bricks of Tetris. Perhaps Propp too felt this lacking, reflected in his later decision to study literature instead of linguistics (Wikipedia).
Greimas attempts to bridge the gap between deep linguistic structure and surface narrative structure, explaining “the fact that a narrative enonce is represented at the linguistic level by a whole paragraph” (797). Much of his work goes into breaking down subjects, object, and verbs (which he renames “functions”) into the form of signs. Greimas expands narrative grammar into story grammar when he dichotomizes narrative and non-narrative enonces. A non-narrative enonce builds from a stative verb, or one that addresses being and qualification (800). Toward the end, Greimas conceives of how to represent the literary device of asyndeton (he merely labels it “ellipsis”) as symbolic logic in the form of a series of conditional statements—or a narrative syntagm (804). Greimas understands that a compelling narrative grammar must explain the structural affordances that allow for story grammars and literary devices.
Propp was a Russian formalist, meaning he identified with the goal of separating the artist from the text and then showing how formal elements such as syntax and structure were inherent in how a text means. Greimas, on the other hand, was closely associated with structuralists such as Levi-Strauss. Structuralism attempts to break down a text into signs and the structures by which they’re related. These structures are held as “real,” whereas the signs they order merely refer to the signified objects and events that exist outside the literary artifact. From the introduction to his Cybertext, Espen Aarseth appears to adhere to a variation on post-structuralism—a movement that critiqued such assumptions as the importance of the author’s intent and the inherent “deep meaning” of a text. Poststructuralism originated primarily in France, but I’d argue that Quine’s indeterminacy of translation principle made the first step toward establishing the cultural relativity of the connection between signifier and signified. Poststructualists (according to Wikipedia) break down the distinction between signifier and signified to hold the combination as “real,” but I’d add to this that they recognize that there exists a culturally-specific (and personally-specific) version of each of these constructs.
Aarseth’s model of an ergodic textual machine—placing the “text” inside the vertices “operator,” “verbal sign,” and “medium” (21)—seems to uphold the idea that there is no single meaning to a cybertext; rather, this meaning is generated through the conflict of the vertices. These textual machines constitute localized microcosms of the general poststructuralist mission of critiquing social structures through playful deconstruction. Although Aarseth specifically establishes the textual machine in order to explain cybertexts and not textuality-in-general, I think it also applies back all the way to oral storytelling in a way that Propp was unable to capture. In “Double-Scope Stories,” Mark Turner imagines a dialogue between mother and child to accompany the reading of a bedtime story—it is this dialectic (trialectic?) that Aarseth ends up capturing with the ergodic machine.
Assignment: Write a design sketch for a narrative engine to be coded next week.
For my narrative generation project, I’d like to create flash fiction that describe the varying experiences of moving through discrete zones in a level from a generic FPS game. The initial idea for this comes from an earlier essay I wrote for Michael Nitsche last semester, about reading Left 4 Dead as a team-based rhythm game. In that essay I elaborated on what I saw as a somewhat vague but valid set of ideas from Henry Jenkins and Celia Pearce about “evocative space” and “game design as narrative architecture.” I delineated a few basic binary options for any zone in a level, such as whether it is wide or narrow, linear or multi-linear, light or dark, defense or offense, enclosed or open. Although I didn’t fully flesh the idea out, I grappled with explaining the psychological effects that various combinations of these attributes—and the act of moving between different zones—would have on the player.
Around six months later, I came across this short article by Justin Keverne. In it, he breaks Resistance: Fall of Man down into seven distinct models of gameplay and attempts to show how various combinations of these can elicit aesthetic responses such as “pushing through to teammates” and “camaraderie followed by loneliness.” His explication of this design method lacks the binary structure of mine, but he takes the critical step toward integrating it into the MDA model of starting from an aesthetic goal and working backward to determine the dynamics and mechanics required to elicit it. In the MDA model, level design seems to be a bounded box surrounding and structuring dynamics—it is a conduit through which dynamics can be fed directly into an aesthetic grammar.
Thus, for this project I will attempt to create a narrative generator that asks for desired aesthetic responses (in sequence) as input. The engine will generate an introductory zone based on the binary attributes I delineate, then it will attempt to create a sequence of zones to match the emotional flow described by the user’s input. Another desired feature will be the user’s ability to constrain the choice of binary attributes (such as ordering the machine to only use enclosed and linear spaces). The output of the generator will be in the form of a short story. This is a decidedly structuralist approach to the assignment, but I don’t mean for the output to be the final product of the endeavor; rather, I see the project as being a tool for brainstorming and design-sketching for level designers. I have no idea if my coding abilities will be adequate for this project, but I hope to be able to at least mock up a convincing prototype using PHP and mySQL. Even if I can’t hack the back-end sufficiently, I at least hope to develop the vague notion of level-design-as-narrative into a comprehensive grammar.
Images from Wikipedia, Creative Commons, etc.
***SPOILER ALERT: This is an academic paper; we spoil everything, you crybabies.***
The World Ends With You is part of a recently popularized genre of games I’m calling the “mutual reliance game.” These games emphasize group dynamics over the valorization of individual action, and throughout the paper I attempt to draw from a series of theoretical writings that may lay the groundwork for an understanding of the genre and can be used to examine other games that take part in it. Through a tight coupling of narrative, control, and mechanics, TWEWY makes its argument for mutual reliance while distinguishing a community mentality from its negative analogue—totalitarian control.
The World Ends With You is a game about mutual reliance. Its protagonist, Neku, is a misanthropic adolescent who escapes the world around him by constantly wearing headphones. Neku has died, but he doesn’t remember the details of his murder by gunshot until later in the game. In his time among the living, Neku was a denizen of Shibuya—Tokyo’s vibrant center of fashion and youth culture. In TWEWY, a mysterious group of agents known as the Reapers allow the dead to compete in The Reaper’s Game for a second chance at life.
The Reaper’s Game takes place in an alternate realm, spatially coexistent with the land of the living, known as The Underground; the ghostly Players can see the living and read their thoughts, but communication between the quick and the dead can only take place hrough a version of Ouija called “Reaper Creeper.” Players of The Reaper’s Game receive one task a day for a week. In order to survive in the Underground, which is inundated by evil powers called Noise that flock to the negative thoughts of the living like moths to a flame, each Player must quickly find a partner. Any Player who allows his partner to succumb to the attacks of Noise—or fails to complete a daily assignment—faces permanent “erasure” (videogame conventions run deep in the land of the dead). A single Noise manifests simultaneously on two planes of existence, each of which must be defended by one of the two partners. Thus, Players of the Reaper’s Game are required to place a great deal of trust in their partners—a particularly daunting task for a self-absorbed solipsist such as Neku.
TWEWY represents the two combat planes physically by placing each on one of the Nintendo DS’s dual screens. Players control Neku with the stylus, while controlling his current partner with the thumb of their left hand on the D-pad. The partner character will go into “auto-play” mode if the player neglects to press the D-pad; while in auto, the partner will perform attacks less often and thus open itself to additional harm. By maintaining a steady beat, Neku and his partner can pass a light puck granting a damage multiplier back and forth. Neku collects a set of pins that grant him different attacks. The player invokes each pin with a different type of stylus scratch (circles, flicks, presses, and taps) or microphone input (blowing, shouting). Companion characters gain access to new D-pad combos based on the item in their accessory slot. The game features two difficulty sliders (one for Neku’s health and one for Noise strength) of incredibly fine granularity, encouraging each player to find their own “sweet spot” at which the combat’s team-based mechanics begin to shine.
A Genre Defined?
Individual action, once an unquestioned virtue in single-player games, has become slightly less popular over time. This is not to say that games about an individual struggle to succeed have fallen completely out of favor – Far Cry 2 is a recent popular example about one person’s survival in an environment where even one’s friends can quickly become enemies. But recent years have seen a rise in games focusing on group dynamics.
Prince of Persia echoes Braid’s forgiveness mechanism with the character of Elika, who saves the hero every time he makes a false move and is about to die. Left 4 Dead, an online survival horror game, enforces group reliance by making the game virtually unwinnable alone. Beyond Good & Evil effectively fractures the action adventure hero popularized by The Legend of Zelda by making its protagonist, Jade, reliant on one of two partners to solve environmental puzzles and defeat bosses. These games cross genre lines, making them difficult to recognize as representing a cohesive thrust in game design; thus, throughout this paper we will attempt to show how TWEWY helps define the features and concepts behind a new thematic genre I have tentatively named “the mutual reliance game.”
Portable Gaming Devices
But TWEWY is a different sort of game. Relegated to the handheld Nintendo DS, one plays this game alone, while even a single-player console or PC game can be played in the company of friends. A portable gaming device allows one to escape from daily life even when physically immersed in the world outside one’s living room—before there was the iPod, there was the Game Boy. The history of the Game Boy’s development is somewhat occluded for non-Japanese speakers. One can assume that Japanese market data supported the idea that a console playable on long Tokyo train rides would perform well, but The Ultimate History of Video Games contains a quote from Don Thomas of Atari implying that most people thought the device would fail because of its clunkiness and small, black-and-green screen:
Nobody, including me, thought that the Game Boy would take off like it did. Game Boy is the most perfect example in the industry that you can’t be sure about anything. (397)
If any device demands the amount of close hardware inspection provided by Bogost and Montfort’s Racing the Beam, it is the original Game Boy. The Nintendo DS is quite a different beast, but the effect of its hardware limitations on artistic choice inform much of how TWEWY works. We will address this in our discussion of the game’s controls. Lost in Blue—a survival simulator about two children who find themselves alone on an island and must cooperate to survive—is another mutual reliance game for the DS, but is not nearly as self-conscious about being a portable game. For our purposes, the most important fact about TWEWY’s relegation to a portable is that it continually asks its players to take off their DS headphones and develop a sensus communis (in the Kantian sense, not the rhetorical or Aristotelian).
A Tale of Tight Coupling
Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw criticizes TWEWY for creating what Clint Hocking calls ludonarrative dissonance:
What I’m saying is I like games where the story and gameplay go hand in hand. In most JRPGs, the story and gameplay are kept either side of a wrought-iron fence made of tigers.
Incidentally this is almost the exact wording of Croshaw’s critique of Braid—leading one to infer that the reviewer aligns with Raph Koster in holding that game mechanics cannot carry semantic freight. If one considers the surface-level act of scribbling on the DS screen with a stylus to be the extent of TWEWY’s mechanics and control, then this is a reasonable conclusion; however, it ignores many of the levels on which this game operates. It might initially strike one that Croshaw is a particularly easy straw man to mount a defense against; however, in the wake of the great ludology/narratology debates a suggestion of ludonarrative dissonance stands as one of the most serious claims one can level against a game. The following will attempt to show that TWEWY in fact manages a tight coupling of mechanics, control, and narrative rarely seen in Japanese roleplaying games.
Lev Manovich explains part of what makes game challenging (and AI seem a lot smarter than it actually is) by positing that, mediated by the controller, our avatars in a game world represent only a fragment of our potency:
In short, computer characters can display intelligence and skills only because the programs put severe limits on our possible interactions with them [...] the computers can pretend to be intelligent only by tricking us into using a very small part of who we are when we communicate with them. (33)
Understood in this light, we see that TWEWY forces the player to fracture themselves even more than most games. The game’s AI is fairly innocuous even by hack-and-slash standards, but the sheer number of Noise on each screen—coupled with the difficult controls—makes up for the weakness of each individual unit.
The player can move Neku around his screen in order to avoid danger by dragging the stylus. Because the stylus is the only way Neku can attack, players must choose at any given moment whether to use their pins or evade attacks. Pins periodically run out of energy and must recharge, so there are times when evasion is the player’s primary modus. The character on the top cannot be similarly maneuvered, because the directional pad only controls their attacks. It is hard to protect this character because of the relative uselessness of the left hand; nevertheless, the limited manual control still proves more effective than “auto” mode. These facts all come together to show that TWEWY’s combat system is a process of mutual reliance between a human player severely limited to the actions of his right hand scribbling with the stylus and either a weak AI companion or a significantly smaller portion of their brain enacting simple button presses on the D-pad.
“I exist, me, Hélène; isn’t that enough?”
The Blood of Others, an early novel by Simone de Beauvoir, is a fiction rooted in same ideas as her later philosophical work The Ethics of Ambiguity—namely, the implication (following Husserl) “that all adolescents are Cartesian-like solipsists who imagine themselves to be the only consciousness that exists” (Holveck). The heroine, named Hélène (perhaps after Helen of Troy), is a naïve youth who sees herself as completely free from societal bonds; thus, throughout the beginning of the book she uses other human beings instrumentally to fulfill her desires. Not until Paris is invaded by the Nazis does her sense of communal responsibility for other women begin to develop. The unit operation of joining hands, common in videogames such as Ico and Lost in Blue, is invoked when Hélène claims to know an impoverished stranger in order to get her a ride back into Paris with a group Nazi officers. Significantly, the women also share bread together despite the prospect of starvation.
Neku and his teammate share a common health bar—the blood of others becomes the blood of one’s own. This communal life force links the success or failure of two partners in the Reaper’s Game. Shared health bars are a fairly rare occurrence in games, highlighting the fact that the developers desired to deliver a deliberate message with this choice. Winback 2: Project Poseidon is a shooter in which the player controls two different characters, one after the other, on two different routes through any given level. Critics panned this design decision, perhaps because it had little narrative motivation. Forever Kingdom, a little-known JRPG with strong tones of group reliance, features three characters linked by a shared “Soul Gauge.” In this second case the Gauge has direct bearing on the combat tactics native to the game, as well as having a cause in the narrative (evil wizard, blood curse, etc.) Accordingly, the critical reception of Forever Kingdom game was markedly more positive than in the case of Winback 2.
Despite this distinction, some conventional reviews of TWEWY cite the health bar as one of the major contributors to the game’s high difficulty curve. But is a shared health bar so different from what we see in other mutual reliance games? In Lost in Blue, keeping fed is a communal process between Keith’s hunting and scavenging and Skye’s fire-tending and cooking. In Beyond Good & Evil, one of the commands available to the player is to transfer health-restoring items between Jade and her current companion. Admittedly it is a bit too easy to acquire health items in BG&E, a situation that Left 4 Dead turns on its head: players are only given between 4-6 health packs per level, which means that one often has to make the decision whether to heal a teammate or save a pack for oneself in anticipation of future danger. Shared health—and the accompanying need to care for one’s teammates to preserve that health—can thus be seen as common unit operations across the mutual reliance genre.
“Dark tourism” is a relatively established brand of adjectival tourism focusing on visiting sites associated with death. TWEWY is an exploration of the spatial life of the dead that exist in the Underground of Shibuya. This is an important component of the game for our discussion, because the temporary life of a tourist is one of almost complete reliance—explaining why Ptolomea, the second-innermost zone of Dante’s 9th circle of the Inferno, is reserved for those sinners who betray their guests. Navigating a foreign city is a simultaneously exciting, exhausting, and anxious experience.
Players of TWEWY are visitors to Shibuya, significantly reliant on a map that occupies the top screen of the DS when viewing the menu. The map is divided into different areas, each of which has a different popularity chart for the game’s many consumer brands. Payers must pay attention to these charts, because wearing either the most and least popular brands will grant Neku’s team bonuses and negative effects, respectively. Because the game returns so often to the same locations, every mission features a different blocking off of the city based on invisible walls that either remain static or can be destroyed by fulfilling certain tasks. The map thus often becomes the only way to get from one point of interest to another, weaving one’s way between the shifting blockades.
The fracturing of the city space echoes the mental synecdoche and asyndeton described by Michel de Certeau as intrinsic to pedestrian life (Certeau 101). When walking through a city, one primarily remembers landmarks that draw attention to themselves or hold some significance for the walker; thus, these individual locations become representative of a larger area—synecdoche, poetically speaking. In between these key locations, walkers mentally ignore scenery and thus manifest the second poetic tool of asyndeton. The sites that TWEWY centers around are often emblematic of Shibuya as a youth culture center, but some of the back alleys in which major plot points occur do not necessarily strike one as well-traveled. Thus, even citizens of Tokyo will find the Underground of Shibuya somewhat disorienting, because TWEWY’s particular spatial synecdoche and asyndeton adhere to an idealized, rather than an actual, walker of Shibuya’s streets.
Individuality is not an unalloyed evil in the eyes of TWEWY’s designers. Much care, primarily through the game’s narrative but also in a few key mechanics, goes into establishing a difference between mutual reliance and a complete forfeiture of the self. An important part of the definition of a genre is to explicitly understand what does not constitute membership. The following discussions of shopping, trends, and rhythm attempt to lay the groundwork for these distinctions.
A Consumerist Game?
Shopkeeps, perennially some the least developed characters in Japanese roleplaying games, become a vital component of TWEWY’s argument against solipsism. Just as in the real world, one develops relationships with shopkeepers in TWEWY by becoming regular customers. Doing so unlocks new, more powerful pins and clothing for the player to purchase. This is the source of many mainstream critiques of the game as overly consumerist: in the game, one is literally only truly alive while inside a store—the ghostly players of the Reaper’s Game become corporeal when they step past a sigil marking the entrance to every store. This is, of course, simply a way to justify the idea of direct communication between the living and the dead, but its implications should not be completely overlooked.
Certainly the game’s reliance on buying clothing and flair to augment the abilities of Neku and his teammates is disconcerting, but the nowhere does it explicitly claim that the clothes one wears are a source of individuality. Rather, the relationship Neku develops with various shopkeepers echoes the thoroughly modern nostalgic desire for locality and community that Pierre Mayol unearths in his exploration of Madame Marguerite’s notebook:
I have known some very crude shops, display windows of dubious taste, but the shopkeepers knew their customers, there was an exchange of politeness and kindness [...] The shopkeepers are unfortunately no longer authentic Croix-Roussians. They have constructed more modern shops, but they have not acquired the native mentality. There are no more friendly conversations, no one knows anyone anymore… (126)
Wistful remembrances of times past are not unique to the great Continental thinkers and poets—Hayao Miyazaki has built his entire animation career upon the Japanese public’s desire for a return to a simpler, more natural way of life (Napier 181) in the face of rapid industrial change (sometimes by feeding it, sometimes by problematizing it).
Even though Neku can develop relationships with the cashiers at larger-scale stores, their greetings and farewells receive markedly different treatment. The cashier at Pegaso, a shop “for the richest of the rich,” tells you to return when you can afford his wares if you leave the shop without buying anything—an experience that anyone who has accidentally wandered into a Bloomingdale’s or trendy boutique looking for a pair of slacks can instantly sympathize with. Although the most expensive items in the game are powerful, the game does include a method of combining rare materials with lower-price goods in order to cobble together the most potent outfit. Despite the regularity of shopping in TWEWY, the distinction between the local and the corporate is no more apparent than in the subplot dealing with Neku’s rescue of Ramen Don.
Saving the Noodle Man
If one sat and watched The Food Network for an entire day, one would likely catch at least one episode of a show where the host visits Japan or China. At some point in the episode, the host will visit an aging male who spends his final years preserving the dying art of handmade noodle-pulling.4 The crafting of a fine bowl of ramen is perhaps most thoroughly celebrated in the Japanese film Tampopo—a cinematic, ramen-specific analogue to the curry-restaurant game CoCo Ichibanya analyzed by Ian Bogost. As an exploration of Tokyo culture, TWEWY would be remiss to ignore this significant aspect of Japanese culinary life.
During the second week of the Reaper’s Game, Neku runs head on into the world of the ramen business. Ken Doi, owner of the neighborhood noodle bar Ramen Don, has fallen on hard times. Nobody will visit his shop, because a popular blogger named The Prince of Ennui has endorsed a chain restaurant called Shadow Don. Manipulated by the corporate forces maintaining his popular image, the Prince does not enjoy the empty, loveless noodles crafted at the restaurant he endorses:
I miss the old stuff… Just noodles and broth. Warm, simple ramen.
Using a simplified version of Reaper Creeper, Neku imprints in Doi’s mind the image of an advertisement he can use to recover his business. Later in the day the Prince enters Doi’s shop, demands a bowl of noodles, tastes them, and exclaims:
Let me guess: a whole chicken in the soup? That, and a hint of pork bone, seaweed and sardines… It all blends together so perfectly! Among the flavors, I… I can taste the love you’ve put in this. Your love of ramen… No. Your love for ramen-lovers.
The noodle is a symbol of long life in east Asian iconography; however, no matter the level of craft that has gone into making a noodle as supple and long as possible, a bowl of ramen is very much a product of the harmony between every ingredient—reflected in the Zen-minded placement of different meats and vegetables in a wheel across the surface of the broth. Furthermore, the Prince asserts that the soup becomes more than the sum of its parts when it has been made in the spirit of sharing with others.
This sequence and its underlying metaphor are admittedly melodramatic, but ramen as a model for a community of individuals is certainly more refined than the American conception of a “cultural soup” (perhaps because our semi-liquid culinary analogues are homogenized stews and chowders). Encapsulated in this subplot we find both the game’s preference for the local and its mandate of mutual reliance—the ingredients of ramen maintain their purity even while harmonizing together.
The Red Pin
TWEWY also distinguishes mutual reliance from Hannah Arendt’s characterization of a totalitarian centripetal force on society. Kitaniji, the leader of the Reapers, distributes a red pin that, when activated, forces everyone to march to the beat of the exact same drum (to follow Emerson). One mission early on the game is to aid in the red pin’s marketing to the living; the designers seem to have thought that one of the best ways to hammer a social message into the minds of players is to make them complicit in the antagonist’s master plan.
TWEWY features a peculiar mechanic that allows this mission to make sense: trends among the living are set by the fashions of the dead competing in the Reaper’s Game. By wearing any given brand during combat, Neku will incrementally raise that brand on an area’s popularity chart. The very absurdity of this mechanic stands as a secondary counter-argument to the notion that the game is overly consumerist—TWEWY posits that trends are less a tangible social phenomenon than they are completely arbitrary flukes of popular taste.
In her study of Nazi and Stalinist regimes Arendt argues that,
Totalitarianism is never content to rule by external means, namely, through the state and a machinery of violence; thanks to its particular ideology and the role assigned to it in this apparatus of coercion, totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within. (325)
This idea relies heavily on Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “aestheticization of politics” that propagandists use to take control of society by popularity instead of force. She asserts that totalitarian governments seek not to control classes, but masses; further, “the chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships” (Arendt 317).
There is no more perfect connection between the late capitalist environment of Shibuya and the aestheticization of politics than the notion that youth culture can be easily manipulated by the manufacturers of trends. Trendiness begins as a way for a select group to declare themselves as unique, quickly cuts across class boundaries, and finally becomes normalized when it hits market saturation. The game clearly does not consider the bond of common hipness to constitute a “normal social relationship,” but rather a weak grasping at straws in the face of the highly encapsulated social life of the Tokyo citizenry.
The creeping trend of wearing the red pin in TWEWY is a process that begins early in the game as a hip accessory that only a select few possess and surreptitiously gains momentum in tandem with Neku’s three runs through the Reaper’s Game. By the end, Kitaniji has complete control over a population that voluntarily accepted the yoke he crafted for it. Neku, who has become so involved in the Game due to his newfound fellow feeling for the predicament of his previous partner Shiki (she faces erasure if Neku fails, because the Reapers take what is most important from each Player at the beginning of each week), is the only person in Shibuya who managed to ignore the trend. Thus the communal sense, which saves Neku from mind control, is differentiated from a hive mentality.
Rhythm games have now firmly established themselves across player demographic boundaries. Most interesting for our analysis of mutual reliance games is the recent transition from single-player games such as the first three Guitar Heros to team-based experiences such as Rock Band and GH: World Tour. Notably, these “party” games feature the shared health bar (here a general level of positive or negative audience vibe) that has proven itself to be such a risky move in other genres. Similarly to other mutual reliance games, individuals rack up “star power” that they can use to either increase their own score, boost their audience vibe, or save a fellow bandmate from failure. This is further proof that games in this thematic genre recognize individual effort in-game while allowing players to make a semi-ethical meta-game choice that leads the group to either enjoy or become frustrated by their experience together.
It is notable that a critique of rampant consumerism is relatively easy to build against these games: buying instruments and clothes only provides surface-level aesthetic change. Further, World Tour is the first rhythm game to feature dynamic in-game advertising provided by IGA and Massive, while Rock Band 2 features corporately sponsored events and competitions. Comparing the rhetoric of shopping between TWEWY and these games only highlights how carefully the former handles the matter.
TWEWY makes numerous connections to the world of music through its naming conventions. Joshua, the local demi-god of Shibuya, is known as the Composer. His second-in-command, Kitaniji, bears the title of Conductor. The most common enemy in the game—characterized primarily as being not-human—is called “Noise.” Though not immediately apparent, the ghostly Players of the Reaper’s Game are also players (that is, “instrumentalists”) in an orchestra or band. When Kitaniji invokes the power of the red pin to control the living and the dead, he subverts the natural musical order of Shibuya’s society and replaces it with a Fascist march.
Theodor Adorno famously associated the early jazz of the Tin Pan Alley with Fascism:
The effectiveness of the principle of march music in jazz is evident. The basic rhythm of the continuo and the bass drum is completely in sync with march rhythm, and, since the introduction of six-eight time, jazz could be transformed effortlessly into a march[...] the jazz orchestra[...] is identical to that of a military band. (485)
Further, he observes that “the most drastic example of standardization of presumably individualized features is to be found in so-called improvisations” (Adorno 445-6). His claim is that popular music, because it must appeal to the aural inclinations of what the uneducated masses perceive as musically “natural,” risks becoming entirely normalized. Once this process is set in motion, popular music creates a feedback loop wherein both the performers and their consuming public become progressively more regularized in turn. The discussion of whether Adorno knew what he was talking about or was simply biased by his experience with Nazism and training as a classical pianist still goes on today. For our purposes we simply recognize that TWEWY’s red pin story echoes Adorno’s exact fears: the same instrumentalists who compose a completely unique jazz band can one day find themselves following the beat of the same drum.
There are no soloists in TWEWY; like the members of a two piece band (The White Stripes and Mates of State come to mind), the Players of the Reaper’s Game only have a limited amount of actions to perform and tools to use to craft their music (or combat). They pass a puck of light back and forth that increases a damage multiplier if they keep a steady beat. The Player’s pins thus become his instruments, and the price for following the popular trend of wearing Kitaniji’s red pin is the total control of one’s mind and music.
A Biblical Critique?
What we in the West know as the “Christ figure” is in fact a fairly common archetype in many religions and spiritualities—from Amitabha Bodhisattva, to Prometheus, to Japan’s own Amaterasu (the protagonist of the videogame Okami). In TWEWY, Neku himself becomes a Christ figure. Joshua slays Neku, choosing him as his champion in a Job-like contest against Kitaniji; Neku transforms himself in the land of the dead and is finally resurrected anew.
One might initially assume that Japanese artists have no stake in exploring Christian mythology; however, Japanese cultural historian Susan Napier writes that,
For most consumers of anime, their culture is no longer a purely Japanese one. At least in terms of entertainment, they are as equally interested in and influenced by Western cultural influences as they are by specifically Japanese ones. (22)
While Napier only explicitly references Japanese manga and anime, the consumers of JRPGs comprise essentially the same market within and outside Japan. Crosses, angels, and demons are common icons in Japanese games, from the winged forms of Kefka and Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VI & VII to the aping of Nietzsche’s famous assertion that “Gott ist tot” in Xenogears. J.W.T Mason explains this by asserting that Shinto, the national spirituality (for it cannot exactly be called a religion) of Japan, is a recognition of the divine seed in all peoples and cultures.
TWEWY inverts the Biblical story of Abraham’s plea with God to spare the city of Sodom. God agrees to spare Sodom for the sake of ten good men, but the angels sent to survey the city can only find one, Lot. Not until the New Testament are the sins of mankind worth forgiving for the sake of one (Jesus). Echoing the God of the Old Testament, Joshua decides that Shibuya has become so vile and imperfect a place that it must be destroyed and composed anew. He bets Kitaniji that the city cannot be redeemed within three weeks, leading the otherwise benevolent Conductor to perpetrate his Fascist control of the populace in an effort to constrain their vices. Joshua murders Neku (he’s an Old Testament God, after all) in order to have a thrall inside the Underground, disrupting Kitaniji’s efforts.
Yet Joshua decides at the end of the game that the otherwise vile city is worth saving for the sake of one man’s (Neku) capacity for betterment. This directly contradicts the story of Christ, who is born and lives without sin in order that his sacrifice might redeem the souls of the imperfect. Neku’s teammate Beat originally died trying to save his little sister Rhyme from being run over by a car. If Christ’s example were meaningful to Joshua, then Beat’s sacrifice would be enough for him to decide that Shibuya could produce virtue; however, it is the transformation of the thoroughly imperfect (selfish) Neku that changes the demi-god’s mind.
One could hold that this celebration of the actions of an individual undercuts the message of mutual reliance, but this would ignore the fact that the very transformation Joshua values is the development of a sensus communis. Christians rely on Christ’s sacrifice for their salvation; in TWEWY it is the bond of mutual reliance formed between Neku and his teammates—forged in countless dual-screen battles and the twisting little passages through the shop-filled alleys of the city—that saves Shibuya.
The World Ends With You establishes the importance of mutual reliance while explaining how to maintain one’s individuality. The game distinguishes between a sense of community and the negative analogue of a hive mentality. It delivers these messages through a tight coupling of its mechanics, controls, and narrative. More so than any other game with a similar moral, TWEWY displays the expressive strength of the rhetoric of mutual reliance. The fact of its relegation to a portable gaming device only makes its message all the more poignant for the player.
In the end, one comment by Croshaw re-emerges to hold true of the experience, namely that the player has been led through the game on a leash. TWEWY, like a raiding guild in World of Warcraft, is such a finely tuned machine that performativity and agency have been robbed from the player. This strikes one as distinctly counterintuitive to the possible goal of allowing players to decide for themselves whether or not to develop a sensus communis. If the mutual reliance game is to mature as a genre, it may have to abandon some of the explicit conncections that TWEWY maintains. Maybe the coupling of two partners is too restrictive to allow true group dynamics to develop. Perhaps an answer lies in the story-free experience of playing Left 4 Dead, wherein game design exists simply as narrative architecture for the team’s emergent story of survival—as great a proof as any that game mechanics, when finely tuned, can carry semantic freight on their own.
Adorno, T., “On Popular Music” & “On Jazz.” Essays on Music, University of California Press, Berkeley (2002), 437-469, 485-488.
Arendt, H., The Origins of Totalitarianism. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston (1973), 308-326.
Certeau, M. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, Los Angeles (1998), 91-110.
Certeau, M., Giard, L., Mayol, P. and Tomasik, T., The practice of everyday life, Volume 2: Living and Cooking. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis (1998), 126.
Holveck, E., “The Blood of Others: A Novel Approach to The Ethics of Ambiguity.” Hypatia vol. 14 no. 4, Univeristy of Indiana Press (1999). Retrieved online at 21:20, 4/20/09.
Kent, S., The Ultimate History of Video Games. Three Rivers Press, New York (2001), 397.
Manovich, L., The Language of New Media. MIT Press, Cambridge (2007), 33-34.
Napier, S., Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke. Palgrave, New York (2001), 22 & 181.
Final section of a three-part paper on Left 4 Dead for a Tech, Design, and Representation class. So much time has passed since when I started writing the pieces and now that it took a lot to muster enough interest to write this. I hope I came up with a decent angle on it, contributing to everyone’s discussion of the emergent qualities of the game. Special thanks to Jon Mills for providing a bit of creative impetus (he’s in the works cited, too).
Left 4 Dead is an exercise in minimalism. Although the levels are fairly linear and player interaction is limited to only a few actions, the play experience changes each time one plays as a result of the machinations of the AI Director. As a cooperative game, Left 4 Dead shares just as much in common with team-based rhythm games such as Rock Band as it does with other shooters and survival horror games.
INTRODUCTION: This article deals with the gameplay of the videogame Left 4 Dead (referred to as L4D). L4D is an important recent artifact in 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 deals with how minimalism in level design, narrative, and player control combines with team-based play and a randomized game state (enemies and equipment) in order to cause a cooperative experience similar to the rhythm game Rock Band to emerge. Both emergent gameplay and narrative will be considered. For the purposes of fully exploring the gameplay, I will primarily be referencing the level of complexity inherent in playing on the Expert difficulty level (which enhances the importance of the game’s design).
Minimalism and Flow
One of L4D’s main strengths is its minimalism. Players can basically only shoot, run, crouch, and melee. Inventories are particularly constrained. Most of the levels are linear in nature. Unlike in a lot of shooters, there’s little need to take cover or leap over obstacles; however, within this spare framework a variety of changes to the game state lead to a multiplicity of playstyles and experiences. This exemplifies Lev Manovich’s idea that one of the essences of new media is their variability – that a set of modular elements working together in different ways cause the artifact to be experienced differently by everyone each time it is used (Manovich, 36).
Constrained Player Action
Players move at a constant speed (they cannot sprint, as in some games), which only slows down if they take enough damage. They can crouch to stabilize their shooting accuracy and allow teammates to shoot over their heads without harming them. Unlike some tactical shooters, where a player controls a team of NPCs whose formation they can determine for particular situations, a team in L4D must choose combat formations to fit the given situation and their strengths. The most effective formation for general defense is two players kneeling in opposite directions with the two other teammates standing behind each of them.
One important inclusion is the power of melee. Clicking the left trigger on the controller causes an avatar to swipe crosswards with their gun, knocking Infected enemies backwards. This is particularly useful when a player is overtaken by too many enemies to shoot by themself; crouching and constantly using the melee allows them to minimize damage to their person while teammates shoot off the Horde from a safe distance. A well-timed melee also has the ability to disorient a leaping Hunter or knock a Boomer back to a safe distance for shooting (they explode when killed). Finally, players can click the left bumper button to instantly turn 180 degrees in the event of an attack to their exposed back.
One carries pistols (unlimited ammo) by default, and must choose a single other weapon (limited ammo) from a choice of only two (shotgun or automatic, with the added choice of an almost useless sniper rifle later in the game). Players receive a single health pack at the beginning of each of the 5 levels within a scenario. They will sometimes find one or two more, but usually all one encounters in the field are pain pills (which provide only a temporary boost to health and movement speed). One can also carry either a single pipe bomb or molotov cocktail. Players hold a flashlight, which they can turn on or off.
Level Design and the AI Director
Left 4 Dead’s levels alternate between cramped pathways and dangerous, open spaces. This leads to the creation of a punctuated rhythm that I explain below. Much of the game is wandering down hallways or forest trails, the periphery constrained by darkened offices or dense foliage. Players are the safest during the most linear moments, because they can usually see the direction from which Infected approach them. Open spaces mean multi-directional attacks and a higher chance of being separated.
The game state is controlled by the AI Director, an unseen agent that calculates player performance and varies the state of the game in order to help or hinder progress (by adding items for the players to use or enemy Infected). This artificial agent would satisfy Manovich’s description of a “high-level” AI; its sophistication and contribution to variability in the game state goes far beyond what Manovich observed in early game AI (Manovich, 33). Valve’s implementation of the Director contributes to building the “flow state” in players, a task that usually falls on the level designer.
Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, a positive psychologist, introduced the notion of flow: a mental state in which one is fully immersed in an experience due to feelings of honed focus toward achievable goals. The game is never too easy, because breezing through one portion will usually mean a Tank or a Witch is about to spawn right around the corner. During more difficult encounters, the game is often fair about the fighting chance it provides you; mistakes on the part of the team, such as brutally damaging friendly fire, contribute much more to failure than the actual challenge presented by the enemies.
Because the task of creating flow has been taken off of level design, the world in L4D acts as a blank state on which players can author and act out their own unique stories (Jenkins, 11-12). Each level draws from a trope of the survival horror genre; thus, these levels constitute “evocative spaces” (Jenkins, 6). This is the essence of Jenkins’ narrative architecture (originally conceived in an unpublished work by Celia Pearce): game design as creation of a space inside which meaningful action can occer.
Left 4 Dead is a game about pacing. Compared to other shooters, it is much more about rhythm and teamplay than anything else. The kind of behavior that FPS games usually reward – individual battle prowess – is often inimical to success in L4D. A player who acts as a “Rambo” – the occassionally positive version of a “Leroy Jenkins” – will often be caught off guard by a Special Infected, pinned to the ground, and incapacitated before her teammates can come to her aid.
Pace and Punctuated Action
The best way to succeed in a level is to maintain a steady pace. Backtracking, searching through rooms for items, and standing around to pick off weaker Infected will result in a more difficult experience. Going too fast will result in a breakdown of the team. Weakened teammates move much slower than everyone else, making them easy prey for Special Infected such as the Hunter and Smoker. The most tense moments of gameplay come from guarding a teammate while she heals herself, hoping that the AI Director doesn’t spawn a Horde or Tank.
Play alternates between modes of attack and defense. Players proceed through the level, taking out isolated patches of regular Infected with ease. The only tense moments durin this attack/progress phase come from encounters with Special Infected such as the Smoker or Hunter that can sometimes constrain or incapacitate teammates if not approached carefully with concerted action. Players then must enter defense mode when confronted with a crescendo moment (Horde, Tank, or Witch).
Hordes either come when attracted by a player covered in a Boomer’s bile, at random intervals determined by the AI Director, or at choke points in the level design. Horde crescendos are the most manageable defensive encounters, because players can usually enter a static formation (mentioned earlier) and easily beat back the waves of regular Infected.
Choke points usually feature larger Hordes of enemies, but they’re also typically reinforced by turret positions, barricades, and supply depots. Pipe bombs and molotov cocktails become particularly important during Horde crescendos; the bombs will draw Infected toward them before exploding (useful when the team has become overwhelmed), while molotovs can be used to create defense walls of flame (a pre-emptive measure for protecting the team’s flank).
Tanks require players to enter a focused scatter mode. Keeping too close together will result in the Tank being able to beat multiple Survivors into submission simultaneously, while straying too far apart will allow Hunters and Smokers to pick off distracted players with ease. The Tank will generally pursue the closest teammate. The targeted player must run backwards while firing on the Tank, while her teammates circle the Tank from a safe distance while covering the pursued player’s back.
Witch crescendos uniquely require a stealth offensive/progressive mode of play. Players will hear the Witch crying, and they are usually relatively easy to spot even among throngs of regular Infected. The best option is to sneak around her. In order to do this, players must turn off their flashlights and navigate through the dangerous darkness (light and noise startle the otherwise docile Witch). This leads to an added level of rhythm – that of alternation between light and dark.
More Like Rock Band Than Halo 3
A more fitting name for the AI Director would be “AI Conductor,” because its job is more like leading an chamber orchestra than a film crew. Levels can be seen as genres of music. You can learn the level (or genre), because the geometry remains the same. But the items and enemies that spawn are different every time, requiring the players to successfully perform a new “song” together with each playthrough.
Because it is a team effort, this game is actually more like Rock Band than a game like Halo 3. In Halo 3, the only thing one can do to help teammates is give them supporting fire. Death means very little, so selfish behavior abounds in the game. In Rock Band, the key to success as a band is to save up “star power” – energy derived from succeeding a particular string of notes. By releasing star power, you can bring your teammates back to life or help them recover from a string of poor notes. It would make it easier for you to save this for yourself, but it doesn’t help you in the end if your team fails out because of one weak performer.
L4D is the same way. Most contemporary (non-tactical) shooters have moved away from the idea of distributing first aid packs throughout a level; instead, a player of a game such as Halo 3 or Gears of War will be able to take a certain amount of damage before needing to hide and regain health. Health packs are the most precious resource in L4D, because the challenege is more one of attrition than individual encounters. Giving one up to an injured teammate means risking that you will be incapacitated in a future conflict, but it strengthens the team overall and gives everyone a better chance at survival.
Janet Murray derides the vague use of “emergence” as a design term as an excuse for laziness and lack of authorial influence on the part of a designer. Left 4 Dead shows that emergence can be structured by careful consideration of level design, artificial intelligence, and randomness. Players are not given explicit roles by the game (the characters are basic ethnic/gender tropes with little personality). They choose at the beginning of each matchmaking experience whether to be selfish or selfless, whether to be a close-quarters fighter (shotgun) or a crowd controller (automatic gun), and whether to be a leader or a follower.
Because the cost of death is so high, it actually means something in this game – something trivially true in real life but usually less so in videogames. Thus, each life-threatening encounter becomes a dramatic moment in which players must quickly decide how to behave. The finale level in a sequence (the fifth) requires the team to hole up in a defensive position against almost insurmountable numbers of regular and Special Infected. When they’re about to be overcome, escape comes in the form of a transport and players must choose whether to make a break for it alone or slowly work through the Horde as a team. These become the most poignant emergent narrative experiences afforded by the game, because all of a sudden all bets are off; sometimes, long-tempered bonds and personal behaviors break down – resulting in real, human tragedy (discussed at length in Mills, Emergent Narratives in Left 4 Dead).
Left 4 Dead pairs a minimal level design and player interaction model with a complex directorial AI in order to allow for an almost infinite variety of play styles and experiences. Unlike in many shooting games, where complex level design controls the flow state of a player, the AI Director in L4D measures player performance in order to help or hinder their progress through the level – maintaining a constant level of energized focus and attainable goals. Players alternate between open and cramped spaces, areas of dark and light, and modes of progress and defense that create a distinct rhythm of punctuated action.
Because of the emphasis on team cooperation (paired with the rhythm previously mentioned), the gameplay of L4D is more akin to team-based music games such as Rock Band than to a traditional shooter such as Halo 3. Like Rock Band – where players are free to perform, show off, and create their own narratives about their band – Left 4 Dead creates a structured space inside which personal forms of play and narrative emerge.
Jenkins, H. Game Design As Narrative Architecture. Henry Jenkins Publications, 2007, 1-15.
Manovich, L. Principles of New Media. What Is New Media? 27-48.
Mills, Jonathan. Emergent Narratives in Left 4 Dead. Academy of Doctor X, http://academyofdrx.blogspot.com/
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.