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.
You know how the first big news item about a game (after its announcement, that is) is always a post of beta-build screenshots? In this assignment, I show just how much information about a game one can draw from just a still image.
Assignment: Using the ACM format, analyze a videogame at an unusual level of granularity: the still image.
Left 4 Dead: Subverting Horror Genre Conventions
Left 4 Dead subverts key “survival horror” genre conventions from both film and previous videogames in order to create a first-person cooperative experience more akin to war movies and games. The example image shows how spatial and lighting cues promote visual clarity over the construction of suspense; furthermore, the first-person perspective strengthens personal presence and agency over the horror genre’s typical simulation of helplessness.
L4D, Valve, zombies, videogame, Left 4 Dead, xbox 360
This article deals with the construction of the image in the videogame Left 4 Dead (referred to as L4D). This analysis draws from the fields of visual rhetoric and design in both cinematic and ludic arts. An introductory understanding of 3d modeling and lighting in the reader is assumed.
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 image will show how the narrative and visual trappings of survival horror can be manipulated and applied to create another (the first-person cooperative shooter) experience altogether. This article will focus primarily on how lighting and spatial cues accomplish this goal.
Camera Eye versus Human Eyes
The defining aspect of first-person games is their point-of-view perspective. In film history, it took a half decade before Robert Montgomery directed Lady in the Lake (1947)1 entirely in a first person perspective. In this film, viewers only saw the protagonist’s face when he looked directly into a mirror. This is the same completely first-person experience perfected by Half Life 2. It took significantly less time to develop the first-person perspective in the field of videogames: Maze War (1973) was developed only twenty years after the first graphical game OXO (1952).
The reason we see so few examples of first-person horror games is the importance of directorial control in creating suspense. Alfred Hitchcock stands as the master of this almost perverse cinematic pleasure. Among horror games, Doom 3 stands out here for its low-key lighting and first-person perspective. The Resident Evil series (prior to the 4th, using an over-the-shoulder camera), on the other hand, exploits the third-person camera in order to set up cinematic angles and limit the player’s visibility control. L4D combats this directorial control (despite the presence of the sinister “AI director” that we will explain in our later discussion of gameplay) by allowing players to pivot and turn their field of vision at will.
Unlike film, where the “camera eye” necessarily extends about a foot (the length of the camera) away from the operator, in games the eye can be realistically located in the face of the avatar. It is important to distinguish this “eye” from actual human “eyes:” the image created here is monoscopic (as opposed to the way we see, stereoscopically) [Arnheim, 1974].
The major downside to monoscopic visualization is that it frustrates depth perception – leading to the increased importance in film and games for space and lighting cues [Arnheim, 1974 and Bordwell, 1985].
Space Construction and Cues
We can see how the camera in L4D simulates linear perspective in order to render a rectangular room how a human would actually view it. The strong diagonal view of the room I have used in my screen capture replicates the effect of the first visually dynamic film image: The Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat. A diagonal static image renders actual space far more accurately than looking at the same space straight on [Arnheim, 1974].
L4D constructs an image of both deep focus and depth of field. The degree of focus on the avatar’s hands in the foreground is roughly equal to that of the old man and zombies in the middle ground; however, textures do become less defined the further away we look from the foreground. This progressive decrease in texture aids in the mental construction of depth [Bordwell, 1985]. Beyond the flames and out into the foggy night forest outside, one can make out the trees closest to the player because of their sharpness compared to the deeper forest fading into a haze behind them. This phenomenon is called atmospheric perspective [Bordwell, 1985].
It took Gregg Toland remarkable amounts of image manipulation in order to attain the famous depth of field and deep focus displayed in the famous opening to the childhood sequence in Citizen Kane. In videogames, deep field and focus are only limited by processing power in relation to draw distance. In more recent games this visual clarity over great distances needs to be purposefully distorted in order to create suspense. One example of this purposeful distortion or concealment is the fog of war (players cannot see the current state of a location without a unit nearby) mechanic in most RTS games. L4D instead embraces advances in processing power and draw distance.
Another important spatial cue in this image comes from familiar size of “props” in the mise-en-scene [Bordwell, 1985]. David Bordwell writes that viewers rely on familiar objects on the screen in order to calculate depth. The objects in this room are ideal toward this end because they are what most of us see constantly in daily life: folding tables, boxes of file folders, and waiting room chairs. The dead bodies on the floor also provide key information; we all know the length of the average human body. In videogames these spatial cues provide a tactical advantage as well as aiding in depth – a player relies on this to see how close a zombie is and how quickly it moves.
Horror Lighting Conventions Disrupted
One of the things an experienced player or viewer of survival horror will notice right away on viewing this image is the high key lighting of the scene. Key lighting comes from the avatar flashlights, creating the exaggerated candle power of a spotlight. Ceiling flourescents act as a soft fill and top light here. Despite being reasonably high key, the harshness of the key flashlights does create strong cast shadows on the walls – nobody would mistake this for classic Hollywood three-point lighting [Bordwell & Thompson, 2003]. Another minor lighting element comes from the gun flare; this acts as a subtle backlight creating the luminous contour of our avatar’s hands.
The image does feature some attached shadows on the hands of the player’s avatar and the realistic contours of the other avatars and their clothing; however, L4D avoids the horror genre convention of using expressive attached shadows and underlighting to convey ambiguously sinister motives in other characters [Bordwell & Thompson, 2003]. In the horror genre, other humans frequently pose just as much (if not more) of a threat to the protagonist as the monsters do. L4D’s lighting emphasizes the bond between its heroes – reinforcing for players that they have no need to fear each other.
Focusing on the environment outside the room, one will notice that the light is unrealistically bright and even for a forest at night. Although some of the game takes place in darkened sewers and office buildings feature low-key lighting, much of the action takes place in evenly lit exteriors. Just as in the tradition of using high-key “day for night” filtered lighting in the cinema [Bordwell & Thompson, 2003], the exterior we see through the doorway supports viewer clarity over suspense-building.
Finally, the flames in this image do not realistically distort our field of vision or even produce enough light to disrupt the shadow on the wall in the back corner of the room. One recent game, Alone in the Dark, boasts realistically propagating fire as its primary source of light through much of the game. The fact that L4D ignores this reflects either a difficulty in the programming of such a dynamic light source, or again a choice to not limit viewer clarity with heat distortion and erratically shifting light.
Presence and Agency
Finally it stands to take a look at “presence” in this game world. Although this will become more important when we return to this game as a moving image and interactive experience, the still image does provide a modicum of sensory immersion and mental engagement for the viewer.
Heeter’s examination of VR in the early 90′s distinguishes between first- and third-person VR configurations, and it also parses presence into its personal, social, and environmental modes. Photorealism is not nearly as important as realistic motion and tightly coupled action for creating a sense of presence in games [Heeter, 1992].
The primary method of creating personal presence in first-person VR is the visualization of the user’s hand. In our still from L4D, we see that our hand and gun occupy 1/8 of the entire frame. Its realistic texturing and the lighting mentioned earlier lends believability to the simulation. Janet Murray’s definition of agency – a user being able to make meaningful action with appropriate feedback inside the digital artifact – also informs our reading of the image. Even though our view here is static, the flare from player’s gun shows that we have captured an instance of meaningful action within the image [Murray, 1997].
We can also derive social presence from this still. Horror games typically pit a single human against innumerable monsters. The lack of social presence (zombies are usually assumed to lack reason and empathy) helps create the feeling of solitude and danger. It is obvious that the three humans with guns in this image are our comrades here. The line of sight from all of the avatars toward the old man in the center of the image conveys a common focus and struggle. Despite the presence of a raging wall of flame and intruding zombies, the image feels almost “safe” because of the reassuring social presence of the other human avatars. This social presence is clearly reinforced by the advanced 3d representation of the avatars, explorations into the pitfalls of the “uncanny valley” aside [Atkins, 2003].
Through spatial cues and lighting, Left 4 Dead effectively subverts the genre trappings of survival horror into a cooperative action experience.
The first-person perspective disrupts directorial control over the mobility of the player’s visual field, an essential tool for creating suspense. Deep focus and depth of field allow for an easy survey of the game state. Spatial cues such as texture and the familiar size of common objects enhance the player’s ability to construct coherent space and depth in their minds. Relatively high-key lighting grants players visual clarity, reducing the emphasis on surprise and allowing control of the environment. Finally, the feeling of helplessness typically constructed by horror films and games has been replaced in this game by a sense of agency and relative safety through strong personal and social presence.
Future writings on this game as a moving image and as an interactive experience will serve to support and expand this conclusion.
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Source image acquired from IGN.com