Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Whapocalypse? Part 1

I don't know why I didn't realize this much earlier in life, but you know what? Zombie stuff and post-apocalyptic stuff are so proximate!

I figured this out last week, when, in a desperate bid to squeeze the greatest amount of fun out of my diminishing holiday break, I finally did the right thing, by which I mean that I bought Left 4 Dead. I've long had the tendency to assume, with or without reason, that my computer will be incapable of running any game I might want to play. The most powerful console in the Gaj household is a Wii, you see, and the most powerful gaming computer we have is a spring 2007 iMac with a Windows partition. But guess what? That rig runs L4D beautifully.

If you've played L4D, you probably know that that should have been more than enough fun for one person to deal with, but finding out that L4D runs on Macky got me all ambitious. Could it also run Fallout 3?

I had to try. The answer is yes. Yes, it can.

Now, in case you haven't played Left 4 Dead or Fallout 3 (or you're one of my non-gamer readers), I suppose I should fill you in very briefly. Left 4 Dead is a first-person shooter set in the midst of a zombie infestation, and it plays out over four separate scenarios with a cast of exactly four survivors: Zoey the college kid, Francis the biker, Louis the IT guy, and Bill the retiree who just happens to be a Vietnam vet. These four characters have to cooperate to make it through the game's four scenarios, not only in the sense that the firepower of four people is better than the firepower of one, but also in the sense that there are a few enemies in the game that can entangle, pin down, or otherwise incapacitate players, and only another player's intervention can prevent death in one of these instances. Characters also have the ability to heal each other. The game doesn't just encourage the multiplayer dynamic; it requires it, and in fact, if you want to play the game by yourself, the other three characters will be taken over by the computer and will fight alongside you. Unfortunately, much of the game's fun comes from the disasters that happen when humans have to figure out how to work together in the face of a desperate and unfamiliar situation, and the computer's interventions on the human player's behalf are always a little too professional and smooth to feel completely realistic.

Fallout 3 is a completely different kind of game. While it's wrapped in an FPS fa├žade, it's actually a role-playing game that puts more emphasis on character development and questing than fighting, though there's an awful lot of fighting, too. Fallout 3 centers on a character who emerges from a fallout shelter or, to use the game's vocabulary, a vault, about two centuries after a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and China has left the greater Washington, D.C. area, and presumably most of the world, ugly, lawless, and irradiated. What follows is more or less up to the player, who has an entire post-apocalyptic world to wander through and mess around in.

Now, Left 4 Dead, which I'm focusing on in this post, isn't set in any particular location (though there are occasional references to Pennsylvania, the home state of the legendary George Romero), and so it can't match the degree of geographic realism that smacks the player in the face in a play-through of Fallout 3, but it occurs in environments that feel familiar. Have you ever been to a train yard, or have you maybe seen one on a commute? There's one in the game. Have you ever walked past (or to) a hospital in a city? That happens in the game. And of course we've all been to the airport. There's one of those in the game, too. But what Left 4 Dead does is to take these basically familiar environments and mess with them. Most obviously, they've all become zombie nests, which of course isn't quite right. But there are much more interesting ways in which things have been altered. The city setting is just like the one in the opening scenes of Dawn of the Dead, which means it looks like a city in shambles where everything's gone wrong. The usual transportation routes, streets and sidewalks, are often blocked off. Once I emerged from an emergency exit to find one end of an alley blocked by a crashed ambulance. Well, I was in a hurry; it might not have been an ambulance. At any rate, the characters often have to look for paths through abandoned buildings or even sewers in order to progress. Gaping holes in apartment walls and floors provide access that would otherwise be denied to the player. The narrative the game presents through its settings isn't particularly deep, but it's sufficient: some sort of zombie epidemic is in progress, things have gone absolutely batshit insane as a result, and in the absence of the usual authorities and conveniences, the player's survival is now solely her prerogative.

From here, it's just a matter of finding the way out. The game presents environments that the player has to move through quickly in order to survive and find safety, but it also trashes those environments so thoroughly that the usual ways we negotiate them become completely obsolete. This fits right in with other games in Valve Software's oeuvre, because these games almost always take place in, if not common, at least convincing spaces. These games always force the player to take unauthorized (and plainly unwise) detours through their locations. The company's first game, Half-Life, opens in a large science facility that suddenly turns into a hellish disaster area when the player inadvertently opens a trans-dimensional portal. The facility is being torn apart by the time the player returns to the entrance, and it becomes necessary to travel the long way through the bowels of the facility to escape. The sequel to Half-Life starts in a small town in a territory governed by an oppressive regime; the player has to exit the town and escape overland, stopping occasionally at outposts set up by members of a resistance group. The company's best game, Portal, opens like a sort of controlled science experiment, with the player filling the role of a mouse in a maze. It all seems strange but conceivable, sort of like a grant-funded research project a person might actually sign up for, until it becomes clear that the experiment is designed to end with the player's death. At this point the player has to exit the experiment area and climb, jump, and run through places that are clearly off-limits in order to survive. Christopher at Gamespite has written a great and more thorough treatment of the game's design than I have space for here, if you'd like more specifics. Or, you know, you could play the game!

L4D uses exactly the same gimmick: your characters start out in an environment that's familiar but broken, and they have to take weird paths to get out. L4D, like most of Valve's games, is about the clever repurposing of the locations in the game with the result that the player constantly feels like she's responding creatively to a distressing situation. Of course, this is all an illusion, because the bizarre off-the-reservation game design is completely deliberate, and it's the straightforward paths through the game that are off-limits. Still, at their best, these games really feel like action movies like Die Hard or even The Warriors, movies where characters find themselves forced to choose Plan B and take the long, indirect way out of a bad place.

This is essentially the thing about zombie movies: the best of them take place in locations that are recognizable or at least vaguely familiar, like Dawn of the Dead's shopping mall or Shaun of the Dead's London suburbs. But the minute the people who usually frequent these settings become undead flesh-eaters, the whole system fails and we all have to find another way around.

I didn't realize it before, but I'm glad someone else did: the zombie movie is exactly the right place for a Valve-style FPS.

Next time, I'm going to explain the way that Fallout 3 (sort of) fits this mold, and if that doesn't take too long, I'll also discuss where the zombie and post-apocalyptic genres, which it turns out are next-door neighbors (when they aren't in fact sleeping over at each other's places), get their unusual power to entertain us (well, me). If Fallout 3 does take too long, then I guess we're looking at another three-parter.

That great picture comes from a Photobucket album maintained by XzN-Staff.


  1. So I don't know much about this, except that I played Wii golf w/o breaking anything once, but if L4D is best against other people, (like Warcraft), doesn't that put it in a different category than something like the Final Fantasies? I mean - the former focus more and more on realistic environments (making them also like 2nd Life, Sims...), the latter on you (person) interfacing with not only a world with rules, but a plot with limits. This may be otiose, but do both get to be 'video games' by the mere fact of sharing a medium? Or am I clinging too strongly to my 1992 Oregon Trail idea of a video game? I ask because multiplayer gaming/choose your own adventure seems more like doing without (really) doing, while 'playing' a game is more like...board games - one is fun by pretending (with more and more help), one is fun by following (more) rules to a predetermined end (not, of course, excluding better environments). Or so it seems...

  2. Well, this calls for a complex answer that I'm only halfway convinced I can give. As video games (and I do think here the medium is what justifies the label, as you guessed) have gotten older, they've offered more and more methods of interactivity, and there have been more and more ways that they've rewarded the player's efforts. One of the categories you're talking about, which includes things like Second Life or World of Warcraft or even Animal Crossing, offers gradual rewards that need the player to be invested in the in-game world over a significant period of time to be effective. The other category is probably the more traditional video game, like Pac-Man or Super Mario Bros. or--I'd say--L4D, where it's a short-term involvement in the game that's rewarded. The payoffs in this category are usually seeing a narrative to its conclusion or racking up a high score. Something like Final Fantasy might actually be in the middle; most RPGs are quite long games, and there is a need for a deep involvement in the game world over a (fairly) significant period of time, but there are also actual conclusions to those games, and they aren't meant to just be played forever, whereas some people have been playing WOW since it came out 4 years ago.

    However, every video game has rules, though some are more flexible than others. From what I understand, part of the appeal of Second Life is that a user who's willing to put in the effort can actually customize most aspects of the game's environment. L4D, though, has particularly stringent rules, physics, etc. It's a great game, and I do think that in practice it's particularly immersive, particularly with other human players, but it's definitely more toward the more traditional end of the spectrum.