Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Stickin' Together is What Good Waffles Do

Competitive gaming was a staple of my gaming youth. I had a little brother, and we lived through the heyday of the 2-D fighting game together. He quickly outpaced me in any real-life athletic contest, despite the fact that he was two years younger. (I'm fairly certain he was beating me in one-on-one before he hit pubescence) Video games were one of the few fields left where we were equal competitors, and though we were both pretty fierce (The “Detlef Schrempf” incident remains the last recorded instance of physical violence between us), competition was always a source of bonding.

But when I look back at the last few years, many of my best gaming experiences have been cooperative: playing Rock Band with my old roommates and a broad assortment of intoxicated guests (including my esteemed associate Dr. Toaster), beating Gears of War and Halo 3 with my roommate Galen, playing Pixeljunks with my girlfriend.

What all these experiences have in common is a couch. I'm frankly astonished that the golden age of cooperative gaming (including the reign of the greatest cooperative game of all time, World of Warcraft) has come during the era of the online gaming. Say what you want about the inelegance of the split-screen solution, but it's hard for me to imagine great multiplayer gaming (let alone great cooperative gaming) without the ability to gesture at, cajole, interject, and strike your fellow-players.

I've played a lot of Halo on Xbox live in my days, and I will tell you that it is very difficult to get these people to collude. It's not just a matter of the notorious dogged venality+immaturity+anonymity equation that describes most online gaming. Even where the spirit is willing, it's just difficult to collaborate with your fellows when you're locked into first-person: explain where you think “we” should go on the map, orient yourself w/r/t the rest of your team, and reach a consensus on what to do. Even if my combat skills qualified me for a leadership position (which, as the above-referenced service record testifies, they do not), there is this matter of discussing coordination problems with strangers.

It is a testament to the immense ingenuity of the recently-released Left 4 Dead that almost all of these problems inherent in online cooperative gaming have been addressed. Valve, the game's developer, has approached these difficulties as design problems, and addressed them as such. It's tempting to think that the low quality of common-grade online gaming is the player's fault, and this certainly is true. We're inconsiderate sons of bitches, to a man. But Valve adheres to the “it's not the players, it's you” philosophy of game design, and this shows.

For me, one of the biggest hurdles to collaboration in the first-person perspective is orientation. Sometimes I feel like the first-person perspective itself has an ethical valence; it prevents you from seeing the world from others' perspective in such a way that the challenges of working together can be prohibitive. But Left 4 Dead has elegant solution: you can see the other players' silhouettes, outlined in a glowing aura, through walls. This isn't realistic, but it is a perfect solution to the mutual-orientation problem. The color of the aura itself conveys important information on the other characters' status when they're in a situation that requires your intervention: when they're low on health, when they're trapped by a hunter, when they're trapped by the horde.

And the game is conspicuously rife with situations that force you to look out for each other. Aside from the obvious hunter-and-smoker traps which require others' intervention, there are also setpieces that allow you access to a mounted minigun. The problem with this immensely powerful weapon is that you can't cover the whole range of the scene; in order to use it effectively one or more of your teammates needs to cover your flank. In the short time I played we quickly found ourselves covering the entry points.

The game's vaunted AI director system isn't just there to provide replayability, either; it's an integral tool of the cooperative concept. Each time you run through the level, some covert dwarf chessmaster hiding in the game's code rearranges the frequency and placement of the zombie attacks. Because you can't anticipate where the next attack is coming, from you are reliant on your teammates to cover all the angles. Your weapons are fairly powerful on their own-- the assault rifle is capable of stacking zombie corpses like cordwood if you can anticipate bottlenecks. But the unpredictability of the zombie mob mitigates against the power of the weapons, and this in turn cements your reliance on the other survivors. Much as in real life, the arbitrary hazardousness of the outside world nurtures the connections between individual actors.

What I learned from Left 4 Dead is that a harsh enough world can throw anyone together. When an unforgiving cosmos contrives to unite you all together an admirable esprit de corps can flourish, even on the Internet. (The ten-year olds I was playing with last night suggested that we come up with a “gang name,” and I'm taking this as a testament to the quality of the game's design.) If the Barack Obama presidency fails to unite us as a country, I'm going to hold out for a fast-zombie apocalypse.


Rob Zacny said...

And yet players still manage to foil all Valve's good work and screw up the experience. Yet I find the way that this happens is equally impressive, and indicative of good game design.

On the higher difficult levels, especially on expert, it's not enough that the players work together, communicate, and plan. They have to trust each other.

I can't believe it, but this is a game that demands you place your virtual life in the hands of your teammates. You must choose to believe that someone has your back.

If you don't, if you've got a team comprised of people who think they've got to look out for themselves first, and then the team, the game slowly grinds you down.

The fact is that on Expert or even the harder segments on Advanced difficulty, the team needs to focus all its firepower outward. If people are checking their rear, or simply glancing at another point of entry, then fire is slackening and the zombies will start to break through the defenses. So you just have to focus on your little piece of the battle, and believe in the complete strangers you've known for 20 minutes.

I have to admit, that's an interesting feeling to get from a videogame. It's almost a form of... intimacy? In an online shooter?

There were a lot of things I expected from this game. But I never would have guessed that a play session could create such a close, if temporary, bond with strangers.

But then, it is the zombie apocalypse, and we have to come together if we don't want to be eaten.

Fred Zeleny said...

Excellent post, and I agree that my most enjoyable gaming experiences have been in cooperative play. In fact, the only time I was truly able to get into an MMO was when one of my guildmates was also my housemate, allowing us to eschew Teamspeak for what we called "Punchspeak."

This "unity through environmental hazard" is similar to the reason why Burning Man and its various affiliates tend to be set in hostile environments. Arguably, it's also somewhat apparent in our political climate, as well.

Nelsormensch said...

I played a little during lunch with my coworkers yesterday (hooray for Steam!) and it is a pretty fantastic experience. You spent much time with the 8-player Versus mode yet? I haven't had a chance, but I've heard it evokes Alien vs. Predator quite a bit. Very exciting, given that AvP might be the multiplayer shooter (not made by Valve, anyway) I remember fondest.