Sunday, May 8, 2011

Surviving the Dead

I feel great respect for Yahtzee, the videogame reviewer of “0 Punctuation”, in "The Escapist Magazine" website. He’s a bright guy, with a fantastic sense of humor, who shows in every scathing review that he truly loves videogames and the industry they represent. Recently I re-watched a few of his older videos, mainly the one where he talks about the Left 4 Dead series.

Tom Bissell released a book recently called “Extra Lives: Why Videogames matter”. It’s a good book, not great, but good. In a pathless train of thought, Bissell relates his thoughts on several issues related to the videogame industry and he compares them to other media, with interesting results. One of them was focused on story in games. Now here’s where Yahtzee comes in.

As he has repeatedly claimed, Yahtzee doesn’t understand the concept of a good “co-op only” game, such as Left 4 Dead. Yes, they might be fun to play with for a while, and the constant human interaction brings a whole new world of possibilities to the game, but if it lacks a good single player campaign, any game can fall apart. As does, in his opinion, Left 4 Dead. This series of games have the following premise: the world has been destroyed by a deadly infection that has turned humans into flesh eating, very violent, mutant zombies. Only a few survivors resist the onslaught, four of them being the focus of every game. On co-op mode, players connect with other players and cruise through several campaigns where the purpose is to get from point A to point B, and, of course, survive. On top of that, a fascinating program in the game called “The Director” will make sure that every time anyone plays it the experience will be completely different, by adapting the game’s difficulty and situations to the players’ performance. Left 4 Dead is, above all, fun to play. It’s exciting and very engaging, and the element of surprise adds an extra thrill the players will have a hard time escaping from. However, the key element here is that with all its amazingness, Left 4 Dead’s single player campaign is worthless. Basically, it’s the same as the co-op one, but with three AI companions, incapable of making their own decisions. No story mode, no unlockables, nothing.

So is this good or bad? Interestingly enough, both Yahtzee and Bissell have very differing opinions. While one doesn’t appreciate the lack of non-online modes, the other raves about the creation of a new storytelling generation. Left 4 Dead’s storytelling doesn’t come from cut scenes or dialogue. It doesn’t come from game events or levels. It comes from the actual players and their interaction with other humans through the web, or so Bissell says. He heavily criticizes those who say that “Left 4 Dead doesn’t have a story mode”.

In the end, the experience is what matters. In my opinion, Left 4 Dead really misses a single player mode where we learn more about the infected, the world and, especially, the survivors. Who are they? Why should we care if they die? Where are they going? While the missing sections of character development help create the illusion of always playing with someone different, the information vacuum on what the plan is or what the conclusion might be hurt the game by making it feel unfinished, futile, even rushed. Having said that, I myself have played the game for an unknown amount of hours, spending a good portion of my day when I decide to pick it up on reducing the zombie headcount of the world and hacking with my axe through infected flesh.

The question remains: is story really necessary on a videogame? Or can story evolve to it’s own experience, created by the game itself and the players? In my opinion, both of them are equally plausible and not mutually exclusive. The Videogame industry is still trying to find its niche. We might not realize this, but it’s in it’s very early stages, not even a rude, crass teenager, but a toddler learning to walk. The future is bright for this new form of storytelling. It’s just a matter of figuring it out.

- Gus

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