Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Notes on the New Art

by Daniel Abraham

By which I mean console gaming.

My first computer game was Colossal Cave Adventure.  I was in third grade, going over to Laura Buxton’s house after school.  Her father, Larry, had built his own computer in the back bedroom, and Laura and I spent a lot of hours back there figuring out how to avoid the grue, navigate the maze of twisty passages, and say Plugh to the best effect.  As I remember, Laura also introduced me to Pong, which I found somewhat less interesting.  In Advent, I could explore hidden caves, solve complex puzzles, kill dragons with my bare hands.  In Pong, I could move either up or down.

Yeah, no contest.

I also didn’t have a television for large swaths of my childhood, and as a direct result I sat out the Atari and Nintendo revolutions.  When I got older and had a computer anyway, I played through some Blizzard games — Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo.  They were fun, but I wouldn’t have bought a dedicated computer just to play them.  And then I met Ty, and lo, I was corrupted.

And the game that got me twitching at all hours of day and night?  Was it a new story of exploration with dragons to defeat, hidden caverns to explore, intellectual and linguistic puzzles to tease apart?  Nope.  I went for the game that was all about action, and not just action, fairly simple, repetitive action.  My first love of console gaming was the great, great grandchild of Pong.  Left 4 Dead.  I broke.  I caved.  I got not only an Xbox, but the most expensive television I’ve ever owned (okay, that’s a low bar — my taste in electronics is pretty cheap, but still . . .) and all for a game I could only play when the kid was asleep.

Left 4 Dead, for those who haven’t yet been corrupted, is a first-person shooter where you take the role of one of four survivors of a zombie apocalypse.  It’s built as four “movies” with exactly the same plot:  get from point A to point B without getting everybody killed at once.  There were two things about it that fascinated me:  the simplicity and the design.

As these games go, Left 4 Dead is very straightforward.  Your inventory consists of at most two weapons, a health pack, a bottle of pills, and one of two kinds of grenade-like things.  There is nothing more to manage.  There are a bunch of zombies, with a few special enemies with powers and behaviors that are simple to understand.  The whole game is demonstrated in a short action-packed video introduction — every obstacle, every strategy, every bad guy, every ability.  But because the placement of the enemies and supplies varies so much, every play-through is a little different.

And the design.  Left 4 Dead was built to make players work together.  Anyone striking off on their own is doomed.  The game designers force the players to cooperate.  It is a game about supporting and protecting the people around you.  It’s simple, it’s visceral, it’s tactical, and it takes very little time to learn.

And the best part?  It comes with designer notes.  If you go to the extras menu, there’s an option to play through the game’s commentary track where you go through the game landscape from point to point, hearing the designers commentary about what they were thinking, what concerns they had, and what solutions they adopted.  I played through for months without thinking particularly about how the game used color to direct me, or how important it was to have the silhouettes of the players be distinct from each other and from the enemies, or, or, or . . .

With respect to Roger Ebert, Left 4 Dead was and is my entrance into an elegant art form that has come to exist within my lifetime.  The aesthetic and technical issues that it engages with are unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere, and they’re also very familiar.  I’ve thought about how art leads the eye through a painting or a book cover.  I’ve talked about how rule sets shape behavior.  I’ve read people much smarter than me who were concerned with how interactivity changes narrative.  Gaming has its roots in Colossal Cave and Pong, and it has pulled a tremendous body of theory and practice up around those to become something new and interesting.

And, of course, Left 4 Dead isn’t like sitting down with a book.  It doesn’t have that depth of characterization, the sharp interplay of dialog between characters, the sense of everything coming together in ways that weren’t obvious but seem neccesary after the fact.

For that, you need Dragon Age.

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4 Responses »

  1. There is a persuasive argument in video form on Youtube that contradicts you. All survival-horror games, it says, are descendants of Advent, not Pong. The missing link is that Lucasfilm haunted-house game. As the 2d puzzlers turned 3d, they morphed away from deep inventory puzzles and towards lots of different kinds of guns.

    Eventually they stopped actually being scary. Check out Amnesia: the Dark Descent for a return to the roots.

  2. HALF-LIFE 2 and its attendant two episodes, from the same creators, use many of the same techniques as L4D but in a single-player environment. Worth a look, although it’s quieter and based more around atmosphere and puzzles than L4D’s frentic, non-stop combat.

    DRAGON AGE is good, but is built on earlier games in its lineage that are arguably more interesting. BALDUR’S GATE, its sequel and their attendant expansion packs (which can be played through as one huge game) form the largest single-player, non-randomly-generated roleplaying experience gaming has yet seen, packed with numerous, complex characters and dozens of variables of how things play out, depending on what combination of characters you travel with.

    PLANESCAPE: TORMENT, using the same game engine as BALDUR’S GATE, is much smaller but also far more impressive. It’s the closest gaming has ever gotten to a Gene Wolfe novel, and the closest gaming has ever gotten to being ‘literature’, asking complicated questions about identity and motivation and doing so in a way that only can be done in a computer game, not as a book or film. It’s a stunning piece of work, backed up by some brilliant black humour and very strong writing (counting all the variable choices, the game has 800,000 words of text!). Well worth a look.

    • Ooh. Hadn’t heard of this one. And look! It’s still available. Not that I have a Win 95/98/Me box in the house, but I can put something together…

      Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll take a look.

  3. Have too agree with Wert, Black Isle are made of win. They’re also behind Fallout (1&2) and Icewind Dale, both of with I reccomend.
    If you want to be part of the “cool” crowd, though, you’ll have to give Minecraft a try.

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