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.