Death of the Critic

Left 4 Dead - A Love Story

Written by: Tom Blaich

By now, every so-called "Hardcore Gamer" knows where the modern video game came from. Everything we know was spawned from the cultural phenomenon known as Dungeons and Dragons. It introduced us to the concept of the modern role-playing game. It gave us the idea of a persistent character and dungeon crawling epics. From there, the video game scene exploded. CRPGs flourished until the advent of the video arcades, which popularized the quarter crunching games of the eighties and nineties.
But looking at a modern game, it might be hard to see the influence of these early games. But if you dig deeper, you can find these mechanics that have lasted generations. But if you were to look at a game like Left 4 Dead, it might be a little bit harder to find these influences. But deep down, the ember of these ideas still smolders on.
For those of you who somehow have not heard of the phenomenon that is known as
Left 4 Dead, it isn't exactly the most plot driven game. Instead it is a nonstop fest of bullets and bodies as you try and fight off the hordes of the undead trying to feast upon the avatar of your character.
There are five "campaigns", sets of maps and set pieces strung together to enhance the experience the game. But the structure of these maps is not preset and definite every time you load up the game. Instead, the very structure of the maps, the placement of enemies, weapons, health, and alarms is all decided each time you load the game by an AI entity titled "The Director" This piece of sentient computing controls how you attack and play each map, somewhat like a dungeon master might control the design of a dungeon or the strength of enemies in a game of
Dungeons and Dragons.

Every time you play the game, you are getting yourself into a fundamentally different experience, just like a game of
D&D. It’s great, because it lends so much replay-ability to an age that is essentially a matter of mastery. And you know from where they pull that little trait? The arcade era of our ever so beloved video games. That ten to fifteen year period basically designed the game Left 4 Dead, but twenty years before it came out, and minus the headsplosions.

Left 4 Dead is an arcade game, just dressed up to look like a AAA title. The game play is that of a twin stick shooter, only moved to a first person perspective. You don't aim, or take precautions, you run, shoot, and look for better weapons, like a pretty Robotron. Your upgrades are a new assault rifle or shotgun, and you are frequently confronted with boss enemies, like tanks or witches. If you want an armor upgrade, you pop some pills or grab a health pack.

At first this influence of the twin-stick shooter on
Left 4 Dead is not the most obvious, but within but a moment of scrutinization, it becomes clear from where this game draws many of its iconic traits.

To add some variety to the otherwise simplistic gameplay, a few levels even have you running and grabbing an item, then protecting the carrier all the way back to your objective. And while the first instinct is to think of capture the flag, this can be traced back to the arcade games of lore (Golden Age), where one would have to protect a set of people or ships through a map whilst being assaulted by dozens of enemies.

Still, this is a game fundamentally about mastery, which is something games have been preaching from the dawn of
Dungeons and Dragons, to the age of the CRPG, to the decade of arcade, into the new millennia. Most games are focused around this idea of the “mastery system” as a way to add replayability to this game.

What is a mastery system? A mastery system is the concept that the more a player engages in a game, the better they become at the game itself. It might be the discovery of a shortcut into a level, or a certain method of time optimization that gives you the most return for the time put into a game. It is the key to addicting people to a game, and bringing them back every day until the sequel eventually releases and the developers can draw old players in with the promise of having a head start on the treacherous road of mastery. Every time a player plays a game, they are trying to master it, whether they are doing it consciously or not. This search for the “optimum path” or ever having “grokked” a game are both examples of this.

Every action that the player takes is bringing them closer to that holy grail of gaming, the mastery of that particular game. And no two players do it for the exact same reason. Some do it to try and beat other players in online, competitive multiplayer to prove how much better at life that they are. Others do it to try and squeeze every drop of playability out of their precious sixty dollars before they move onto their next endeavor.

Those wishing to become masters of the game play their chosen poison for hours upon hours every night, ignoring the campaign or other modes entirely to try and squeeze every last precious unlockable out of the game. Some even go so far as learning spawn zones, and travel times between said spawn zones and the associated objective. This is “grokking”, when they have played the game so much, that they have learned every minutiae of it, mapping it to memory. 

Those wishing to play the game to death do the exact same thing, but with the addition of dissection of the campaign to try and experience every easter egg, every unlockable, and every single tidbit of dialogue that a game has. They will play through an RPG dozens of times to experience it with every race, character class, gender, and moral choice. They will play a shooter until they can run through the entire game blindfolded, or a music game until they can play the song on that plastic instrument acoustically. Again, “grokking.” 

But how does all of that relate to
Left 4 Dead? Well, Left 4 Dead is a skill-based game at heart, emphasizing reaction time and enemy knowledge over caution and ingenuity. Each time you play, without realizing it, you are becoming a master. Just think back to the first time you mistakenly awoke a witch, and how much you hated your life after that. Left 4 Dead is about learning, wrapped in a shell of violence and absurdity.

You learn how much damage a tank can take, or the best way to deal with a crowd of zombies, which weapon is the best for which situation, or which explosive to carry along with you. The level of skill involved on the easiest level is almost nonexistent. But when you decide that you hate yourself and put it on hardcore or expert, you discover that you need this information. To even attempt these levels the amount of mastery that you must have accumulated is enormous, and you will still find them challenging. To complete them requires you to go back and master the game again, on a whole other level. Taking “grokking” to its logical extreme, and then past it several times. Then you might have a chance of completing it.

Left 4 Dead isn't the most fantasy-esque game in the world, or the one with the most role-playing traits. But it is a game that has been heavily influenced both by Dungeons and Dragons and those fifteen years in which arcades ruled the world. We have both of those to thank for what is surely one of the most fun cooperative experiences since the dawn of the electronic media.


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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