Happy New Year everyone!
Left 4 Dead got procedural narrative. What’s interesting is that it did it in a way no one had really thought about – the gamey way – and what that means.
It had never occurred to me before I heard about L4D, but I thought horror was the perfect game genre for procedural narrative. Pace is absolutely critical in horror, spawning and difficulty control a major component, and narrative events and discovery define the storylines, over conversations or non-deterministic player decisions. But L4D took it even further then that. Valve used procedural narrative to provide the game of their product, not just enhance it.
The reality of L4D is that it’s just not a systems deep game. Game systems deep. See zombies run. Shoot zombies. Shoot bad zombies. If zombies close, shove, then shoot. Try and not shoot to much. Don’t shoot teammates. Stay near teammates. Classic, yes, but also simple compared to other modern shooters. But L4D doesn’t need deep systems, because it goes for deep narratives.
The AI Director’s procedural narrative doesn’t just give the respawns variety and change the pace, it provides narrative depth that the systems lack, player stories that change every time you play. It keeps the game itself from being simple, by varying these mechanics in such a way that they are always new and interesting – in a story way. Ever been a sniper who fell a bit behind? Dozens of times, right? Sure, but the one time a smoker got me from the woods, just as zombies mobbed the rest of my friends as they ran for the safehouse. There’s nothing mechanically unusual about that situation. But it is completely memorable. And there are tons of situations like that. The horror setting, the tight team dynamic and situations, the swaying difficulty, the orthogonally designed super-zombies, all compound to push the players alongside the pacing and set up dramatic conflict and hard, human choices. As opposed to hard, systematic choices. Even though there’s barely a traditional “narrative” at all in L4D, the mechanics and the experience manager seem to create a framework that allows the player’s to build their own unique story, but in a different way then the Sim and Civilization-likes designers refer to it. This is player story built on structure, rather then player story built in a sandbox. And we know from experience that structured storytelling creates something special. Something that keeps players coming back, again and again. In effect – narrative game fun. That works. This is something I’m going to study and continue to learn from – there’s likely a whole field of game design here that we’ve only been cracking pieces of in the past.
I’m not sure they were the first to do this, but now that they have, how well did it work? Is the narrative actually a good, entertaining, deep one? I’m not actually sure. For the first dozen times, sure, L4D holds up. The vast quantities of art help a lot. But what I find most fascinating abou L4D is that it still ultimately feels shallow to me. There’s just not enough “mechanics” to make it “skill-deep”. But I think the goal was this to be narrative “mechanics”, not skill “mechanics”, and so falling short is maybe as much a function of theme and setting as it is of game. It’s ironic – choosing the genre of horror allowed them to apply mechanically tropes that simplified the problem and allowed them to explore procedural narrative, yet gave them such simplistic themes that the narrative itself was shallow.
I take back a lesson about narrative’s gamey potential and the need for narrative sophistication.
Patrick thinks that structured procedural storytelling creates deceptive learning – that we should instead (I gather) be pushing for sandbox player stories. I think the best way to find out is to explore this medium, even more.