With the release of Back 4 Blood, there has been a furore of discussion around the Left 4 Dead series, which B4B is very clearly and undeniably meant to be a spiritual sequel to. It might seem peculiar that I’ve stressed that point, but would you believe that there are people on the internet that, upon the release of B4B, denied that it was meant to be a sequel at all. I’m going to assume that you, the reader, are not stupid enough to hold that view, because you have successful navigated to this page without eating your mouse, or knocking yourself unconscious with your keyboard. B4B is in an interesting state, with some people quite enjoying it and some people not, and in the maelstrom of public opinion, a lot has been said about the L4D series. While some of these comparisons are made charitably, or uncharitably, there’s one statement that is made over and over again: “People have nostalgia goggles about L4D”. To that I say, fuck you. L4D is exactly as good as I remember it being, and I’m going to talk about why it’s (still) a fantastic game. If you’ve never played it, or have no interest in playing it, this might not be the post for you, but I will be talking about interesting game design things which will be applicable outside of this series.
Left 4 Dead 1 and 2 have an extremely simple premise. You are a group of four survivors, attempting to travel from A to B. A and B are safehouses, where you cannot be mauled to death by zombies. You start in total safety, and you end in total safety, but the journey along the way…that’s a bit different. You are presented with obstacles in the form of terrain (the map that you are attempting to traverse), and the infected (of varieties common and uncommon, more on that later). You are armed with guns, and it’s a first person shooter game; so you shoot the zombies with the guns, while traversing this space. That’s essentially the entire game. Of course there are mechanics that surround this gameplay, but I feel they will be mechanics that most people are already incredibly familiar with. You have health, you have ammunition, you can pick up different weapons along the way, you can melee with a button. What’s perhaps more interesting is the mechanics that it doesn’t have: there is no aiming-down-sight (ADS), there is no sprint. You can crouch, you can jump…that’s it. In a lot of ways, L4D is an extremely barebones shooter. When compared to the modern era of games, where there’s a billion unlock mechanics, attachments, and more, it’s thoroughly spartan.
It’s worth mentioning that, of course, there were two Left 4 Dead games. Quickly released one after the other, with a few changes between them, there are occasions where I’ll compare and contrast them. If I had to pick an analogy for the two, I’d say that L4D2 is the double-chocolate, whipped cream, lemon drizzled, cherry-on-top sundae; extremely delicious, but occasionally cloying and perhaps in need of stripping back. L4D1 is like a slice of cheesecake — utterly incredible, maybe needed some pistachio crumble on top, but you’ll have forgotten that after the first bite. I have not watched any developer commentary, footage, or talks about L4D, so all of this is coming off my dome. If Valve/Turtle Rock Studios wanted to create an incredibly mediocre game, and instead made L4D by accident, I wouldn’t know. Here’s what L4D gets right.
As mentioned above, there are no “absolutely critical unique mechanics”. What I mean by this, is a mechanic that if removed, would lead to a completely different (or significantly worse) game. This would be akin to the suit in the Crysis series, the fatigue mechanic in Gloomhaven, morale in the Total War series. L4D is a collection of widely understood and (at the time) implemented mechanics, that almost everyone nowadays will be familiar with. The selection of weapons is downright barebones, with L4D1 shipping with an absolutely staggering five primary weapons, and L4D2 increasing this to eleven. There are items, medkits that heal damage, pills that provide temporary hitpoints, molotovs that set a patch of ground on fire, pipe bombs that attract the infected and explode like a grenade. I’m not going to go through every category of thing in L4D, but the point is, each thing is incredibly simple and is very intuitive. You will not be picking up a mcguffin and wondering “what the hell does this do?”. If it’s a gun, it shoots. If it’s a medkit, it heals. If it’s a gas can, it explodes (or refuels on certain maps). L4D2 broke this principle a little bit, but not an unforgivable amount.
At start of the round, you pick a character. What’s different between the characters? Well, they sound different, say different things, and look different — that’s it. None of them are any better, or any worse, at anything. You pick Coach though, because, he’s Coach. There are no character progression mechanics, you cannot become better at shooting the hunting rifle unless you, the player, become better. You can find better weapons, but there’s only two tiers, and you can only acquire them by picking them up off the ground. Alright, you get the picture.
What Valve/TRS realised is, in the absolute frenzy that the gameplay can become, you cannot afford to have gallons upon gallons of complexity. There is a lot of stuff in L4D that can kill you almost instantly, so your brain cycles should be spent concentrating on avoiding that and progressing through the maps (more on those later). You don’t want players to become paralysed by decisions over things like weapons and items, because you want them to keep moving. You want them to make an important decision quickly, with the ability to regret it later, because then it was a meaningful choice. If there is one “mechanic” in L4D, it’s the idea of momentum. The game is constantly pushing you forwards, constantly ramming you into the next obstacle or encounter, constantly breathing down your neck. Adding areas of complexity in this equation could very easily make this experience frustrating, instead of tense. Sure, you might end up screwed by your poor decision to bring a shotgun rather than a rifle (unable to shoot a far-off smoker as it chokes you to death), but you are far more likely to be screwed over by your own moment-to-moment gameplay decisions.
There is nothing to blame but yourself, or your teammates in those situations. The hunting rifle is extremely accurate, it couldn’t be any more accurate, it was just your fault for missing that boomer. What’s the difference in your character that allows you to complete the hardest difficulty in L4D? You. You are the difference. The reason that a new person might struggle on the mid-tier difficulty and a veteran will crush it, is nothing to do with persisted unlocks or progression elements. It is purely within that person’s understanding of the game, and their ability to exploit the game’s simple mechanics to their benefit. There is a lot that happens in the course of a game, but the game is designed to allow the player to have an extremely good understanding of what is happening, and what went wrong at any given moment. This is important, not just so players can improve, but so you don’t feel that the game is preventing you from winning. You are preventing you from winning.
There’s another important component here: balance. By keeping the number of unique things (weapons, items, infected) low, Valve/TRS ensured that what was there could be balanced appropriately. Was L4D a game with perfect balance? Absolutely not. Some infected were “better” than others (Charger/Smoker vs Jockey), some weapons were better than others (shotgun vs rifles on higher difficulties), but it never felt egregious. Melee weapons were very strong in L4D2, however you did have cause to avoid using them in certain situations. If they had three times the number of weapons, then there would almost certainly be a selection of < 5 that people actually used. So why waste time on making more? Sure they could have doubled the number of special infected, but why not have fewer and focus on certain interactions between them? L4D is balanced on a knife-edge; if the game was slightly too easy, then it would be incredibly boring. The actual gameplay mechanics (shooting, moving) are so simplistic that they cannot hold up a game alone. If the game was too hard, it’d be immensely frustrating. Lower-ability players would feel like they never got a chance to actually play the game, especially given that progression is defined entirely in terms of “how far through the stages are you”.
L4D is a masterclass of “little, done well”. There is so little there, but what is there, is polished to an absolute mirror-shine. Nothing feels excessive, or unnecessary (perhaps certain additions in L4D2). The game feels sleek, lightweight, and immensely purpose-driven.
I’ve said that L4D is fundamentally about moving from A to B, where A and B are safehouses. On a game-design level though, L4D is fundamentally a game about moments/set pieces. Your average L4D moment will go like this, you are moving through the map when you are confronted by an obstacle. This obstacle might take the form of a loud piece of machinary that needs to be activated to open up the way, it might take the form of challenging terrain that needs to be carefully navigated; it might even just be a wide-open street with cars that’ll make a very loud noise if you hit them. When you reach this obstacle, the game’s “director” will deploy special and common infected against you. The players are then required to either navigate this obstacle, or hunker-down and protect themselves while the obstacle removes itself. Either the players are brutally murdered, or they are able to progress to the next moment. That’s…it. That’s the whole game.
These moments are incredibly fast-paced, action-dense, and exciting. There’s lots of stuff to shoot, lots of stuff to be conscious of (special infected, map obstacles and hazards), and an overarching drive to keep moving forwards/progressing. In a worst-case scenario, you might be needing to gun down hordes of common infected, while dodging leaping hunters, while navigating past steep drops that will incapacitate you, while managing your health with pills and medkits, while keeping an eye out for weapons, items and ammunition that might be on the ground. In isolation, each one of these elements is incredibly manageable. Weapons, items and ammo are highlighted with a powerful white outline, making them incredibly obvious in almost every scenario. Hunters and other special infected (aside from the tank and witch) are immensely easy to deal with on their own — a single melee shove followed by shotgun blast, hunting rifle or burst of rifle fire will kill any of them. Maps are, aside from some very specific examples, incredibly easy to navigate as the way forwards is almost always made obvious to you. You follow the lights, the lights will tell you where to go, and you’re going to a safehouse that almost always has the same door. Alone, extremely manageable, but in The Moment…
In the Moment, you missed the medkit that was hanging on a wall because you were too busy blasting in the direction of a hunter. You were missing the shots on that hunter because a group of six common infected were pounding on you and blocking your view. You ended up in the position to get pounded by the common infected because you went into a vulnerable area of the map without support. If you were a better player, you wouldn’t have gone into that vulnerable area, you would have stayed with your teammates. Without that, you wouldn’t be getting clubbed by common infected, which would have let you shoot the hunter. With the breathing space given you might have noticed that medkit on the wall, and be up one medkit, rather than murdered on the floor. That’s the Moment. It is a collection of problems that get out of hand due to player mistakes, that each reinforce each other. However, the inverse is also true. Dealing with one problem eases the burden of the others, and playing as a team grants “stacking” benefits — one person reloading isn’t as critical when there’s three other people to keep shooting. One person getting pinned by a Hunter isn’t so terrible when there’s three people to shoot them off. Common infected are incredibly trivial when there’s four aware players who are able to fight them back. The Moment is a symphony of these problems and solutions, leading to complicated and tense situations that require thought and good gameplay to escape.
If this was constant, and your progression from A to B was just a push against a constant tide of these situations, then the game would be utterly exhausting. This is one of the criticisms that people have of the Versus mode (where other players control the special infected), because one of the most successful strategies that the infected could employ was to just keep wearing the players down with waves of boomer-spawned commons alongside hunter pounces and smoker drags. Despite that, there were breathing spaces when the infected team would hold back on spawning to all appear at the same time, or wait till a more dangerous area of the map was reached. These breathing spaces are what allows these moments to be special, they are the canvas against which they are painted. There is no greater evidence that this is important, than in Back 4 Blood, where special infected are thrown out like candy (this is probably the result of a bug, but it still illustrates the point). Like a good horror film (and this is not by coincidence), there has to be build-up, tension and payoff. If it’s nothing but payoff, then it’s not payoff, it’s a pool of custard that you’re wading through. It’s a chore, a treadmill to be run on for the requisite distance, rather than an anticipated and dreaded event.
As I mentioned before with ‘simplicity’, there is a lot that happens in the course of the game. For the difficulty of these moments to be reasonable, the player must feel like they’re able to comprehend, plan, and execute based on information that the game is giving to them. To give you an example, it is normally incredibly obvious when a special infected has been spawned. They all have very distinct sounds (the hunter growls when crouched, the smoker endlessly coughs, the boomer…well), and they all have extremely distinct silhouettes. There is absolutely no way in hell that you are mistaking a hunter for a boomer, or a smoker for a common infected. Differences in readability are strongly factored into the design of the infected — the Hunter is the most similar to the common infected in looks, and the smallest, but it is also the loudest in the moment of attack. The boomer has the potential to be the most dangerous (aside from the tank), given he can blind and stagger the survivors, and spawn a potentially fatal swarm of common infected, but he’s also the easiest to notice.
Look at the following image:
It is absolutely tiny, and yet I bet you were still able to tell which figure was an infected. There’s a few things going on in terms of pose, but the colour is the most striking detail. The infected are grey, dark colours, while the survivors are bright. In Louis’ case, because he has darker skin, they’ve given him a bright shirt and tie to make him immediately recognisable as a survivor. I won’t say this is genius-level stuff, but Left 4 Dead has clearly focused on readability. If you look at the maps, you might be forgiven for thinking the entire game is set in Japan with how clean the streets are, but again, this is a readability decision. Having huge mounds of trash and detritus might look fantastic, but it gets in the way of telling if something is going to gnaw your face off or not.
Finally, let’s take a picture of the special infected. This is an image that includes the L4D2 infected, but you take what you can get when you’re talking about a decade old game.
I bet if you hadn’t ever played the game, you could tell which one is called the “tank”, and which one is called the “boomer”. Form follows function, and size (roughly) follows level of danger. The only two that don’t follow this trend are the Witch (third from right) and the Hunter (second from left), where their visual ambiguity is part of their balance and design. I should say, again, that both have incredibly distinct audio clues.
Getting hit by a smoker and dragged away would be incredibly frustrating if it wasn’t immediately obvious that something was in fact, a smoker. Similarly, getting covered in boomer-juice would be frustrating if you weren’t given a huge amount of evidence to suggest that it was about to happen. Readability is an absolutely critical part of the design of everything, and it allows L4D to go to levels of difficulty that would otherwise be immensely offputting. There are games that have gotten this incredibly wrong (see Vermintide 1), and have been far worse for it.
Anyway, that’s the whole post. What a great game eh? Someone really ought to make a sequel for it.