Left 4 Granted
[Flamethrower Inhibitor: This article is not critical of L4D.]
I had a play experience recently which puzzled me as a game designer. It wasn’t the game experience that puzzled me, but rather the realization that something had changed in me that left me without the requisite hook to enjoy the experience, an experience I know I would have enjoyed in the past.
Some background first. When I hear a lot of good play buzz about a game, I go out and purchase it almost immediately and prioritize finding a block of hours in which I can play it and consume the experience. So, I was pretty excited to have found both that game, Left 4 Dead, and the hours over the winter break. I played it solo. I played it as a zombie. I played it as a human. I played it over Live. And I realized something seriously, truly odd.
I’m broken. I got old, and I broke. Seriously.
Flashback about 15 years ago. I love horror movies, horror novels, and zombie stuff both real (obeah) and imagined. I watch infamous and horrifying movies and documentaries. All of this feeds something in me the same way that soap operas, which I do not watch, feed something in their fans. We watch whatever it is, because we get something out of it. I don’t recall when this transitions in me, though it may have been during the period mid 1990’s when I decided I’d only read classics for a year (and it lasted 5).
Let me tell you a bit about my play experience – I first kick all the proverbial tires and play the “designer way.” Working designers will, of course, recognize this as the type of play that everyone but other designers abhor. It means that I do something not to play, but to see how the game will react. I see how the AI handles certain situations. I stop a lot and think about why the designers made the decisions that they did and how it will affect what I know about the game. I screw with the interface (as an aside, finding good interface artists/designers is a huge issue in the industry right now, so if you’re considering a career path, that’s a good one).
Once I get all that out of my system, I restart and play seriously and do this for a long time.
Flashback about 10 years ago. I watched the English Patient at a giant theater in Ottawa, the old type that seat 500+ people in a room. At one point in the movie, the entire room is drowning in tears. All sides. Sniffles, tissues being ruffled. People asking for tissues and passing them around to others. Me? I was missing the hook. Whatever it was that I needed to have in order for me to hang my hat on that experience and get it, I didn’t have. Oh, I understood it, all right, knew precisely why they were all crying, and even marveled in the film’s technical achievements, storytelling and aesthetics. But that moment? That shared experience? Whatever the director required in me to elicit that moment, I just didn’t have or I had too much of the anecdote to the tears.
I feel that way now with Left 4 Dead. Everyone around me is having a blast with this game. Even a non-gaming friend visiting over the holidays played it and loved it. I feel as if I am staring at one of those “magic eye” posters waiting for the image to appear, that deeper experience, but it just didn’t happen. The process of getting through the missions felt like going through the motions, and I accept that this is not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s a good game. The English Patient was a good movie. I never really immersed, and at the moment the director needed me to believe, my brain responded with a sense of satisfaction and happiness in my current relationship that pretty much gutted the deep longing for something more the movie required.
So, I wonder what all of this means to me as a designer. I know it is a natural part of aging that our interests change from one thing to another, and that things which were incredible at one point in time (keg parties) are less exciting me now (I’d much rather play board games all night with friends, remember it and be tired the next morning).
Does it mean that I’ve also gained some new design hook/perception somewhere else? Have I become, in part, that 40-year-old woman that people want to make games for if only they knew what she liked to play?
I’m going to play Gears 2 tomorrow, and I suppose we’ll find out.
It also raises some larger design questions –
- Can you design for a hook that you don’t have?
- How does aging affect a game designer’s perception?
- Can you really teach people to design games for other audiences if, in play, they won’t be able to fully experience the deep immersive fun of it, and therefore tune the experience toward it?