Monday, 24 November 2008

It is dark, you are likely to be eaten by a Zombie

Cory Dotorow in his book Down and out in the Magic Kingdom introduced a fictional system of currency called ‘Whuffie’. In his novel, set in the distant future where ‘scarcity economics’ no longer rules, whuffie is based around personal reputation, and is accrued when other people attribute something like ‘coolness’ to you, and add whuffie to your account. It’s also not a zero sum system, so a person with zero whuffie could give and take away from other people, exactly as much as someone with a million whuffie could. A quote from the book, to help explain:

"Whuffie recaptured the true essence of money: in the old days, if you were broke but respected, you wouldn't starve; contrariwise, if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace. By measuring the thing that money really represented — your personal capital with your friends and neighbors — you more accurately gauged your success".[1]

What’s this got to do with Left 4 Dead? Well, L4D embodies perfectly a real world Whuffie system. In L4D you will be hated, hated, if you don’t work with your team. In one game of vs. mode in which I was participating, a fellow survivor (the humans) was evidently an inexperience player or deliberately stuffing around and jumped off a building, killing himself. Rather than just accept this act, someone initiated a vote to kick the player, and it passed (I’ll admit, I voted him out too). You just cannot tolerate incompetence, or worse, a deliberate gung-ho attitude. You will die horribly and quickly, even horribly quickly, as there will be no one there to knock that pouncing hunter off you when he gets you from behind. Your team-mates save you from your helplessness, and in return you just cannot help but like them for it. Speaking only for myself, of course, but I think a degree of this applies across the board, it makes me want to save them just as much in return. This is the essence of good cooperative play – the encouragement to work together with little to no incentive to abandon people to a grisly fate. After all, if they’re dead then they can’t help you.

I’ve been pretty quiet on the blogging front lately, and it’s all because of Left 4 Dead. The game is really quite hard to stop playing, and largely because it facilitates a strange, temporary bond between a small group of players. Like war veterans, by the finale we are in a groove and all know to when to duck or when to avoid moving, so we don’t cross each others line of fire. Conversely, you can usually tell before the finale if you’re going to make it or not as a team. I can almost not count the number of times I’ve stalled on the third act.

I do have a small criticism, perhaps, for Valve if they ever drop by my blog, and it’s that they didn’t give us more! Sadly, until Valve playtest further and make the necessary tweaks and changes, you can only play versus mode on 2 of the 4 campaigns. That seems an unfortunate limitation. Still, if the modding scene is any good (and all early indications are that it is) then I’m sure we’ll see more than a few custom campaigns before too long.


bsimius said...

That's really quite an interesting little peek into the group psychology that people adopt in (virtual) life-or-death situations... if no one's been using these kind of games to study what people find acceptable in day-to-day life as opposed to life-or-death situations, then they should be.

I know that wasn't the point of your post, really, but that's what came to my mind.

Fashigady said...

Its such a great game to play online. Keep up the L4D posts plox :P

I remember last night on campaign; No Mercy: Finale, we're being overrun. So I charge off onto an adjacent bulding in the hope of finding a pipe bomb or molatov to save the group with. The others were all either surrounded by zombies or incapacitated. Having got to the other building all I found were a pair of jerry cans. I thought to myself 'Oh no', and surrounded by zombies I was brought down. But the strange thing I found was that by running off, I'd accidentaly taken a large portion of the zombies with me, and the others were now back on there feet and saving me. It just makes me wonder, what did that look like to them?

It's these sorts of interesting anecdotes that really make Left 4 Dead great.

[Also tangenitally, I'm writing my Area of Study: Belonging story based on L4D tuesday week]

Ben Abraham said...

Woah, that's an awesome story, Fashigady!

My favorite aspect of it, and I think I might expand the idea into a post later, is getting pushed to the brink of survival... and charging headlong off the cliff to either survive or blow up in an epic last-man stand scene.

Michael Abbott said...

There's a terrific Edge Magazine feature in the (I think) November issue on the evolution of the modding scene. Thought you might find it interesting since Valve has received the lion's share of the modder love.

I get nervous playing shooters like L4D because I'm not a great player of FPS games, and I don't want to be a ball and chain for my group. I'm not terrible, but I'm not great either. My very first time playing L4D on the 360 with Dan Bruno and Iroquois Pliskin, I accidentally fell off the building within the first minute of play.

I improved from there. ;-)

Ben Abraham said...

In it's defence, L4D is very forgiving about falling off ledges. ;-)

You might not have the time or inclination, but playing the game on single player with the AI could be just the introduction you need to get over the initial fear of failure.

I'd hate to think that you missed out on L4D's awesome potential for player bonding through adversity (and comic/zombie hilarity).