l4dpcg.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom examines Left 4 Dead and Mass Effect, and how the former especially leads the way in a new brand of pseudo-storytelling.]

To play a video game is often to be party to a strange chorus of grunts, yelps and insults. Characters in games are designed to react to their environments with as much "realism" and responsiveness as possible.

From the unfortunate pointedly, ethnic enemies in Drake's Fortune to the pained grunts of Big Daddies, to your teammates telling you not to shoot them, all games have hundreds of snippets of sounds in the wings, waiting for you to provoke them.

Even games that feature voiceless snarling enemies can create palpable atmosphere just by including interesting, scary, or numerous enemy and character barks. A game like Doom 3 relies heavily on such mechanisms: the groans, screams, roars and screeches that your enemies produce are all the information you’ll be provided with about their nature, aside from a few introductory cutscenes and forced expositional text documents.

Of course, there are also games that trade in verbose, incredibly context-sensitive responses. In Deus Ex, leaping on a table will elicit disapproval and derision; entering the woman's bathroom will earn you a disapproving coworker for the foreseeable future.

All of these interactions are worked out within the minor conversations and comments seen in passing through the game. Likewise, enemies in Deus Ex respond to you or what you are: a dangerous, fearsome genetically modified murderer and policeman.

But Deus Ex provides these interactions alongside traditional cutscenes. Games that don’t have cutscenes have to work even harder to get mileage out of on-the-fly, in-game narrative tools, because that’s all they have. Thus, it is not surprising that the most interesting and subtly successful practicer of this trade is Valve.

alyx_kleiner.jpgMasters of Understatement

Valve of course has a slight edge in this department: their policy of constant immersion within the avatar (never in there single-player games does the camera escape from the protagonist’s point of view except in death) has forced them to become better and better storytellers in areas that others do not have to explore as fully.

Valve’s Half Life 2: Episode 1 & 2 tested Valve’s technique in a new way. Before, Valve had only had to provide the banter for Gordon Freeman’s temporary comrades: they would mostly comment on the present combat situation, and nothing beyond that. In the first two expansion episodes, however, Alyx Vance became the player’s near-constant companion. As a result, she couldn’t just have combat and quest-related asides; she had to be able to respond to and “interact” with the character on a verbal level, creating the illusion of a consciousness aware of Gordon, traveling with him.

This was accomplished by making various physical actions taken by the player produce verbal responses from Alyx. In pitch-black tunnels, if the player turns off Gordon’s flashlight, Alyx will tell you to turn it back on. Likewise, Alyx will cover her eyes when you shine your light at them. These are of course the simplest of examples: Alyx would also comment on any number of puzzles and situations that she and Gordon found themselves in. Some of these comments were vague and could happen in different locations, but others were location and situation-sensitive.

Still, Alyx and the Half Life world still have cinematic scenes of a sort, and an extremely strong narrative force, however camouflaged. What if a game eschewed all but the briefest opening and closing scripted moments, and instead had to rely entirely on randomly (and not so randomly) generated sound bites to flesh out its characters and settings? Enter Left 4 Dead, Valve’s co-op online zombie apocalypse shooter.

L4D09.jpgLikable Nobodies

Left 4 Dead features only a handful of in-engine cinematics and one pre-rendered movie: aside from that, the story and characters are what you make of them, aided by their continuous stream of dialogue between each other. This of course means that there is no story to speak of. Your plucky (or grizzled or naïve) heroes either make the escape vehicle or not. There are no long-term story-based consequences for actions taken, beyond the death of a survivor.

Each character has a recognizable personality, if you take the time to learn them. Louis is sure that things will get better soon, that things will go “back to normal.” Francis hates everything: train yards, vans, the military, rooms, you name it and he’ll tell you he hates it. Bill is the gruff old survivalist who is the unofficial leader of the team (think Nick Nolte at any time in the last 10 years). Zoe is the wisecracking college student, the only one of the survivors to regularly find humor in their unpleasant situation.

That entire paragraph was culled mostly from the in-game dialogue. Sure, you can get the general idea of it all from the opening cutscene, but cutscenes only paint brief portraits. It’s the character’s constant dialogue that reinforces Zoe’s zombie insults and humor, Francis’ constant complaining, Louis’ strangely resilient optimism, or the grudging respect and feelings the group feel for each other. These are just the obvious aspects of each character. If you play the game enough, you’ll hear Bill joke about the last zombie plague (in the ‘50s) being much worse than this one. I’ve played this game for tens of hours, and gotten nowhere near to hearing all these characters have to say.

All of this character depth, and there isn’t a “quiet moment,” romance, or philosophical debate to be seen. It’s like a great horror movie with all of the bad stuff cut out, with characters that constantly remind you of their humanity without making too big a show of being “characterized.” And yet these are still horror movie archetypes, it’s just that they’ve been given a slightly different stage this time round.

L4D01.jpgIt's best if You Don't Notice

This is the ultimate argument for seamlessly integrating characterization into gameplay. When this kind of descriptive writing is treated as commonplace, it blends into the gameplay. At the same time this technique gives players absolutely no control over said characterization. It makes it a part of the world and the characters in a way that a game like Fallout 3 or Final Fantasy could never replicate, despite occasional comments on the hero’s progress or "spontaneous" conversations between NPCs.

In those games, characters speak their parts and then go into vocal hibernation. Here, there’s never a “dialogue camera,” because the characters are performing their fake humanity all the time. It’s subtle and effective, as most people have noticed, and it makes the game that much more fun to play, when you know each character by name, personality, and sound.

It’s this hard to describe phenomenon, this almost casual, off-the-cuff air, that’s such an impressive accomplishment. Of course none of these sound bites are haphazard or unplanned. Every single one has been defined and designated as carefully as possible, so that every survivor has several reactions to certain kinds of enemies, to each other’s deaths, and to rescue. The brilliant trick of it is, since there is only one narrative mode, everything is character performance and definition. There’s never a point where we stand back and watch things unfold, and when we do, it isn’t a character-based scene, it’s a car driving away.

This kind of characterization cannot (in this state) replace storytelling. It can’t compare to the changing relationship between Elika and the Prince in Prince of Persia, for instance. In that game, the comments produced by characters changed over time, reflecting the changes in their relationship as set up by story segments. This doesn’t mean that the approach so deftly executed in Left 4 Dead couldn’t be employed to tell a story, and a detailed one too.

meai.jpgLoad Times are No Match for Conversations!

One game that makes this attempt is Mass Effect. Say what you will about the game’s long elevator rides, Bioware decided to fill those trips with some interesting dialogue. Every once in a while, the two characters you had with you would have a conversation. If those characters happened to be Ashley and Liara, the conversation might be about how Ashley is a xenophobe. Their next conversation would acknowledge the previous one, and involved Ashley saying that she had learned that not all aliens were bad.

This didn’t mitigate the horror of the long elevators, but if it had been expanded and deepened, think of the possibilities. Every elevator ride would unlock knew insights into character’s motivations, relations with each other, and thoughts regarding the various quests at hand. There’s something to be said for NPC interaction that isn’t player initiated: it makes the ensuing relationships and dialogues feel more tangible and less dependent on player input. That’s an important goal when the whole game revolves around player action and inaction.

hl2break.jpgWorth The Effort?

This of course points us toward the problems inherent in such interactions. How do developers ensure that we fickle players will stick around to see these conversations (aside from annoying elevators)? Valve knows that we’ll be there for every second of Left 4 Dead’s dialogue, but that dialogue doesn’t catalogue the change of opinions or characters over time. The incredibly difficult job that designers have is to bring these moments closer to the realm of normal gameplay. Why expend effort on that kind of content when they know they can make us watch a video?

I’m sure that they’re doing just that as I write this: trying to figure out more and more ingenious ways to get us to pay attention to such moments. Obviously this technique has a long way to go before it approaches the success and acceptability of a cutscene, but it’s a viable support tool, and a potentially insightful and subtly brilliant kind of storytelling. It’s something I’d love to see more of, because it’s the kind of thing that I play games for, regardless of genre or theme.

[Tom Cross also writes for Gamers' Temple and blogs about video games at shouldntbegaming.wordpress.com. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]