I've been thinking a lot about Left 4 Dead lately, and, for the most part, it's because I cannot seem to get it out of the tray of my 360 (sorry, Mass Effect).
I mean, I really love that game. The shooting is terrifically precise, individual missions are tense and dynamic, the music gives a sense of dread that I wish more horror movies would adopt, and, of course, because it is perfectly all right to be a fan of games that Valve makes.
There is no question that Valve is a great software developer. Left 4 Dead, while only one of about a million zombie games to come out in the last five years, manages to stay within the mold cast for it and yet be better than ninety-nine percent of games within the mold, like making a fine wine in a prison toilet.
Much of Left 4 Dead's success has to do with actual quality of the game, a point I find so mundane I should scarcely mention it. Its metacritic score is 89 at present moment (for the XBox 360), as is the sequel's, curiously. So, not a great game, according to the critics, but not a repeat of E.T. or Superman 64 by any stretch of the imagination. Just a good, solid game.
But a game, like any form of media, does not exist in a vacuum. Some of the praise heaped upon the game, though, is due to perceived quality. Left 4 Dead is perceived as a quality game in part due to the studio delivering it. Were it Activision or EA putting out L4D, then the reception might have been somewhat more plagued by criticism.
That point, though, is also teeth-grindingly specious. If EA, Activision, or Capcom, even, had released the game, it would have been completely different altogether (and probably much, much worse). I will concede that the argument doesn't hold up to close scrutiny, but I can't help but to argue with myself when I feel like I'm making obvious points.
Video games are different than other forms of media in that quality becomes evident over time. Games are easily digested, and even some of the better games released each week die after a couple weeks of intense play. To get a better sense of a game's quality, look down the road a few years. Servers all over the internet are fill with hordes of gamers still hooked on Quake or Doom II. Plenty of people play shitty games for a time, but no one really plays shitty games over a long period of time, unless the purpose of playing that game (or series of games) is done for some ironic purpose. I can remember friends of mine and I engaged in hours-long
People still play Left 4 Dead because it is a terrific game. It gets a bit samey in parts, but that is a flaw of the game's construct. To give gamers a variety of experience in each campaign, different types of terrain must be inserted. I'm speaking specifically of bloody (or dingy or rotten) corridors here. There are certain points during each campaign where I forget which level I'm playing, usually during the places - and each campaign has one - where you and the other three survivors are forced to walk into a building, walk up stairs, walk down a corridor, clear out rooms, walk up more stairs, walk down a corridor, and so forth.
It doesn't make the game bad, and, besides, this post isn't about how good or bad Left 4 Dead is or is not. It is about how perception influences the relative quality of a product.
Tell me if this has ever happened to you: you see a preview for a movie and, seeing nothing that interests you, independently decide that the movie is going to be shit. This may be during the preview for a movie you actually want to see - Inception or something - and you even think during the movie, "God, I can't wait to tell everyone how terrible this movie is going to be." You are giddy because you feel as though your friends will agree.
However, when you disparage the movie to your like-minded cohorts, you find that the movie was directed by this guy or produced by this other dude...and suddenly your perception changes altogether. You may not be entirely on-board, but you are more on-board than before. Slowly but surely, you come to find yourself liking the movie, or at least liking the idea of the movie, because of the potential. It usually relates to the "prism" (and I hate using that term)through which said director will view the movie he/she is making.
This is profoundly fascinating. I have found myself literally changing my mind over the course of a two-minute discussion in reference to a movie I thought I'd despise just because of some arcane detail I didn't know before the beginning of the conversation ("Oh, that movie was produced by Quentin Tarantino? Hmmm. Maybe I'll check it out.").
I didn't have that reaction to Left 4 Dead for two reasons: (1) I became aware that Valve was making Left 4 Dead at the same time I found out that Left 4 Dead was going to exist, and (2) I am a sucker for zombies. The fact that Valve was involved had almost literally no effect on me, other than that first thought, which was, "I bet that'll be interesting." Interesting is by no means the best endorsement I could give of a product, but it's by no means the worst. I'd almost something be interesting rather than good. In the world of democratized media, plenty of "good" things exist - just check Reddit on a daily basis - but few genuinely interesting things pop up.
To put it another way, think of how many mediocre or declining bands release albums that, if released by other artists, would be considered excellent. If Christina Aguilera had put out "Fame Monster" and Lady Gaga had dropped (whatever her album was called), then people would still probably care more about Lady Gaga than Christina Aguilera and "Fame Monster" would, thus, die on the vine.
This has nothing to do with the relative quality of either person or either album (though I think that Lady Gaga's is somewhat listenable), but it speaks to the force behind the product (and let's face it: these are all products, first and foremost). Nothing is without context, but that's obvious to anyone who has taken an intro history course.
I would like to parse this difference, though (at a later date). People don't play Left 4 Dead because it's a Valve title. That would be a silly and transparently false argument to make. People don't crowd servers because the studio producing the game generally makes solid titles.
They play it because it is (mostly) a good game, and I suppose that is what trumps all. I have no real response to that argument, and until I do, I'll have to leave it alone. Nothing is without context, but, then again, very few people really care about context. Users on Steam (Valve's gaming response to iTunes) don't care whose name is on the menu screen. They just want a clear angle for a headshot.