Left 4 Dead: Dialogue Synchronicity

12 Feb 2009

If I had to pick what kind of apocalypse came about, I would choose “zombie plague” with no hesitation. I hate the undead. They are the bane of my existence. Or, at least, they would be if I could find them. Which is as natural a segue-way to Left 4 Dead as will ever occur.

Valve has a wonderful habit of releasing excellent games. They also have a habit of taking forever to release them. Why? Because they only put their name on a polished product. They want to be sure people will enjoy it. How do they manage this?

Play-testing. Hours and hours of play testing. With Half-Life 2 they gathered data on where the players died and used it to determine if some areas were unfairly difficult. Or pointlessly easy. Of course, this is just one instance and one use for that data, but I just want to bring up the point that a lot of work goes into making a Valve game fun.

While the play-testing that went into L4D is obvious in the game play, another area where it shines is the audio. Other folks have talked about the genius of the Audio Director. And they’re right to give credit to the music system of L4D. It procedurally generates music on the fly, based on dozens of in-game variables which provide important cues to the player as to what events will happen next. From the “there’s a witch” music to “here comes the horde”, Valve has given the player a reason to keep the in-game audio on. And they certainly deserve credit for it.

But I’m here to praise the dialogue. I know, you’re asking “Of all the things to talk about, why that?”. Because Valve has done something I have never seen before. And it’s brilliant.

If you’re simply playing alone and listening to the character banter, you might grin at the occasion witty quips (“You know what I don’t hate? I don’t hate this…”). Where the brilliance comes from is in multi-player:

You’re playing Death Toll with three of your buddies. After surviving a nasty horde, you’re all limping your way to the next safe area. A couple of you are on the verge of death and you’re prepared for a few tense minutes. In the distance, you can see a health pack sitting on a table. Before you can mention it, the character-voice of Louis shouts, “Medkit!”. Suddenly, you hear the familiar growl of a hunter. Pressing the voice-chat key, you shout “Hunter!” and half a second later, the Zoey-voice relays the same thing.

While everyone’s eyes scan ahead for the hunter, nobody notices when Bill gets dragged by a smoker. Your buddy playing Bill shouts, “Help! A smoker’s got me” at the same time as the Bill-character. Louis spins around, unloads a few shotgun blasts into the smoker. The Bill-player says, “Nice shooting” and the Bill-character says, “Nice shot, kid”.

This sort of dialogue synchronicity often happens in L4D with players and characters closely echoing each other. Does every line match up? Of course not. But it happens often enough to mention it.

Now sure, some of you are thinking “big deal”. And you’re right, in the grand scheme of things, dialogue synchronicity isn’t a vital component of a game. But it points to the amount of work that Valve puts into their products. Somewhere along the way, someone recognized that gamers were saying a lot of similar phrases at specific events. And they decided to add in this minor detail. Something they didn’t need to do to create an excellent game, but did so because they knew it would be cool for the player.

And that’s why Valve will always be one of the top game developers: their focus on creating the fullest, most entertaining product possible.