Posts Tagged ‘ Valve

4 Characters

In the weeks leading up to the release of The Sacrifice episode for Left 4 Dead, Valve ran an excellent comic that went into the backstories of the original four survivors and explained the events we’d be seeing in the new episode. It went a long way to restoring my excitement for L4D, and reminded me of why I’d liked the original game so much.

Zoey, Bill, Louis, and Francis were endearing heroes, and their chemistry was fantastic. I remember cracking up when Francis turned to Louis and asked him why he was still wearing his tie. “You worried ya won’t be dressed right for your next board meeting?” he cackled. And of course he was right. Part of Louis’s character was denial that the zombie apocalypse was actually happening, and that there was never going to be a return to normality. It’s why he was always making optimistic predictions about what would be awaiting them over the next horizon, and why he was always so surprised when they came across yet another scene of disaster.

The Sacrifice comic offered a nice opportunity to revisit those characters, as well as say goodbye to Bill, the Vietnam vet who frequently seemed relieved to be fighting again, here at the end of his life. By the end of The Sacrifice, it was understood that Bill would go out in a blaze of glory to protect his makeshift family. But in the meantime, we would see what became of the four original survivors after their escape in the first game, and learn more about who they were before everything went wrong.

Zoey’s story, for instance, was a brilliant vignette. Divorced parents who sniped at each other endlessly, a cop father who taught her to love grindhouse movies but not responsibility, and a mother who clearly felt that good parenting meant reminding your child of all the opportunities she was wasting. And of course none of it can be resolved: Zoey’s last moments with her family are spent enduring yet another argument, and then she’s an orphan.

Like all good backstory, the comic didn’t invent a background for the characters, merely made it clearer. Everything we saw, especially from Louis and Zoey, seemed to confirm things we’d always known about them, but had never completely understood.

The Sacrifice had the unintended consequence of highlighting how indifferent I am toward the new cast of survivors introduced in Left 4 Dead 2. With the exception of the lovably garrulous bumpkin, Ellis, none of them seem to exhibit much in the way of character. I couldn’t tell you why. The incidental dialogue seems inconsequential and uninformative. Most of what I know about Coach and Nick, for instance, comes from their costumes. I still can’t tell you anything about Rochelle.

Seeing the original four survivors playing off one another only underscored the degree to which Left 4 Dead 2 was a narrative failure in spite of great level design and smart gameplay adjustments. Left 4 Dead was always surprising and charming; Left 4 Dead 2 was neither.

If I had to guess, it’s that Valve communicated other, subtler ideas with each of the original survivors. Louis was wearing the uniform of a low-level office worker, and I always had the sense that he was a guy who wasn’t getting much farther in life. After all, was there anyone else in the original cast who looked like they had a bright future? Bill was a run-down vet whose well-worn fatigues suggested an inability to readjust to civilian life, and perhaps even bouts of homelessness. Francis was a biker, a group that’s already associated with alienation. Zoey was a nerdy college kid whose clothes didn’t suggest wealth, and who frequently had an awkward demeanor. All we really knew about her is that she liked to watch horror movies, and she looked like the kind of person who was more likely to do that in her dorm room, alone, than with other people.

And in The Sacrifice, we learn that Louis is a sysadmin at a banking house who is trying to find a way to attract attention from his bosses by keeping the servers running. If the zombie flu hadn’t come, I suspect the only time Louis’s employer paid him any notice would be the day he was let go. Zoey was a film-school dropout from a blue-collar family who had just lost her scholarship. Francis was about to be sent to prison. And Bill was waiting to die in a VA hospital.

For a lot of reasons, I'd rather be part of the group on the bridge.

By contrast, the survivors of Left 4 Dead 2 never suggested an earlier life. Perhaps Valve just weren’t on comfortable ground in the Mississippi Delta. It was a good setting, but not one that Valve understood as well as the industrial North. The story of an old vet, a shy nerd, a token middle-class black man, and a surprisingly sweet biker was one they told with confidence. But in the South, the character’s voices are more vague. The new survivors cut across lines of race, class, and geography that are harder to grapple with, but to flesh them out, you’d have to. Instead, they remain silhouettes moving across scenery. Well-crafted scenery, but not a place that seems to have an existence beyond the confines of the level layout.

Valve Is Not Your Enemy

Valve and Steam seem to be taking fire from a lot of quarters these days.

Last week, Direct2Drive, GamersGate (digital distributors hate using the space bar), and Impulse announced they would not be selling Modern Warfare 2 so long as it included a mandatory Steam installation in order to activate the game. In effect, you could buy the game from any number of sources, but you could only play it through Valve’s online service.

A few weeks earlier, Gearbox’s Randy Pitchford made a mostly incoherent attack on Valve and Steam, saying that while he trusted Valve, he did not trust Valve. You read that right. Apparently Randy Pitchford, regular guy, trusts Valve but Randy Pitchford, CEO of Gearbox Software and “guy in this industry,” sees a dangerous conflict of interest. Valve is a developer in competition with other developers, but it is also a distributor that markets games from those competing developers.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that Pitchford’s stance has more to do with resentment than with actual business conflicts. While Gearbox has enjoyed a lot of success and produced a number of excellent titles (and superb expansions, back when that was their business), it has produced no franchise that is even within shouting distance of the Half-Life series, or the Source-powered juggernauts of Left 4 Dead or Team Fortress 2. More obnoxiously, Valve is sitting on a gold mine with the Steam platform, and its former peers and competitors now rely on Valve to sell their games.

But when Pitchford argues that Valve’s position as a game developer poses a conflict of interest with its role as the owner / operator of Steam, I lose the thread. First, Valve is not in a position where it needs to sweat the competition from other developers. Second, it is still in Valve’s interest to see that other developer’s titles do well on the platform, and to ensure they get a good deal compared to other outlets.

Frankly, as someone who purchased Gearbox’s entire Brothers in Arms series through Steam, I think Pitchford underestimates just how symbiotic his relationship with Valve actually is. When Hell’s Highway stalled at retail amid mediocre reviews and WW2 shooter-fatigue, it was on Steam that the game got a new lease on life through heavy promotion as a featured discount deal. It’s on Steam where a company’s back catalogue stands the best chance of being noticed and purchased by consumers, because Steam is omnipresent on PC gamers’ computers. When you open the program, it notifies you about important deals, some of them on games several years old.

Furthermore, the number of independent developers who have come to Steam’s defense says quite a bit about how Valve treats the people with whom it does business. From generous and straightforward contracts through promotion to prompt payments, Steam offers developers a number of good deals. So what, exactly, is so broken that it needs to be fixed?

I’m similarly confused about what the other digital distributors are up to, because their given reasoning seems a bit disingenuous. My hope is that it’s a publicity move aimed at getting the attention of the PC gamers who have already written off Modern Warfare 2 due to Infinity Ward’s antagonism to the platform where the franchise originated. Even though their objections are completely different, the other services are casting themselves as consumer advocates sticking it to a game that’s already unpopular with many of those consumers. Superficially, it looks like the other distributors are joining PC gamers at the barricades. If those gamers started voting with their dollars and made an effort to support these newfound allies, it would be to the benefit of Direct2Drive, GamersGate, and Impulse.

Still, it’s important to note that these services are boycotting Modern Warfare 2 for one reason only: it forces gamers to use Steam. Infinity Ward and Activision don’t care about this so long as Steam also provides them with good, uncontroversial copy-protection. But the distrbutors resent the hell out of this, because it means that they are being forced to grant Valve access to their own customers. Where you have to actually navigate to and browse around GamersGate’s and D2D’s websites, Steam constantly runs in the background while you are using it, always ready to provide a helpful reminder about a sale. From the other distributors’ point of view, they are being forced to cut their own throats.

From this consumer’s point of view, however, their reasoning is small-minded and not a little hypocritical. For one thing, it was seeing how well Steam worked that I became comfortable enough with digital ownership that I started trying the other services. I heard about Paradox’s anniversary sale on Steam and that led me to the Paradox-owned GamersGate, where there were even more items on sale. I was put off by a lot of negative reports I heard about Direct2Drive back when it launched, but I only recently felt confident enough to buy from them. Prior to Steam, however, I was a die-hard “physical ownership” kind of guy. Steam hasn’t just created Steam customers. It has created digital customers.

More annoying, however, is the self-righteousness of this boycott. From Direct2Drive’s Modern Warfare 2 page:

Thanks for your interest in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 from Direct2Drive.

At Direct2Drive, we believe strongly that when you buy a game from us, you shouldn’t be forced to install and run a 3rd party software client to be able to play the game you purchased. Because COD MW 2 requires you, the consumer, to do that, we aren’t able to offer the game via Direct2Drive at this time.

I strongly believe that as well, Direct2Drive. But I’m not certain you do. Because I find you are still selling Dawn of War II, which requires the odious Games for Windows Live “service” for online play. It will load every time I run the game regardless of whether I’m actually playing online.

I can also buy Grand Theft Auto IV via D2D, despite the fact that that game requires me to install Rockstar Social Club in order to play it. RSC provides, as nearly as I can tell, no real service and is just another way that the developer retains control of its product. I suppose since it is Rockstar it is not really a 3rd-party program, but it is nevertheless astonishingly consumer-unfriendly.

Nor does Impulse seem like it is standing up for the little guy. The problem with Steam, from Impulse’s point of view, is that it got to PC gamers first and is now in the exact position Impulse would like to occupy. The chief difference between Impulse and Steam is that Impulse has never had a product as successful as Half-Life 2 with which to leverage itself. But what is to be expected from a company that routinely brags about its DRM-free approach to publishing while tying its games to an online authentication service / storefront?

As for conflicts of interest, who is kidding who? Impulse is an arm of Stardock, a game developer just like Valve. Direct2Drive is owned by IGN, which is in turn owned by News Corp. You might know IGN as a site that reviews the games that it is also involved in selling. GamersGate was created by Paradox, another developer / publisher.

My worry here is that forces are lining up to try and change the way Valve does business, and I don’t see that consumers stand to gain anything from such changes. Not only are Valve and Steam the devils I know, but I don’t see them as devils of any sort. I have far more reasons to be skeptical when I hear the envious and the ethically compromised taking a stand in the name of integrity and consumer protection.