Making Emergent Stories Matter: Considering 'Left 4 Dead' and 'Medal of Honor'

It seems impossible to tell a story within the strict rule set of a competitive online game until you play Left 4 Dead or its sequel.

A couple weeks ago I wrote about how giving shooters a real world context could make their violence feel more real and less like mindless entertainment ("Why Do I Cheer For War?", PopMatters, 9 July 2010). So I was very interested in trying out the Medal of Honor multiplayer beta because the game seems very committed to its realistic setting, separating players into teams of US forces and Taliban soldiers. I was curious to see if fighting against the terrorist group and not just vague “insurgents” would add some kind of poignancy to the common emergent stories of multiplayer shooters.

This did not happen. All poignancy is lost within the strict rule set of a competitive online game. In fact, it’s specifically because it’s competitive that the game part of the experience takes precedent over everything else. While not surprising, this tendency does expose the inherent limitations of storytelling in multiplayer games. You can’t tell a story in a competition; the message gets drowned out. That’s why most emergent stories that come out of multiplayer games are really just “cool moments.” There’s no narrative arc in a match, no rising and falling action, no climax, and it seems impossible to accomplish until you play Left 4 Dead or its sequel.

Every aspect of Left 4 Dead lends itself to telling a complete story: the small cast of actual characters, the A.I. director, the objective based missions, and the structuring of each campaign as movie with a climatic escape.

The small cast means that every player is important, everyone has a major role to play in surviving, and all of this allows for each player to feel like the main character in their own emergent story. When what you do actually matters, it’s easy to feel like the hero, and this greater sense of importance makes a player more invested in the outcome. The small cast also gives you and any audience opportunity to learn about your teammates. Since there are only at most three other people to keep track of, it’s easy to notice personality quirks over the course of a match. Who’s impulsive, who’s cautious, and who’s strategic? Teammates cease to be faceless fodder and become characters in a story, which in turn makes the action more dramatic because it’s now personal, happening to people you know instead of strangers.

The objective for every match may be the same, get to the exit and don’t die, but the mere fact that you have a tangible objective to work towards makes for a more compelling story. Most shooters task your team with reaching X number of kills first, but this is an abstract goal with no obvious way of evaluating progression. Without that little onscreen meter displaying each team’s kills, you’d have no idea how close you are to winning. By forcing players to run to an exit, the environment itself becomes a means of evaluating progress. It’s always obvious (both during play and when retelling the story) exactly how close you are to the end.

Most multiplayer games try to keep players entertained by offering all action, all the time, but constant action makes the pacing predictable and makes for a boring story. The A.I. director in both Left 4 Dead games remedies this flaw by lowering or raising the difficulty depending on players’ skill. It knows when you’ve just fought off a horde of zombies and will purposely hold off more danger to allow you time to regain your composure. This creates a rising and falling action. Tension builds during the slower moments, which makes the action more exciting when everything suddenly goes to hell. Varying the pace keeps players and any audience in constant suspense.

However, the dramatic tension falters when a dead character comes back to life, revived in a locked closet. Even in Left 4 Dead, character death doesn’t carry any real weight. Nonetheless, the games prove that emergent stories can have compelling narratives, but it depends entirely on how the game is structured. Left 4 Dead has a unique and brilliant structure that makes a story out of each match. Medal of Honor is just a free-for-all between faceless soldiers and no amount of real world context can make that compelling.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

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60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

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