Quake, an early example of honest-to-God 3D gaming (and not the 2.5D skewing-and-billboard Wolfenstein clones) was among the first to begin the modern gamer’s training to recognize small deltas in position, rotation, and scale as markers that the action in their vicinity was about to change. It was an exercise of surprisingly complex pattern recognition.
The human brain is tuned to a fine nuance at 60 Hz, and the difference of a few degrees of any game entity can clue a wired brain off to a potential perceived future. You know the columns and stairways and arches of a place, and it is wired into the mind to accept a sudden breaking of any of those planes as the signal that something is about to go down.
It can happen in elements of a fraction of an inch: spotting a gun muzzle telegraphing around a corner, or a subtle color shift in the otherwise unbroken pattern of a wall – the difference of just a few pixels marks the transition from the static world to the dynamic world.
What’s our text-based equivalent?
You hear a sound to the south!
A notification of the above kind is chunky, not gritty; even though it can still maintain the appropriate “don’t open that door” aesthetic, the abstract notion of “south” leaves to the first-person-shooter mind an unsettling notion that for all the liberties taken with licensing, this is not a similar game to its spiritual parent at all.
How Big is Bite-Sized?
In creating the very first encounters between the player character and their undead enemies, it was necessary to model the world of Left 4 Dead’s first level – the Apartments.
The player starts on the roof, and takes a staircase to a landing that opens into a full third-floor apartment complete with kitchen, living room, bathroom, and a few extra rooms.
These rooms are big enough to hold dozens of characters in Left 4 Dead, but small enough that the confines are palpable. Lots of corners and doors – most of the action that goes on is resolved in those micromoments between noticing a figure in your flashlight beam and squeezing off a fatal headshot.
The same space is condensed into eight discrete rooms in Text4Dead, linked by physical direction – the kitchen, for instance, is one room west of the staircase.
Is this enough? Why did I choose to abstract the bathroom into one room rather than two?
In a contextual equivalent of an image resizing algorithm, I could literally stretch the world outwards in every direction: increase every room to the size of four rooms and allow the players eight degrees of freedom in every open space, expanding the third floor from 8 rooms to a sizeable 32. I could go further still, to 9 rooms a piece, for a total of 72.
But it’s a choice with far-reaching consequences: just as “combat distance” becomes a factor in classifying a first-person combat game (“open-world” and “close-quarters” are familiar abstractions), so too does the granularity of the space in the text-based world.
The problem comes down to one of linearity and messaging: if players are allowed to go anywhere, how do they know where they should go?
Least Granularity: Obvious exits: west, up
Most granularity: Obvious exits: north, south, east, west, northwest, southwest, northeast, southeast, up
This is a pretty standard tradeoff in the text-based world, one that is mercifully absent from all but the most open world 3D shooters, and even then bandaged by such augmented reality devices as heads-up displays, compasses, and waypoint lines.
In T4D, we have no such luxuries; the mind must make the world from interpreted text, and omniscient helpers (such as a text-based equivalent of a HUD) are no sure cure: they have the potential to generate mountains of text1, and modern attentions being what they are, our biggest enemy is no longer too little information – it is too much information.
TL:DR – The Last Word
Ultimately, I can see the game and how it should work, how much time I expect players to stay in one room fighting infected before they make the choice to move to the next room, and how many of those transits need to be successfully navigated before the team crosses the finish line into the loving embrace of the Safe Room.
The things that make T4D different from L4D are all opportunities to embrace the medium, not just problems in copying over the game’s genetic code.
In crafting the size of our transplant world, I chose the size I did because I want the transit from room to room to be a big deal – each movement needs to be deliberate, scary, and risky, a decision made through a hail of bullets and shorn zombie limbs, where the confusion isn’t about where to go, only about whether you’ll make it there alive.
1 In an earlier text-based game I developed, a solution to briefly displaying augmented reality output was to use a type of abbreviated code: “S2V8E”, for example, would indicate someone to your south two spaces away, walking at a volume of 8 (out of 10, pretty loud), and having just moved there from the east. Needless to say, the decryption required a cheat sheet, and while it would have made a fine tchotchke, more elegant solutions are probably out there.