My girlfriend isn't one of those people who likes to sit and watch other people playing video games. The moment the screen lights up and the controller pulses, sync complete, either she's flipped open her netbook, found a book between the couch cushions or simply left entirely to watch a recorded show in another room. But she'll stick around if she can get involved in the action, like a Wii Sports Resort or the litany of LEGO-linked video games (LEGO Batman being her favorite).
It's not that she doesn't like video games; she loves them, proudly carrying a DS in her purse. It's that modern video games, largely dependent on a nuanced understanding of the interaction between two analog sticks complemented by the litany of buttons both on top and to the side of the controller, overwhelm her. I've seen it happen to plenty of other people. They want one stick and an A button, maybe a B. But not X, Y, L1, RB, LB -- you know what I mean. It took one video game to change that.
BioShock, because of its surprisingly deep contextual weaving of the writings of Ayn Rand?
Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony, due to its respectful treatment of homosexuality?
Left 4 Dead, owed to the fact that it let her live out an impossible fantasy: slaughtering zombies.
This is not the first time I've written about this. Almost a year ago when the original Left 4 Dead was released, I first documented my girlfriend's experience coming to grips with the dexterity demands of the video games we debate day in and day out over at the MTV Multiplayer blog. But with Valve having launched Left 4 Dead 2 on PC and Xbox 360 this week and my girlfriend being one of the active participants who helped me review the sequel, it seemed like a topic to revisit here at G4.
As I wrote before, from the beginning I knew Left 4 Dead was a poor choice for introducing her into this environment but I had no options; she wanted to come to grips with all of these new buttons and mapped movement options explicitly because of the subject matter. She'd sought out time with Left 4 Dead because the prospect of properly mowing down a zombie horde was far more appealing than tackling the aliens in Resistance 2 (which she called "ugly") or Gears of War 2 ("no comment").
"My poor friends," I thought to myself during her first game. Instead of sticking to offline split-screen for her first adventures against the undead, my friends asked me to hop online, so I brought her along for the ride. Luckily, both were friends that knew this was her first attempt to try this fan-dangled shooter thing, so they were understanding when nearly every time we failed a stage it was because of her. But even I had trouble remaining patient with her sometimes -- a personal failing of understanding.
"She's trying," I'd tell myself, but that didn't make the frequent Smoker attacks less frustrating.
These were some very clear problems my girlfriend had when first trying out Left 4 Dead:
- The difference between left button and left trigger ("Why are there two?")
- Having to literally look up to climb a ladder ("Why do I keep falling off?")
- Moving and shooting at the same time ("I always have to stop and aim.")
- The amount of buttons on the controller ("I keep tapping X instead of Y.")
There was one comment that underscored everything.
She asked how I could move the screen around while running at the same time. "Uh, because the other stick lets you look around?" I said jokingly. Except, she was serious. She'd never put two and two together. And this has proven the biggest obstacle even a year later, after Left 4 Dead 2's release. When we both jumped into the Dead Center campaign to tango with some mall zombies, her ability to manipulate both movement and aiming simultaneously had improved (largely because she became temporarily obsessed with Batman: Arkham Asylum -- remember the LEGO connection?), but it still remained a significant obstacle to success in a twitch-based shooter like Left 4 Dead 2.
We have much further to go to give them [new players] the tools to enjoy the best of what gaming has to offer
I always appreciate playing these games with her because it reminds me how far we've come with introducing casual players to games with DS and Wii...but we have much farther to go to give them the tools necessary to enjoy what we typically associate with the best gaming has to offer on a deeper level. Unlike movies, music or books, a certain skill-set is required to enjoy video games. That doesn't exist in any other medium, but if the concept of slaughtering zombies or the embodiment of Batman was enough to get my girlfriend to dive in and figure it out, maybe everyone has their own hook out there.
The controller will always remain an obstacle. Even though Nintendo has brought gaming to an entirely new audience, they're being indoctrinated on another control approach. Maybe Project Natal and Sony's unnamed motion controller can help bridge the gap. As it stands, even if someone wants something more than what's available on Nintendo's platforms, coming to grips with what's being asked of their hands isn't going to stop being an issue.
The industry has one extreme and the other. It's not enough. We need something in the middle.
For now, I'll keep playing Left 4 Dead with my girlfriend. Boomer! (Not again...)