I positively adore the movie Edge of Tomorrow, a Tom Cruise/Emily Blunt triumph of a time travel movie in which Cruise’s character becomes an incredible super-soldier by reliving the same day over and over again, until having perfected every minute detail of the day. Watching him stumble around and die a litany of stupid deaths early on pays off in the end when, after thousands of repetitions, Cruise is able to march through a D-Day-esqe battlefield and deal with every single obstacle with ruthless precision, gained through memorization.
As it turns out, I actually really like this scheme in games as well. When done correctly, having to repeat similar sections over and over again, learning every time, is a great way to have the player develop a sense of mastery, and to inspire a sense of awesome skill when the player finally goes back to the same section and does that “perfect run”, where all of that skill development pays off. And, of course, no game emphasizes this better than one game which stands above all, where you play a ruthless killer repeating missions over and over again, learning and improving your tactics every time, where you have to deal with how to expertly maneuver through massive crowds of NPCs, and where you play as a bald guy*.
Of course, I’m talking about Left 4 Dead.
Arguably my favorite FPS ever, Left 4 Dead and its sequel were and are unique for their use of repetition. The games focus on playing through a limited stable of Campaigns, each constant in their layout, objectives, and larger beats. Characters always start each chapter at point X and end it at point Y, and they’ll always have big confrontations at points A, B, and C along the way. There is no sense of character advancement or even mechanical differentiation between characters.
So, playing Left 4 Dead means playing the same 10 or so Campaigns across the two games over and over and over again. On first glance, this seems to make the game ripe to become stale. On Normal, each Campaign runs about an hour apiece, so once you’re done with the 5 Campaigns that come packaged in each game, why keep playing?
Well, much like a good cake or Hell, what really makes Left 4 Dead is its layers. On your first playthrough of a Campaign, your singular goal is going to be survival and completion. Each of the game’s Crescendos, high-tension moments where the players need to complete some goal while being bombarded by zombie hordes, feels like a desperate fight for survival, and whenever the music for the hulking, nigh-unkillable Tank begins, the only thing being flung around more than bullets is obscenities.
The best example of this is my personal favorite Campaign from either game, Left 4 Dead 2‘s “Hard Rain”. Not only is Hard Rain a microcosm of the concept I’m talking about (the second half of the campaign has you retracing your steps from the first half to get back to your boat after making a supply run), but when you play through it the first time, it’s horrifying. The entire second half of the Campaign has the levels consumed in a massive thunderstorm, obscuring vision and sound and generally making movement much more difficult. The Sugar Mill, the second chapter of the Campaign, is notably full of Witches, enemies which are docile when undisturbed, but once aggravated by light, proximity, or gunfire, can shred through a character a couple of hits.
However, something beautiful happens after your first run through the Campaigns. At that point, you exit the phase of Discovery, and you begin the process of Refinement. You want to play through the Campaigns again, if for no other reason than to nurse a bruised ego, and you find yourself avoiding mistakes you made the first time. The game isn’t identical your next time around: an AI “Director” modulates enemy spawns and available items dynamically based on your player performance, so maybe spots where the game let up last time you played this time become major firefights. However, as you replay the game you start to know where things might appear, which is somehow more rewarding. It’s less like you’ve memorized the level, and more like your understanding of the fundamental forces of the game is increasing.
As you replay Campaigns, you’ll find yourself associated certain locations with memories of that one time things went terribly wrong (or right, occasionally). What were once insurmountable obstacles, such as the mad scramble for gasoline at the end of “Dead Center”, get refined into well-tread ground as your ragtag group of survivors starts to more closely resemble a SWAT team. You start to develop detailed mental maps of each Campaign, each chapter, and soon, you stop feeling like a blundering idiot, and more like a zombie-killing badass, not because the game is going easy on you (in fact, at that point, it will be harder on you than it ever was thanks to the Director) or because you’ve simply memorized every facet of the game, but because your skills have improved to the point where you are simply attuned to the way the game works.
Once you’ve reached this point, Mastery, when you go back to Hard Rain, the level is no longer a terrifying horror story, but a place to display expert skill. Moving through the flooded city streets in the second half is a breeze with map experience, and has you hopping across car hoods like some sort of acrobat. The Sugar Mill filled with Witches becomes a shooting gallery once you’ve mastered the art of “crowning”, or killing Witches with one precise, and extremely risky, shot to the nape of the neck with a shotgun. It no longer feels like this rainstorm is coming to consume you, it almost feels like the storm is an omen of you coming.
Once you’ve Mastered Left 4 Dead, the game opens up a new level of challenge to you by offering an assortment of variant modes, which give you the opportunity to use your skills and game knowledge in new contexts. Versus modes puts the reins of the Infected in the hands of an enemy team of players, forcing you to pit your skill against a team of equally-knowledgeable foes to survive, or alternatively, destroy. Mutations have players play through Campaigns with fundamentally changed game rules, ranging from Healing Gnome, where the only way to heal becomes holding a garden gnome (and thus, rendering yourself unable to attack in any significant way), to Taaannnkk!, in which every single Infected player always spawns in as a Tank.
To circle back to my obvious bait earlier, 2016’s Hitman (which is a very good video game), also utilizes this pattern. First the player Discovers the level contents and game mechanics, before Refining them through mechanically-motivated repetition, until a Master player is ready to apply their intimate knowledge of the game’s systems to variant modes, in this case represented by Escalations and the challenges, which can impose difficult rules on a run, such as never being seen, or doing the whole mission dressed as a vampire. While Hitman‘s levels are far more clockwork than Left 4 Dead‘s, with everything down to AI routines set to a precise, mechanical schedule, the variance that keeps things interesting comes from the player’s ability to bring in new items every time to help in their assassinations, as well as variety of different ways players can actually complete their goals within the level.
Ultimately, I feel that games that emphasize mastery through repetition are some of the most successful at creating that ambiguous feeling of mastery on the player’s part. The possible roteness of the repetition needs to be mitigated by having some part of the game vary from playthough to playthrough, but I think as Left 4 Dead and Hitman show, the key is that this randomness needs to be able to be mitigated by a player who has fundamental understanding of the systems of the game. A Master Left 4 Dead player knows what spots they need to look for a key health kit, even if they don’t know exactly where to look, and while a Master Hitman player doesn’t necessarily know exactly where to go to perform a sniper-only run of Sapienza, they do know some candidate spots to try out.
The key, then, is to design such a game in a way that makes early playthroughs difficult, and perhaps at times overwhelming, but clear and informative enough that a player can then absorb information from those playthroughs and apply it on their next run. The game then needs to be internally consistent enough that players applying knowledge they’ve learned in-game should be rewarded with satisfying and triumphant gameplay, but still new enough that they don’t feel like they’re just memorizing the game. Finally, once players have mastered your game, you need to ensure that they have ways to take on new challenges, ones that force them to apply their new knowledge in different ways, while clearly signposting those challenges in such a way that they don’t overwhelm new players.