Monday, 3 September 2012

What Alien Swarm Means To Me

A Gritty Kind Of Sci-Fi

When I was young, years ago, I used to design and gamemaster science-fiction tabletop roleplaying missions and campaigns. This was where I cut my teeth on mission design, game design - even screenwriting and filmmaking to some extent, as many of my campaigns and missions were delivered in a cinematic way.

The first "bug mission" I did, in my homebrew version of Traveller (the RPG), was even before Aliens came out. (It felt more like Alien than Aliens, and it referenced a detailed explanation, published in the Traveller periodical, of the actual Alien "Xenomorph" - called a "Reticulan Parasite" then, and NOT reproducing by means of a mother or queen.) Another mission was a Starship-Trooper-like drop onto an alien planet inspired by the excellent novel Armor, by John Steakley. For the entire night we gamed out a battle on the RAMP of the dropship! They didn't even get their feet on the ground before they were up to their armpits in BUGS! (You *cannot* even generate missions like that in games like Alien Swarm as it will crash.) Later on, roaming out over the desert planet - after simply fleeing - they discovered a mystery at the centre of the whole mess...

Hard sci-fi "top-down shooter" gameplay action, circa mid-80s
Anyway, as you might tell, I am just in love with science fiction. Particularly "hard" military-flavoured sci-fi. I love tales and movies of men in "battle armour", with "advanced combat rifles", flying around on "grav carriers", taking on nasty bugs, "space terrorists" or what have you. Stuff like The Forever War, Hammer's Slammers, and so on.

There is just something about this whole desolate, hard sci-fi kind of universe... It's not populated with beautiful people wearing jumpsuits with diagonal zippers - flying around in clean white starships, using tricorders or nice touchy-feely "guns" (the kinds you can "set for stun"), or stuff like that. It's not about reaching the true core of the Fabric of the Universe in order to find the next big cosmic group hug or mind trip.


This is the sci-fi in which mankind has to live with the implications of the decisions they've made - the technology they've invented, the politics they've pursued, the environments they've made, and so on. The dark side of "progress". Down in the dirt and grease and wreckage. In which all that was once beautiful, all that was once good, has now been lost... Ground down to nothing thanks to the vanities or evil of whomever, the destructiveness of whatever (according to the canon of the particular story). Either flat-out post-apocalyptic, or just a dark grey world that scorches the human soul with its meaninglessness. That kind of sci-fi!

That's the kind of storytelling I like. That moral stuff.

Alien Swarm has the potential for that shit.

Alien Swarm & Level Design

When I first came upon Alien Swarm, some years ago - when it was a mod from the first "Make Something Unreal" Contest (coming in second, behind Red Orchestra) - I was blown away. Well, to tell the truth, I never played UDK Alien Swarm Infested in multiplayer (okay, only once - but just briefly, and it was beyond beyond beyond insane how fast everything moved). I only played it single-player - moving each squadmate one at a time (using hotkeys) to "advance the fireteam" and cover all the angles. In fact, the Marine bots' accuracy was so great that my standard drill, if I encountered an alien, was to hit the hotkey, teleport my control to a different character, and let my former Marine avatar - now a bot - ice the bugs. That game was much too fast. (It also broke the Fourth Wall by allowing aliens to spawn in the space where the implied ceiling was [removed so you could see].) But other than that, it was great!

Screen from the original Alien Swarm Infested (an Unreal mod)

Some years later (2010 to be precise), to my surprise I spotted on Gamasutra a little, brief announcement of Valve's Alien Swarm... And it was free! And then I remembered: Valve had acquired the Alien Swarm Infested team! This is the Valve version of it! And I was just in love with Team Fortress 2 (or at least in love with what TF2 was before it became an unfocussed free-to-play mess).

So I loved two things... Let's combine that.

I had gotten a really good taste of Hammer/Source level design by making a couple maps in Team Fortress 2. My only experience in Hammer (okay... "Worldcraft") prior to that was making a couple dumb-ass Counter-Strike maps and being completely pissed that you couldn't intersect brushes in crazy-ass "organic" ways... I remember trying to build a hill by spamming all kinds of "spikes", flattened (to be "hill-like"), and then intersecting these world brushes willy nilly. The compiler just stared at me, like I was an idiot. Had to wait for the release of TF2, in 2007, before I decided to really commit and get into level design. Not because I wanted to learn technology, but simply because I was inspired by TF2. (I'm not interested in learning technology for technology's sake. It's just a means to an end.)

I had done some stuff in UDK, but you know what: for all of UDK's incredibly powerful tech, their toolset just isn't as fun, frankly, as Source is. For all the wonky craziness of Source's tools, I still find their dumbass level editor, Hammer, more useable than this slick, polished panther that Unreal / UDK now is. Don't ask me the reason. I like a little bit of "ugliness" - things that seem too immaculately beautiful are just plastic nothings to me. So Source - with all of its brainfarts, its strange scribbling-notes-like-a-kid-in-public-school style scripting language (which, frankly, I find infinitely easier to understand than a bunch of dead, geometric wires that haven't the qualitative depth of words, as you might find in Kismet or some other "visual scripting" language), it's propensity to "map leaks", its sometimes only partly-functioning entities, and other obsolescences... For all of its incredibly, obtusely scattered technology (I couldn't get a sound script to run in one map, I much later discovered, because I hadn't included an underscore in the name of the script file - since there was NO central data manager to grab and manage these separate files [Windows doesn't count])... For all of that, I still find it a funner level editor to use. Funner.

And, of course, it is a *toolset*. That means you can wield it. It isn't a team. A team can be very powerful, but you constantly need to resell your vision to a team. (The first sell is fine, but the need to resell is where that initial vision can get blurred beyond recognition. It's a low-faith environment. No matter today's conventional wisdom: collaboration is a double-edged sword. [Unless you have creative control...] One man's openness to outside influence is another man's lowering the standard to the lowest common denomenator.) A toolset does what it does. So if you have an unusual, hard-to-explain idea - but a powerful idea - and you know the toolset, and are resourceful enough to work around the parts that don't deliver - you can do incredible things very very quickly.

But Alien Swarm...! Having learned Source via TF2, I now come to Alien Swarm. Which I play. Brilliant.

Gameplay-wise, at least.

Story-wise it is flat. I mean, stuff like this: "We need you to go find the colony manifest..." Then, after the mission... "Ah, this manifest is useless... [Okay, let's move on to Plan B.]" What? Tension letdown! Why did we bother then? (I appreciate that sometimes your protagonist needs to move to a Plan B, but it should *never* feel like the storyteller also is - because there is no strong narrative thread, no sense of rising action.) So basically what the story here is is a bunch of loosely-connected, disjointed missions (such as a sewer system that looks like it underlies an old city... even though we are in what is ostensibly a small outpost on the fringes of civilization). And then out of nowhere (a true deus ex machina) here's a nuclear bomb, and please blow up the place, and then it's all over. What? Okay, whatever... Nobody cares about stories and stuff.

(Yes they do! And 10,000 years of human civilization backs this up.)

But Alien Swarm IS brilliant on so many other levels! In terms of look-and-feel. In terms of that whole hard sci-fi, here's-the-squad-of-marines thing... Brilliant. (Especially the excellent characterization and incidental dialogue of the grunts.) In terms of gameplay and action. In terms of camera: a great topdown view: the perfect mix of the removed objectivity of pure top-down (as the Unreal version of Alien Swarm showed) and the emotional subjectivity of a first-person camera.

The Top-Down Shooter

Why would you want to play a top-down shooter? A game that "removes" you from the action...? That doesn't put you right into the eyes of the protagonist?

Well, let me ask you this...

Have you ever played a first-person shooter where you could walk backwards through an entire level, covering your teammates' ass, as a good support gunner would? Where you could be a medic, your squadmates holding off aliens around you, and you looking from this side to that side at your troops, assessing who needed healing now? Where you can fire-and-move, fire-and-move, seeing effortlessly where your buddies are deployed? No way! In a first-person shooter the ONLY one who exists is YOU. Your teammates, at best, are on your peripheral vision. At best! It's not hard, as a team, to move in a single file in a first-person shooter, but try forming with your buddies in a flank - or, God forbid, in all-around defence. To see your squaddies you have to constantly veer your camera left and right, left and right. Soon you get tired of that and you just stop. And you focus only on what you're looking at - with tunnel vision. You just fall into the seduction of your central "Me Vision". Then you start to run around in circles... (They call that "run and gun".) You lose yourself... Not in a good way.

But none of that in a top-down shooter! In a top-down shooter you use your eyes! - not your mouse - to see where your teammates are. Kindof the same way you do in real life. You have peripheral vision.

Yes. To me a top-down shooter is more real than a first-person one.

(But there is one single disadvantage: it's very difficult to simulate long-range combat, such as sniping, in a top-down shooter. So they need to be about things such as... oh, I don't know... marines fighting off aliens who rush into close combat with them.)

And, from a level designer's perspective, this also gives a tremendous advantage. The broader view of a topdown shooter means I can make the same amount of plot content in much less time. The props, the materials, the lighting and so on, is all the same. But I don't have to "paint and decorate" all six walls in a room. I can leave the ceiling and the nearest wall (the "Fourth Wall") blank. And because the player is farther away, fewer props will get the same amount of story across. It's a bit like the difference between seeing the movie and reading the book. The barrier to entry is lower, but you get the same basic experience.

People in the community have cried to make Alien Swarm into a first-person shooter. They miss the point. The reason why you love it is *because* it is top-down. To change that is to make it into the generic nothing that the first-person shooter has become. And if you play AS first person, you will see that the world doesn't look that good... in first person. AS simply isn't decorated to the extent and detail of the big theme-parkish FPS's. There isn't a multi-million-dollar budget here.

But that's why I love it! It doesn't need to be.

That's what's brilliant about it! Being removed from the world means you have to imagine a little more of it. If you open up some of the canonical "Jacobs Landing" campaign levels in a level editor you'll be struck by how simple they are, in terms of geometry and decoration. They don't need to be more complicated. When you see it top-down you still feel like this place is real.

So What It All Means

Anyway, Alien Swarm is a game that, thematically, touches on what I love most in games, with a brilliant interface, and a competent set of tools (that put hair on your chest); and a vast resource of materials and models and sounds and content (and tools to make lots of original content); and a huge community of mappers, modders and enthusiasts for help and advice... And very importantly, a nicely generic military sci-fi kind of universe - upon which you can stamp many many different kinds of stories if you're creative enough...

Plus it's free!

All of these make it like a little gamer's island paradise.

And to me it's like a pallet, brush and canvas: a means to give you an experience that rings true.


  1. now this is some awesome shit!

  2. Hi Tim,

    I need a re-education to comprehend all of this. But the fact that you sound so psyched about it is thrilling. I can sense your enthusiasm and it is cantagious and I wish you all good things.

    Aunt Linda

  3. I agree with your points: I too love Armor, Hammer's Slammers, Forever War and Aliens (I notice you didn't mention Starship Troopers, which I am luke warm towards). Alien Swarm is a great game, but I stopped playing because everyone else stopped playing. I was not as dextrous as you, so single player failed for me. I will try your mod, but let us know where to find coop games!
    I am in Toronto as well.

    1. I think the best place to find co-op games is to just invite Steam gamers and set up a public game.

      Hopefully some players will put Reduction up on some of the dedicated servers.