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a large, horned anthropomorphic beast leaps at the player, aiming a futuristic gun in its direction

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The Anacrusis looks like Left 4 Dead aboard a groovy ’70s spaceship

An AI ‘Driver’ similar to L4D’s Director will make or break Chet Faliszek’s newest game

Huge beasts and what to call them, the answers will be slowly dripped out in The Anacrusis’ dialogue and in-world objects, as opposed to a narrative with formal cutscenes.
| Image: Stray Bombay Company

Chet Faliszek won’t begrudge you for thinking his newest game sounds a lot like one of his old ones. The Anacrusis, coming this fall to Windows PC via Steam, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X on Xbox Game Pass, is a cooperative shooter in which four players must fight together against a relentless horde of mindless monsters.

So, that’s basically Left 4 Dead, right?

“First, I love Left 4 Dead, so, any mention of that is fine,” said Faliszek, Valve’s project leader and lead writer for the 2008 game and its sequel a year later. The comparisons don’t bother him, because his new studio, Stray Bombay Company, is drawing on the lessons he learned in effectively establishing a new sub-genre more than a decade ago.

On Left 4 Dead, “I had a unique position of not only just learning about the gameplay, the story and everything else, but also the influence [of] talking through a lot of these things with Gabe [Newell] and other people at Valve,” Faliszek said. “And taking that and saying, ‘OK, what would you want to see out of that?”

For Faliszek, 55, that’s a sci-fi world taking on the kind of 1970s set design familiar to Saturday-afternoon UHF staples like Logan’s Run or The Andromeda Strain. Setting it aboard a large cruiser, boarded at the edge of explored space by an unknown alien menace, also recalls the disaster porn (The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure) of that decade. The characters, somewhat like Left 4 Dead’s Louis, Bill, Zoey, and Francis, are civilians caught up in something they cannot understand. Faliszek says the lore of The Anacrusis will be spooled out in the game’s scenery and banter among the characters, rather than the formality of a cutscene leading into the next chapter. That, too, is a hallmark of the Left 4 Dead franchise.

But the game’s success will depend on how well it apes an L4D feature less directly observed: The “Director,” the AI that could nudge the horde size up or down in response to a foursome’s prowess, or maybe spawn more health and ammo drops to help those having a harder time. More than once, Faliszek caught himself calling The Anacrusis’ AI a Director, immediately correcting that to “the Driver.” It’s clear that this Driver, coded by his partner, Kimberly Voll, is the make-or-break quality of a game that will be joined in 2021 by at least four other L4D-likes.

“The very first piece of code ever written for this game was for the AI Driver,” Faliszek said. Voll, a computer science Ph.D. who worked for Riot Games before co-founding Stray Bombay Company with Faliszek, has been at work developing an AI referee, so to speak, that pays attention to how a foursome is doing and keeps them on their toes, and their spirits up.

“There are things we can do there that I just don’t think other people are thinking of, or have made the technology investment to be able to do it,” Faliszek said.

This year has already seen the early access launch of Second Extinction, where dinosaurs stand in for the undead against a team of four humans. Back 4 Blood, from Turtle Rock Studios — the former Valve studio that built the first Left 4 Dead — is coming in October, with a beta this summer. GTFO has been in early access since late 2019. Survival horror shooters are also a hot subject for licensed sci-fi canons: Aliens: Fireteam was announced for consoles and PC sometime this summer, with Warhammer 40,000: Darktide expected later this year.

“Our AI Driver is just really advanced; it’s paying attention to you over time, as well,” Faliszek said. “If you’re playing with the same four people every week, and the 10th time you play, it’s gonna be like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna give you a challenge. I am just gonna unleash a million aliens at you.’

“If the AI Director knows what’s going on — AI Driver, excuse me — and is paying attention, it’s able to adapt for that,” Faliszek said. “You get way higher highs, as well as those really creepy [moments], like ‘Man, there’s been nothing for a while happening.’”

Faliszek’s contribution to Left 4 Dead was in its writing, rather than its programming, but he does have a background in database management and analysis. “The fascinating thing was, how much data we collected on that game and players, and really being able to see how players performed and behaved,” Faliszek said.

That allowed Faliszek and Turtle Rock to build a game that, although multiplayer-only, with linear level design, still accommodated widely divergent goals among its huge player base. Some folks just wanted to eff around with friends, as there’s fun in blowing away zombies like you’re at a carnival shooting gallery. Others would pursue special achievements, like finishing on the toughest difficulty using only pistols.

“What we’re going to do introduce, then, is a weekly challenge, which is those kind of things, approach the game in a different way, have a different set of rules, that’ll challenge you in a more interesting way than just making the enemies harder,” Faliszek said.

Faliszek, Voll, and Stray Bombay are eyeballing this fall for a launch, but are considering the possibility of an early access look or something other than a 1.0-style release. “We’ll decide closer to launch what exactly is in the launch, and what we’re calling it,” Faliszek said. The studio wants to get The Anacrusis “into people’s hands and start the feedback loop,” so a beta test weekend is unlikely. “It’s more about living with it for a little bit,” he said, “and so what we want to do is have that initial launch be an expression of what the game will be.”

Players looking at today’s trailer (all presented in-engine) might note a conspicuous lack of gore — or visual polish, in some cases. Both are deliberate choices, Faliszek said. “We’re purposefully not trying to be over the top with gore,” Faliszek said. “I think there’s other people trying to live in that space.

“For the trailer, if you notice, just to be blatantly honest, there’s no close-ups of faces right now, right?” Faliszek said. “Facial animation is coming, it was a little behind, and instead of having engineers crunch, we’re trying to have a culture of not crunching.”

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