Halfway through my demo session with The Anacrusis, the upcoming co-op sci-fi shooter from Stray Bombay, things had devolved into chaos. But it was a magical kind of chaos. Our progress down the concourse of a massive derelict starship had been interrupted by a brief musical sting, then the distant shrieks of an oncoming horde. It was the trigger for a Pavlovian thrill response etched into my brain through hundreds of hours of Left 4 Dead.
Which was fitting, as somewhere off to my left was Chet Faliszek, one of the leads on Left 4 Dead during his time at Valve, now co-founder of Stray Bombay. Faliszek was busy frying swaths of alien-possessed crewmembers with chain lightning from an arc rifle he'd found.
There was a brief yelp over voice chat as I watched Dorian Gorski, a Stray Bombay level designer with an admirable talent for attracting alien attention, zip across my field of vision, gripped once again in the bioluminescent clutches of a grabber's tentacles. I started carving a path towards him, flinging back clusters of common enemies with radial kinetic bursts from my pulse ability and popping heads with my plasma rifle. Then something bellowed over the fray, and barrelling through the horde like a Kool-Aid Man through a castle of flesh came a crimson mass of clawed alien muscle. And then another one.
"Oh, a double brute," said Will Smith, communications and general internet presence for Stray Bombay, who responded to the assault by casually igniting the area (myself included) with an incendiary grenade. "The director has decided we're a good team," he said as I burned.
In the hour and a half I spent with the devs of The Anacrusis, our conversation always drifted back to their AI director 2.0, the successor to the director from Left 4 Dead, and the philosophy motivating its design. Stray Bombay hopes to recapture a magic that's harder to find these days, when so many cooperative games feel more like playing in parallel than playing together.
The Anacrusis comes from a firm belief that, beyond the zombie-shooting, what made Left 4 Dead special was the space it created to hang out with your friends. That magic, Faliszek says, is due to the director and the ebb-and-flow it created—so much so that the very first line of code written for The Anacrusis was for the director 2.0.
Where the original director was mostly responsible for plotting out enemy spawn points, the director 2.0 is actively considering you and your teammates, building a model of how you perform, both individually and together. As you progress through an episode (think a Left 4 Dead campaign), it'll use that evolving model to generate a unique set of combat encounters tuned to how you're playing together.
"The game is extraordinarily different every time," Smith said. "The ebb and flow of a level, where fights happen, where and what kinds of equipment are distributed. Very little is scripted. It's almost all based on how the director feels that you and your team are doing."
I managed to catch some of the specifics the director is tabulating: levels of friendly fire, number of headshots, ratio of damage dealt to damage taken. Beyond that, the devs kept my understanding pretty abstract to maintain a level of mystery. They enthused about the architecting work by software engineer Amy Ackermann, and were invested in giving the director as many tools as possible to incentivize and disrupt different kinds of player behavior.
By handling the placement of perk-distributing Matter Compiler stations, for example, the director has a great tool to goad players into poking around the map. By deploying a gooper to trap a player in a coagulating glob their friends have to shoot off, the director can encourage some additional cooperation.
As an aside, the gooper also gives player-characters an opportunity for what seemed like one of their favorite pastimes: yelling about goo. I can't confirm if that's involved in the director's calculations, but when I noted I'd never heard the word "goo" so much in a game, Smith told me "the goo-ing is an integral part." Make of that what you will.
Whatever the arcane workings behind its magic, the experience the director created—in my play session, at least—was a kind of fun I'd been missing. When a horde started spilling in, the challenge never dipped into hopelessness. It was frantic, but refreshing. The intensity doesn't feel insurmountable. It might demand you all rally to blast apart some goo, or make space with a shield grenade to revive a fallen friend, but you can feel that you're right on the line of survival. You just have to earn it.
Crucially, when the smoke clears, the director knows to hold back. It respects the time between onslaughts. It gives room to breathe, to have a conversation with your friends while you're combing the smooth-edged hallways of a retro sci-fi spaceship and taking pot shots at pockets of basic enemies. And there are no complicating layers of min-maxing, loot chasing, or whatever else to prevent it being purely cooperative.
Toward the end of my session, as he was hunting a spawner—one of the more obnoxious special enemies—Faliszek told me about the long process of tuning the director 2.0, and a moment when the pieces started falling into place. "We had a playtester say the greatest line. 'Sure, we made it through. But a lesser team wouldn't have.' That's what we want every team, good or bad, to feel: that they're at the cusp of skill." In Left 4 Dead, he told me, player data showed more people played on easy than on hard. "They just want to have a shared experience with their friends. Our game's not really about difficulty. It's about intensity."
While Stray Bombay hasn't confirmed a release date for The Anacrusis, we apparently won't have to wait long for that announcement. In Smith's words, the team is "very close to doing that. It's coming soon."