Left 4 Dead is one of those games that demand so much more than what the retail box displays. Don’t despair though, I’m not talking about the system requirements, I’m talking about a slightly different approach than what a videogame generally demands.
I’m certain that the people who played Resident Evil or have seen The Evil Dead, Night of the Living Dead or 28 Days Later movies already know what I’m talking about – this specific subspecies of the horror genre demands being experienced sometime after midnight, with closed blinds, graveyard silence for background noise and a few shaky friends brought over, just so they can scream in horror when they see the first zombie whos rigor mortis turned into a rave.
The people who brought us Half-Life have proven to (almost) everyone that they’re real pros when it comes to depicting a moving adventure, shotgun in hand and a stressful „me against the world” vibe. Looking back, we can even see a vivid example of what the design and atmosphere should look like in a horror production, materialised in one of Half-Life 2’s more praised levels. I’m speaking, of course, about Ravenholm (We don’t go there anymore…).
When Left 4 Dead came out, Valve did more than just dip their toes in a grim world, it actually threw itself in a decadent world, a gory circus filled with horror references, collective tension and fewer light sources than maidens in a Bucharest College Campus. We’ve got four co-op campaigns to go through with three other friends and a Versus mode, in which two teams of four players try to hinder each other’s efforts during two of those campaigns. Even though the game’s content can be fully explored in less than 6 hours, it wouldn’t be fair to say that its longevity is limited to that duration. For several reasons.
„In a world where the dead are returning to life, the word "trouble" loses much of its meaning.” – Kaufman, Land of the Dead
The details we’re given about the context in which Left 4 Dead takes place are few and far between. We know that a rabies-like disease has spread in a community, and as in most similar stories, a small number of people try to escape to a safe location, as far away from the compromised area as possible. We’ve got four survivors, all stereotypes: Bill, the Vietnam Vet, Francis, the biker dressed in tattoos and leather, Zoey, the “feminine touch” and Louis, a young IT analyst.
Every now and then, some of the characters’ lines will shed some light on a minor detail or two, but there’s no clear back-story or clearly drawn canon. The city is nameless, the infection has no source, the survivors, regardless of their profiles, are nothing more than blank sheets of paper on which the players controlling them flesh out various personalities.
The producers’ approach, when it comes to this specific aspect, offers an interesting degree of replay value. You’ll get to know Bill both as a senile old man shooting his mates by accident, foolishly getting in the line of fire and using up all the team’s first aid kits because of his reckless bravado, and, on other occasions, you’ll get to watch him as the experienced veteran cleverly leading the group and showing incredible prowess when it comes to shooting heads off the Infected.
Depending on how players communicate and organize, the Survivors may vary from common folk, scared of their own shadow, dispersed and chaotic to a paramilitary quarter of unmatched precision and skill. You can easily snuff it after two turns or you can survive and escape each scenario without a bruise.
It’s interesting how the design actively contributes to sketching out this flexible “story”. You’ve got plenty of opportunities to mess up, as well as plenty to save the team. The levels are filled with all kinds of details that can turn the tide of battle, from car alarms that, when hit, alert the Infected to gas canisters that can be picked up from all over and can be used to fiercely punish any invasion attempts from the monsters.