For the last six weeks, I have been trying to write something about Valve’s Left 4 Dead, unsuccessfully. This is because our site is about Overthinking stuff, and a post called “OMG ME PWN ZOMBIES!!” would not be appropriate. (Besides, everybody already wrote that review when the game was released, including the New York Times.) This game unleashing a feeling in me I can only describe as “Wheeeeeeeee,” which makes overthinking hard. But I’ll try.
There have been plenty of videogames where you fight the undead. But this game doesn’t have the sci-fi veneer of Doom or Resident Evil, or the disembodied rampaging head of Zombie Nation. You play as a regular person stuck in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. You and three companions have to blast your way to safety, picking through a smashed and burning city. The whole game is set at night, and at some points the only illumination is the flashlight strapped to your shotgun and the muzzle flashes. If you stop to take in the scenery, there’s a ton to admire: a hospital with insane graffiti on blood-splattered walls, countless makeshift barricades that didn’t hold, sewers where corpses float in the muck, etc. But I don’t suggest you stop to take in the scenery. Because, well, the zombies.
The first question one has to ask when approaching a piece of zombie media is: are they slow, or fast? (For a discussion of the history of these two breeds, see here.) And that’s where Valve has done a great job of squaring the circle. See, these zombies are classic Romero at first glance. They stumble around aimlessly and lean against the walls. Sometimes they even lie down on their own, or spontaneously vomit. And they’re not even good at spotting you. A lot of the time, you can walk into a room, see a few zombies, and leisurely kill them all with perfect headshots before they look in your direction.
But when they do notice you, they sprint right at you, legs pumping, leaning into their turns, snarling, reaching out with bloody hands. It’s straight out of 28 Days Later, and it can be pretty unnerving. But that’s not the half of it. Valve designed the game to handle truly massive numbers of zombies at once (go ahead and watch that link). More than once, I’ve seen a horde of zombies charging at me, and I forgot to shoot. It was so goddamn majestic, like a herd of buffalo thundering across Montana. I’m serious – if you’re a horror fan, the L4D zombie horde will bring a tear to your eye.
And I think it’s this gulf between how easy it is to kill one zombie, and how overwhelming 100 of them can be, that makes Left 4 Dead work.
See, in the first-person shooter genre, the basic quantum of enjoyment in the Kill. The game presents you with cleverly designed levels and powerful weapons, and sets you loose to kill things. Your fun is derived from these kills. Over the years, game designers have generally worked to make the enemies smarter. (After all, a game where the enemy soldiers bumped into walls all the time wouldn’t be much fun.) Smarter baddies are harder to kill, but the kills become more satisfying.
For instance, I recently played Gears of War 2, and some of the AI was very impressive (I’m referring specifically to the training mode). Those bad guys will fan out and approach you from all sides. They’ll find cover when under fire. If you find cover, they’ll start tossing grenades to smoke you out. When you finally kill these guys, you feel like a badass. But there were also times when they lit me on fire and drove a chainsaw through my torso. (Disclaimer: I am not that good at video games.)
The Left 4 Dead people took the opposite approach. Each zombie has the AI of a fruit fly – not to mention they don’t have guns, so they have to run right up to you to hurt you at all. This may make them less satisfying to kill than the smarter enemies in other shooters. However, what the kills lack in quality, they make up for in quantity. Actual example: after completing a mission recently, the game told me that my group had killed 463 zombies in just 14 minutes of gameplay.
In a way, the game reminds me of the old NFL Blitz games. The guys who made that thought, “What’s the best part of football? Touchdowns! So let’s make passers and catchers do impossible things! And to compensate, we’ll make them get 30 yards for a first down.” The problem with this is, everyone knows that a first down is only 10 yards, so the rule changes of Blitz seemed silly. On the other hand, making the enemies in Left 4 Dead stupid seems perfectly natural. They’re zombies!
Basically, the game works exactly like the movies that inspired it. One zombie isn’t a threat. A handful of zombies aren’t a threat. But when you’re dealing with hundreds upon hundreds of zombies, pushing each other out of the way to get at you, there’s no room for error – one mistake and a dozen of them are on top of you. So the game achieves a high level of difficulty through sheer numbers. At the same time, even a noob is going to kill a lot of zombies, and each one of those kills will bring a smile to his noob lips. By making sure that whatever happens, you take a ton of those bastards with you, Left 4 Dead has its cake and eats it too (and that cake tastes just like braaaaaains).
Oh, and did I mention that in the Versus mode, you get to play as a zombie? Man, I love this game.
By the way, if anyone has Left 4 Dead for XBox, email me at belinkie at overthinkingit dot com. We should play sometime.