Posts Tagged ‘ left 4 dead

4 Characters

In the weeks leading up to the release of The Sacrifice episode for Left 4 Dead, Valve ran an excellent comic that went into the backstories of the original four survivors and explained the events we’d be seeing in the new episode. It went a long way to restoring my excitement for L4D, and reminded me of why I’d liked the original game so much.

Zoey, Bill, Louis, and Francis were endearing heroes, and their chemistry was fantastic. I remember cracking up when Francis turned to Louis and asked him why he was still wearing his tie. “You worried ya won’t be dressed right for your next board meeting?” he cackled. And of course he was right. Part of Louis’s character was denial that the zombie apocalypse was actually happening, and that there was never going to be a return to normality. It’s why he was always making optimistic predictions about what would be awaiting them over the next horizon, and why he was always so surprised when they came across yet another scene of disaster.

The Sacrifice comic offered a nice opportunity to revisit those characters, as well as say goodbye to Bill, the Vietnam vet who frequently seemed relieved to be fighting again, here at the end of his life. By the end of The Sacrifice, it was understood that Bill would go out in a blaze of glory to protect his makeshift family. But in the meantime, we would see what became of the four original survivors after their escape in the first game, and learn more about who they were before everything went wrong.

Zoey’s story, for instance, was a brilliant vignette. Divorced parents who sniped at each other endlessly, a cop father who taught her to love grindhouse movies but not responsibility, and a mother who clearly felt that good parenting meant reminding your child of all the opportunities she was wasting. And of course none of it can be resolved: Zoey’s last moments with her family are spent enduring yet another argument, and then she’s an orphan.

Like all good backstory, the comic didn’t invent a background for the characters, merely made it clearer. Everything we saw, especially from Louis and Zoey, seemed to confirm things we’d always known about them, but had never completely understood.

The Sacrifice had the unintended consequence of highlighting how indifferent I am toward the new cast of survivors introduced in Left 4 Dead 2. With the exception of the lovably garrulous bumpkin, Ellis, none of them seem to exhibit much in the way of character. I couldn’t tell you why. The incidental dialogue seems inconsequential and uninformative. Most of what I know about Coach and Nick, for instance, comes from their costumes. I still can’t tell you anything about Rochelle.

Seeing the original four survivors playing off one another only underscored the degree to which Left 4 Dead 2 was a narrative failure in spite of great level design and smart gameplay adjustments. Left 4 Dead was always surprising and charming; Left 4 Dead 2 was neither.

If I had to guess, it’s that Valve communicated other, subtler ideas with each of the original survivors. Louis was wearing the uniform of a low-level office worker, and I always had the sense that he was a guy who wasn’t getting much farther in life. After all, was there anyone else in the original cast who looked like they had a bright future? Bill was a run-down vet whose well-worn fatigues suggested an inability to readjust to civilian life, and perhaps even bouts of homelessness. Francis was a biker, a group that’s already associated with alienation. Zoey was a nerdy college kid whose clothes didn’t suggest wealth, and who frequently had an awkward demeanor. All we really knew about her is that she liked to watch horror movies, and she looked like the kind of person who was more likely to do that in her dorm room, alone, than with other people.

And in The Sacrifice, we learn that Louis is a sysadmin at a banking house who is trying to find a way to attract attention from his bosses by keeping the servers running. If the zombie flu hadn’t come, I suspect the only time Louis’s employer paid him any notice would be the day he was let go. Zoey was a film-school dropout from a blue-collar family who had just lost her scholarship. Francis was about to be sent to prison. And Bill was waiting to die in a VA hospital.

For a lot of reasons, I'd rather be part of the group on the bridge.

By contrast, the survivors of Left 4 Dead 2 never suggested an earlier life. Perhaps Valve just weren’t on comfortable ground in the Mississippi Delta. It was a good setting, but not one that Valve understood as well as the industrial North. The story of an old vet, a shy nerd, a token middle-class black man, and a surprisingly sweet biker was one they told with confidence. But in the South, the character’s voices are more vague. The new survivors cut across lines of race, class, and geography that are harder to grapple with, but to flesh them out, you’d have to. Instead, they remain silhouettes moving across scenery. Well-crafted scenery, but not a place that seems to have an existence beyond the confines of the level layout.

The Magical Mystery Tour of Teamwork

I still don’t understand Left 4 Dead group dynamics. Why is one group of four people an unstoppable killing machine, cutting through each level like a surgeon’s knife, and another is so inept that they’re all dead within one hundred yards of the starting area? I can explain the tactical miscues and individual failings that crop up during a failed campaign, but the source of success and failure remains a mystery to me. When I play the game now, I’m spending most of my time watching the group, trying to catch a glimpse of the variable that drives the game: how well four people can come together for a common purpose.

The Left 4 Dead 2 demo put me in the mood to revisit the original game, and I find myself enjoying it as much as I did when it was new. The community is a bit thinned-out, and it takes a little more patience to start a good game, but I’m still fascinated by the strange chemistry between players.

Friday night I decided to try some Expert campaigns. The “What Are You Trying to Prove?” achievement (awarded for surviving every campaign on the highest difficulty) has been taunting me for a year, and while I have completed every campaign on expert, the game has ignored some of my victories and, in others, my character has perished while the rest of the team made its way to safety.

Much to my surprise, the random group that assembled to play through Blood Harvest turned out to be cheerful, laid-back, and unbelievably proficient. We spoke little, but soon slipped into a groove where we seemed to be sharing one brain. I wouldn’t say any of us were remarkably skilled players, but somehow we were beating the AI Director at his own game. We rallied just before each horde arrived, fought them off with a minimum of fuss and no panic, then sprinted through the levels, stopping just before the Director’s next wave could catch us off-guard.

Friendly fire incidents were minimal and nobody seemed resentful of any mistakes we made. Just four guys, hanging out on a Friday night, kicking zombie ass.

We were working so well that after beating Blood Harvest, we went after Dead Air. I noticed that, as a group, we were growing deadlier as the evening wore on. No sooner would a Smoker latch onto one survivor than another would coolly blow him apart with a rifle burst to the head. The last stand at the end of the campaign was so perfectly managed that it was almost sedate. Each one of us covered a quarter of the field of fire, and every one of us knew the others wouldn’t let any infected through. I saw one coming at me out of the corner of my eye, but didn’t stop shooting the zombies coming from behind some wreckage. The zombie coming after me was not, after all, my responsibility. I knew that the guy to my right would stop him.

It was a perfect playthrough from four strangers who barely talked and only made plans a couple times each campaign. We just knew our roles.

The next night, Saturday, I played with another random group and understood, instantly, that we were doomed.

There was nothing I could really put my finger on to explain why we were a terrible team. Individually we all seemed competent. We mostly tried to stay together and provide cover. The guy playing as Zoey was, I’ll admit, problematic. He racked up three times as many kills as anyone else on the team in the first section, but he did it by constantly racing ahead of the group so that the group became 3 and 1 instead of 4.

But the biggest problem was that nobody seemed comfortable playing a role. Guys were shifting around in firefights when they shouldn’t have been, so now you had to worry more about giving and receiving friendly fire. Trust never formed between us, and I can’t explain why. We were all nice guys and didn’t mind our occasional screw-ups. In most of the identifiable ways, it was the same kind of group as I’d played with on Friday. But there was something in the way we moved across the may that made me certain that we didn’t have the chemistry.

That single, intangible factor was the source of a disastrous evening. After a few failures, desperation creeps in and new problems compound the old ones. The Saturday group had one guy (who sounded a bit like Bill Murray voicing Garfield) who decided that he had to take charge. Except his only idea was to go hide at the top of a tower at the start of the level, so we left him behind. He called after us, “Dudes, where are you going? What’s wrong with you guys? Jeez.” Then, as we were wiped out by the tank he refused to come down and fight, he said, “See. Toldja.”

We never made it to the fourth stage. Mistakes got more bone-headed. The guy playing Bill fell off a ladder on the wrong side of a fence and made us wait for a long minute while he trekked back to our position. He never made it: we got to him just in time to see the Smoker finish him off.

Another time, about two minutes into our journey, I realized I had never grabbed ammunition for my assault rife. I was down to my last clip halfway through the level.

The best failure, however, came when the guy playing Francis said, “Hoo, we’re off to a pretty bad start, huh? Wonder what’s gonna happen next?”

He got his answer as the tank exploded out of the shed three feet behind him. He was laughing as his body went flying into the woods.