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.
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.