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Lookback: Left 4 Dead

Lookback: Left 4 Dead
Put on your time-reversal hat and take a trip with me through the temporal mists, back to an age where the Source engine was king, when Walter Cronkite and Michael Jackson were still alive, before Iceland's banks collapsed or Greenlandic became a language. It's 2008, little boy.
Customary greeting. Mild pleasure at seeing you again. Suggestive pun involving butts. Apology for crudeness, gentle segue into the topic at hand. Filler sentence to flesh out paragraph before line break.

The internet tells me that 28 days later came out in 2002, so possibly that's when the zombie thing came back again. It's been going strong for 10 years but with the exception of Resident Evil and House of the Dead, I sort of feel like they weren't such a big thing in video games, until a few years ago.

A quick glance at this odd wikipedia page, confirms that I'm right. Between 2000 and 2008 there were as many games with zombies as there have been in the last 3 years. It's like 2008 was the year of zombies or something. Look, there's Dead Space (I guess), there's World at War's Zombie mode.

My memory says it all kicked off with Dead Rising, which put you in a mall packed with hundreds of the things on screen at once. It's like everyone saw this and thought "fuck look at that. Look what we can do now. Let's do that".

Now there's goddam zombies everywhere, in everything, in my cereal. I think mostly it's because zombies are an excuse not to code any AI. I mean you don't even need basic pathfinding with zombies. It makes sense for them to get stuck on stuff. Just put loads of them on screen and it's cool. Like Robotron but in a city or whatever.
But still the best zombie game out of all of them is Left 4 Dead. For the memories, I mean. And it's because not only is it co-op, but it's got this incredible creativity, flexibility. I'm always going on about how the best games, the most memorable games, let you write your own stories.

Left 4 Dead had a tactical freedom that created moments of intense pressure, triumph and disaster. And these moments were shared, talked about, remembered. There was never just one single solution, one way to play through a section that everybody experienced in the same way.

It required creativity - a creativity forged in a manic scramble of shouting and hiding and running. It was like a return to hazy childhood gardens, friends taking on characters, telling a story through actions, made up on the fly. Ok there's a zombie attack, we've got to run! Oh no there's the king zombie, throw a bomb, Louis! Quick, jump on this train, hold them off! Phew, we made it.

Left 4 Dead was a game played with friends, that made friends. The distinctive characters lent themselves to a type of persistence. Mark is Bill. Drew is Louis, I am Zoey. Francis is... Francies. Left as an AI character, the punching bag automaton. Francies is the rogue element, the wild card. Unpredictable in his predictability. Francies, not Francis. Our own AI friend, Francies. Here we are, cautiously leaving our safe room in the sewers.

There are a lot of moments that stand out in my memory. In one of the early levels the 4 pals are fleeing through an uncompleted tower block. We find a lift, but know that if we call it the zombs will come. Louis, who oscillated endlessly between cautious terror and slightly less cautious terror, closed himself into a small closet. We could hear him clicking his light on and off. Click click click. We had no voice comms so this was like our own Morse code. Click click click. "I've found something. Come see".

Me and Bill investigated, opening the door. Louis is there. Click click. Click click click? Click click click click! We piled in, and closed the door. In the darkness, the only sound was Francies, shuffling around outside.

Francies, what are you doing out there?
What's he doing out there?
maybe he's turned into a zomb
ger, go out and see
Out I go, dutifully. There's Francies, shuffling against a wall, impotent, unable to take the initiative and call the lift. So I do what he cannot. Suddenly the alarms ring out, the screaming hordes descend. Frantically I turn, rounding on the little door. In I go. Click click. Click click click.

What about Francies?
Then we hear him, grunting, firing, being torn apart. And then it starts. The wild howling, rotting fists hammering on the door. Weapons aimed forwards, in the darkness, anticipating.

The door shatters into splinters, a writing mass of flesh bursting into view. We open fire, precise, controlled bursts, beating away with gun-butts.

And then, in the background, a taller silhouette, distinctive and menacing.


That tongue, threatening to drag one of us out of our hole. The frantic threat of being torn apart. No way to communicate, no time to type, but we've all seen it.

He lumbers forward, positioning himself. We all know that one of us will be pulled out, left to the mercy of claws and teeth.

It strikes, tongue snapping around the neck of Bill.

Poor Bill.

He scrabbles at his throat, falls to the floor, legs kicking fitfully. He's dragged, slowly through the crowd, putrid fingers grasping. Louis and I look on, overwhelmed, unable to help. Bill, old reliable Bill. Remember his little hat? And the way he'd say "dammit! god dammit!"? Ah, Bill. 'Don't forget me, chaps', his look impeaches, as he writhes along the slick floor toward his doom. We turn back to the amassing horde, clips running low, arms aching from exertion. The hopelessness is almost too much to bear. Just poor Louis and Zoey left, against it all. As the festering bodies close in, from the outside, we hear the echo of gunfire, and a shout,

Bill is back on his feet, running back to us.

A miracle!

No. Francies.

He had opened fire on the Smoker, breaking its grip on beloved Bill. How did he survive? Where's he been?

The mystery of Francies.

With renewed vigour we clear a path for Bill to return. Francies hobbles over, still wildly firing. The lift chimes, we rush forwards, toward safety. As we cross the threshold, Bill turns, punching Francies on the side. Click click click. Thanks buddy.

They removed that little room in a patch, I think.
It was all like that. Tales of valour and cowardice, escapes by the narrowest of margins. The times when everyone else was dead and all success rested on the shoulders of one survivor, everyone watching. When a Tank would burst forth, swiping left and right, set on fire, howling with rage, pounding toward us.

But there were also the happy times. In the lift, running in circles, clicking torches. And the sprays, the endless sprays. Bakula, Chinchan, more Bakula, Paul Ince in a dress. A world full of undead given some colour by poorly constructed gifs and low quality Star Trek JPEGS.

Sometimes Francies would be played by someone else, like Sam or Luke, and things would get wild. One of L4D's great strengths was the pacing, between headlong rushes through enemy territory and desperate hold outs of defensible positions. Strategically placed explosive barrels, laid out during quiet preparations. Everyone taking up positions, readying themselves, before the chaos. And then once the button was pressed, and everything went mad, all those carefully laid plans would fall apart.

I remember our first rooftop defence, on the opening level. Everything was set up, just so. The onslaught gathered pace, exhausting our supply of explosives. We held off waves and waves of manic zombs, Tanks, Smokers, Boomers and Hunters. Finally, the heavy thwump thwump thwump of the chopper emerged overhead. We looked up, watching as it sailed overhead, landing, of course, on the other end of the level.

Between us and salvation lay a sea of heedless enemies. There was a smoker, lurking, and of course as the chopper's feet touched down, the familiar roar of a Tank.

We dashed, crazily, unplanned, jumping, swingin' fists. Francies fell first, sucked off to the side by the smoker. Bill fell on the ramp to the helipad, clawed down from behind. As I turned to pick him up, foolishly honour-bound, the Tank landed, flinging me backwards. As I sailed away I saw Louis, desperately sprinting for the open doors. My view cut as he took the final steps, ready to jump into the open arms of our rescuer. He never saw the hunter coming.
And then there were the games we made. The Race, as we called it. Every man for himself, how far can you get, alone? Usually, we didn't last long. There was a subtlety to it, though. Go first, hoping to rush through before the zombs are truly ready for you, but risk running into an insurmountable force? Hang back, hoping to have the way cleared but risk a lurker attack from behind? Tactics.

These were the acts of men driven mad by repetitive failure. Dam startled the witch! Navigating the landscaped required a handful of precision, a hatfull of ammo and a truckload of luck. The AI "director" would send different enemies at you at different times, meaning there was no path to glory to be memorised. No strategy was truly effective every time - it all had to be improvised.

We would crack, every so often. Tired of the patience required there was a mad dash, a carefree romp using the quickest possible routes. And sometimes, sometimes it worked. Someone would survive, somehow, desperately hobbling those last few feet to the safe room door, urged on by everyone watching as the zombs closed in from behind. So often the safe room door was closed an instant before a Tank's fist slammed into it.
I haven't even mentioned the competitive multiplayer. There was something less pure about it, but it had its own charms. Something about seeing your pals lurch around as misformed mutants, lurking in shadows. The satisfaction of a perfectly executed smoker grab, carefully planned. The wanton destruction of being the Tank, the unending shame of dying without destroying the survivors.

L4D is a perfect example of how co-operative gaming can be a playground for the imagination. With the right amount of tactical freedom, it captures that feeling of forging a unique and personal path through the game world. It's that personal sense of sharing an experience with someone, a unique experience, that emulates those days as a child playing make-believe. Some of my fondest memories come from those nights, after everyone else had gone to bed, spraying pictures of Scott Bakula on the walls of abandoned railway cars, as zombies lumbered around in the twilight. Here is my tribute:

It's an FPS.

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