Counter-Strike has been around for 20 years, and like a particularly well-aimed frag, its impact on the games industry is still being felt today. It’s the shooter that kickstarted esports and even helped developer Valve popularise a little digital distribution platform called Steam. In other words, whether you’re an avid PUBG player or spend nights obsessively streaming Call Of Duty tournaments, the influence of this multiplayer masterpiece is evident almost anywhere you find a virtual gun. Yet, despite entertaining millions for over two decades, one ageing map proves that Counter-Strike still has its secrets…
Two squads move methodically and quietly into a sugarmill, each not wanting to alert anything to their presence. The weather is getting worse, and the first team has to hurry before the skies open up. The second clears each room with military precision, scanning for targets and expecting an ambush. As tensions rise and minutes pass, both groups advance deeper into the facility, until finally, they arrive at the same destination — but, somehow there’s no firefight.
While both groups are patrolling the same building, neither can actually see each other — because their respective missions are taking place weeks apart, in entirely different game worlds.
You’ve probably already guessed that the second team is, of course, a counter terrorism squad in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive , but the first? A group of rag-tag survivors from a little game called Left 4 Dead 2. It turns out, this unassuming-looking sugarmill quietly connects both of these two seemingly separate universes. For years, many fans have assumed that this link was merely a fun little Easter egg, and nothing more. Yet, after digging a little deeper, it seems the ties that bind these two beloved universes are actually far stronger.
Linked Til Death
It all started in 2013, when an eagle-eyed Reddit user spotted the striking similarities between Left 4 Dead 2’s sugarmill and Counter Strike: Global Offensive’s “sugarcane ”. While other studios might have received backlash for reusing the same location in two games released four years apart, this wasn’t just Valve lazily re-deploying the same assets.
Side-by-side pictures prove that the location is undoubtedly the same but also highlight each game’s subtle yet crucial differences. In Counter-Strike’s Sugarcane, the facility is in good condition: the floors are clean, the roof is undamaged and the machines look shiny and operational. Left 4 Dead 2’s portrayal of the building on the other hand, paints another picture entirely. Most of the roof has caved in or been swept away, plants and debris are scattered around the floor, and this once pristine machinery now looks like its almost rusted away.
It’s these little variations that seem to have sparked fans’ imaginations across both communities. While neither game has a particularly extensive lore, both offer just enough clues for fans to start piecing together stories and creating the dots that connect these two worlds. Over the last six years, players have built up an incredible narrative around the building, the intentions of the terrorists, and the chilling aftermath of the attack.
Here’s how the intruiging theory goes. As we all know, the terrorist team on the Sugarcane map are attempting to plant and detonate some sort of explosive device, and looking at the remnants of the building in Left 4 Dead 2, it appears they succeeded. But perhaps this time, it wasn’t a regular explosive device the terrorists were trying to plant…
The most common theory states that the terrorists were actually attempting to initiate the zombie outbreak that befalls the survivors of Left 4 Dead, and this sugarmill was ground zero for one of the many outbreak sites they had planned. Many commentators have pointed out that a sugarmill is an odd target for an organization that normally has its sights on nuclear power plants and other important infrastructure. But if it was a biological attack, this facility might have been the best to disperse the Green Flu, the name of the disease that causes the outbreak in Left 4 Dead.
Interestingly, there are other levels in Counter-Strike that back up this theory. Fan favourite map Dust II has the terrorist team targeting aid before it can be distributed among the population, which may be an attempt to contaminate the population quicker, or draw government and media attention away from their real target.
This theory could even help explain the strange attraction witches have to the location in Left 4 Dead 2. According to the player-driven lore that surrounds this theory, witches were either drawn to the bomb site because it is still highly contaminated by the original Green Flu, or they were in fact infected, and mutated in the mill very early on in the outbreak, due to the concentration of the bioweapon in the surrounding area. With the series being fairly light on official lore, Valve has never confirmed exactly how the different special infected are created, leading some fans to believe that witches, like in this case, are turned by exposure to a high concentration of the Green Flu.
Following us so far? Good, because this is where things get a bit complicated. Much like the headache-inducing branching timeline of series like Zelda, there are a few discrepancies which lead fans to speculate that, like in a regular game of Counter-Strike, the future of humanity (and the Valve-verse) ultimately depends on which side wins on sugarcane.
Terrorists Win! (Or do they?)
Fans point to the condition of the building to confirm that the Left 4 Dead universe is the one in which the terrorists win. Both Left 4 Dead games take place weeks after the first infection, not nearly long enough for abandoned buildings to decay to the state the sugarmill has, unless it was crippled in the attack like that seen in Counter-Strike. They therefore conclude that there is also another timeline where the counter terrorists have won, in which we can all assume there are far less zombies.
But what would happen to the CS world if it was zombie-free, you ask? Well, it turns out some of the community believes that the counter terrorists winning isn’t exactly the “good” timeline either, as it will lead to the seven hour war and the events of Half-Life 2, connecting even more of Valve’s properties together. It’s just never-ending misery with Valve, isn’t it?
If you’re still not convinced by just the two games’ shared map, you’ll be happy to hear that the fans have drawn on more than just the building itself to paint this apocalyptic picture of Counter-Strike’s future. One of the series’ most long-standing antagonists is the Phoenix Connexion. Its name alone invokes images of rebirth and through what little lore can be gleaned in Counter-Strike’s campaign missions and flavour text suggests that the Phoenix Connexion want the whole world reborn. Valeria, the highest ranking and most often quoted Phoenix operative believes in the traditional villainous philosophy of strength through struggle.
Much like the unitologists in Dead Space, this destructive rebirth ideology has led the community to agree that this radical group would be willing to weaponize and attempt to instigate a zombie-like outbreak. The symbology of the infected ties closely in with the phoenix-like idea of rebirth (except with a lot less fire and lot more gnawing), making it reasonable to believe that the toll of the outbreak on humanity would be the intended consequence.
It’s Always Zombie In Philadelphia
A lot of hints in Left 4 Dead point towards Philadelphia being the origin of the outbreak, and as one fan has suggested, this could be because of the city’s symbolic meaning to the United States. If the Phoenix Connexion was trying to recreate the country from scratch, why wouldn’t they attack the symbolic birthplace of it. The ensuing chaos and population displacement caused by the outbreak would also make it easier for the Phoenix Connexion to operate in and infect neighbouring areas, making it even harder to contain the spread of infection. This would also facilitate a loss of trust in the government as the situation worsens.
Like any good fan theory, this one starts with a simple tenant before expanding and encompassing completely unrelated aspects of the games in a way that makes sense. In Left 4 Dead’s ambiguous narrative, there is an obvious sense of distrust in CEDA, the series’ version of the CDC and FEMA.
Throughout both games CEDA was at the frontline of treatment and evacuation, but quickly lost control. After the military attempted to take over the situation by massacring infected and uninfected alike, it seems that the population lost all faith in the government’s ability to take control of the situation, with openly hostile graffiti and even a shot down helicopter supporting this. This aspect of Left 4 Dead used to help further ground the Counter-Strike connection, as it could be argued that any terrorist group would be happier operating in this environment.
Still, it’s not ALL fan-made lore from the game here. In a comic book called Sacrifice , which released alongside the Left 4 Dead DLC of the same name , a doctor states that the Green Flu is like nothing they have ever seen, as it mutates daily and seemingly becomes airborne at random. Fans of the theory believe that this is yet more evidence that the Green Flu is in fact a highly sophisticated Pheonix Connexion biological weapon, tailor-made to be difficult to treat or quarantine.
Leaving the Lore 4 Dead?
Like with any good fan theory, this has its naysayers as well. One of the most obvious counter arguments to the case is the fact that Left 4 Dead characters actually reference the Counter-Strike series in-game. In the original Left 4 Dead, one of the survivors, Louis, can say the line: “Wow this is just like Counter-Strike!” and if a game exists in the Left 4 Dead universe, it is very unlikely that it is a prequel. But some fans of the theorycounter that by saying that Marvel comics exist in the Marvel universe, and Louis’ version of Counter-Strike might not be the same as ours.
Another issue with the theory lies with the timeline itself. A lot of fans believe that the events of Left 4 Dead occur around 2009, with both the original and sequel taking place at more or less the same time. The weapons seen in Counter-Strike, however, are more recent than that, suggesting that Counter-Strike would have to be a sequel to Left 4 Dead if the games are connected.
And then there is Left 4 Dead’s overall theme. From the loading screens to the Director and of course the mission endings, everything about Left 4 Dead makes it look like a film, rather than an actual event. Perhaps the Left 4 Dead games are just films in the Counter-Strike or Half-Life universe, using locations that were once the scene of a terrorist attack.
Still, another element that helps add credence to this rather cool little fan theory is that it’s not unheard of for Valve to place two separate franchises in a shared world. Half Life’s Black Mesa and Portal’s Aperture Science are business rivals, and exist in the same universe, after all. But, admittedly Chell and Gordon Freeman have never done day trips to each other’s respective secret facility.
Putting the ‘fan’ in fantasy
It’s been seven years since the release of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and six years since the connection between the two games was first made, yet, despite having little new to go on, players are still exploring the stories and ramifications one little reddit post caused to this day.
Yet, whether these two worlds are truly narratively linked or not, it’s remarkable that fans have managed to mold and extract so much lore from so little. Being a multiplayer game, Counter-Strike was obviously never known for its story, but nevertheless its dedicated fans have always been quick to fill in any gaps with lore they can piece together from the environment, flavour text, and other games
This six year-old theory is a perfect argument for why sometimes it’s best for developers to simply let fans craft their own story.These vibrant communities have nurtured what started as a piece of deja vu into a weaving narrative that spans over two completely separate games. If there is ever another Counter-Strike, or a new Left 4 Dead, let’s hope this time we’ll get to play as the counter terrorists trying to stem the tide of the outbreak, or the terrorists ushering it on.