Though the last decade was far from short on games concerning zombies – Dead Rising, Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare and of course, numerous editions of Call Of Duty and its zombie mode all spring to mind – there weren’t masses of games realised within that ten-year period that came within a severed artery of replicating the adrenaline rush of a great zombie movie. Valves’ Left 4 Dead, ten-years-old this year, is the exception.
Stylistically, the game was indebted to horror cinema. Loading screens before each of the four core campaigns – No Mercy, Death Toll, Dead Air and Blood Harvest – even had movie posters mocked up for the scenario which was about to come. Chances are you missed it, but in 2016 there actually was an (unofficial) Left 4 Dead movie, made by Italian filmmaker Daniele Bellucci and funded by fans of the game (and it’s not terrible either!)
Perhaps most importantly, however, was that a cinematic experience was implicit to the kind of game that developers Turtle Rock (until then, chiefly known for their work on the Counter-Strike series) wanted the player to enjoy. And of course, in this instance, the word ‘enjoy’ is a pretty broad church, taking in emotions like ‘terror’, ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’. It’s worth noting, that the zippy zombies which make up the core threat in Left 4 Dead, would never have existed without Danny Boyle’s 2002 classic 28 Days Later.
GET THE PARTY STAR-DEAD
At the heart of the game was a device the developers called the Director. Valve had implemented the idea before, in a more primitive state, using the device for key battles in Half-Life 2: Episode Two, released the previous year. The Director was the companies name for the dynamic system that dictated game dramatics, pacing and difficulty within the game. They called it ‘procedural narrative’. Zombies have no set spawn point in Left 4 Dead. They arrive depending on how your playthrough is working out. The Director also adds flourishes of music, atmospheric effects or quips between the ‘survivors’ you play as. The effect is much akin to your own personal George A. Romero, sat somewhere offscreen, clapperboard in hand, lobbing in a Boomer after a wave of screaming ghouls has been dispatched, eliminating the notion of rest and recovery like a magician yanking a tablecloth.
The special infected were the real stars of Left 4 Dead. There was the aforementioned Boomer, an obese, swollen, undead humanoid whose vomit was akin to catnip for the common zombie. The Hunter, a hooded figure who could swoop in, pin you to the ground and claw chunks of health from you (and whose cloud scraping screech came to you thanks to the Faith No More singer Mike Patton’s talented larynx).
The Smoker, a creature, allegedly partly inspired by Half-Life’s Barnacles, who could entrap the player with their long tongue from some distance. The Witch, a sobbing, emo-y grey-skinned woman who, if disturbed, would pursue whoever did and attack with her upsettingly long talons. And then there was The Tank, a preposterously strong hulk of a creature who could incapacitate a player with just one punch. Yeah, sex is great and all, but have you ever brought down The Tank with just a sidearm and on 20% health?
The Director would introduce these foes when it felt the playthrough needed it, but when they did arrive, they’d be announced with a flourish of music or a unique sound effect. Players knew a Witch was about if they could hear discordant piano and wailing. The Tank arrived accompanied by chunky brass, a bit like the opening lick of Bill Conti’s Rocky Theme, but inverted and made horrible.
Even now, Left 4 Dead’s understanding of sound design is a remarkable achievement. It’s not static like so many other game soundtracks. It ebbs and flows dependent on the whims of an unseen creative ‘mind’. It contributes significantly to the reason players still talk so fondly about a now ten-year-old videogame – one with no real narrative, one that’s only really got four-hours of original gameplay before replays become a thing – that being that no playthrough of any scenario is ever really the same.
The multiplayer experience was strong. Playing alone, as one of the four survivor characters – Francis (a biker), Bill (a Vietnam vet, permanently lit cigarette seemingly glued to his bottom lip), Zoey (a university student) or Louis (a district account manager) – with the game controlling your compadres, was a whole lot of fun. But online, playing against real people – and with real people also controlling four of the five special infected – the game was often breathtaking.
Like your own personal episode of The Walking Dead (which wouldn’t air on AMC for another two years) only without the long boring conversations in farmyards. As mentioned prior, there was little in the way of an overarching narrative, at least within the game as a whole, and yet it was hard not to form something akin to emotional bonds with the characters sharing the zombie apocalypse with you. The realms of Left 4 Dead-inspired fanfic littered across the internet is a testament to that.
STAY ON CORPSE
A sequel arrived the following year, in 2009. New maps, new special infected, new survivor characters, with another more narrative led, three-chapter DLC, The Sacrifice released in the October of 2010. Both continued the fun, especially the introduction of the formers swampy, southern vibe. But it’s the original that unquestionably delivered the most kick. Value still provide support for the game, all these years on, while the modding community that embraced the title from the off are still pumping out fun tweaks to the original code. You haven’t lived until you’ve put a Christmas hat atop Francis.
While you can feel the influence of the game in more recently released titles like Fatshark’s Vermintide and Rebellion’s Strange Brigade, what players still crave is a third game, or at least a souped-up, eighth generation remaster. Hopes were stirred earlier this year, when a three-digit zombie hand, in line with the style of logos seen for games one and two, appeared on the Left 4 Dead website, until it was revealed to be a hack.
When Turtle Rock was seen to be advertising for a Senior Level Designer, hopes were raised again, though it’s worth remembering that Valve is hardly a company who has great form in franchising out their games beyond a couple of releases. And besides – and warning, spoilers do follow – the last Left 4 Dead outing saw our unlikely heroes, or at least three of them, retire to an island in Florida to see out the infection. That feels like a full stop on things, right?
Ultimately, the truth is, while the aesthetics of the game would benefit from a little spit and polish, the inner structure of the title still stands up now, perhaps due to the simplicity of the core concept, most likely because of the high production values we’ve come to expect from Valve, but also because there still hasn’t been a zombie FPS that makes you feel like you’re Shaun (of Of The Dead fame) quite like Left 4 Dead does. Happy birthday Left 4 Dead, you really are the ghoulest, all these years on.