Sometimes when you play video games, you learn things about yourself, and sometimes those things are a little bit unnerving. The (often desperate) situations that one finds oneself in in the virtual world can push you to do unimaginable things, and no game simulates desperate circumstances like Valve’s Left 4 Dead.
After my previous post on this game, perhaps a follow-up is in order. For starters, I moved the difficulty down to normal for every session after that first one, and have since beaten all but one of the four “movies” that make up the main game. I have yet to find the time for versus mode (in which four players get to play the survivors and four the infected stalking them); I’m saving that for later. I’m in no hurry.
But man: this game so accurately simulates the panic of a fight-or-flight situation, it’s really something to behold. <Tortured Metaphor> Whenever I start a game online, usually with three strangers, we are four randomly floating protons and electrons, bouncing off of each other and occasionally coming together to get something done. At the beginning, there is always someone who is a little lost, or not a great shot, or keeps wandering off; it’s inevitable. But the miracle of Valve’s game design is that there there are no contrived “I’ll shine the light while you make your way through the darkness” co-op mechanisms a la Gears of War and Army of Two, oh, no – the game itself forces team play so strictly that, by the start of the second chapter, our four floating elements have been banded together by the covalent bonds of fear and the need to survive. </Tortured Metaphor>
However, this group dynamic is at its most interesting when the game strips teamwork away and reveals us for what we truly are: animals who, when the going gets tough, will do anything to survive.
At the end of each movie, there is a point at which the four survivors must hole up and wait for rescue; it’s usally around ten minutes, it’s always an effing siege. During those ten minutes, the game throws every thing it can at you – hordes of screaming infected, giant tank zombies, smokers who tongue-pluck you from the minigun just at the start of a charge; whatever will salt your game the most, the AI director will most likely send it your way. And what’s more, the most easily defended points are usually a good distance away from the place where the truck/plane/helicopter/boat lands to pick you up. And it is after the rescue vessel arrives that things get really interesting.
I played recently with my friend Dan, and, after getting owned the first time through the finale, on our second try we successfully fought of wave after wave of wailing infected at a boathouse, waiting for a lone fishing vessel to come and pick us up. All four of us were low on health and ammo; at the sound of the boat’s horn, we saw it approaching and started to head for the boathouse across the way. It was then that I revealed my true colors:
“Run for it, dude, fuck those other people! You and me, let’s get to the boat!”
We broke ranks with our two other comrades-in-arms and made a mad dash, blasting through zombies, hoping to make it to safety. And make it we did, but with a price: our very souls.
Standing on the dock, ready to jump onto the boat, we looked back to see our two friends, who had fought with us so bravely through the entire campaign, overcome by clawing zombies, knocked to the ground, torn limb from limb. We stepped onto the boat and the campaign ended.
I’m not saying that this is what would happen in real life, but it was a feeling that I’ve never had while playing a video game before. That feeling of I must survive this no matter what, the feeling I imagine I would get if I were actually put in a position like that. (Though, I gotta say, it would probably be amplified about a billion times, and the zombies would have chewed my uncoordinated ass up within the first ten seconds of the fight.)
Huge props to Valve; it isn’t often (or ever) that, through sheer gameplay, a designer can make me experience group dynamics in quite the way that the guys behind Left 4 Dead have. I look forward to the ongoing support that Valve has offered its other games, and hope that they can take care of the freaky hacks that are going on right now on Xbox Live, as well as give us some new movies and other downloadable content in the coming year.
Also, would it be too much to hope that, when they finish work on Half-Life 2 Episode 3, they could make a sequel?
Left 5 Dead, anyone?
Update: Just today, a few hours after finishing this post, Yahtzee posted his Zero Punctuation Video Review of L4D. The clouds parted, the choirs sang, and we agree and he LIKES THE GAME! Not the most common verdict from the guy who makes a living eviscerating games in creative, hilarious ways, and very cool.
Also, apparently Valve has already fixed the hacks that were causing shenanigans on Xbox Live. Good show, guys.