These are My Friends Now
by, 27 Nov 08 at 16:20 (1252 Views)
What is your earliest gaming memory? I suspect that for most boys it probably is Cowboys & Indians. Oh sure, the specific name might change according to time and place (i.e., “Cops & Robbers” or “Escape from Robot Pirate Island”), but the gameplay is the same: Team A must defeat Team B in some sort of simulated combat. I used to love that game. My favorite weapon was a red and white plastic Winchester rifle with a working lever action. When I think of all the battles that rifle and I saw over the years….
For me, the best way to play the game was to have my friends and I go up against horde upon horde of imaginary enemies. We would prepare a position and then defend it to the “last man,” killing hundreds of imaginary clay pigeons, all the while performing Hollywood-esque heroics. Eventually, via some sort of mutual intuition, the battle would end either in glorious victory or tragic defeat. Those were the days….
…Are the days?
I haven’t thought of those days of gaming yore for quite some time; really, until Valve released Left 4 Dead. To be honest, when I first tried the demo, I was expecting just another beer & pretzels FPS, basically Team Fortress with zombies. While it is true that there is more than a little Team Fortress in L4D, it is also true that this game is something more. That “more” comes from its very clever twist in forcing the human players to work together to beat the evil AI Director and its hordes of “infected”. Such a seemingly small change…but such a huge payoff!
What otherwise would have been just another FPS with two teams sniping at each other, both on and offline, has become quite a refreshing alternative. Perhaps it’s just my psychological makeup, but I find fighting with friends instead of against them to be just so much more enjoyable. As with the battles of my youth, I find standing shoulder to shoulder with gaming buddies, gunning down wave upon wave of digital clay pigeons, to be a much more emotionally rewarding experience. To know that your actions, both cowardly and heroic (hopefully more of the latter!), will not just affect you, or some vague team, but the three individuals directly next to you is remarkably engaging. All of a sudden, you want - nay, need! – to do well not just for points and bragging rights, but because if you fail, you could get Francis, Zoey, Bill or Louis killed. Could get your friends killed.
It may be a bit of hyperbole on my part, but I can truly say that Left 4 Dead is the first game to incorporate a bit of St. John 15:13: “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” I’ve seen gamers put their virtual lives on the line for their virtual friends. Once, during the climatic map of Blood Harvest, where the survivors must survive an Alamo-styled last stand in a farm house, I was caught about the neck by the snake-like tongue of a Smoker and pulled down a flight of stairs into a sea of zombies. I am doomed, I thought fatalistically. Nope. One of my gaming buddies abandoned the safety of the top floor to run down the stairs after me, smash back and shoot the zombies, free me from the Smoker, and get me on my feet and up the stairs to safety again! In another game, a player got himself trapped in a flaming sea of zombies (after a Molotov set the zombies afire) and was trapped on the ground, fire all around him. Without thinking, I ran between the walking candles and pools of burning liquid and helped the guy (gal?) to his feet, while my other two teammates provided some covering fire. Then pulling out my two pistols, I blasted us a path to safety (how’s that for some Hollywood heroics? ). Let’s be honest, in most other “co-op” games, you’d be lucky to get a “newb” thrown in your general direction as you’re left to die! Not in Left 4 Dead.
Perhaps it’s a result of this unique cooperation, but I have found the personas of Francis, Zoey, Bill and Louis to be the most memorable gaming characters in a very long time. Instead of a clichéd storyline containing stilted cut-scenes (that typically convey all the warmth of rigid Disney animatronics) designed to force you to like a game’s characters, Valve has fleshed out their characters with the witty use of in-game dialogue (some of the best I have ever heard in a game) and some snazzy graphical design that brings the group to memorable life. The remaining character development is accomplished by the actions of the players while in co-op. In other words, the gamers are bringing the bunch to life by their in-game actions. When you stop to think about it, you realize that it is a brilliant solution. Valve has provided the sketch of a character, but it is the gamer who brings the much desired sense of camaraderie to the survivors.
Left 4 Dead is an all-around example of genius game design and another step towards the haloed goal of providing gamers a thoroughly enrapturing “cinematic” experience. Surprisingly, it accomplishes so much by actually providing very little more than some solid fundamentals and the freedom for gamers to tell their own horror story as they see fit. Ready to be a kid again? I didn’t think I was, but Left 4 Dead proved me wrong.