Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Left 4 Dead In The Details

My new addiction of the nanosecond is the video game Left 4 Dead and its sequel/expansion/whatever the hell it is Left 4 Dead 2. If you haven't played it yet, and care about spoilage, read no further. If you have played it already, or don't plan to ever play it or don't care, keep reading. No I ain't playing it. I can't afford to buy games on my paycheck. I watch videos of others playing it at places like YouTube and I read about it at places like Wikia and I have searches running via TweetDeck so if anyone happens to mention L4D or L4D2 I can eavesdrop on their conversations. Like I said, it's an addiction of the nanosecond. By the time I'm done writing this I will have probably already lost interest. In a nutshell this is the story behind Left 4 Dead.

About a month ago someone came down with an unknown contagion that caused them to lose any shred of humanity and lash out at anyone. It's believed this Patient Zero was taken to Mercy Hospital, but that's speculation. Well hell, a lot of what I'm about to say is speculation based off observations in the game. After this first case, others began to exhibit similar symptoms. It appears the medical community, and the military in the form of an organization called The CEDA, first began to treat this disease as some sort of cross between the common flu and rabies, but when that didn't work and incidents escalated, the government turned towards evacuating the uninfected, and leaving the infected behind. Because the infected react violently to anyone not infected, deadly force was required, and the hasty process of building SafeHouses created a sort of underground railroad giving people occasional respite as each time attempts to fortify failed the survivors were forced to retreat. That was a month ago. At the beginning of the game, you are one of four of the last survivors still in a highly contaminated area, surrounded by humanoids who were not long ago just mild mannered normal people and are now rampaging insane lunatics frothing at the mouth and attacking anything that makes too much noise or knows the difference between a TV remote and a fire hydrant. So you got no choice but to shoot them back before they kill you, as you make your way across urban and suburban environments hoping to find safety just beyond the horizon, cuz there ain't nowhere safe where you are now.

But what is it that I find interesting about this game? Usually shootemups like this bore me to tears. I haven't bought a shootemup since Quake 3. I haven't bought a first or third person adventure game since the second or third Tomb Raider. The last MMORPG I invested in was City of Heroes. I completely avoided World of Warcraft and didn't see the appeal of ElfQuest. Halo I prefer to watch than play too. I especially like Machinima comedy like Red vs Blue, where helmets bobbing up and down passes for talking dialog.

One of the things that intrigues me about Left 4 Dead is the cooperative gameplay. It's difficult to grief fellow players in L4D, and even when you do, the results are more immediate that you're just shooting yourself in the foot. I imagine there are still griefers out there. The same bastards who go to online multiplayer games where the object is to draw words so others can guess and they just write out the word instead of drawing it. Griefing that doesn't help you and it doesn't help anyone else. It's just griefing for griefing sake, but I imagine in a game environment like Left 4 Dead that sort of thing would police itself. What works in L4D that I haven't seen much elsewhere is that if you really want to progress and do well you gotta work as a team. Friendly fire is pretty much unavoidable given what I've seen, but except for extreme cases that's usually quickly forgiven and focus is on getting the foursome from point A to point B with a lot of chaos and carnage in between.

Something that is more interesting to me than the gameplay itself though is the story behind it, and how it's presented to the audience. Rather than long boring cut scenes where the players must remain passive, there's clues embedded throughout the game that cause the player to become more involved in the present events as well as the preceding events leading up to the here and now. Even more anticipatory is where they're going - is any place safe? Will they be safe when they get there?

There's clues throughout the games in the form of dialog said between characters, graffitti on walls in SafeHouses, and visual cues throughout the environments themselves that if utilized with deductive reasoning can lead one to surmise what is making these zombies and how it's spreading, or more precisely how it's NOT spreading. Cuz the Valve Boys behind the game are keen to give a lot of false clues and then knock the more obvious guesses down.

The people themselves are the first clue. In Left 4 Dead 1 we have a Vietnam vet named Bill who must be pushing seventy if he was twenty while serving in the military. We also have a biker named Francis, a cubicle rat named Louis, and the token tomboyish female named Zoe. In Left 4 Dead 2 we have a school teacher named Coach, a con man named Nick, a redneck named Ellis, and another token tomboy named Rochelle who this time appears to have a vocation of reporter, but little is made of that. Based on how they behave with one another, we are led to assume that they knew little to nothing of one another prior to the contagion taking effect. They were not friends prior to the "Green Flu" infecting over half the populous, and causing those infected to attack the rest. The Valve Boys take great care to convey to its audience that these eight people each come from dramatically different walks of life. One might think the reason for that would be to increase the odds a player might find something in one of these four people that'd make them feel more comfortable in that particular skin, but if that were the case they'd have put more effort in allowing players to personalize their avatar more. When picking a character in Left 4 Dead it's more like choosing a player marker in the game Monopoly. Some people prefer the horse, others the boot, and still others the thimble. Psychologists may waft eloquent on what this means about your psyche but ultimately you pick one because a friend took the one you really wanted and you didn't want the other choices more.

I surmise that these characters were invented and chosen for reasons that help advance the story The Valve Boys wish to convey. Four people who have never knowingly met before today suddenly have one thing in common: they're not infected. What brings them together in the chaos is the fact that they're the only ones in eye shot of each other not drooling and growling like mad dogs. In any other way they are remarkably different from one another and had they ever been in the same public place together prior to this day, it would have been a marvelous coincidence. This means that the reason why these four have somehow been singled out as the only survivors in a post apocalyptic America can't be because they hung out with the same people or frequented the same place or ate the same foods or anything environmental.

So what could it be? Well off the top of my head maybe they all have the same rare blood type. It's NOT, but that's the first logical guess. Let's explore this for a moment. In the U.S. at least, over half the population has a positive type blood. In fact close to 75% is either O+ or A+. Less than 15% have negative type blood, the most rare being AB-. B+ is at just under 10%. I know that cuz that's my blood type. I memorized that cuz when I found out I'd had a rough day, and I remember laughing cuz I thought it was a backhanded joke God was making at my expense: telling me to "be positive." So just for sake of argument, let's pretend that the survivors of Left 4 Dead all have B+ blood. It's somehow fitting, in a sardonic dark humor way that the game seems to enjoy. Less than ten percent of the population of America may be immune to this disease due to blood type. Anyone of any other blood type succumbs to this infection some in the game culture are calling "Green Flu" or "Zombie Cancer." This would mean at least nine infected for every one 'immune' person. That still wouldn't explain how we get whittled down to four, but the number isn't four. It's more like a few hundred. Others before our foursome have run the gauntlet and made it out safely. They've even left behind a trail for our guys to follow to safety, or presumed safety, in the form of SafeHouses. It's never quite clear just how safe the rest of the world actually is, or will be by the time one gets there.

I should point out here that in Left 4 Dead 2 we see infected people wearing HAZMAT suits that show no sign of having been compromised, so either ALL the ppl wearing these protective suits (that are flame proof and presumably germ proof) were dormantly infected prior to putting their suits on, or you don't contract this disease via blood, saliva, semen, or any other bodily fluids. It's also probably not airborne. What's that leave? What indeed. That's just what I'm trying to figure out.

Our foursome in the game are late to the party. For reasons not particularly made clear in each case, evacuation has already happened and as we first meet these characters, they're trailing behind hundreds (maybe thousands) of others who have not only escaped successfully, but they managed to build crude but effective safe houses and they've left behind a near infinite arsenal of weaponry and ammunition. Our special foursome are not trailblazers. They're in last place for the race of their lives.

Looking at the SafeHouses a moment, it's fun to note that as our foursome continue forward, they purposefully barricade the SafeHouse doors in order to keep the Infected they left behind from following them. This however also sabotages any chances of anyone behind them from escaping. So again, either they have very good reason to assume they're the only living people left, or these four are thoughtless, hateful human beings. Had the people before them been so uncaring of their plight and barricaded the SafeHouse doors...

Why have the eight characters surrounding this game each put off leaving the infection zones for now? We don't know. If this were a TV series like LOST, there'd be elaborate back stories revealed in flashbacks that would tell us just how well they knew one another prior to the zombie apocalypse, if at all. It'd also explain why they're still where they are when all indicators pointing to RUN already existed. However, this ain't LOST. We don't have the luxury of flashbacks. Cut scenes take away from playability, and get real boring on repeats.

Perhaps even the writers of this game don't know why these are the last ones to escape. Someone has to be last, right? And it's a good thing they're last because as a player you are literally shooting anything that moves, at least if you're a newbie. No one's stopping to check for pulses or brain activity in these humanoid targets. Everyone from Bill (who appears the most knowledgable and collected of the eight when it comes to being at war) to Ellis (who is more of an immature joyrider not taking the experience remotely serious) is shooting first and asking questions much much later. They have reason to believe they're all that's left of humanity that hasn't made it to Disneyland. Presumably there have recently been people escaping alongside them, but none of them are in earshot or eyeshot now that haven't either escaped themselves, succumbed to the infection, or become cannonfodder.

I might note here that aside from rare instances where piles of cattle indicate failed scientific examinations trying to uncover where the disease came from, we see little to no animal activity anywhere. We see no infected birds or domestic animals. We never encounter any zoos. We also see literally not a single infected or dead child. The reasons for this are more likely external to the game storyline. There are censoring organizations that make it difficult for a game company to market a game that shows excessive animal mutilation, and abuse of children is pretty much not only censorable, but unmarketable. No ingame explanation is made, however, a presumption that ALL children were evacuated without their parents is both unfeasible and unrealistic. However, I'm not able to utilize this information one way or the other. Either the game designers did this on purpose and will explain later on as to why, or they had no choice but to make all infected grown adults in appearance, and the absence of children is not a clue just a necessity of having to cater to today's immature, short-sighted, ignorant censormongers in our global community.

There's some countries that required a less violent version of the game, that is so censored it actually adversely affects gameplay. Some of the violent visuals are necessary to tell if an enemy has been properly incapacitated or needs another hit. Imagine playing PacMan but not being able to tell whether or not the ghosts in the game are edible. That's how much censorship has threatened to castrate these games. Have I mentioned I hate censorship? Even when I agree with it, as in the case of children missing from Left 4 Dead? I wouldn't want to see children getting shot to pieces, but their absence from the game without any explanation is almost as unsettling. Were they abducted? Did CEDA force parents to abandon their children to the care of the state?

In the first game there are four campaigns and at the end of each campaign, our foursome is rescued (provided you as a player make it to the end). At the end of No Mercy, a helicopter pilot picks them up at the top of a hospital roof, but at the start of Crash Course we find out that something strange happened on the chopper. Zoe was forced to shoot their pilot dead because he changed before her eyes in midflight. He turned into a zombie.

I should probably add here that these things aren't really zombies in the strictest sense of the word. They're infected. In fact they may actually be alive when you're killing them, and if there's some kind of cure of this infection.. well, perhaps thinking of them as zombies makes it a little easier to deal with but they're not undead. They just stop behaving as if they have any humanity. The game refers to them often as zombies, and it's more convenient occasionally for me to do so as well, but I'd rather reserve the actual argument of what a zombie is for some other diatribe.

Anyway, so a guy was normal before picking up our survivors, and begins to change after meeting them. Now, to be fair, we are given indications during the finale that perhaps the chopper pilot has been 'bitten.' He hints to that in some of his dialogue. However, our foursome are attacked by these creatures regularly and it's rarely if ever indicated that the zombies are biting anybody. In fact it doesn't seem like any of them have any appetite whatsoever. If you watch their behavior, infected sometimes exhibit signs of starvation, including irritability, lethargy, atrophy, and even vomiting or 'dry heaves.'

Later on in Death Toll our foursome come across "the Church Guy." In one of the more effective 'crescendo' moments of the first game, they find a guy who has locked himself inside a SafeHouse and won't let our stalwart friends in. He thinks they might be infected. Turns out he'd been 'bitten' a little over an hour ago and has gone a little crazy, thinking he might be running out of time. However, he's fine until our foursome walk up and bug him. I mean, he was obviously crazy before they arrived (later investigation of his SafeHouse reveals he got a little happy with the black magic marker and wrote "better safe than sorry" on the walls a couple hundred thousand times), but he didn't turn into "one of them." After he rings the church bell bringing all the infected within earshot barreling down on everyone, he then exits the SafeHouse having turned into a special zombie (either a Boomer, Hunter, or Smoker depending on random factors) his own self. Needless to say, nowhere in this game do you ever actually get to save a fifth human being from the infected. They always seem to turn.

A possible exception to this is at the end of Death Toll. There's two people in a boat that come to rescue our survivors: John and Amanda Slater. However, we never learn of their fate because there's currently no direct story narrative between the end of Death Toll and the start of the next campaign called Dead Air. That could change in the future. Crash Course was "Downloadable Content" or DLC that the game designers added after the fact as an expansion update for their player base. Death Toll opens inside a greenhouse, and gives no explanation why these four people would find themselves holed up in one of those. None of these guys look like they have a green thumb. Some player speculate there is no correlation between Dead Air & Death Toll. That these are completely different scenarios perhaps in alternate realities or that the game has no linear narrative at all. Others speculate that it's very plausible secret plans are in the works to connect Death Toll & Dead Air and also reveal the fate of the Slaters. My guess is Zoe had to take them out too.

At the end of Dead Air, our survivors are saved by an airplane pilot. At the start of the next campaign called Blood Harvest, our survivors appear to have spent at least the past night or so sleeping in a forest. There's three sleeping bags, indicating that one person always stayed awake to keep an eye out for zombies. Again there's no indicator this is in direct correlation to Dead Air, but it's possible a future expansion will come out that reveals the fate of the airplane and why our foursome find themselves in the middle of the woods. Blood Harvest ends at a Farmhouse with the survivors hitching a ride on a massive looking All Terrain Vehicle from the military. Surely they're safe now, right? Well a later expansion to the game is known as The Lighthouse, which game designers have said, "is what might happen to our survivors if they took a wrong turn.." It's only for Versus and Survival modes. Rescue never comes for the foursome at the Lighthouse. It's where they go to die.

Left 4 Dead 2 has a similar breakdown, but better correlations between the different campaigns. Dead Center ends with this new foursome escaping in a race car. At the start of Dark Carnival the race car is unable to take them further because the highway is literally jammed with abandoned cars. Dark Carnival ends with the heroes in an helicopter escaping a concert stadium. Like in No Mercy, it's later revealed in Swamp Fever the helicopter pilot was also infected. Nick had to take him out in midflight, just like Zoe. Ellis argues with Nick on this point occasionally through the course of Swamp Fever. However, Swamp Fever starts in a box car, so again we don't see the direct story narrative between the end of Dark Carnival and the start of Swamp Fever, leaving ample room for future expansions that might shed more light. Swamp Fever ends at a plantation near coastline, where our survivors meet Virgil. He's a boat captain that essentially becomes the taxi service for the Left 4 Dead 2 survivors from Swamp Fever onward. Like the survivors, he appears to be immune, but apparently his wife wasn't so lucky. In Hard Rain, Virgil drops off the survivors to get him some diesel fuel so he can take them the rest of the way to New Orleans which they hope is safety. The opening of The Parish reveals that's not the case, and the final climax of Left 4 Dead 2 occurs on a Lift Bridge as once again the military arrives to take our survivors to presumed safety.

Something curious is revealed through Left 4 Dead 2 that is not as apparent in Left 4 Dead 1. Grafitti on walls and evidence of NON-infected human beings being killed indicate that there was a growing belief among some survivors that some who appeared to be immune to the infection were actually carriers and the only good carrier is a dead one. At the start of The Lift Bridge scenario, we hear the military guy on the radio refer to our survivors as "immune" but then we overhear him talk to the copter pilot on the other side of the bridge and when he talks about the survivors, the words "immune" and "carrier" are treated as synonyms.

This and everything I've said thus far has led me to the following hypothesis. I believe in future expansion packs and perhaps a Left 4 Dead 3 (already rumored to be in the works), it will be more fully detailed that this pathogen is not airborne and it's not contracted by blood or saliva or any other conventional method. It is perhaps not even a disease. Carriers who appear to be immune to the condition actually spread it by close proximity to the non-infected. Just being around an immune carrier for an indeterminate amount of time can cause one to be stripped of their humanity and behave like a rabid dog. How can this be? Certainly not by any known conventional scientific method. If I were writing this, I'd be leaning towards either magical curses or alien technology. Probably a meteorite was uncovered by the government containing alien mystic energy was incorporated into a series of military experiments intended on creating The Ultimate Super Soldier, but inadvertently led to making people who can't die, but are cursed to kill everything around them. This would also explain why it's so difficult for the zombies to kill our survivors; because their immunity makes them difficult to kill, and curiously capable at any kind of weaponry they touch regardless of how much life experience they have shooting and fighting and throwing Molotov cocktails.

Why? Cuz this is a zombie movie. Zombie movies always end up having crazy explanations as to why all this is happening. The crazier, the more fun! So by trying to escape, Bill, Francis, Louis, Zoe, Rochelle, Coach, Nick and Ellis are inadvertently spreading the disease! Put THAT in your pipe bomb and smoke it!

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