Left 4 Dead (opens in new tab) is one of the most famous and successful zombie games of all time. It even presaged the runaway success of The Walking Dead television show. But there was a time when the presence of zombies in the game wasn't quite a sure thing, because Valve boss Gabe Newell wasn't certain they were the best way forward.
The story was relayed by former Valve writer Chet Faliszek, whose credits include Half-Life 2: Episode 1 and 2, the Portal games, and of course Left 4 Dead 1 and 2. "Once I went to dinner with Gabe and he was beating me up that, if you look at zombie movies, he's like, 'Night of the Living Dead is about racism, Day of the Dead is about—or Dawn of the Dead—is about consumerism'," Faliszek said in a recent interview with YouTube channel Kiwi Talkz (opens in new tab). "Whatshisface [presumably George Romero] had purposely made those movies about things and kind of like to talk about them. He's like, you know, 'What is your movie about? What's your game about? What's your zombie story about?'"
Faliszek told Newell that Left 4 Dead was about the individual stories arising from people coming together in a crisis—specifically a zombie apocalypse—but Newell apparently wasn't convinced that an undead holocaust was the best approach.
"I remember, he's just like, well let's not do zombies, zombies are just cheesy. They're just really cheesy," Faliszek continued. "And at the time, you did not have The Walking Dead TV series and all this, right? So it was very cheesy. But as a kid who saw Dawn of the Dead at a midnight movie and was just, like, terrified, it wasn't cheesy to me. I had no idea those scenes were cheesy until watching them later."
Of course, Valve went ahead with zombies in Left 4 Dead, and Faliszek clarified in an email to PC Gamer that Newell wasn't specifically against zombies, he just wanted to ensure that the rise of the living dead was really the best way forward.
"Gabe was just really good at challenging all of our base assumptions," Faliszek explained. "They are zombies now, but why? Should they be? Should you maybe be fighting monsters? Aliens? What did zombies bring us? Because at the end of the day they are cheesy. He just pressed often like this where he would be dismissive as a way to make sure we were thinking about this choice and being deliberate."
Newell never offered specific ideas for different kinds of monsters in Left 4 Dead, Faliszek clarified, and in fact those discussions ultimately helped cement the zombie plan: "We had always talked about them as, how much is this a 'monster' or a zombie variant, and decided to lean into zombie variants."
Newell's comments on the allegorical aspects of zombie movies served a similar function, according to Faliszek: He wanted the Left 4 Dead story "to come from the people on the street" who don't have the big-picture view of what's happening, but "Gabe also challenged me on this," he wrote. "And he used the other Zombie movies as references of being about deeper topics, where I wanted the story to be about that confusion and mayhem and how we communicate with each other during those times."
"I think it’s fine to have a big thought hanging behind the game, but for something like L4D it gets in the way because at the end of the day I want the players to talk about the time I saved Andy from the smoker, not the time I saved Louis from the creature trying to destroy technology. So L4D really was leaning into trying to bring the players themselves into the chaos which leads to my favorite review: 'With friends, L4D is a good co-op game, with strangers it’s probably what the zombie apocalypse would be like…'"
Faliszek acknowledged during the Kiwi Talkz interview that zombies are cheesy and camp, but said that by making characters like Zoey and Louis aware that they're essentially trapped in a zombie horror show—and playing it seriously—that aspect of the narrative becomes much less overt. He's taking a similar approach with his current project, The Anacrusis (opens in new tab), a retro-sci-fi co-op shooter currently in early access on Steam.
"Early '70s, late '60s sci-fi is very campy, very cheesy," he said. "But if you just take that as serious, and you have those characters inhabit that world and play it for serious, then it just has a different feel to it, and I think you transcend that campiness and cheesiness."
Thanks, VG247 (opens in new tab).