Left 4 Dead‘s epic story

Posted by Cory Casciato On April - 10 - 2009


Four survivors, thrown together by circumstance when the world dissolves into the chaos of the inevitable zombie apocalypse. While their friends, family and neighbors are turned into vicious, crazed zombies these four people, with nothing in common besides the will to survive, must work together to make it to safety. If they can’t, none of them has a chance.

Not only is Left 4 Dead a great video game, it’s a triumph of visual storytelling. Apart from a skippable intro movie and a separate post-campaign escape scene for each of the four campaigns, there are no cutscenes or non-interactive movies anywhere in the game. The entire story is told within the game world. This is done through messages spraypainted on walls, the scenes of carnage, the gameplay itself and, most impressively and importantly, through the characters.

The messages left everywhere are the tiny, impressive details of an epic horror story. These range from official quarantine orders and safety procedure signs to scrawled  messages for loved ones left behind, to flaky advice and philosophy. Whether you take the time to read it all or not (I did), its simple presence adds a lot of depth to the back story of the game, and consequently helps the immersion factor considerably. Along side the written messages, the simple fact of the carnage and improvised defenses obvious in the setup of the abandoned apartments, houses, hotels and businesses that make up the game levels adds another level to the story. Just like in real life (and in the best movies, for that matter) there’s no need to tell the story — it’s easy to see exactly what happened.

The four characters are expressed ably and subtly through their details, from animations to the signature lines they speak  and reactions to events within the game. Excellent voice acting, character modeling and animation all contribute to some of the best realized digital characters ever seen in any medium. The crusty old vet; high-strung office drone; gruff, tough swaggering biker; and horror-movie loving final-girl type are all communicated well without once interrupting the core game to introduce or explain or anything about any of them. Most gamers will pick one of the heroes as a favorite pretty quickly and stick with them whenever playing — for me, that’s the Bill, the chain-smoking, cantankerous old Vietnam vet with a dark sense of humor. Functionally, the characters are identical as far as I can tell — there’s no advantage to playing with one over or another.

The music and sound of the game are perfect too, from the gibberish and howling screams of the infected to the signature sounds of the special infected. The witch’s musical cue is especially spooky and effective. These elements support and deepen the visual and gameplay elements to tell the story.

I have to say that I love the zombies of this game. They are of the infected type, and possibly not technically dead (it isn’t really clear). I also love that they explained why the characters don’t get turned despite constant contact with infected — much like Planet Terror (which seems an inspiration), the main cast and certain others are all immune to the highly contagious disease. This game finally sold me once and for all on the fast zombies, too. Not as a replacement for the shamblers, who will always be first in my heart, but as an distinct and honorable branch of zombiedom. For the game, these work really well — the tension of the game would be absent if they could only shuffle.

The special zombies, who seem to control the regular horde, are an interesting touch, too. There’s the boomer that can puke zombie-attractant all over anything, the smoker with his long, whip-like tongue that can snare unsuspecting survivors, the fast, agile hunter that pounces and pins the unwary, the grotesquely strong tank and finally, the haggard, emo (she cries constantly until she attacks) witch, fast and strong and very easily upset. Their influence on the game play is enormous and they fit within the fiction just fine, even though tye aren’t really explained (what, you think in a real zombie apocalypse there’s going to be an explanation for all the weird shit you will see?). Again, there’s some precedent — JUNK had a master zombie who was super-strong and could control the other “regular” zombies and the Resident Evil franchise (both games and movies) have included a number of special “super zombies”.  It’s something of a requirement for games — simply killing the same zombies over and over again gets boring, in theory.

If the game’s story has a weakness it is the lack of a coherent overarching narrative to tie it all together. Why do they keep finding themselves needing to cross town to get to the next escape point? It’s a mystery. Or maybe an existential joke: why did the survivors of the zombie apocalypse cross the town? To get to the next level, of course.

7 Responses to “Left 4 Dead‘s epic story”

  1. AJ Vicens says:

    This analysis is spot on. I didn’t even think about checking all the subtle messages scrawled on the walls, or any other place for that matter. It sounds hokey, but I’ll take another look when I play, rather than just blasting all the zomie a-holes I see. Thanks for adding a new twist to an old (but great) game.

  2. Zombie Aaron says:

    Awesome commentary man. I LOVE me some left 4 dead. If you’re on XBL my Gamebattles team is actually looking for a solid 4th. Hit me up. Also fixed the broken link on The Zombie Hunters post, sorry about that.

  3. Sid Pink says:

    Today is the Day of Original Zombie and you, the Expert, haven’t even posted!!

    Also, I forwarded you a great note from the Hollywood Stoner/Paparrazzombie File.

  4. Jay Clarke says:

    Almost considered getting a 360 because of this game. It does look rather sweet. Resident Evil 5 satiated my appetite eventually though.

  5. mike says:

    I love this story eventhough they dont tell you everything but still if you take the time to read the writings it kinda makes you sad. Eventhough its a game but still leaving your love ones behind. Its just plain scary and it makes you think. What if this did really happen.

  6. Cory Casciato says:

    It is a sad story, but also one studded with funny moments.

  7. […] us four more interesting characters – One of the great strengths of the original was its excellent and iconic characters. They weren’t all equally well conceived (frankly, […]

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