The Great Divide - Or Why Some People Just Don't Get Left 4 Dead

There is currently a lot of commotion about how L4D makes for some memorable video-game stories. On the other side of the chasm, there is a group of people who feel betrayed by Valve's overly simple shooter. It's comprehensible: On the surface L4D presents itself as a shooter with a simple premise (Zombies), some neat (but not exactly worldshaking) coop mechanisms and a serious lack of content. In this blog post I try to shed light on the cause this divide, why L4D is to some a delightful pleasure and to others just an overpriced, repetitive mod.

Most shooters up to today confront the player with only two modes of actorship (dead or alive, off or on), but L4D introduces new modes in between this binary. There are in total 5 different potencies your character can be in: full health, slowed down, bleeding, dying (black and white screen) and prone/hanging off a roof. Where in most FPS you can be killed by a single rocket, these different modes are accompanied by a damage system which confronts you quite plainly with your decaying life. This highly aware state of your character slowly dying away, affects the relationship to your digital alter ego and introduces a new quality of emotion to multiplayer FPS: hope. New hope comes along with his friend new immersion and results in a higher emotional investment. It is important to see this hope related to the potential agency of your character: The experience is strongest when you're lying completely powerless on the ground and hope is virtually the only thing remaining in your arsenal of participation. When a tank rampages through your team, one teammate hastily limping away, another pinned down by a hunter, and you yourself are hanging off a cliff, you find yourself HOPING to survive, however small the chances are. Thus you are emotionally investing in a game, which will finally result in a lasting impression.

Thanks to a clever deployment of player death, L4D excels in another part, which also adds to the experience: The creation of group cohesion. If you have the pleasure of not being placed in a group with complete morons, you can quite quickly observe how the fate of the singular player fades in front of a greater goal: survival of the group as an entity transcending the singular body. This shift in your concentration from the achievement of your puny single player goals to the greater good, amplifies the emergence of hope. Even if you will fall down, even if you will die, you hope at least SOMEONE will see the end (knowing you also contributed to it).

Keeping these two concepts in mind: The emergence of hope, and its direction towards a greater goal, it is easy to see why some people “just don't get it”. If you're playing L4D alone, on a too low difficulty setting, a group of people who randomly swarms out in different directions or with the simple intention to just other players in the nats – you will soon find yourself confronted with a well made but repetitive shooter lacking content. But if you open a bottle of bear and are willing to fight for your life, your teammates and finally the good of humanity, you will be in for a wild ride.