In the wake of the negativity this week centred around threats against Treyarch employees and the apparent and unfortunate conclusion to the game development career of Phil Fish, it felt pretty easy to write something horrible about gaming. If you log into Twitter, read the comments on blog posts and forums, it’s pretty easy to feel that the gaming community at large is probably one of the most poisonous, negative and entitled communities in the field of entertainment. Then I played an old favourite of mine, and remembered what a crock of baloney that is.
The night was suddenly too quiet. After the last of the horde had fallen to the ground in a pile of blood and intestines, the four survivors had plenty of time to collect their thoughts. Chris used the time to scout the ground around the hundreds of fresh bodies that now littered the swamp, finding a pipe bomb and some pills. Aidan reloaded, took out his axe (a trusty side weapon he was never without) and switched back to his hunting rifle, before switching back to the axe, and then back to the rifle again. Mark took to jumping between two small earthy mounds that stuck out of the stagnant water, back and forth and back and forth, waiting for the others, while Lara stood by and insulted him ferociously. After twenty seconds, it started to dawn on them each in turn that nothing had attacked them for at least a minute, and that they should probably press on.
It was three and a half years ago that Left 4 Dead 2 was released. I was a twenty-one year old student of English Literature living 150 miles from home in a shabby student house in the arse end of Canterbury. My studies were suffering hugely, due to sheer volume of incoming work and projects, as well as a growing indifference towards the subject matter on my part. Late every night, when my housemates had long gone to bed, I would stay up and try to catch up, not working too much during the day so as to keep the impression amongst them that I was doing pretty well. I wasn’t. Every time I received an assignment back, a disappointing sub-fifty percent score would glare at me in big red letters from the page. I was mere weeks away from giving up. It didn’t help that my best friend of the two previous years, a law student by the name of Mark, had decided to drop his course and proceed with a medical career instead. He was back in Surrey, retaking A-Levels in order to get into his preferred university, only to return to Canterbury twice more for mere social visits. I will always admire him for his decision. It takes balls to discard two years of your life for a new direction, but he did it and is reaping the rewards. And thus, I found myself in a new house, far from the university, living with three students who appeared to be having a whale of a time with student life in general. These were the only three people I had any regular contact with for the final year, aside from the two guys who worked in the X-Electrical store near the cathedral, who would be subjected to my daily visits. I barely spoke to them, but we eventually were on first name basis. Was I lonely? Initially, very much so. Housemate number one was a vibrant, passionate man from Birmingham who, like me, loved video games, and was someone with whom I could spend time with whenever he was kicking about. But, unlike me, he had places to be and people to see, and was usually too busy to indulge me in yet more Gears of War 2 horde mode. I didn’t begrudge him his additional life, merely envied him. Housemate number two was a highly popular girl who spent most of her time out of the house. We got on fine, and had many a chat in the kitchen over coffee, but our friendship didn’t extend much beyond this. And finally, Housemate three was a man with whom I shared a begrudged friendship. We tolerated each other merely for the convenience of our friends in common, but make no mistake; we hated each other. Not for any malicious reason. It was mere incompatibility. He lives in Canada now, raising horses or something, and has a moustache.
Finally, the silence was broken. The shrill cry of the hunter, followed very quickly by the crack as he landed with full force on Mark, made the other three jump in their seats. Under the flailing claws and sprays of blood, Mark laughed briefly. “F***, haha, get it off!” Aidan was nearest and was drawing his axe when the cow-like wail of the Charger sounded. In a blur, Aidan disappeared, the horrific monstrosity carrying him a good hundred metres away before ploughing him into a tree. “Oh crap!” Lara shouted into her microphone, as the high pitched maniacal laugh of the Jockey filled hers and Chris’s headsets. The jockey had snuck up from behind and jumped Lara, leaving only Chris to repel this highly co-ordinated attack from their four opponents.
The summer of 2009 was largely uneventful. E3 rolled round, with Left 4 Dead 2 being showcased. My interest was briefly caught, but dissipated as scepticism of such a quick sequel to a game released less than a year ago grew. I did buy my first gaming PC, and was interested in delving into online multiplayer after having my appetite whetted by Gears of War’s Team Deathmatch. Initially, I bought Crysis and The Orange Box, and had a good time with both of those. Team Fortress 2 was fun, but in its early incarnation, held little appeal for too many return visits. By the time November had come, I had nothing left to play on PC, and very little on my sole console of the time, the Xbox 360, was calling to me. And so it was with few other gaming options that I resorted to Valve’s sequel to a game I had only watched over Marks shoulder the previous year (It had been he who had encouraged me to either replace or upgrade my clunky old Windows XP PC with 2.4ghz processing power and 1gb of RAM.) I handed over £34.99, and made my way home. It was the third time I had registered a product on Steam, proceeded only by The Orange Box and Audiosurf. After a short wait, I booted the game up, having contacted Mark to see if he wished to join me. He did.
Chris had to act fast. First, he dealt with the boomer that had rounded a tree not too far from him. One shot of his auto shotgun and it was gone in a mist of red. Next, he punted the jockey from Lara’s head before the little bastard could ride her further away. The two then both right clicked the midget-infected into oblivion. Unfortunately, this meant that Aidan and Mark were now incapacitated, and their life bars at the bottom of the screen told the two standing survivors that their chances of survival were slim.
Four hours after first booting up the game, and I finally exited my room. I was dehydrated, slightly hungry, and needed a cigarette. But it was totally worth it. In a way, I also felt slightly bad. Only that morning, I had shelled out as much money as I would normally spend in two weeks on a game that I had now completed but for one final campaign. As someone of limited finances, it was a rare occasion I would buy a game brand new and at launch, and now that policy seemed justified. Sure, myself and Mark would play the campaigns again on the harder difficulties, but how long could that last?
Instinctively, they split up. Lara went to help Mark, who was shouting into his mic that the hunter victim should always be prioritised, whilst Aidan remained silent. Chris shot the Charger four times in the back, and revived his fallen teammate. “Ta very much” he said. “Lara, do you still have that Molotov?” Lara was still helping Mark up off the floor. “Yep. Why? Oh!” The horribly familiar music of a tank attack had crept in, with the four survivors too distracted to notice. Not far away, a human-controlled tank would be running full pelt at the survivors. Judging by the further incidental music, he would not be alone. With Mark and Aidan in bad shape, it didn’t look too promising. “Well, I’m pretty sure one of them is definitely hacking, but other than that, they won’t get too far when they’re survivors” “Mark stated with confidence. “Yeah, those two idiots keep running off and leaving the other two. Just pick the back ones off first and we’ll be fine” Aidan stated with authority he may or may not have possessed. But suddenly, both his and Mark’s HUD’s showed a very welcome sight; their two teammates were using their med kits on their injured comrades. With time to spare before the tank was upon them, Lara pulled out the Molotov, Chris the pipe bomb he had found earlier, and they all opened fire. Two minutes later, they had made it to the safe room.
It was nearly a year and a half later once I had stopped playing Left 4 Dead 2. In that time, I had formed a Steam group with membership in the triple figures for those myself and my clan mates deemed to be a good teammate/opponent for the versus mode which we most commonly frequented. But most importantly, I had picked up some good friends along the way. I became good friends with Chris, a childhood friend of Mark’s, with whom I’d likely have had no interaction with but for this game. There was Andy/Apache, a young and handsome Yorkshireman who I would frequently tease about being handsome and from Yorkshire, and of course, the ever impatient and hilarious Lara, whom myself and Mark discovered to be female a great length of time after she had become a regular on our team, much to our surprise. She would later become a partner of mine in several overly ambitious projects which, in all honesty, are yet to reach fruition, but which we had great fun doing.
Our eventual clan logo
And so, whilst 2009/10 seemed to be an endless sea of lectures, seminars and casual acquaintances mixed in with disappointment, indifference and shame, it eventually was rescued by a game with a simple concept; “Live together; or die alone”. No game since or before (other than Left 4 Dead) had perfectly emphasised such a simple concept; total reliance on your teammates as survivors, knowing that your life was constantly in your hands. Meanwhile, as infected, communication and coordination could spell doom for an opposing team who didn’t have their wits about them. Left 4 Dead 2 was a game that brought me closer to four awesome people, a game which ensured myself and Mark, my good friend of the two years previous, stayed in contact. A game which helped me cope with a depressing situation, right up the point where I finally passed my degree (just) despite a lot of warning signs to the contrary. A game that not only entertained me and allowed a feeling of escapism, but made me feel needed by my new found friends. I can say with some confidence that Left 4 Dead 2 saved my degree, saved my year, and even had a hand in shaping me into the person I am today. It is most likely the reason I still play games, and have a large interest in online multiplayer. In short; roll on Left 4 Dead 3!