John Walker’s original review of Left 4 Dead 2 goes hard for talking about what that game does that other games don’t. He flags it as being a brand-new experience that does something completely unique, and reading it these many years later I keep nodding my head.
Friend of the blog Danni has missed many games over the past X years, and we’ve been spending the past few weeks playing around with some staples of the online cooperative experience: Risk of Rain, Orcs Must Die, Minecraft, and now Left 4 Dead 2. I’ve never been a fan of the latter, mostly because I’m not into playing games with voice with intensive cooperation. I like multiplayer, but I’m a “sadness and silence” player who dives into the world of pubbies to experience the wrong side of the coin. Left 4 Dead 2 needs a better class of player than I want to be most of the time.
And yet loading it up and playing through a couple missions in a serious way has left me feeling that Left 4 Dead 2 is actually hitting a target that no other game has managed to square since its release. John Walker wasn’t writing in videogame-boosterist hyperbole. It really does things that are unique.
The number of times I have said “where am I supposed to go now?” in a first person shooter made in the past seven years is probably less than ten times. This is across dozens of games (most of these are probably located in Syndicate, actually). Heirs of the Half-Life lighting model of game design communication, the contemporary first-person shooter needs you to know where to go and where to face at all times. If you’re looking the wrong way you might miss the setpiece.
When I’m playing Left 4 Dead 2, I am constantly confused about where I should be going. It generates some real, serious anxietyfear. I know that the zombies and special infected are going to appear, and I know that they can swarm be like the almost-human zerglings that they are. In horror games, you generate anxiety around expectation, and Left 4 Dead 2 manages to do that with excess (here they all come!) rather than absence (a dark, spooooky room).
No one else seems to have taken that banner up and run with it. Give us rat nests teeming with denizens. Did the roguelike take this design space? Is stapling it to the weird world of the team shooter feel too rip-offy for the contemporary game designer. Who knows? The game is scary.