**This is a paper I wrote back in 2014 on the first installment of the video game Left 4 Dead for an American Studies class on zombies in popular culture.**
The video game Left 4 Dead is a co-operative first-person shooter game with survival horror elements. The story is set after the apocalypse has passed, and zombies have already taken over. The majority of the human population has been turned into mindless, flesh-craving creatures by an outbreak of the Green Flu. The virus manifests as increased aggression and loss of most brain functions. There are some that are immune to the virus as well as some who are carriers that don’t show symptoms but can transmit the virus. A group of four survivors, all of which are immune, work together to survive the plague of the undead.
Left 4 Dead is geared towards a very general audience. The four main characters, or Survivors, range in age, background, and physical appearance. There is Bill the seasoned war veteran, Francis the biker, Louis the middle-class office worker, and Zoey the young college student. Players can choose from any of these characters. This version of the zombie apocalypse narrative is not a unique occurrence. It is capitalizing on the prevalence of zombies in popular culture. The game draws on its cinematic predecessors, venerating the zombie film in many ways. For instance, the focus on a small group of random, regular people forced to survive together is an obvious continuation of the tradition started by Romero in Night of the Living Dead. The zombies, in particular, recall the creatures from 28 Days Later, which are fast, agile, and aggressive. And perhaps Louis’s attire is a nod to the parody film Shaun of the Dead. Left 4 Dead also follows in the tradition of preceding zombie video games, such as Resident Evil, which established the survival horror evident in Left 4 Dead, and also draws inspiration from the cinematic traditions of zombie narratives (Chien).
The popularity of zombies in popular culture has become a global phenomenon. Zombie narratives appear in many forms including films, novels, comics, and video games. The majority of zombie films, made in the last decade, have come from many different countries around the world. Most of these stories deal with a similar message: co-operation is necessary to overcome the global threat of a zombie apocalypse. This aspect of teamwork during the apocalypse is one of the main successes of Left 4 Dead.
Zombies in this game range from the typical horde to heavily mutated creatures with special abilities. While the typical hordes are generally easy to escape from, going up against the special infected zombies requires teamwork in order to make it out alive. The Boomer is an extremely bloated zombie that will vomit on a survivor. It is a rather fragile zombie that will explode when hit, spraying dangerous bile and fluids on the survivors. Getting hit by the vomit will not cause a fatality but will temporarily blind a survivor and attracts a nearby horde of zombies. The general purpose of the Boomer is to slow down survivors and create general confusion, since the survivors tend to spread out to avoid the mutated zombie. Teamwork is necessary to defeat the Boomer if any of the survivors have been vomited on. Because of the temporary blindness caused by the vomit, a player must rely on the survivors to continue attacking any zombies that might attack. Unlike the robust Boomer, the Hunter is extremely agile. Their agility as well as strength allows Hunters to do a lot of damage to the survivors. They will jump onto a player to pin them down and claw at them. The only way to break free from a Hunter once it has pinned a player down is to wait for another player to push it off or kill it. And to avoid Hunters altogether it is best to avoid becoming separated from the rest o the survivors. The Smoker is a mutated zombie with an extremely long tongue, which it uses to grab any nearby survivors and either drag them or choke them. Its mutations also include growths on its skin, which will emit smoke when killed, hence the name Smoker. When the Smoker catches a player they only have a small amount of time to react. If they are unable to break free from the Smoker’s grip then they have to wait for another survivor to save them. Also, once a Smoker grabs a survivor they become much more vulnerable and easier to kill, making teamwork not only helpful but beneficial as well. The Tank is perhaps the most powerful of all special infected zombies. Despite its abnormal amount of muscle mass, the Tank is fast and agile; survivors can only outrun a tank if they are at a good health level when they encounter one in the game. The Tank exhibits extreme amounts of rage and is easily provoked. And because of its extreme strength as well as agility, the survivors must work together in order to take it down. Although unfortunate for the victim, the Tank pursues only one survivor at a time, providing the other survivors with the opportunity to attack. Last but not least is the Witch. This is the most powerful of the special infected zombies, as she can take out a survivor with one hit. She is usually passive in the presence of survivors, but will attack when provoked. Usually, the Witch occupies narrow hallways so avoiding contact is not an option and the survivors must come up with a plan of attack. It is impossible to take on a Witch alone, so working with the other survivors is essential.
Gameplay is more exciting when multiple players are involved. Relying on the computer to control your teammates, with one player leading the group, will not get you as far. According to a review featured on IGN Entertainment, the game is built around co-operative multiplayer action. Editor and author of the review Jason Ocampo states “This is a game that comes to life when you play with at least one other human player, and it’s even better is there are four humans in each game.” Ocampo concludes that working with others in the game is what makes it exciting and ultimately succeed. He goes on to say that if there aren’t enough human players, the AI will fill in when necessary. But he claims that working with the AI can be problematic since they are passive and must be lead through each level (Ocampo). But, if you’re playing with other humans you can communicate with them to make it through the levels more effectively.
The heavy emphasis on co-operative multiplayer action in Left 4 Dead may reflect concerns over global politics. Daniel Drezner, a professor of international relations at Tufts University, took notice of this cultural phenomenon of zombies. In his article “Night of the Living Wonks,” Drezner claims that there are many sources of fear in world politics, but recently an unnatural problem has become a growing concern in international relations (Drezner 34). There are many possible reasons for why this obsession with the undead has become so prevalent, but Drezner is more concerned with how world politics would approach the problem if the dead do end up rising from their graves. Drezner provides three views of how world politics might approach a zombie apocalypse, which are realism, liberalism, and neo-conservatism. In the realist view, international relations would be largely unaffected by an invasion of flesh-eating monsters, viewed as just another plague (Drezner 37). Overall, global politics would remain unchanged in a realist view as countries deal with their own problems. The liberal approach to fighting off a zombie invasion would be working together is the best possible option. However, the liberal approach would become vulnerable in a post-apocalyptic world where there is no common threat to fight against. A neo-conservatism approach would involve an aggressive and militarized response, eliminating the zombie threat swiftly (Drezner 38).
It could be assumed that Left 4 Dead exemplifies, even advocates the liberal approach to a zombie invasion. The emphasis on multiplayer action supported by the various threats encountered by players throughout the game requiring teamwork to succeed is a perfect example supporting a liberal approach in international relations. The only way to succeed in the game is to work together. However, as Drezner points out in his article, there are flaws to every approach. Liberalism might work well during a zombie apocalypse, but what would happen to Bill, Francis, Louis, and Zoey once the threat is eliminated. Although the future already looks bleak in Left 4 Dead, with a severe lack of survivors, this diverse group of characters may not get along as well when they only have each other to deal with. Once the zombies are eradicated, there may no longer be a common threat that requires working together. In more general terms, Left 4 Dead reflects the popularity of the undead in today’s culture zeitgeist and possibly advocates for a certain approach to international relations if the threat actually manifested.
Chien, Irene. “Playing Undead.” Film Quarterly 61 (2007). Accessed December 2, 2014.
Drezner, Daniel W. “Night of the Living Wonks.” Foreign Policy 180 (2010): 34-38.
Ocampo, Jason. “Left 4 Dead (Game of the Year Edition) Review.” Review of Left 4 Dead. IGN Entertainment, May 21, 2009. http://www.ign.com/articles/2009/05/21/left-4-dead-game-of-the-year-edition-review.