Left 4 Dead represented a turning point in how I socialise through games. In 2008, LAN parties were still around and I had a good group I’d play games with at my old IT gig at the University of Montana. We’d take over the office after-hours and run through a list of custom Warcraft 3 games (a lot of the original Dota before I realised what a mistake I was making), some Quake and Unreal, Counter-Strike and the like. The common thread: all competitive. Worse, so was everyone in the room. Things got heated, and after a lifetime of football and wrestling coaches teaching me how to boil blood, I shut down the moment someone took a game too seriously. I still do.
Left 4 Dead changed the mood completely. We went in on a few of those early four-packs and spread them around. No one was particularly excited about Left 4 Dead, but it was a Valve game so we had to give it a go. We didn’t play anything else for the whole semester.
We started inviting more people to game nights because working together to survive a zombie apocalypse was a far more appealing activity than getting wiped by Mike in every game ever. Enough people of varying skill levels would show up to get a few groups going, each dancing with the AI director at their own lovely rhythm, bouncing between despair and hope. The screaming in the office shifted from anger to a chorus of yelping barely discernible as calls for help and ensuing thank-yous. Rather than end each session deflated, saying nothing and shambling off to our dorms, we’d stick around or walk somewhere together, maybe get food, breaking down a dramatic standoff at Dead Air’s refuelling finale, or how everything nearly went to shit in Blood Harvest’s cornfield sprint.
After mastering the campaigns, we entertained the idea of trying out the versus mode and, yeah, that had me worried. See above. Yelling. Fragility. I tensed up at the thought, but Left 4 Dead’s versus mode never dipped back into that volatile competitive mood. Coordinating the perfect Smoker pull and Hunter pin combo to split up the survivors always carried more of a pranking-your-pals energy than any spectre-of-my-disappointed-dad vibes. Versus was cunning and playful, hewing closer to hide-and-seek than the pure reflex-driven play of most competitive shooters. We stayed jubilant and friendly. The dingy basement IT office lit up with whooping and back claps like a damn mead hall. God I miss it.
It’s odd, seeing the LAN culture fade so quickly after one of the best LAN games I’d ever played was released. Forces beyond our little IT office’s control, I suppose. But it’s OK. Sometimes we’ll manage to get a fragment of the group together for some modded nightmare run of a custom L4D2 level, Teletubby hordes chasing us through Mario’s palace or something else normal like that. And with Back 4 Blood on the horizon, old text threads are creaking back into motion. I wonder if we’d be so adamant about keeping in touch if we kept playing Quake and DotA, pissing the bed with every bad game. Would I even lament the slow death of LAN, or would it be a relief to me?
Left 4 Dead made finding positive social connections in games a guiding principle for me, something I take into consideration with every multiplayer experience. Some genre fiction paved an avenue for amazing friendships. How great is that? And, yeah, we’ll never be in the same room together again, but that’s OK. A lobby’s a lobby.