I hate the Left 4 Dead games. I hate the sloppy hit-detection, the ALL CLIMAX NO PACING design philosophy, the lack of checkpoints, the broken-as-hell Director, the total lack of anything resembling a story or difficulty balance, the irritating "soundtrack", the infinite ammunition you can't turn off, the inability for the game's servers to maintain a connection even in ideal conditions, the functionally retarded friendly A.I. and the pretentious, fearsomely
stupid online community. These games were clearly taken out of the oven too soon. Too much is only half-finished, if even that. They're the sorriest excuses for entertainment I've ever seen come out of an accomplished company like Valve.
But I'm not here to discuss (at length, at least) the fundamental failings of the worst pair of games not currently titled "Kane & Lynch". I'm here to talk about the one thing that tries to lift this series out of the mud:
If it's one thing Valve knows, it's character design. A game as sparse as Portal featured more characterization than most of the gigantic, triple-A titles of our time. And the Half-Life series doesn't even need mentioning at this point (but I will anyway, because MWAHAHAHAHA). And a zombie apocalypse scenario is one of the best playgrounds for character design. So, even if the game they're featured in is a steaming bowl of rhinoceros shit, surely the characters were at least okay?
Today we'll take a look at the first game in the series, and a follow-up article will review the sequel's cast.
A gruff former Green Beret, Bill Overbeck is this game's "old grump with a heart of gold" trope often seen in monster movies. He also seems to fulfill a leadership role in the game's canon, despite the game's "everyone is the main character" angle. This authority could be a combination of his age and his military experience. You can clearly see this in the delightfully cheesy opening trailer where he not only gives orders, but characters ask for his counsel in moments of danger. His age, military experience and sensible head firmly plant him as the survivor's guide through their nightmare scenario. He was even meant to narrate the beginning of each of the 4 campaigns if discarded voice files and scripts are any indication.
Jim French. For a character who isn't explored quite as well as he could've been, he gave Bill a voice that does double-duty. Just his vocal chords alone paint him as a character totally unique from any other old veteran cliche in zombie media. Hell, I think of Bill as the definitive
version of that trope. That, and his design is just all manner of perfect for this character.
Jim French. Or rather, he didn't work again. When it came time for a reprisal, Valve had so much trouble contacting the guy, they decided it would be easier to just kill off the character. This may be why the hype for The Passing DLC resulted in such an awkwardly brief scene at the end of what looks like a 1-2 hour long campaign. You could tell shoe-horning occurred.
There was a rumour going around that Jim French didn't have time to reprise the role, which is clearly bullshit, because the man spends all of his free time in recording studios (he's in radio). And the total letdown of the cameo appearances in the second game would have awarded him maybe 3 or 4 lines anyway. Not a lot of work for a paycheck, especially in video games, where the workload is usually akin to reading the entire Bible out loud, twice.
My guess? Jim French got sick and tired of people recognizing his voice and yelling "PILLS HERE!".
Apparently, that's coming in the new DLC "The Sacrifice", although after how utterly "meh" The Passing turned out, I'm not getting my hopes up.
Three point five beards out of five!
Zoey is the runt of the litter, and the token female. A thin, dorky college girl who wasted her first year watching horror movies instead of... whatever it is people do at College (embroidery?). Since she is the only woman any of the characters have seen that was not also trying to eat them, they tend to look out for her. Even throwaway lines in the script support this. She is literally the future of the human race in the context of these four survivors.
I'm not sure where I heard this, so don't quote me on it, but I heard once that she comes from a rich family. Which would make her attitude and choice of attire all the more intriguing.
What Worked: What didn't work? She's a pretty character who doesn't feel like an unapproachable bitch, dresses casually and sensibly, and has a sense of humour while still appreciating the seriousness of her situation. In a medium obsessed with portraying women as balloon animals, here's a gal who's just one of the guys. She's a movie buff who occasionally quotes lines from Aliens and Planet of the Apes for fun. Hey, like a REAL WOMAN WHO MIGHT PLAY THIS GAME. I'm baffled that it's taken this long for a game developer to try this.
That, and despite being a tiny little thing, she actually does look and feel like she can hold her own in this team. I myself have played as this character more than anyone else in the series, because a strong, but not superhuman female character is exactly the kind of design philosophy popular culture needs more of.
Even Jen Taylor (who you might remember as the insufferable ear poison from the Halo games) couldn't screw this one up. I don't think Taylor sounds like a college girl, but she makes me believe that this is how Zoey sounds. In a game loaded with top-notch voice talent, this casting choice was the most pleasant surprise. Sometimes the weird choice is the one that works.
What Didn't: Unfortunately, this didn't stop horny bastards from making a nude patch(which gave her a boob job and... whatever the equivalent of a butt-job is). Not unlike all of the people who "sexy up" Alyx Vance or the chick from Mirror's Edge when drawing fan-art. Namely, people whose only experience interacting with the opposite sex is shouting at their mother that they're too busy playing World of Warcraft to empty the cat-bin.
Oh, and that nude patch? It came out AFTER they did one for the Boomer. Apparently the modders absolutely had to see the fat, gross, pustule-covered monster naked before the cute chick. Way to go, internet.
Shining Moment: While early plans for her and Francis to be an item were dropped, character interactions suggest something between her and Louis. Nothing solid or obvious, but a -spark- that makes the two of them a lot more interesting than they could have been.
Four point five Seths out of five!
Commentary: A biker separated from his gang, who sees the zombie apocalypse as "one big bar fight". He puts up a big game, but you can tell he gets emotionally attached to these weirdos(even the ones he doesn't always get along with). He's the most physically fearsome member of the foursome, even if he does go through half the game thinking they're fighting vampires.
I call him "Francisco Scaramanga". Or "Franie". HURR
What Worked: A commenter on the Steam forums put it best:
"Did anyone looking at this game before release expect this guy would be the comic relief?"
While a lot of games have big, bulky meatheads as the main character, Francis distances himself from those Unreal-Engine cardboard cutouts. He is no clone. He is a clown. But he doesn't realize it. That's just him as he is. The best lines in the game come from him, and Vince Valenzuela delivers them as well as anyone possibly could.
What Didn't: His taste in women is the worst ever.
Shining Moment: Toss-up. Either it's the time he impersonates a police officer on a radio to convince the army to rescue them, or "Francis Hates Left 4 Dead". If you're one of the two people who haven't seen it (Hi Mom!), youtube dat.
Four vests out of five!
Commentary: Even more of a nerd than Zoey, Louis is the token minority of the group. He's an I.T. man, working in his 20's (I think) who doesn't seem all that imposing or capable of surviving the situation he's in. He could have easily been an intolerable "Chris Tucker" character, or one of those Jerry Bruckheimer "Wacky Black Guys" Seanbaby once wrote about. The one who is loud, 1-dimensional and gets the Aryan Supermen into every instance of trouble they encounter. Lord knows the trailer tried to paint him in this light. When I first saw him, I thought he looked like a cartoon character. Like a character from a Mad TV skit from any of the last 7 seasons. Fortunately...
What Worked: ...he's the best character in the game. Little by little, he grew on me. He seems so benign and un-noteworthy at first, but then you start to hear certain lines that paint this character's history in richer detail. His backstory is perhaps the clearest of all of the characters. He hates his job. He works in a place where the co-workers laugh at him for taking out his frustrations with the world at the shooting range. The thought of him carrying a gun must seem hilarious to them. And then I think about what it must be like to be a black man like him in a predominantly white society. How he speaks to others, how he acts, even something as little as his lack of hair could have been dictated by a need to fit into a White Man's world and get a scrap for himself.
This really brings his optimistic friendliness in-game into a new light. He's not like that to everyone. We see now that he just happens to like these guys, understands the severity of the circumstance and wants them to get out. But think of the asshole he must have seemed at his workplace. To people who didn't spend the time with him that Bill, Zoey and Francis have. How about that? A seemingly unremarkable, "ordinary" man, possibly trying to deal with personal bullshit, within and out. If that sounds familiar, I've just described everyone ever.
This might be why in a recent poll, fans felt his events prior to the infection would be the least interesting: We know Louis already, we know him as well as we know anyone, while the others are still at least something of a mystery.
And Zoey. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, and into their lines in certain situations, but I'm willing to bet his "plans" for survival included her, in the most pathetic and touching way. For a game with no actual "story", that's really something.
What Didn't: They had 3 characters to choose from in The Passing to have suffer a serious injury. Of course it's the black guy.
Shining Moment: Don't even pretend to not know. While I think Bill is the face of Left 4 Dead (and even then, you could say the same for any of them and not be wrong), for many Louis is the mascot of Left 4 Dead. My first real exposure to this series was Earl Alexander's immortal, unbelievably enthusiastic delivery of that one line. In fact, I don't think there's a single line of his I didn't like. There was no person better prepared to make this character so imitate-able, AND still maintain a level of dignity.
Five PEELZ out of five!
Conclusion? This should've been a movie instead. Or a comic. Or anything besides a video game. The fiction is the only part of these games that didn't make me want to burn down Valve's corporate headquarters. These four deserve a lot better.
It's like, imagine if the Mega Man series had the same character designs, but they were only featured in "Shadow the Hedgehog", and if that game were only available for the Atari 2600. Fortunately, there's like twelve separate fan-film versions in the works, so at least something useful can be scavenged from this franchise.
Later, I'll take a stab at the cast of Left 4 Dead 2. If you're a fan of these games and are upset by my commentary here, honey, you ain't seen nothin' yet.