“We kind of pushed on that with the wandering infected, how they stumble around and vomit and just look like they’re having the worst flu ever. We wanted that combination of pity and ‘it could be me’ with ‘this is horrible’ and then ‘Oh my God, here they come, we have to survive’.” Indeed, German censors were so appalled by the juxtaposition that they ordered the ‘passive’ animations cut. If a German player joins your online session, the zombies will stop lying down. They’ll still try to kill you, though.
Ask Valve staff what they were most afraid of during the years the game was in development and the answer isn’t zombies, or Boomers or even the Witch. It’s the real-life players for whom they designed the experience. Back in 2005, online co-op was still such a new game mode that nobody was certain L4D would survive its encounter with the unpredictability of human behaviour. While the AI Director crafted the drama with scientific precision, it amounted to little if the game didn’t encourage its players to invest in the fiction.
“We had no idea whether in the wild random people would go out of their way to let somebody out of a closet [the chosen respawn point for dead players in campaign mode],” admits Booth. “We really pushed the design of the game so that you wanted to have that extra gun and it worked.”
In playtests, Counter-Strike veterans often found it hard to adapt to the game’s strategies for forcing co-operation. “They would ignore their team and run off with just a pistol – ‘I’m going to do the Rambo thing’,” Faliszek groans. Of course, they were quickly pounced on by a Hunter, something that underlined the role of the Special Infected in promoting group cohesion. Boomers, Smokers, Hunters, the Witch and the Tank were all designed to break up the group – thereby forcing players to stick together more.
Cohesion was so important that when ideas were floated about the possibility of dead players joining the horde, the developers decided against it. “It’s in the zombie canon: don’t get bit or you’ll turn,” says Booth. “Honestly, there is a lot of really interesting gameplay fodder there. Like, if you knew you had been bitten and you’re going to turn in five minutes, do you tell your team yet or not? Frankly, though, that’s a different game.” Faliszek agrees: “It’s like in Team Fortress when you get team swap at a bad time and you get mad. We really wanted the survivors always to know that the person on their team was going to have their backs; they were working for them, working with them.”
When the game was released in November 2008, the impact of the co-op approach was quickly felt. One surprise was the unprecedented number of female players who ventured into the traditionally testosterone-soaked world of the online shooter. “I think it’s one of the first games where you’re not just playing but being social, and helping each other in a very direct way that is meaningful,” Booth suggests, then adds with a chuckle: “I’m proud that we’ve prepared future generations for a zombie apocalypse.”