Friday, April 10, 2009

L4D 4Life

I've always been a big fan of Steam, Valve Software's digital distribution platform, but there's one feature that I find unsettling.

It tells me how long I've spent playing.

It came to my attention a couple of weeks ago that I'd spent 30 hours (of the previous two weeks) playing "Left4Dead," Valve's popular co-op zombie apocalypse game.

I essentially had a part time job destroying the undead. Not even a job really, because I wasn't getting paid. I had an internship. (I'm using had only because the number is now down to a mere 10 hours out of the last two weeks.)

Zombie stories are frequently used as social commentary, most notably in the movies of George A. Romero. I guess when your genre has given you free reign to show humanity at it's most desperate, social commentary can really sneak up and get into your mind

 . . . like a zombie would, I guess.

But I'm always trying to figure people out, to find their "thesis," so I tend to treat creative works as the author's waking dream. And that's why, as I was spending all that time playing Left 4 Dead, I had a revelation about why zombies have remained such an appealing topic.

Left 4 Dead has a set of special "super zombies" that you have to manage.

"The Hunter" is always in a black hoodie, he leaps at you and pins you to the ground.

"The Smoker" has a stream of smoke pouring off of him, and he strikes from a distance by lashing out his long tongue and dragging you away.

"The Boomer" is a big, fat, burping thing that vomits on you, which attracts a rush of regular zombies.

"The Witch" lies crying in a heap, but if you disturb her, she'll scream and knock you down.

"The Tank" is a huge beast that's big on damage and defense.

What I found interesting about these five was how I started seeing them in real life. "The Hunter" looks an awful lot like the gang banger (or kid who wants to look like a gang banger) that you tense up around at Kroger. "The Smoker" is not so a not-so-subtle reference to cigarette smokers, who can annoy you from a distance. "The Boomer" is an exaggerated form of all the most unpleasant bodily functions. "The Witch" reminds me a lot of some tantrum-prone children at the supermarket. "The Tank" is . . . I don't know, an SUV? Let's go with that.*

When I look at this lineup of villains in the context of a game that's already about hordes of reanimated humans, it shows me one thing.

Zombies aren't about our fear of death. They're about our fear of humanity. Zombie stories are tales of people trying to survive against hordes of other (albeit undead) people. 

This is the nightmare world of the malcontent. This is how super antisocial people see the world. They're so afraid of other people that they stop viewing them as human, and think of them as mindless monsters.

*If I think of a way to fold auto-shotguns into the metaphor, I'll let you know.

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