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A few months ago, I wrote my very first gaming column. It was filled with innocence and whimsy. That's because I wrote it before my full-blown Left 4 Dead addiction kicked in. For those of you who don't know, the Left 4 Dead series allows you to assume the identity of one of four characters, killing zombies in an overrun city, swamp, mall, amusement park ... until you make it to safety. More importantly, since it came into my life, I've been a quivering zombie-killing junkie. And I'm jonesing for the rumored third installment -- although in my day, if you wanted to make a video game sequel, you had to add breasts. (Or at least a red ribbon.)


Even more bizarre? I don't even play online. I'm so busy these days that I just find like 20 minutes here or there. One level before bed, a break while paying bills, whatever I can manage. I simply don't have the time to call up a bunch of friends to get online and play a full collaborative game. (Or friends.) So yes, I'm addicted to Left 4 Dead even though I'm using the game's virtual teammates to help me play.

I can hear you now: "Why?"

Well, it looks cool, and it's fun, and it's violent, and, y'know, zombies.

Then I can hear you say: "No, I mean, why are you telling us this, old man? What's your point?"

Oh, my point is, Left 4 Dead has done more than entertain me; it's taught me about life. There are many valuable lessons in its code, all there for the taking, and I'm going to explain them all to you right now so I can pretend I'm not wasting my life playing video games in my basement.

Stay Away from Crazy Bitches

One of the cool things about Left 4 Dead is that it features a variety of zombies. And some of them, or indeed most of them, make no damn sense. But that's part of the fun. One of the zombies is referred to as a Witch. She looks like this:

Not Fiona Apple.

Here's the thing about the Witch. All she wants to do is sit alone and cry. If you don't go near her, she won't hurt you. Step too close, however, and she will literally tear your fucking eyes out. Sorta like this:

The Witch is a lot like that hot-but-borderline-anorexic chick from your freshman dorm. The one you'll get an instant crush on during orientation, but then one day, in the middle of the semester, you'll notice she hasn't bathed or changed clothes for three days. Her room is a mess of cigarette butts and uneaten pizza, and like the Witch in Left 4 Dead, she will absolutely destroy you. You need to stay away.

There is no way to help the Witch. It's also almost impossible to put her out of her misery quickly before she drags you down and reduces you to a bloody lifeless corpse.

LIFE LESSON: Stay away from crazy bitches.

Running Away Is Never Good Enough

As I'll discuss further below, Left 4 Dead, much like life itself, values a little bit of pragmatic cowardice. Most of the time, however, Left 4 Dead will punish you for being a pure coward. The best example of this is the zombie known as Tank. Why do they call him Tank? Well, because they'd be sued for copyright infringement if they called him what he really is: Zombie Hulk.

"Hulk Smash. I mean, Tank Smash. I mean, braaaaaaaaaaaaaaainnnnnnnnns."

It takes a team to bring down Tank. If you take him on alone, you will die. If you simply run away and let your teammates deal with him, most of the time you will die. In the beginning of the first Left 4 Dead game, there is a little explanatory vignette. Tank comes hauling ass, flipping cars and grunting. The four startled characters back away slowly, asking "Run or shoot? Run. Or. SHOOT?!" And the wise advice given by the old Vietnam vet is "BOTH!"

The best way to take down Tank is to run the hell away from him while still pumping him with bullets.

LIFE LESSON: Run away from trouble, but don't turn your back on it. Some problems are too big to face head on, alone. You need the help of friends, and you need to break it down in pieces. It's OK to take a few steps back, as long as you're still taking steps to move forward with a solution.

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Pay Attention to What People Say

So just going by Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2, there are a whole host of special attacks that can kill you besides just ordinary zombies. There are:

Boomers that puke on you and bring on an infestation;
Smokers who constrict you with insanely long tongues;
Tanks that beat you to death;
Witches that murderously claw you;
Hunters that move like Spider-Man and kill you;
Spitters that spew acid;
Chargers who are like half-Tanks that pummel you; and
Jockeys who ride you to your death.

Yeah, the Jockey zombie is just as ridiculous and stupid and awesome as it sounds.

And the thing is, each of these vehicles of death has either sound effects or theme music (or both). You get some heads up that trouble is coming. Boomers make gross vomity noises, Hunters growl like tigers, Jockeys giggle like frat boys on nitrous. If you're paying attention, you can prepare for trouble before it finds you. I like to squat when a Jockey's coming; I start firing whenever I hear a Hunter, even if I can't see him; and I proactively shit my pants the instant I hear a Witch crying.

LIFE LESSON: In life, there is an endless variety of things coming your way for the sole purpose of fucking you up, but if you're alert to your surroundings, your chances of defeating them are greatly increased.

Don't Give Up

What do Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, and Left 4 Dead zombies have in common?

They all teach you the important lesson: Don't give up.

"Hi, Gladstone, it's your boss, Jack O'Brien. I think it's great that you're writing about gaming, and that should really be appealing to our younger readers, but then you start #2 with a joke about a song that came out in 1986. I guess I'm just wondering ... what the fuck is wrong with you?"

Lots of messed up stuff can happen to you in Left 4 Dead. I've mentioned most of it already. But it's not uncommon to spend a substantial part of the game near dead, and as long as you keep on going, you'll find some extra ammo, another medical pack, or some additional weapons. Don't get me wrong: I've died in Left 4 Dead many, many, many times. Sometimes the game is completely rigged, hitting you at once with a Boomer, Hunter, and Tank. That's right. More than once I've been covered in zombie puke with a Hunter tearing my flesh off, only to survive and be pummeled to death by a Tank. But there are also enough moments to reward your faith and tenacity that you should never lose hope.

LIFE LESSON: Don't give up. That thing around the corner could just as likely be a good thing, rather than more trauma.

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Lead the Way (Sort Of)

I really like the message of #5 through #2. I think they're true and a totally fine way to live your life. (Even the part about avoiding crazy bitches.) But there is one very clear message in Left 4 Dead that, while it may be a genuine life lesson, is also cynical and depressing: Lead the way -- sort of.

What do I mean? Well, when you play the game with automated companions, you're forced to lead. If you rely on your teammates, you'll never reach the next safe room or final evacuation destination. And as I said before, the game will usually punish you for pure cowardice. If you run away from Tank and leave him for your friends, he'll incapacitate them, and then when he incapacitates you, there will be no one left to save you.

And this will be the last thing you ever see.

But, the game has no problem with you phoning it in. Lead the way, but then Tank comes? Oh, take a few shots, but put your three teammates between you and he. A Charger is coming? Back up and start shooting so it charges your teammates instead. Same thing with Jockeys. The game will punish you for abandoning your teammates, but it seems to reward you for kinda screwing them over while making a big show of helping out.

This is like the friend who disappears when a drunk starts something in a bar fight and then is all like, "No, man, I was getting the bouncer!" The game might be right. Things probably are better for people who behave this way. Political people are survivors, but I've rejected this message for the first half of my life, and I'm not going to become an asshole for the second half just because a video game tells me to.

LIFE LESSON: You don't have to do everything Xbox tells you.

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