Left 4 Dead co-creator Chet Faliszek, who also worked on the Half-Life series and Portal, recently posted a video to TikTok discussing aspects of the development of the premiere co-op zombie shooter. Seriously: How are we in 2023 and no-one has managed to top these games yet?
Faliszek on this occasion was reminiscing about something that may seem pretty incidental: the box art. Left 4 Dead has a striking cover image that is also a kind of gory joke, where a hand is superimposed on a bright green background but with the thumb having been ripped off. Took them a while to get there though, and the starting point was the artwork for Steven Spielberg’s Band of Brothers, which has a vastly different mood.
The reminiscing was inspired by a tweet from the Valve Archive account, which dug out a pretty bad early concept for the cover that, per Faliszek, was even tested in some stores. “The box cover meeting was brutal,” said Faliszek. “I was unprepared and got my ass handed to me for being sure what I didn’t think worked, but not being able to express clearly why.”
Oh god…The box cover meeting was brutal… I was unprepared and got my ass handed to me for being sure what I didn’t think worked but not being able to express clearly why…Learned a ton that dayThis is from a later group and we actually tested some of these in stores. https://t.co/ilbkGh1C1qMay 17, 2023
Faliszek says he knew the meeting was coming, but did not prepare for it. “The Band of Brothers photo was the first one shown. I didn’t like it, and I was unable to express why I didn’t like it because of a couple of things. One, I had not lifted my head up. I had not looked up and seen where the project was with everyone else.”
“Gabe [Newell] was across from me, the door was over there. I had screwed up, and Gabe was not letting me off the hook. I had not prepared for this and I was not ready. So not only was I not looking up, but also, I had not expressed to the team the vision, the feeling, the guts of the game.”
Faliszek essentially couldn’t put the game in a nutshell, in a meeting about that very thing: How are we going to sell this product, get across the basic idea to people, on the front cover? Partly it was that Left 4 Dead had a pretty unusual vibe itself, being focused on camaraderie and cooperation as well as horrible apocalypse where you all might die. Faliszek also puts it down to his own lack of experience and confidence in asserting a creative vision to a room of people that made Half-Life 2.
“Valve had made Half-Life 2 and beautiful things that are like symphony orchestras, and they’re near perfection,” said Faliszek. “[Left 4 Dead] was college rock bands and getting too drunk so that you’d puke off the side, and it’s the greatest time anyone ever had. And I was scared to say that. I don’t come from a family of creatives. We don’t make movies. And so it was weird that in this room I was allowed to say things like ‘oh, no, you’re wrong, this is not it.’”
Faliszek got worked-over by Gabe Newell, and indeed has spoken before of how rigorously Newell interrogated the ideas behind the game: At one stage even going so far as to wonder whether the zombie-blasting survival game needed zombies at all.
“At this time I was getting beat up. Gabe talked to me afterward about it to see if it was okay because he likes to have these kinds of meetings where he can be very clear with people. And he was being very clear with people that I let him down, and he was right, I did. And I was like ‘yeah, that’s great,’ because I learned so much from that. It imprinted on me that I’m allowed to own this, I’m allowed to be creative, I’m allowed to talk about this.”
Thus was some great box art for a great game born, with Faliszek eventually realising that the contradictions in the game were kinda the whole character of it. “It’s a zombie apocalypse with your friends, right?”
Faliszek ends: “It’s this horrific thing, but with your friends, so it’s a good time. All of these kinds of things came out of that. And it only came out of that not because I was smart enough to talk about that ahead of time, but because Gabe dragged it out of me and he pushed me on it. That was great, and I’ve kept that lesson since then.”
Left 4 Dead remains, sadly, on that special Valve cycle of permanent hiatus. There may well be a Left 4 Dead 3 at some point, and every so often the rumour mill churns up, but it doesn’t look likely. Those of you obsessed with the number 3 should perhaps focus on Portal instead, whose writer Eric Wolpaw is currently running a blatant campaign to get Valve to make the threequel: Good luck Eric. But Gabe wants to know why it needs portals anyway.