Every now and again there comes a game that transcends the standard formula; a game that stands out not only for its technical achievements or its compelling gameplay, but for its message. In the case of Left 4 Dead, it is a staggering message indeed. Beneath the dazzling sheen of pixels and the engrossing, unsettling atmosphere lies something terribly subversive: a veritable call to arms against the very system that birthed it.
Karl Marx posited that Capitalism, through its contradictions and its deformities, would bring about its own end. In the world of Left 4 Dead, we see these deformities made manifest in a world laid to ruin by a "pandemic" -- a virus that spreads like wildfire, transforming ordinary people into the walking dead. It takes little effort to see the parallel to the Marxist view of Capitalism: ever-hungry, spreading to all corners of the Earth, despoiling and perverting all it touches.
Rather than a purely static level design, Left 4 Dead's approach echoes what the radical historian Michael Parenti described as a "dynamic interrelationship" between opposing forces. In other words, the player can effectively experience a "new" variation with each round. But the dynamic is just that: a variation. The system retains its essential form -- and by extension, its essential deformities -- a telling observation that whatever minor changes may come to the appearance of Capitalism, the whole of its substance remains the same.
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The game allows for two different gameplay modes: cooperative and competitive. While the competitive arena certainly serves an educational purpose by allowing the player to take on the hideous appearance of the enemy and learn their traits, it is the cooperative mode that makes the experience memorable. Rather than pitting man against man, as it the primary focus in so many online multiplayer games, Left 4 Dead encourages players to band together in common cause against the anonymous, hungry masses that constitute the Horde. Lashing out at the protagonists, they fight tooth and nail, claw and fang, against all who would strip them of their miserable and impoverished state. Marxists define this as "false consciousness" -- promoting in the masses a way of living that actively works against their own self-interest -- something that the game designers have cleverly taken literally in the form of zombies and their own "false consciousness." Behind these myriad foes lies a faceless adversary: The Director. The archetypal Capitalist, his bidding is done the by Horde who, believing they are operating with some purpose -- the annihilation of "the other" -- find themselves unaware that it is the Director's invisible hand that tugs their puppet-strings. But to caricature the whole of the the Horde as nothing than a ravenous multitude not only does the message a disservice; it makes for a rather dull game. So to shake things up, the creators gifted us with mini-bosses rich in their own symbolism.
The Boomer lumbers about clumsily -- hideous and overfed -- a physical representation of the excesses of consumer culture. The spewing of his slime, like so much vomited, over-produced garbage, draws the attention of the flocking masses. The Witch sympathetic facade is shattered upon even the slightest disturbance, showing the ruthlessness with which the system dispatches its enemies. The Smoker emerges from a Toxic cloud, emblematic of Capitalism's vices, to literally choke the life out of the survivors. The Hunter's appearance and mannerisms leave little to the imagination. A hooded street-crawler who pins the survivor to the ground before unleashing a savage and merciless assault, he represents the petty street criminal -- one marginalized and left behind by an unjust system -- resigned to a life of preying on his fellow man, rather than turning his energy against the root of his woes: The Director. Most feared of all is the Tank, the most dehumanized of all. His muscular physique and deep, powerful battle cry beams masculinity, and his penchant for attacking players with merciless and unrelenting brutality makes him the perfect symbol of Fascism.
Despite the vileness of the player's adversaries, one might take issue with the seemingly violent and extreme solution that seems so apparent throughout the game. But the creators surely don't advocate the mass-murder prescribed by Stalin and his ilk. Rather, the "purge" in Left 4 Dead is a purely symbolic one: The annihilation of all the ultimately fatal trappings of the Capitalist system. In short, this is not a war against the Infected as beings in their own right; it is a war against the ideas they represent. Only a radical reformation, the purging of those characteristics embodied by the "Infected," can redeem the world of men.
The game brilliantly divulges very little about our protagonists. In revolution there are no operatic heroes, and their apparent lack of a "fleshed out" backstory reflects this cold fact. But what little the creators have divulged paints a picture of an oppressed class. Bill, a gruff Vietnam veteran, represents the abused soldier sent to wage war for the benefit of his owning-class masters. Louis comes to us as the nine-to-five office drone -- the de-facto middle class that plays such an integral part in radical change. Francis takes on the role of the roguish underclass, the aimless drifter who finds his calling in the service of revolution. Zoey is arguably the most interesting of the four. Like the young student radical who sees her visions made manifest in the form of Capitalism's overthrow, Zoey's fascination with horror films finds her well-suited for a world in which her own visions come to life.
But the grandest irony of all comes not through the subtle symbolism of the game, but in its manufacture and distribution through the Capitalist system itself. Valve, in its own short-sighted self-interest has allowed the revolutionary message to be spread through its own channels. This once again echoes the Marxist notion that Capitalism, though its constant lust for the next quick dollar, will send itself headlong into oblivion for the benefit of its bottom line. As an old revolutionary once said: "The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them."