Crispy Gamer

Save Yourselves!: A Left 4 Dead Multiplayer Diary

Contributors: Scott Alexander, Russ Fischer, Scott Jones, Kyle Orland

Save Yourselves!: A Left 4 Dead Multiplayer Diary

Don't let this poster mislead you. There were problems all right?

I've played so much Left 4 Dead since release that I understand what the zombie gibberish means: "Hey, this isn't so bad. Sure, my wiener fell off, but I don't have to go to work tomorrow. Or pay taxes. I'm so damn hungry all the time, though! There's Bob from Accounting. He sure seems to be enjoying those brains?"

As Crispy's own Russ Fischer said in his Left 4 Dead review, Valve's first-person shooter really stands out as a multiplayer title. I decided to round up a few Game Trusters in a Versus mode session and see how we did pitting ourselves against each other. Once all the shooting and barfing stopped, we'd reflect on our shared experience. Let's call this an experiment to see how our attention-addled gamer brains process gameplay.

Pre-game

David Thomas -- I like to call him the Mile High Marvel -- can't join us because of broadband problems.

Scott Jones
Jones: I personally think he got scared.
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Only later will I realize what an omen this turns out to be. There's lots of chatter in the lobby -- no real trash-talking, but meaningful conversation in a game lobby is like trying to recite the "Pledge of Allegiance" at a Metallica concert: People recognize some words, but they don't really hear enough to understand what you're saying.

Scott Jones
Jones: As we also discussed in the lobby, no one sounds like himself over Xbox Live; Scott Alexander, for example, sounds exactly like a 400-pound transvestite for some inexplicable reason.

After I choose the level, the assembled players pick sides. Once I yell really loudly into my headset, the game starts.

Russ Fischer
Fischer: Downside of Live's party system: We had a full lobby; some were in a party Evan had started, others weren't. The two groups couldn't communicate. Being in the same lobby, that's just silly. Also: I'm chastised for choosing Louis. What can I say? I dig his "Shaun of the Dead" style. He's got the best, most desperate "reloading!" cry.

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Campaign: Blood Harvest

Team Fischer:

Russ Fischer

Kyle Orland

Scott Alexander's friend, Greg

(My friend Marc Bernardin, an editor at Entertainment Weekly, joins later.)

Team Narcisse:

Scott Alexander

Scott Jones

Evan Narcisse

(Scott Alexander's friend, Jeremy, joins later.)

Chapter 1: The Woods

I start as Infected. What can I say? I'm Haitian and playing as a zombie (or zonbi, as we say it in Kreyol) appeals to the Vodun in my DNA. There's lots of befuddled conversation as Jones tries to figure out the Infected attacks. "I'm a Hunter! What can I do?" We win as Infected, but it was chaos. My best moment came as a Hunter, killing an artificial-intelligence Francis. I didn't expect to slay a computer character, so I'm feeling pretty cocky.

Kyle Orland
Orland: Starting as the Survivors, we're a goddamned mess this round. I blame our AI teammate, Francis, who refuses to respond when I yell "Hunter!" into my headset. Then again, he has better aim than any of the humans on our team, so maybe I shouldn't be so tough on him, even though he was the only one not to make it through. I'm playing with a couple of people I've never really met, but it's still much more coordinated than playing with random strangers on Xbox Live. I feel like we're really invested in each others' success, rather than just looking for something to do.
Scott Jones
Jones: First time as an Infected is confusing as all hell. I found myself envying the humans. They seemed to know where to go and what to do. Instead, I'm floating around as a blue ghost-like thing looking for a safe place to spawn (you have to be out of the humans' line of sight). It is, however, genuinely funny to watch one of your teammates totter around as a Boomer. I tried to send my Boomer barf in the direction of the humans. But instead of it landing in Fischer's lap, it lands on a tree. Then someone shoots me. Then I have to wait about 20 seconds to respawn. First impressions: Being the Infected sucks ass.
Russ Fischer
Fischer: Knowing now how uncoordinated Team Narcisse was, I'm doubly embarrassed that we were fargin' pwned in this round. We went down like the tower in Drunken Jenga. I blame myself for spawning continually as a Hunter, at which I suck. Playing those creatures is a lot like playing the Alien in the old Aliens versus Predator games, at which I also sucked. Kyle Orland does his best to keep us together (the team should really bear his name) but it's a failure. Screw that; since we failed, I'm keeping the team name.

Sides switch and we're the Survivors now. Our plan is to move quickly through the level, so as not to give the Infected a chance to spawn in optimal conditions. And that plan works! We win as humans, despite a bold last-minute stand by our opponents. We get pounced on and ensnared, but the Safe House's right behind us. The door closes and panic turns into elation. I wouldn't say there's a leader yet, but when you're this good, who needs one?

Russ Fischer
Fischer: As the Infected, we couldn't get it together any more than as humans. Uncoordinated attacks strung out our individual efforts like mosquito bites, easily slapped away. We never managed to swarm.

Kyle Orland
Orland: None of us seems to have any real strategy on the zombie end -- we're just spawning as soon as possible and attacking together in threadbare fashion. By the end we realize that we should coordinate our attacks to be more effective, but at that point they've already gotten to the Safe House and opened up a huge, 200-plus point lead. Crap!


Chapter 2: The Tunnel

Save Yourselves!: A Left 4 Dead Multiplayer Diary

The Boomer: A face (and lots of bile-filled pustules) only Kyle Orland could love.

We start off as the undead again, and I spawn as Boomer. Scott Alexander notes that the advantage of starting a round as Infected is that you get to do reconnaissance and pick your spots. I do just that, and projectile-puke on Mr. Orland. Where's your Press Pass now, big man?! I rack up 20-some-odd assists before my corpulence gets blown to chunks.

Kyle Orland
Orland: The absolute low point for us as Survivors came this round. I thought we were doing pretty well to start, actually, tearing our way through a bunch of AI zombies and wondering why the other team wasn't attacking with their special zombies. I didn't have to wonder long, though, as the other team waits until we've got a Witch on our hands to launch its coordinated pounce. The rest of the level is a mess of Boomer vomit, Hunter pounces and desperate screaming for help on my part. Getting taken down after less than half the level is not going to help us make up that lead.

I say to my teammates that I'm going to respawn behind the Survivors. Jones giggles, "Spawn in the back room, that what's she said!"

Scott Jones
Jones: There was a little room just behind the humans. And since this level is largely outdoors, the only place you could get out of the humans' line of sight is to go into the back room. So I kept saying, "Go into the back room to respawn!" Which, even 24 hours later, makes me laugh a little.

My friend Marc Bernardin jumps into the other team about halfway through the level and promptly kills me as I pounce around like a circus tiger. Someone on their team startles a Witch, I think.

Russ Fischer
Fischer: The Witch was our undoing. She was crouching right in the doorway of the little room you enter before triggering a Crescendo moment, and between her claws, some good attacks from Team Narcisse, and the insistent Horde, we were raw material for a burger chain.

We immediately take advantage of their chaos. I have a nice bit as a stealthy Boomer, successfully retching once and hiding until my bile replenishes to do it again. Then ? "You are about to become the Tank." Best news I've gotten all day. Get ready for Narcisse Smash, fools!

And ? this Tank shoots nothing but blanks, apparently. I didn't even get one hit in! How come Tanks are so fearsome when the AI controls them? I'll need to talk about this with my clergyman on Sunday. I do a bit more Boomer ballet, prancing around as much as my bile-filled belly will allow. Jones remarks, "You're very spry for a Boomer." Then, of course, I get shotgunned out of existence.

Kyle Orland
Orland: I feel like we learned from the other team's zombie attacks, though. Everyone (including the newcomer who replaced the AI Francis) called out what kind of zombie they were, and we tried to use that to our advantage in attacking simultaneously and in the same area. I'm a little bit miffed that I haven't gotten to be a Boomer yet, especially since my Boomer teammates can't seem to hit the broad side of a barn with their vomit. We actually win the round on points by stopping them relatively quickly, but our eight-point margin isn't gonna make up our deficit. We need to do better at surviving!
Save Yourselves!: A Left 4 Dead Multiplayer Diary

This guy really wanted to be the one to kill Russ Fischer. Varsity Jacket Zombie will have his revenge on thee, Scott Alexander!

Jones and I both reincarnate as Hunters. We unconsciously tag-team the Survivors. It's like a college co-ed's worst frat house nightmare: Once you get rid of the guy on top of you, there's another slavering monster ready to take his place. I pounce on Russ Fischer and then Marc, and kill both in rapid succession to help win the round. I should have this kind of bloodlust when I do my grocery shopping. "That's my avocado, lady!"

Scott AlexanderAlexander: Playing as a zombie was a far more gleeful experience than I expected. When you start out un-spawned, invisible among the Survivors, there's a wonderful feeling of superiority, immediately supplanted by the thought, "What would be the most entertaining way to mess with these people?" And the feeling when the tide starts to turn against the Survivors is delirious. Once you get enough of them down and you know the moment is yours, you still have several delicious seconds of clawing, rending, vomiting and strangling. With the infected characters so weak (just a few shots will take you down), you become familiar with the frustration of dying, and the respawn it precipitates. Once you know you've got the bastards where you want them, and that this particular Smoker's going to fight another day, it's hard not to giggle.

Scott Jones
Jones: Scott Alexander is a Smoker master. Seriously. He was launching his long tongue all around the level and tugging the unsuspecting off into the woods where he could be alone with them. Shudder.

Russ Fischer
Fischer: I've seen Alexander do that in real life. It is strangely erotic.
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Chapter 3: The Bridge

It's our turn to be human again. (I'm sure my girlfriend has said that to me before?) I admit to being nervous, thinking that after the thrashing Team Fischer took, they'll be wanting serious payback.

Russ Fischer
Fischer: We wanted it. Oh, how we wanted it.
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Kyle Orland
Orland: I like to think I'm taking the lead a bit here, but Russ is usually out in front and seems to have the best awareness of what's going on. He's always the first one to see and hear the special zombies coming, and usually the one to push the Hunter off me. I begin to feel that my job is to protect Russ at all costs, though of course I'd never say as much out loud into my headset.

Save Yourselves!: A Left 4 Dead Multiplayer Diary

The best part of being undead? The commute. You can totally walk to work from here. Or shamble, as the case may be.

Jones barks at me, drill sergeant-style: "Don't say such piffle! We'll just power through the level and we'll be fine." So far, we're the only ones to survive a chapter, Alexander observes, so we know what we're doing. I take point, still thinking to myself that this is not gonna be easy. I think it's at this point that Jeremy, a friend of Scott Alexander's, joins us. He gets incapacitated in a Horde rush and I help him up.

Scott Jones
Jones: Personally, everything seemed to kind of go to hell when Jeremy arrived. Yes, Jeremy, even though I don't know you, I am blaming you for everthing.

Caught unawares, I get pounced on by, I think, Fischer. The mocking skull appears underneath my Gamertag. I'm dead after saving someone. The cruel irony burns. I watch and hear the remaining Survivors try to soldier through. Jones sums it up best: "It's like that first night in Shawshank!" Black screen.

Kyle Orland
Orland: I'm proud of how our team is starting to work together on the zombie side. We're finally getting some Boomer hits in there, even though none of them are from me (the game refuses to let me be my favorite zombie type). I'm more than happy to leap in as a Hunter when the Horde attacks, though. We get another technical win on points, but are still losing by a few hundred overall. "We need to survive!" I desperately tell my teammates.
Scott Jones
Jones: One of our strategies that emerged from a few rounds of multiplayer with Gus Mastrapa last week is that, as humans, you must keep moving. Linger around too long in any given area, and shit is going to go wrong. So, as humans, I kept shouting, "KEEP MOVING!" into the headset -- something that I'm sure my teammates really appreciated.
Russ Fischer
Fischer: We were on the KEEP MOVING! tip, too. This is where Kyle really started to step up as a motivator, ensuring that we were always on top of dangers. Shame stings, and he was determined to salve our wounds with the gentle aloe of command. Or something.
Save Yourselves!: A Left 4 Dead Multiplayer Diary

Put yourself in her shoes. Would you want anybody seeing you in granny panties and desperately unmanicured fingernails?

We do pretty well as Infected. I bounce between Boomer and Hunter, performing better as the feral zombie. As we're stalking Team Fischer, I hear Scott Alexander say to someone, "Have you ever thought about writing poetry?" I can't imagine what context made that comment make sense. It's a complete non-sequitur.

Poetry may not come out of my mouth, but puke does. I spray three Survivors with bile and whoop loudly. Go ahead and shoot me; you've still gotta deal with dozens of my friends coming to rip y'all to shreds. Now, just two remain; and yes, we end their pitiful red-tinged existences. Quickly.

Scott Jones
Jones: One of the things that I've always loved about multiplayer gaming is how it gives rise to its own language. After only a few minutes, we'd developed a shorthand for describing what was happening on-screen. When the Boomer died, for example, someone noted the moment by describing the remains as "half a tomato." And when we came across the Witch, and she started running after humans, someone said, "Here comes my ex-wiiiiiiife."

Our turn as Survivors goes to hell super-quick. We're barely out of the Safe House when it all goes pear-shaped. I die first, and stare at the crotch of a nameless AI zombie as he paws at me. (This whole not-having-a-leader thing ain't working out.) Time for revenge.

Scott Jones
Jones: You couldn't see your corpse, Louis/Evan, but zombies were seriously ganged up on your lifeless corpse, and having their way with it. It was kind of hard to watch.


Chapter 4: The Train Station

Russ Fischer
Fischer: The Director bones us again with Witch placement. She's right in a place that we can't skirt around quietly, even crouching and with lights off. Team Narcisse doesn't help by pounding on us as we try to make it happen. This is where you start to see how the Director is the silent third party in every Versus match, helping or hurting with the placement of Witches, the density and frequency of Horde attacks and so on. Soon, though, he'd be on our side?

As the next chapter loads, I realize a vital but merciless fact: We can't help each other as much as we want to. I blurt it out but don't think anyone hears me. In fact, when I get incapacitated, I yell to my teammates to go on without me. Just go and find me when I re-spawn, I plead.

Scott Jones
Jones: I absolutely loved this moment. Evan starts shouting, "JUST GO ON WITHOUT ME! GO! LEAVE ME!" It was awesome; both selfless and humane at once.
Save Yourselves!: A Left 4 Dead Multiplayer Diary

An alert, coordinated hustle like this becomes tough to pull off when it's humans controlling the Survivors.

Problem is, everybody else is down and whoever's reviving me ain't trying to do this solo. But, since we're all hurt, we go down fast, like consumer spending in a recession. (Who says this isn't the Crispy Gamer Age of Financial Analysis? Peace to Stan Lee!) I'm not keeping track of score, but I can't help but sense things are grim. During our Infected rounds, I notice that we're all going after the humans at once, which leads to getting killed and having to wait to re-spawn all at the same time. "Pace out our attacks!" I yell. Still, there's no more coordination than that, and we ruefully watch Team Fischer close the Safe House door. I'm pretty sure I heard the orgasmic moan of Kyle Orland healing himself, but that could just be the shell-shock talking.

Scott Jones
Jones: Orland's healing moans will forever haunt me.
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Kyle Orland
Orland: This round is pretty much a blur. I remember being disappointed that we were killed so quickly, but then happy that we killed them off equally quickly. The high point for me was dragging an opponent (I think it was Evan) into a secluded room as a Smoker, and taking him for 30 damage or so before anyone realized he was missing. Hooray for chaos.

Russ Fischer
Fischer: Our coordination is finally working out. We're finally talking all the time -- not joking, just calling dangers, even if they're still far away. Our experience with Witches has been bad. Then, when we're Infected, things really click. I spawn as a Smoker and end the round as the same Smoker after nabbing an Achievement for constricting two humans in a row. It's my best round. Perched atop the farmhouse, I snag a couple humans and we shut 'em down right there. The Director plays us as favorites, spawning some deadly Horde actions.

Evan says he wasn't keeping track of score, but we were. Our team was in this to win. Fun is secondary.


Chapter 5: Farmhouse Finale

Jones mutters, "They're working very well together," with a mix of envy and admiration. Well, why don't you go join their team, Scott?! I don't say that, but I think it. Loudly. Jones then tries to rally the troops. "This is our dignity on the line," he implores. Uh, does he know I haven't showered all day? I am a freelancer, after all?

Scott Jones
Jones: I actually said, "WE'RE FIGHTING FOR OUR DIGNITY NOW!" Over the course of the five rounds, it was clear that they were in fact learning how to work better as a team than we were. Damn them all. They were holed up upstairs, in the old house, and they were doing a good job of keeping us at bay. Once again, I'm putting every bit of the blame on Jeremy.
Russ Fischer
Fischer: The JUST KEEP MOVING! mantra helped us a lot. More than once in the cornfield, it looked like at least one of us might be toast, but the constant barrage of communication from each party member kept us together. In the house, it was a matter of barricading and then laughing madly as Evan's Tank couldn't make it up the stairs at first. I'll admit, however, that when I heard the transport arrive I just ran for it. Between dignity and life, I'll take life.

Kyle Orland
Orland: Even though we knew it was do-or-die time going in here, we all seemed very calm and collected. Focused on our goal, which was getting four Survivors through that cornfield and INTO THE TRUCK!, I realized I was much less hesitant with the shotgun this time, firing into a crowd of zombies even if there was a chance some spray would hit a teammate. It seems to help until we hit the cornfield and quickly get disoriented by a coordinated attack. By the time we all make it up, we can't figure out where we are or where we're going!

At one point, I remember Greg had to single-handedly fight off a horde of zombies and revive three downed players all by his lonesome. Now that's clutch! Somehow we find the tractor, and from there, go through the barn and into the house. This is where we really shine, calling out strategies and letting people know where the zombies are. Still, the cornfield has taken its toll and we're almost all bleeding out. After a quick health pack, I plant myself at the top of the stairs and fire at the hapless Boomers and Hunters that try to walk up. I even remember taking out a Tank with relatively little trouble from my perfect vantage point. The most thrilling moment of the whole match comes at the end -- when everyone else has made it to the truck, yet I somehow get stuck amidst a bunch of zombies coming down the stairs. Jamming the L button, I somehow fight them off long enough to scoot out and make it in to the sound of the screams of my teammates. We're battered and bruised but ALIVE and still kicking in the competition.

I redeem my earlier poor showing as the Tank by putting some serious hurt on Marc. Despite the fact that Jones and I lay in wait as Hunters inside the armed transport that's come to save the Survivors, we watch the three remaining members of Team Fischer ride off into the sunset. In between rounds, I munch on a pork chop that's gone cold. Now, I'm a pretty good cook, if I do say so myself. I season, I marinate, and I rarely burn dishes. But, now? Now, all I can taste is bitterness.

Scott Jones
Jones: I'm a Bill man all the way. I love his old veteran gear and his dirty beard that looks like it still has pieces of his sloppy joe in it. But I begin to notice how much attention everyone pays to Zoey. Is it better to be Zoey? Even though Zoey is being controlled by Alexander, it seems that we basically trip over each other trying to save her whenever she's in trouble. Note to self: Next session, I'm going to be Zoey, and see how that works out for me.

For our last go-around as Survivors, we decide to actually strategize before we scamper out of the Safe House.

Russ Fischer
Fischer: This is irritating. At this point, I propose a mod that would leech health for every few seconds the Survivors spend in the Safe House.
Save Yourselves!: A Left 4 Dead Multiplayer Diary

Sorry, Zoey. Since Scott Jones is playing as you, you won't be making it to be rescued. Then again, none of us will.

It's agreed that I'll lead, blazing a trail but not bolting too far ahead. "I'll take rear, as is my way," Alexander offers. The man works at Playboy. He can get away with saying things like that. I get us lost in the cornfields. Now, I always get lost in the cornfields. I was born in Brooklyn, New York. I've never even been in a cornfield! If you need to know where the nearest bodega is, I can just close my eyes and point in the right direction. But, cornfields? Not so much. Lost and presumably afraid, Jones dies in the agricultural wasteland. Just before his kernels get popped, I see his status go idle. Maybe he's put the controller down to go relieve his bladder. Or, to weep.

Russ Fischer
Fischer: We tried to do as much damage as possible to strip away their health packs. It worked.
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Kyle Orland
Orland: On the zombie end, I get another high point as I finally get to take control of the Tank just as the other team is about to enter the cornfield. I immediately go on a rampage, knocking everyone around in various directions. I remember Russ congratulating me for knocking one Survivor back and right into his waiting Hunter crouch. Hooray for unintentional teamwork.

Without him, Team Narcisse limps to the farmhouse as the AI takes over. Spirits lift. Ok, we've got ammo and we've got health. We three can hold out, right? No, we can't.

Russ Fischer
Fischer: No, you can't. We mocked you for kicking around in the house and letting us nip away for a long time before you called for rescue.

Scott Alexander bitterly curses Jones' Gamertag for bailing on us.

Scott AlexanderAlexander: The line between altruism and egoism has never been blurrier. When a teammate goes down under a pile of zombies, you move your ass to get them up, filled with sudden compassion and panic. But are you really concerned for their safety, or worried that without them, it will be harder for you to survive?

At the end of the game in the farmhouse, I looked around and saw that Zoey (who Jones was playing) wasn't with us anymore. I looked all around and finally realized she'd gone down back in the cornfield and was near death. I was five steps out the door before I came to my senses. There were zombies out there. A lot of zombies. If I went back for her, I was pretty definitively going to die. I never did care much for Zoey, it turns out -- but I sure as hell missed her when the remaining three of us got caught in a clutch of Smoker/Hunter/Boomer/Horde madness at the top of the stairs. One more shotgun in the mix could have made the difference. This turned out to be the deciding point of the entire game. Guess I should have gone back for her.

The only solace comes from dying in relatively short order; no one has to suffer alone for too long.

Team Fischer wins: 1693 to 1340

Scott Jones
Jones: OK, here's what really happened. Everyone was down. Evan was shouting for me to go on without him. And I was in middle of making a break across the cornfield when the words "DISCONNECTED FROM XBOX LIVE" appeared on the screen. One minute, I'm running through dried corn stalks. The next: nothing. It reminded me, in an oblique way, of the ending to "The Blair Witch Project." My night ended on a very abstract note.

Scott AlexanderAlexander: I remember this overwhelming sense of dread that the other team was strategizing better than we were. That they were zombies with their shit together, that they were Survivors with the mad glint that gets you back to your family, civilization and a decent steak. This, despite the fact that we held the lead the entire game until the final round. Maybe I'm just paranoid, though. Although they did beat us. Hmmmm...

Kyle Orland
Orland: Despite killing off one Survivor as the Tank, I'm a little bummed when three Survivors make it to the house. Do they have a chance at finishing this thing and coming back? Luckily I don't have to worry, as I get a series of three Boomers in a row, coming in through the windows and constantly sliming at least two Survivors per life. I lose my microphone connection for a time during the end, so I can't hear what everyone else is doing, but I figure they're pulling their end. When that final score pops up, I realize I'm right, and as the sound comes back and I hear the whoops and hollers of my teammates, I can't help but smile. "Don't call it a comeback," I say, echoing LL Cool J, "Even though it is one."



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Post-game

During the fourth chapter of "Blood Harvest," I got a text from Dave Thomas railing against an apparently faulty repair that rendered his 360 unable to get online. "It's sad, really. Here I am playing alone. Stupid Xbox. Sorry, man." Little did I know how sorry it would get. After the game ends, I get a text from Jones, blaming his idleness and drop-out on faulty Internet. It sounds true, but can I really trust him? I don't think he saved me even once?!

Scott Jones
Jones: I saved your sorry ass, Narcisse! I pulled so many Hunters off you, man! They were like flies on a piece of poop! How soon we forget, eh? Next time a Hunter is having his way with you, see if I Florence Nightingale for you!

All in all, I think our team's biggest failing wasn't so much the failure to strategize as it was the overflowing empathy. We were always saving each other, you see, and big hearts make for easy targets.

Comments

I find this really interesting to read. I had a great time reading this post. I enjoyed every detail from beginning to end. - Scott Sohr

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