The Left 4 Dead team considered cutting zombies entirely after talking to Gabe Newell

Valve boss Gabe Newell once encouraged the Left 4 Dead team to reconsider including zombies at all.

That’s according to former Valve writer Chet Faliszek, who discussed Left 4 Dead’s development in a recent Kiwi Talkz (opens in new tab) video (spotted by NME (opens in new tab)). Faliszek contributed to multiple Valve games including Half-Life 2: Episodes 1 and 2, both Portal games, and both Left 4 Dead games, and he’s since founded his own studio to work on co-op shooter The Anacrusis, which is proudly carrying on the spirit of Left 4 Dead. But to hear Faliszek tell it, Newell wasn’t totally sold on the now-iconic enemies of the franchise to begin with. 

“I remember, he’s just like, well let’s not do zombies, zombies are just cheesy,” Faliszek said of a meeting with Newell. “They’re just really cheesy. And at the time, you did not have The Walking Dead TV series and all this, right? So it was very cheesy. But as a kid who saw Dawn of the Dead at a midnight movie and was just, like, terrified, it wasn’t cheesy to me. I had no idea those scenes were cheesy until watching them later.”

Newell argued that the popular zombie properties of the time used the threat of the undead to tell stories about broader and larger themes, and he pushed Faliszek and the rest of the team to define what Left 4 Dead would be about. Faliszek said the game would focus on the camaraderie born from chaos – a motif that would eventually come to define the franchise – but it sounds like Newell wasn’t easily satisfied and constantly pushed the development team to stress-test not only what worked, but if it was still working. 

In a tweet, Faliszek added that Gabe would push “on all aspects of the game and [make] sure we thought through the choices and didn’t just accept them as the default. Learned so much from him during those days.”

Faliszek recalls meeting with Newell over the game’s box art, which was initially “reminiscent of the Band of Brothers profile shot.”

We reached out to Faliszek to dig deeper into the game’s formative years and Newell’s part in them. He clarified that “Gabe never really ‘pushed away’ [from zombies] as much as he just pushed on the idea. If something is in the game – why? Why is it that way? Have you thought about it? Have you considered other things? What are your options? Why did you choose this?

“This is something he taught me over time – I am slow – but you always need to step back and question any of the givens of a project because it is really easy to get lost in the work and the desire to get things done that sometimes you lose sight – is this the right thing to be getting done?” 

Zombies ultimately remained in Left 4 Dead, but Faliszek reckons that Newell’s feedback helped give its zombies their own unique flavor. 

“When he asked this, besides my desire to make a game of my dreams from the midnight movies I loved growing up, I also had other good answers as we had explored the idea of how much we stray into monsters and how much we stay in the world of zombies,” he tells GamesRadar. “Clearly we stray into monster territory but always sort of based it on a variation – what if this was true at the time of infection and they morphed because of it? We revisited it in [Left 4 Dead 2] as well when creating those new creatures.”

Left 4 Dead

(Image credit: Valve)

Faliszek notes that The Anacrusis goes a different way: “We said what would a ship boarding party look like if you met aliens that lived their lives in space? So we have some aliens that are the commanders and some soldiers, and some almost like pets or animals.”

Newell scrutinized more than Left 4 Dead’s zombies, too. Faliszek recalls meeting with Newell over the game’s box art, which was initially “reminiscent of the Band of Brothers profile shot.” Faliszek says he wasn’t a fan of the first drafts, but that Newell maintained that “it’s fine not to like it but I have communicated no vision of the game or style the box should live in, and until I could do that, what should they do?” Here again, this helped articulate Left 4 Dead as we know it. 

“So in that meeting, I got out, Half-Life is a symphony orchestra, it is beautiful, it is perfect. L4D was a college rock band, noisy, messy, loud. It would have bugs – but it would be okay and people would love it. That was the start, and by the end, once I could communicate more clearly, we came up with the Zombie Apocalypse with your Friends line, which is just the right level of description and humor.

“That is not the line that would have described the very first versions of L4D but it is what L4D became as we focused more on co-op than competition,” he continues. “Which is why you always have to just lift your head every so often and ask yourself those questions. Because when you have that right, it answers questions for you and it’s more than marketing but an edge you can use in design decisions.”

“That’s why, on The Anacrusis, we started with a series of design pillars and then on occasion revisit them – are these still true? They are the game developer side of the public-facing line as we build out and find the game’s public face while in early access. Our core pillar is that our games are about players working together. Co-op isn’t just in the moment-to-moment gameplay but every facet of the game.” 

How Back 4 Blood and The Anacrusis are building on the legacy of Left 4 Dead.

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