Delayed Responsibility

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Impressions and Articles: Left 4 Dead 2, Archetypes, and “Larger-than-Life” Personalities

Posted by deckard47 on December 24, 2009

I’ve been reading a lot of articles on Left 4 Dead 2, Ben Abraham’s post on the reasons why (initially, he hasn’t done a follow-up yet) he found the second game less compelling than the first. He has many reasons for thinking this. He singles out the new game’s failure in the area of education: more options are thrown at you than before, ill-explained options. As any newcomer to L4D2 could attest, he’s right about this. Even for a L4D1 veteran, this game is hard (at first), and I’m still working my way up to the harder difficulties. While I don’t think this is a horrible thing (I’m happy that you have to relearn the game. It makes it feel like its own thing, a separate identity from the first, unlike so many MP-centric sequels), he’s right that Valve doesn’t teach you as brilliantly and quickly as they did the first time around.

Still, I’d like to point out that a friend of mine who never played the first game picked it up 3 days ago. Under the dubious tutelage of myself and Owen, he learned quickly, and over the past three days he’s grown as a player. He isn’t as good as we are today (nor is he as good as those people online who can determine the exact location of all enemies by sound alone), but he can hold his own. That’s not bad, for a game as complicated and intricate as Left 4 Dead 2. While most games require you to learn how to shoot and how to follow different rulesets, Left 4 Dead 2 requires you to learn to entirely different skill sets: the mechanics of play against the computer, the mechanics of play against humans, and the mechanics of play with humans. When you think about it, that’s more than most shooters, and you still learn pretty fast. Really, why I started writing this post was to address his issues with the cast of Left 4 Dead 2. I’ll let him speak for himself, and then start blabbing:

Lastly on my list of gripes, and my major concern, is the four new characters. This is entering the realms of personal preference and taste, but to me it seems that Nick, Ellis, Rochelle and Coach aren’t as memorable as the original quartet. Perhaps it’s because they are less obvious archetypes. Coach seems the closest to a recognisable archetype and for his larger-than-life personality he remains my personal favourite. Nick and Ellis both feel too similar – Nick, I know from the pre-release publicity, is ostensibly a conman but he’s much too nice and average. That aspect of his character is struggling to shine through, however and the only quote of his that has stood out for me is most revealing of that aspect of his character.

In a game recently I heard him admonish someone for shooting him, saying “You did not just shoot the man in the three-thousand dollar suit!” Nick needs to be talking about his suit way more, and Ellis needs something to give his character a similar focus. Valve has said that they wanted him to be “southern” and innocent and naive, while avoiding representing him as a stereotypical hick. While this effort is laudable for wanting to portray southern American culture in a mature light, I wonder if the character suffers for it.

Perhaps Nick’s character too suffers for being in a game as devoted to cooperation as Left 4 Dead 2. Thinking on it, it’s possible that a sharkskin-suited conman could still be an appropriate character for L4D, as he could easily be cast as The Reluctant Help, much like Francis in the original. Francis was a grouch, but he was a lovablegrouch, and it was always communicated that his character had your back. But how does one pull off “the lovable conman?” I guess what I’m suggesting is that Nick is not wisecracking enough for it; he’s not even sarcastic enough.

Regardless of personal preference, it is obvious that the characters are slightly different than they were in L4D1 (aside from the obvious differences). As he says, Coach is the one with the “larger-than-life” personality. I suppose this makes him more relatable, for some. What I think it does is make Coach the least interesting of all of the characters. Regardless of taste (I think a large portion of the things Coch says are amusing, and I can easily discern what his “character” is supposed to be), Coach is the easy way out, he’s almost the opposite of good characterization; he’s a shortcut, a cop-out (a minor one, to be sure), compared to his companions. Ellis, Nick, and Rochelle all have personalities, and they all have interesting and funny things to say about their surroundings. Coach talks through most of the Dark Carnival (about funnel cake, among many things), but everyone (as before) has enough quips and banter to keep things flowing. Everyone who has played Dark Carnival knows about the “Tunnel of Love,” since Nick spends a good deal of time talking about it.

Abraham’s issue with Ellis also seems unfortunate. I don’t think that “While this effort is laudable for wanting to portray southern American culture in a mature light, I wonder if the character suffers for it.” I don’t think Ellis suffers for it. Yes, he could have been like Jason Stackhouse. He could have been a badly written stock character, a southern hick with charm to spare and not a thought in his head. Instead, he’s (along with Coach) a Midnight Riders enthusiast, a devoted follower of Jimmy Gibbs Jr. (his love speech to the abandoned car is excellent), and he’s nota huge fan of swamp people. Likewise, Nick may seem somewhat average at the start, but he’s quickly become my favorite character. His sarcastic complaining is always amusing, as are his and Coach’s Love Tunnel conversations (how many experiences have you had?). In fact, he’s the easiest to like: he’s that smart ass, the loner (to Abraham’s chagrin), the man who wants to tell everyone else how much everything annoys him. In fact, he’s a lot like Francis, in some respects, the man who “hates” everything. The difference is, Nick is angry. He’s scared, and he deals with it by snarking on everything. It means he can’t just say “I hate _____” and get a laugh. It means the writers write better dialogue, and more of it. They have to think of how a person would say one thing, and then think how a different person would say the same thing.

Now that I think about it, all of the characters strike me that way. They all have hidden depths, you have to get to know them to see those hidden depths, but they are there. Part of the disconnect between Ben and me may be Left 4 Dead 2‘s fault. If you don’t play campaign or SP, you will never hear any of this incidental dialogue. In Versus, Scavenge, and Survival modes, you won’t hear much banter. Playing a SP game on easy, I was delighted and surprised to hear my characters talk to each to and about each other, or the environment, or the zombies. Just today I heard Rochelle apologize to the swamp people zombies that she had to kill them.

Why is this a bad thing? It is not a bad thing that a major company has decided (mostly) to create new characters for its sequel who aren’t (as obviously or as completely) tired stereotypes. I still like Coach, but I like Nick and Rochell more. They aren’t obviously, annoyingly stereotyped. They aren’t The _____ White Conman, and The _____ Black Woman. Coach almost is. Is that what it means to be “larger-than-life?” I’ll skip that, thank you very much. Broad, “relatable” characters might be more easily relatable, but they’re almost always weaker. They’re uneasily infused with nuance and heft. They’re annoyingly flat.

You have to watch, listen, and learn with everyone, even Coach. They have their squabbles, and their triumphs, and they can’t (thank God!) be boiled down to “Francis hates something again,” or “Bill made another war joke.” I like it when my characters are written in a way that makes me stop and listen, that tricks me into thinking they have more than one tic or joke. I wish more companies did it, and I hope that when Valve makes Left 4 Dead 3 (might I recommend an exciting Non-American locale? Hell, I’d love Left 4 Dead: Alpine Edition), every one of the characters is the opposite of the Snarky College Girl, or the “Lovable,” Heart of Gold Biker. It would be really nice, actually.

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3 Responses to “Impressions and Articles: Left 4 Dead 2, Archetypes, and “Larger-than-Life” Personalities”

  1. DocDre said

    Good read. I’m glad to see that i’m not the only one that appreciates nuanced non-WASP characters (and yes, “Southern” is an ethnicity LOL) in videogames.

    • deckard47 said

      Yeah, I’m surprised more people weren’t interested in these characters. It’s not as if there were a lot of other interesting “realistic” characters in any games this year. Seeing people who are in any way “average” (and yet still much more interesting than most protagonists) in games is exciting. Then again, who besides Valve would do it?

  2. That’s a good observation that Nick is a more emotionally engaging version of Francis. I usually play as Nick, and I think it’s because of the emotional range you mention; his sarcasm masks his vulnerability, and his fear and anger often come out indirectly through tone. His performance is more subtle, and I think that’s in both the writing and the acting. The L4D characters are unflappable, for the most part, and it’s nice to get a hint of someone who has to work at holding it all together.

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