“Report unusual behavior. Barricade your homes. Avoid all contact with the infected individuals. Wait for official instructions.” A character reads this from an official looking pamphlet as his three allies scavenge the store they have recently entered. There has been an outbreak, and countless people have died from it. Despite multiple setbacks, the survivors haven't given up. This isn't a story about them preparing for something all too real in 2020, but instead facing a fictional zombie apocalypse plaguing the American Southeast. This is how Left 4 Dead 2, a game from 2009, starts.
Now, we are living through a genuine plague of our own. At the time of writing, over 200,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States. The country has a sobering percentage of the over seven million cases of infection reported by the CDC, which will have long-lasting repercussions on the victims' personal health.
For well over six months, we as a country were given similar instructions that Left 4 Dead 2's heroes got. Be mindful of coughing or fever. Stay home and go out only if you need to. If you or someone you know is infected, isolate them immediately and report it. In the meantime, hold on until more long-term preventative measures arrive.
Sadly, like the shambling zombies that wander across the game's digital streets, many of us in the real world ignored this advice, be it through rampant misinformation or general ignorance, and have only contributed to the widespread social stress everyone is carrying around during these times.
Clearly some sort of outlet was needed, not just the general coping mechanisms of warming up with a good book or developing a second hobby. No, players needed a way to just repeatedly shoot the virus in the face, fighting back against the deluge of stress while also connecting again with good friends.
Left 4 Dead 2's community not only agreed with this desire; they helped provide more of it. For the first time in almost an entire decade, an update for Valve's zombie shooter went live, titled The Last Stand. It contained a swath of updates, tweaks, and quality-of-life improvements for the game as well as brand-new maps and a new co-op campaign. On top of that, Valve made the game free-to-play over this past weekend and put Left 4 Dead 2 on a heavily discounted sale: merely $1.99.
Playing Left 4 Dead 2 in 2020
While this customer-friendly initiative is quite normal for Valve's storefront, it wasn't until I delved into Left 4 Dead 2's mod workshop that I couldn't really ignore the cultural desire for zombie-flavored satisfaction. It was a simple cosmetic change that gives all of the game's playable characters surgical facemasks.
For the first time since I got out of college, I reinstalled Left 4 Dead 2 and randomly joined a co-op campaign. To my surprise, not only did I get a full group of three other players, but they were actively talking. They didn't talk about objectives or when a zombie had them pinned to the floor, but instead just honestly talked. It started as simple questions, like, “How are you holding up?” or “Are you okay?”
Then the discourse slowly shifted to well-meaning ribs about how weirdly prophetic the interactive storytelling Left 4 Dead 2 was. The campaign's taking us through places we'd love to return to again. Places like amusement parks, shopping malls, churches, and concert halls, places of comfort instead overtaken by hundreds of zombies.
The cathartic joy was almost electric, being able to feel in control again. Each shot to a zombie's head was a palpable declaration to the virus, and by proxy COVID-19, that is simple and viscerally satisfying; you threw all of that at me, but I'm still standing.
It's no surprise that the theme of persistent survival is heard so loudly in The Last Stand update. Over 20 Survival mode maps are included in the game, scenarios where you and your friends just keep fighting until it's all over, every single minute survived being in rebellious defiance.
Even from a metatextual perspective, there is wish fulfillment found in the brand-new campaign titled The Last Stand where a character who died gets a happier alternative ending.
This is all thanks to Valve's dedication to making Left 4 Dead 2 an inherently communal cooperative experience. You try to take on challenges alone, you will fail. You have to communicate with your teammates, rely on them to keep you going, and pray to high heaven that they don't leave you behind when the escape helicopter arrives. Considering just how many waves of zombies that are thrown at you all at once, you will come to appreciate having at least one more person watching your back.
Despite how aged the game is and that other, arguably better, zombie experiences have graced the market, this update is a testament to the straightforward thrills of Left 4 Dead 2. It didn't need to be some portentous meditation on rampant consumerism like Romero's original Dawn of the Dead. It didn't need to be a more spectacle-driven action affair like World War Z. No, despite no obvious intentions by the developers, Left 4 Dead 2 has become a much needed stress ball, a metaphorical punching bag with a picture of COVID 19 attached to it.
Judging by the large surge of players that have come out to check out the new content, it's a punching bag that many players got but didn't know they needed.