Chet Faliszek, writer on Valve's upcoming zombie co-op shooter Left 4 Dead, has been talking to Gamasutra about why he wanted to avoid pinning its zombie invasion on an "evil mastermind," instead honing in on the actual effect the invasion has on the game's characters and world.
"The evil mastermind at the end is never as good as whatever you had in your head when you were coming up with it," Faliszek says, arguing that trying to over-explain the cause of a disaster often detracts from its more tangible impact.
He cited Jan de Bont's 1996 disaster film Twister. "They had evil weathermen to justify their plot," he said. "Evil weathermen."
"What the hell? There's no evil weather men!" Faliszek exclaimed. In Left 4 Dead, "we don't make evil scientists that have created a zombie infection to stomp out the USA -- the evil Russian scientists or whatever post-Cold War enemy you want to use."
Instead, Faliszek says, it is more effective to create resonant gameplay experiences that players will remember, particularly if the setting in question, such as a zombie invasion (or a tornado outbreak, for that matter) is already familiar.
That is even more applicable in a cooperative game such as Left 4 Dead, when players have the same moment-to-moment experience.
"I think everyone knows what the zombie apocalypse is," he says. "They register what it is and they, playing it, make the story, because, since you're so close to each other when you play, you see the same things. You have the same experience. You can talk about it afterwards, and it's not like, 'You missed this. When this crazy thing happened, we were over here.' Instead it's, 'We were all right there, and we all saw that.' That's much better writing than I could ever do."
Still, Faliszek notes, it was important to craft dialogue that heightens the experience and gives each of the four protagonists unique voices, even by way of the sporadic dialogue cues heard during combat encounters.
It's a process that the writer has been honing during his work on Half-Life 2: Episode One and Episode Two -- for which he wrote battle chatter -- as well as on the multiplayer-only Team Fortress 2.
"I'm really excited," he said. "How, in a multiplayer game, do you leak a little story, give a little about a character? [TF2] was a great testbed there. I wanted to add some of the things that I had learned."
Left 4 Dead's characters have slightly different reactions to the traumatic events that unfold. For example, some of the characters are familiar with the undead, having seen countless horror films, but some are not. "We have one character, Frances, who gets confused between infected being zombies or vampires," says Faliszek, "because he's not of the world of zombie movies."
But defining elements like that shouldn't become belabored, he pointed out, or they become tiresome: "You don't hear that every time. You're going to hear that one in every ten or twenty times."
In the end, the writing focus for this type of game was clear. "You can't have the story get in the way. People don't want cut scenes. I think too many of the zombie games get caught up in [that]," Faliszek said. "People don't want this heavy handed story. They want the zombie apocalypse."