How to Start a Zombie Apocalypse

This is the third of four papers from a class I just finished taking, posted to fulfill a social media integration assignment.



Background

Because the two Left 4 Dead first-person shooter videogames published by Valve and The Walking Dead television drama are two prominent contemporary zombie franchises, comparing their respective takes on the zombie apocalypse could reveal interesting associations to the history of the genre and to the practical realities of cross-media adaptation.

Both The Walking Dead and Left 4 Dead embrace the pulp literature of their heritage, employing campy aesthetics in different but comparable ways alongside serious drama capable of genuine commentary. In both franchises, the ironic fun associated corpses and filth is a source of campiness. Left 4 Dead uses audio interludes that evoke the sound effects in old movies and also has a film grain effect. The Walking Dead alludes to first-person shooters by showing the scope view seen by characters sniping “walkers.” Left 4 Dead may have been one of the zombie shooters that The Walking Dead was referencing, and the material that The Walking Dead is based on probably also informed the aesthetic decisions behind Left 4 Dead.

First released in November 2008 (“Left 4 Dead”), Left 4 Dead is slightly older than the television franchise, which premiered in October 2010 (IMDb). However, the television show is named after and based on a comic book franchise launched in 2003. A cooperative first-person shooter, Left 4 Dead serializes six independent campaigns to form a loose continuity. Although there are only superficial similarities between the format of the Left 4 Dead campaigns and the serialized television format of The Walking Dead, comparing the first campaign of Left 4 Dead – “No Mercy” – to the pilot episode of The Walking Dead – “Days Gone Bye” – reveals at least one interesting element of cross-media zombie representation. Namely, the best way to show the dawn of the zombie infestation is not to show it at all.

Methodology

To limit the scope, this paper only considers the first campaign in Left 4 Dead and the pilot episode of The Walking Dead.

“No Mercy” is also available as a modified port in the sequel Left 4 Dead 2, and that version of the campaign was briefly researched during an incomplete playthrough. This exercise revealed that the more complicated mechanics of Left 4 Dead 2 – such as additional types of zombies, melee weapons, and a rule limiting the use of melee attacks with ranged weapons – only buried the relevant details about the theory behind zombie storytelling more deeply than in the original game. Left 4 Dead 2 contains its own series of campaigns in addition to the ported versions of the original, and Left 4 Dead 2’s unique characters and storyline could be critiqued separately.

This evaluation is based on two complete playthroughs of “No Mercy” on normal difficulty in the PC version of Left 4 Dead (the game is also available for Xbox 360). In both cases, the three other human players were other PC users who joined the game through the Steam server lobby and were unknown to the researcher. An additional session playing “No Mercy” online in campaign mode was cut short before reaching the last map in the campaign. Later, the campaign was played in single player mode (in which the three other characters are controlled by AI bots) in order to collect screenshots and evaluate specific details

The researcher had no previous exposure to The Walking Dead before evaluating “Days Gone Bye.” The pilot was viewed once to experience the general sense of the show. Then the subsequent episode “Guts” was viewed for context before “Days Gone Bye” was again viewed to evaluate more carefully the content.

Analysis

It would seem that the best way to show the beginning of a zombie apocalypse is not to show it. While the beginning of “Days Gone By” is set before the outbreak of the zombie virus, Rick is promptly injured and confined to the hospital to sleep obliviously through whatever stages of global catastrophe may have built up to the post-apocalyptic world to which he awakens. The cinematic trailer that players of the PC version of Left 4 Dead have to either watch or cancel every time they run the game explicitly sets the beginning of “No Mercy” exactly two weeks after the first outbreak.

Both stories begin in a post-apocalyptic world thoroughly infested by the undead, where the living band together in small tribe-like groups in order to survive. The most obvious reason for this initial setting is that both franchises wanted tell survival stories. The boilerplate origin story of a pandemic virus behind nearly all works in the genre could and probably has been told from the moment of first infection, but videogames need the immediacy and initial intensity of an apocalyptic scenario. While film could conceivably chronicle the fall of civilization beginning with the initial discovery of the zombie virus, this would be an unlikely plot choice for a television series, because traditional television needs a status quo to provide structure even as an extended plot may develop from season to season.

The positioning of the beginnings of these two franchises in the thick of their respective apocalypses questions the axis of change in both works. Why do the stories begin precisely where they do on the timeline? The present research is inadequate to speculate on the reason for the timing of Rick’s awakening in “Days Gone Bye,” because plot developments in later seasons of The Walking Dead might well reveal some significance to the unfolding of the zombie infestation and the reasons behind it.

However, the internal evidence is enough to suggest that “Days Gone Bye” needed to begin at a point where the town or small city in Georgia had become completely overrun by walkers and abandoned by the living, except for stragglers surviving in stripped-out houses. Still, it is notable that the episode starts with a flash-forward of Rick encountering a zombie child before cutting back to the pre-apocalyptic world without any suggestion of anything related to zombies. “Days Gone Bye” is very much a story of the fall of Paradise, showing a healthy world followed by a desolate hell, along with a displaced hero who bridges the two.

The situation in “No Mercy” is explained by Left 4 Dead’s introductory trailer, which ends the very moment the campaign begins. The four survivors that become playable characters have already met each other. They are already armed and are walking together through a dark alley. It is unclear when exactly the group has met. The backstory established by The Sacrifice comic (released by Valve as a four-part web comic and named after the last campaign in Left 4 Dead) reveals that they had not been acquaintances before the zombie apocalypse. However, it is clear from the trailer’s opening shot that they have already been surviving together for at least a little while. Thus, Left 4 Dead spends even less time establishing its status quo than The Walking Dead does; the characters and their basic situation are simply constant from the introduction.

The trailer shows that the catalyst providing the initial plot setup is that the zombies themselves are changing. The Common Infected – more like average movie zombies, though mutated living humans rather than reanimated corpses – are already old, and the survivors have to adapt to the unexpected circumstance of the Special Infected and their deadly abilities. Bill, the most competent of the survivors as portrayed in trailer and in dialog, had already known what a Witch was, warning Zoey to turn off her flashlight in order to avoid startling the weeping zombie into homicidal rage. This allows Bill to act as a mentor figure while cementing the post-apocalyptic world and showing the Special Infected to be the dynamic element within it.

One narrative element that reveals the differences between the two mediums is characterization. Both “No Mercy” and “Days Gone Bye” show characters who band together to survive, and they both also show hostility and interpersonal problems. However, the interpersonal problems in The Walking Dead are bound to be deeper and more meaningful than those in Left 4 Dead, where characters move on with only mildly hostile comments when they accidentally shoot each other. This apparent nonchalance is obviously a result of the game mechanics, but it is used deliberately to reinforce the main theme. Stated by Zoey at the end of The Sacrifice comic and drilled into the players by on-screen reminders to stay near each other, the theme of Left 4 Dead is teamwork – “We look after our own” (The Sacrifice).

The Walking Dead could and probably does develop similar themes with more complexity, although with less experiential impact. “Days Gone Bye” already shows deeper interpersonal rifts between characters. Morgan’s wife is a zombie, and Rick’s wife has already given him up for dead and is shown kissing his friend and colleague Shane. The serial television format gives the show the opportunity to develop these character threads over time. Far from keeping the characters together at all costs, “Days Gone Bye” almost immediately segregates its cast into groups. Instead of surviving together for the long term, Rick and Morgan soon go off in separate directions after meeting and helping each other temporarily.

Conclusion

This analysis is messy and subjective, because selecting only the first installment of each franchise was very limiting. It would have been better to have compared the theory behind the zombie apocalypse in Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 with The Walking Dead as a whole, while also noting the differences in execution due to the different media forms of videogame versus television. However, this analysis does reveal one interesting conclusion: across media types, a good way to start a zombie story is to cut to the part where civilization has already collapsed and zombies are ubiquitous.

Works Cited
Days Gone Bye.” Amazon: IMDb, n.d. Web. 16 November 2014.
“Days Gone Bye.” The Walking Dead. Dir. Frank Darabont. AMC Studios, 2010. Amazon Instant Video. Streamed video.
Let 4 Dead.” Left 4 Dead Wiki, n.d. Web. 16 November 2014.
Left 4 Dead. Valve. 2010. Video game.
The Sacrifice. Web comic. L4D.com. Valve. 2010. PDF file.

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