From the moment it was released, I spent a lot of time playing “Left4Dead.” I don’t have much of a competitive nature and it would make playing most online games abrasive. “Left4Dead” was different in that it challenged players to work together to survive the zombie apocalypse rather than bring the apocalypse to each other. This seems like a simple task, but the hidden intricacies of teamwork were complete mysteries to a lot of us at the time.
Newburg, Pennsylvania, might have been a lovely city filled with lovely people. I might have considered passing through it at some point to try out some of the diners or spend time in their museums. I could have been pretty content with a calm stroll through the park with a friend and good conversation. This was no longer a realistic option with the city being quarantined by the military and having been overrun and destroyed by a massive infestation of zombies.
Stay with me, because you should know that these aren’t your classic breed of Romero zombies (Rest in peace, good sir) or the kind of stumbling mouth-breathers you may have read about in a book or saw in a TV show. These zombies sprinted and screamed. They sometimes looked like they would wake up from a bad dream. They sometimes looked sad. I walked through their homes and apartments observing unique aspects of life now unconditionally gone. I stood at the head of a table, dinner set for a family that would never enjoy that circle of intimacy again. Laundry spread out on the bed. Unfinished coffee on the counter. Unread newspapers at the doorstep.
Somewhere I saw a graffiti homage to Friedrich Nietzsche with the famous quote, “god is dead.” Is this how we end up rationalizing great disasters? Blaming something intangible seems to be the foolproof way of going about our business sometimes. I may have to remember that trick.
Through this nightmare I was trying to reach the other end of the city where the airport was hopefully still operating evacuations. My three other counterparts were usually a mismatch of characters that seldom could work together and usually disappeared, being replaced by another patchwork of characters.
The trick was sticking together. None of us were used to constantly watching out for another person, let alone three other people. Sometimes we could only communicate through broad gestures because we didn’t speak one another’s language. Almost always, someone would try to play hero and we’d all end up dead, badly wounded, or out of ammo.
Some of those early days were hell. I lost count of how many times I had watched the world fade to black while a swarm of zombies, comparable only to a crowd of Black Friday shoppers, beat me into a veritable paste. I no longer had faith that a human could complete any of these excursions without it ending as being a flavorful garnish for some zombies’ evening dinner course.
That didn’t happen on one particular day, the day I met “T3tsubo.” I didn’t really pay much attention to him until after we had survived the eighth or ninth wave of zombies together. He was attentive and skilled. Not a showboat, but impressive in ways that allowed him to survive onslaught after onslaught. Notably, he wasn’t a huge prick. At some point we even talked at length about the quote “god is dead” and whether or not Nietzsche was being critical of science or religion, to which we compromised that it was more a critical commentary on human behavior about such things rather than science or religion.
I’m going to take a moment to remind you, in case you needed it, that I never actually met this person. I don’t know his real name. I don’t know how old he is or where he’s from. I don’t know what he looks like or how he dresses. But I know the parts of him that make up his personality. I know what some of his dreams are, what his family life is like, how he feels about things like the “commodification of dissent,” what his favorite films are, what kind of music he likes. I can tell you that he is a calm-mannered guy with a quick wit and a dark sense of humor. He likes the kind of details in things that make you think. And really, how many of these things do we know about some of the people we see every day?
We spent the next couple years fighting and adventuring alongside one another through the end of the world, never shouting or trolling one another or bailing out of a situation when the zombies were all over us. Sometimes we would challenge one another to fight through using only a crowbar or paddle bat. Occasionally we would see just how far off the beaten path we could go. Other times we’d race through burning buildings and backed up streets, egging each other on to do something incredibly stupid.
Sometimes we were pretty content to just stroll through a park with little else than some guns and good conversation.