Interview: Left 4 Dead 2 writer Chet Faliszek

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Last week, Destructoid sat down with Left 4 Dead series writer Chet Faliszek to talk about the followup to 2008’s critical smash-hit zombie co-op game, Left 4 Dead 2. We discussed why the sequel was announced so soon after the original’s release, why New Orleans makes a great game location, and why charges of racism in this new game are “utter insanity.”

We also discuss how the original Special Infected are getting new models and voices, the integration of melee weapons into Versus Mode, and whether Batman could take on a Tank. If you’re a Left 4 Dead fan, then you’d do well to check this out, so come with me as we interview Chet Faliszek. 

Destructoid: Developing a sequel to a game only a year after the original title is very atypical of Valve. What made you decide to work on a new game so quickly, considering your history and usual MO?

Faliszek: There’s a couple of factors there. One was, as we were finishing Left 4 Dead 1, the team size grew, and everyone at Valve played the game continuously. That’s not like, going home and playing it continuously, that’s working ten hours a day, playing it continuously. And everybody really gets into it, we have really long-range grudge matches, and during that, the people who weren’t working directly with the team got excited about the game and with them came a bunch of new ideas, and with the people who had been working on it came a bunch of new ideas.

We play the game a ton. To give you some idea, when we had the launch party here, we had this big event where we hit the button that actually put it out onto Steam, and it was the same day as the 360 release. The minute it was out on the PC, we ran upstairs, away from the party and away from our families to go play some Left 4 Dead with the public. We play it all the time, and we just thought that there were all these ideas we have for what we want to do that aren’t these simple, one-off pieces or aren’t independent.

Survival Mode was independent, we could do that new game mode [for L4D1], which was released in the Spring. But when you’re talking about these across-the-board changes of how the Director works — I mean, the Director’s fundamentally changed. It does all the highs and lows that the first one did, but it does a whole lot more. With that, there are also certain creatures [where we’d say] “That would really work if we had this,” and to make the new creatures takes a lot of time, and to make the new events, and it was a perfect storm of looking at all this and going, “We are not going to release this in six months, this is something that’ll take a year,” and for Valve, a year seems like a short amount of time, but really, we’ve been releasing since I’ve gotten here, Half-Life 2 Xbox, Episode One, Episode Two, Portal, Left 4 Dead. We’ve released a lot of content.

Everybody had talked about what they loved in Left 4 Dead, and what they wanted to see improve, and the underlying mantra that struck through all that was making sure that the best way of playing Left 4 Dead was the funnest way to play it, and there’s a lot of subtle little changes that go into making that become true. Having that focus and being able to do it let us do it in this quick space of time, while making that many big changes.

Bill, Francis, Zoey and Louis became iconic characters in their own right following the success of Left 4 Dead. Was it difficult to leave those four behind in favor of an all-new cast, and do you think the community will grow to love the new faces as much as they loved the original survivors?

Faliszek: So, leaving them behind was a weird case of us wanting to expand the world and not saying we’re done with them yet. They’re not dead, but we wanted to have this kind of other track, and we talked about going to the South, and it doesn’t make sense that, like, Zoey’s in her jumpsuit down South and she’s mysteriously living in Savannah as well.

The Left 4 Dead World doesn’t have a super amount of strict fictional rules, but it does have some fictional rules. The characters actually did a little arc, they go from Philadelphia and eventually to like, Airy Peiy, and they escape, and they’re up there now, so we wanted then to do this other thing and go across the South, and with that it didn’t make sense to have the same characters.

It’s scary making new characters, it’s a terrifying process because you look back at Zoey and Louis and Bill and Francis and you see people’s excitement over them, and your own excitement for them, your own love for them, and it’s really scary, I’m like, “Oh my God are we going to go through that again?” But you know, we’ve done GLaDOS, we’ve done Alyx Vance, we’ve done other characters that I think people remember and I think every time we do it it’s this scary thing.

I’d say the characters took the absolute most time [to develop]. From January 1, until you saw them at E3, was just non-stop working on them.

Destructoid: New Orleans is not a game setting you see often. What influenced the decision to set L4D2 in Louisiana, as well as Georgia?

Faliszek: I have no idea why it’s not a game setting more, honestly! It is a beautiful city, it’s such a cool city. The South in general, it’s this thing. You go to Savannah, it’s a beautiful city as well, go watch the movie In the Garden of Good and Evil [which is set in] Savannah and it’ll show you the beautiful old homes and such. We don’t quite go there in the game, but it’s a really cool setting.

We want to have swamps. I’ve lived in New Orleans myself, so when they said swamps, I thought of my bayou experience, south of New Orleans, and it’s like, New Orleans is this great city, it’s got these balconies, it’s got this very “gamey” space in the French Quarter, so we just wanted to go there.

Destructoid: Did you ever feel, when choosing your game’s location, that there would be backlash from those ready to cry racism and insensitivity to Hurricane Katrina? What do you make of the few instances where people have tried to make those links?

Faliszek: Utter insanity! Seriously, no offense to journalists anywhere. There’s mixed races of zombies, there are all different races of zombies that you shoot, and since we placed it in New Orleans, that makes it racist? I honestly re-read the paragraph about five times, and then there’s another blog post by his writer friend who tried to defend it, but he didn’t defend it, he just talked about something else. Maybe it was a bad day, I don’t know what, but when two of the characters in your game are African American, it’s a weird thing to be accused of. We’re like, “how does this work?”

When we were choosing characters, not to say that we don’t look at color, but we were caring about who lives in this part of the world, who makes interesting characters. Essentially, Coach is playing the “Bill” role, the wise old guy, and he’s just a high school football coach from down in Savannah, and we were like, “wow, that’s a great character, we want to do that character,” and I’m not sure setting in New Orleans makes it racist. I’m at a loss on that one.

As far as Katrina goes, if you go down to New Orleans, Katrina’s still going on. I mean, it’s messed up, it is crazy that the city is still in the state it’s in, and we treat that with the utmost respect, our CEDA thing is not some subversive commentary on anything. This is a videogame, those are real people’s lives, we are not trying to make a statement with that. Again, I’ve lived down there, we’ve all gone down there, I’m gonna go down there again for a while this Fall, it’s a place we love, it’s dear to our hearts. We would not cheapen it. It’s not a brick for brick representation of New Orleans, it’s a fictional version, and I love that city.

Destructoid: L4D2 has new weaponry, most notably the melee weapons. My first thought when I saw these was to wonder how they would affect multiplayer. Will players have a means to counter these weapons as the Infected, or will they melee weapons even be a factor at all?

Faliszek: They play a factor into the multiplayer in the fact that you just have to be aware if someone has one when you come in close. The Hunter would be a good example — getting axed out of the air is a humiliating thing. But if I’m a Boomer and I see a guy with a melee weapon, I’m happy, because he’s gonna have to make some choices there. Well, he’s probably gonna drop it and shoot me, but you know, it’s just an option there, it’s fluid, they’re strategically good to have in some situations, and some situations you want to use your guns. We let you mix it up.

As an Infected, it’s about how you make that choice of when to attack. Like today, John was reloading his gun, and I’m the smoker, and I got to see him look up and know, “Aw, I’m screwed, I’m gonna get Smokered.” The same will happen with certain melee choices, but sometimes, an Infected’s gonna jump in, and it’s gonna get axed, and that’s what happens.

Destructoid: The main thing that disappoints me so far about the game is the fact that the old special infected, most notably the Hunter, Smoker and Boomer, are recycling their character models from L4D1. Is this a stopgap, will you be planning on remodeling them? If not, why keep the exact same look?

Faliszek: One of the weird things with Left 4 Dead 2 is that we’re not showing a finished product, yet it plays like a finished product, so all those guys are getting re-skinned and remodeled. They’re going to be mutated to the area — it’s the South, it’s a little hotter, a guy running around in a hoodie’s gonna be a little rare. We haven’t shown that yet, we’re gonna be showing it … actually I don’t know when we’re going to show it, but it’ll be shown before release.

Destructoid: One thing that pleased me was the inclusion of daytime levels in L4D2. I’ve always felt zombies were scarier during the day, for a number of reasons. Is this something you agreed with, hence the inclusion, or did something else factor into it?

Faliszek: One of the things we found is that it’s fatiguing for it to always be at night and in the dark. Even with the flashlight, there’s still that feeling of being in the dark. If you look at something like 28 Days Later, when they have those great open scenes and you see the zombies rushing, it’s this terrifying thing, so it’s a little mix of those two things and, again, wanting to give some variety. So, some [stages] are bright, some are dark, some changed, we mix it up.

Destructoid: It was said that L4D2 may have a more cohesive story. How are you looking to make that deeper, and was that something you feel was missing from L4D1?

Faliszek: Well, the way we told the story in Left 4 Dead 1 was really deliberate. We talk about some stuff in the commentary a little bit, things we tried, but we always wanted to do a lot less than more, and partially that was the want to have you at ground zero, because you are in the city where the infection breaks out in the US, so what you know is going to be very limited, you’re just running, gunning and surviving. For L4D2, we’re getting a little bit more distance, we’re in Savannah, we’re not at ground zero, we’re actually in a city that’s evacuating before it’s been infected. And we go from there, and as we cross the South, we see how different people interact with the infection and try to save themselves, and we end up in New Orleans where it’s very clear that the tables have turned and that the military is in control. CEDA’s not running the show, and they’re trying to do some different things there. So with that, just having the characters go through this changing world where in L4D1 it was this static world, where pretty much every city’s the same state. With Left 4 Dead 2, things are radically different, you run into different things — there’s no military in the first campaign, because they’re just evacuating, and it’s through that you learn more, and through the characters talking, there’s just a little bit more.

We still don’t do cutscenes, we still don’t go, “let’s stop the action and do a story here,” it’s still all about these people, and the four of them meet the infection at the same time you do, so there’s a little bit of curve there, where the story gets injected.

Destructoid: Valve is known for having top-notch writing in games, especially the Half-Life series and the witty dialog of Portal. How important do you feel writing is to a videogame?

Faliszek: It is and it isn’t. If you have a really great game, with really great gameplay, your guy can be talking gibberish and people are gonna play it, right? Equally, if you have a really bad game, it’s gonna be a really bad game no matter how good of a story it has. Shakespeare’s not gonna save some games.

But then there are games that do a marriage, where both are really well done. I think Call of Duty 4 is a really good example. I was into that story, it helped propel the game, to make it even greater than it was. So in that case, it’s super important.

The game Prototype, I had a ton of fun playing Prototype, but I don’t think they’d be winning awards for the confusing story, where I was saving humanity by killing people and merging with them. But, I had a ton of fun playing it.

I’m a writer, but I know that I’m also in gameplay. That’s where the meat is.

Destructoid: How dramatic are the changes to the AI Director, and more specifically, just how much can he alter the paths and experiences of a chapter? How much power does he have when it comes to changing the shape of any given stage?

Faliszek: It depends on the campaign. For example, in the French Quarter, there’s a map right before that where you go through the cemetery, and he’ll alter the entire setup of the cemetery, and how it works. That’s based on how you’ve done up to that point. There are things like the weather events that will happen, based on how you’re doing. If you’re just barely hanging on, the Director’s not going to send a storm at you to finish you off. The best experience is just sneaking in by the skin of your teeth, and not feeling like you’re in a race game where you know you’re gonna win. You can die in Left 4 Dead.

Destructoid: How likely is cross-compatibility with L4D1 looking? Is there a chance that you’ll pursue this on the Xbox 360 as well as PC if it works out?

Faliszek: We’re looking at it on both platforms, part of that’s a bigger discussion with Microsoft and a bigger discussion with our Steam team on how to do that. It’s also a discussion on what it means, how we package that, what it’ll look like. We don’t have anything solid yet. That’s something we’ve been working on since E3.

Destructoid: There must have been a staggering amount of ideas that never made it into L4D1 and 2. What were some of the most outlandish ideas you had for Infected and scenarios, the ones that were just too over the top or unbelievable to use?

Faliszek: Zombies on the Moon! It could happen. One gets up in a spaceship, just there on the moon, in Space 1999, the Moon breaks off from its orbit, and you’ve gotta fight with Martin Landau? C’mon.

The thing about Left 4 Dead 2 getting developed in this timeframe is that everyone had a really great understanding of the game, so most of the ideas were in the ballpark of what we would deliver, and it showed in meetings of design and of the world and in the creatures. We were really of a singular mind on that, so there’s less of that than you might think. There are some crazy ideas we have stored that we don’t want to give away yet, we might still keep working on things as the mutation keeps going, but this close to ground zero, we don’t want to go too far out. Something like the Charger or the Spitter are in the same vein as the first set. At some point the mutation may be spreading even further, we live with it for a couple of months and maybe something’s happening.

Destructoid: Finally, who’d win in a fight between Batman and a Tank?

Faliszek: Dude, the Tank.

What in the utility belt is gonna help him against the Tank? What? We’re saying Batman without the vehicles, right?

Destructoid: It’s based off the Comic-Con photo of the two cosplayers.

Faliszek: Right, so there were no vehicles there. There is nothing in that utility belt that is gonna save Batman. Seriously, what? A rope? No.

[Destructoid would like to thank Chet Faliszek and Valve for taking the time to speak with us.]

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