Games

The Fear Is Gone: Reconsidering the 'Left 4 Dead' Series

Zombies themselves don’t seem to be much of a creature of horror anymore. Is it even possible for something to remain scary through constant exposure to it?

Left 4 Dead is ostensibly a horror game. Upon its release, it was called the first true zombie apocalypse game because it actually created the feel of a zombie apocalypse. You are one of the last four people alive and have to make it to safety. Everything is so thoroughly destroyed that you can do nothing but move on. Even the safe houses aren't places that you can survive. It has all the elements that make a good horror game: moody lighting, a thick atmosphere, unrelenting tension, a sense of danger, and a dwindling sense of hope that is finally replaced by despair. So, why doesn't it stay scary?

Over time, Left 4 Dead ceases to be frightening. In the beginning, even in co-op, the game was terrifying to play. People didn't so much speak commands as scream them out in terrified surprise. People could play the same levels over and over again and get different experiences thanks to the Valve’s AI director tailoring the journey depending on how you were doing in an effort to keep the tension high. But again, the terror didn't last.

For all of its pluses, nearly all of Left 4 Dead’s ability to scare was built into the dynamics of play. This is usually a boon for games, matching their ideas or story to how they play. But once players looked beyond the façade of the zombie apocalypse, the dynamics proved not to be so terrifying. When you have four people all working towards the same goal, things can’t be as scary. You aren't alone, and you aren't helpless. The game promotes cooperation and relying on your teammates for help. It is often more advantageous to use a med pack on an ally than to keep it for yourself. Players learned that altruism towards their fellow players helped them succeed. That and any attempt to go alone is soon met with a quick and overwhelming zombie death.

The game also couldn't keep up with players learning the system. The AI director creating new experiences every time sounds like a great idea, but it is actually limited in what it can do. It can change the types of zombie that attack and what doors they burst through or how many it sends at any given moment, but it does so to meet certain parameters. Namely, the level of challenge that the players are experiencing. The players eventually got into a rhythm as they figured out how the AI director worked. Eventually they could anticipate how the game could respond most of the time with what was suppose to be procedurally generated zombie horde and behavior.

Over time, Left 4 Dead ceased to be scary. It retained all the trappings of a horror game, but none of the sting. The sequel was equally hampered upon release and had to overcome a player base that was already used to the major mechanics and dynamics of the game. New enemies and new levels changed up what we thought we knew for a while, but eventually through repetition the new game ceased to be scary as well.

Familiarity breeds apathy. Over time, things that were truly terrifying no longer have the same hold on us. Vampires and werewolves have been neutered in terms of their original effect on our culture as European folktales and later Golden Age Hollywood horror movies. Now they are sex symbols, things to be desired not shunned and feared. Even Cthulu, the great Lovecraftian Elder God whose very existence could make a man go mad has been overexposed in our culture long enough to be chibi-fied and turned into plushies. Is it even possible for something to remain scary through constant exposure?

Back to Left 4 Dead. Part of the problem with it was that it only possessed the surface level elements that allowed it to be called horror. The game itself wasn't built to fully encompass horror, since the abundance of bullets meant you always had agency, a way to fight back. It lacked a concrete narrative meant to cause terror through ideas instead of play. It lacked big changes that upset the status quo and really screwed with the player’s mind. Having guns and having agency isn't itself a deal breaker. F.E.A.R. accomplishes the same thing pretty well. The truly scary parts of the game aren't affected by the agency that the game affords you. You can’t shoot Alma and bullet time isn't going to stop the nightmare sections that change the rules of the game.

Zombies themselves don’t seem to be much of a creature of horror anymore either. They’re the apocalypse de jour, a means for society to completely break down so that we as a culture can explore the interesting bits of our psyche. They aren't monsters to be feared. They are obstacles that have certain rules tied to them. So even that connection to horror is cut off from the game. Left 4 Dead doesn't look into the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse or man’s crumbling façade of civility. It is a shooting gallery that takes the least horrifying aspect of the zombie story and stretches it into a game.

Without anything else that could be classified as horror elements, Left 4 Dead becomes just a co-op shooter. Once the new game shine has faded, the game ceases to be scary. Most horror media stops being scary on repeat playthroughs/readings/viewings, but the really good stuff does leave something behind in the audience’s mind. Left 4 Dead leaves behind some stories created alongside friends or strangers, but nothing that could be classified as leaving a niggling feeling of dread in the back of your mind, nothing that could wake you up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. In the end, Left 4 Dead really isn't a horror game.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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