In Left 4 Dead, you need other people. If you decide to play the game alone, by default your lobby will populate with bots in the place where your three human-controlled companions should be. There’s an obvious logistical design reason for this, which is that the game and its challenges are uniquely crafted around the ethos of people working together. You see this in decisions made throughout the game, such as the enemy type that traps and immobilizes you until it’s shot by a teammate. But when I finally got around to the game in 2020, this felt like a stand-in for my life. By the end of last year, I needed other people.
In the last month of 2020, I finally came through on something I’d been wanting to do for well over a decade. I played Left 4 Dead, a game I’m happy to confirm is as excellent as it always looked. I started playing it at last because by the end of the year, around the time when you’re supposed to come together with friends and family to rejoice, I’d realized I’d grown depressingly isolated from just about everyone I cared for. After a painful and traumatic year, I guess I shut down. I deleted most of my social media apps, withdrew from group chats and became a ghost to the people in my life. Meanwhile, everyone around me seemed to be growing closer or at least taking strides to try and bridge gaps however they could.
While everyone was “venting” and doing whatever the hell else you do in Among Us, I threw myself into Dark Souls, hoping to find some direction amidst a summer that felt aimless. All I ended up finding was the pointy end of Ornstein’s spear repeatedly. When my high school friends invited me to their Discord server where they almost exclusively played Valorant (a game I just can’t play due to it being on PC), all I could do was sit there watching and hoping to belong to a group of friends who did things together. I feel like at one point I had that, and while the pandemic didn’t necessarily steal this from me, it exacerbated the fact that I hadn’t felt I belonged anywhere in a long while.
So when I booted up Left 4 Dead and invited my best friends to play with me-friends I had barely spoken to or played with in the last year-it was really fortuitous they came through, because it was exactly what I needed. What those other games couldn’t do was give me the impression I was in on something with other people—something mindless and dumb that kept me mildly goal oriented and let me participate in something with others without complete devotion. I needed the space to goof off with buds and blast zombies after a time in my life that seemed intent on destroying me for good. And playing through Left 4 Dead with two of my oldest friends, hollering in the night about a Tank that sent us flying or trying and failing to troll each other with Witches, reminded me of how often I’ve relied on cooperation in games to mend the bridges I felt incapable of repairing on my own, enjoying time with people I cherish and finding myself.
Back in middle school, I lost one of these two friends to a fight. Not an argument but a fight, with shoves and at least one or two swings. It wasn’t anything to write home about: he punched me in the neck and promptly won, at which point our friendship dissolved. And I’ve almost never been as alone as the time following that fight. About a year later, when Red Dead Redemption came out, a set of cooperative missions came with its online component and were the almost exclusive draw of the mode for me. Only problem was I had no one to play with, and the only person I’d do it with ended our relationship with a fist to the throat.
I don’t remember who reached out to who, and it’s so ridiculous that this is what did it, but one night we reconnected on AIM of all places and had what I remember being a very tense conversation. We caught up about school and his relationship at the time before moving on to videogames, the thing that bonded us most in our childhood. Things immediately lightened from there and before I knew it, not only were we friendly again but we were making plans to play those very cooperative missions. Turns out he needed someone too.
I don’t want to admit Red Dead Redemption and these silly little co-op missions saved our friendship, but as far as I know, they did. And our time with that game brought another friend into the fold, who as you might guess, is the second of my friends who’s been playing Left 4 Dead with me. We’ve been through a lot since then: slap fights in LittleBigPlanet, learning to run through the fog on Tranzit in Black Ops 2, and nowadays surviving Left 4 Dead and Deep Rock Galactic. We’ve also been through school woes, relationships coming together and coming apart, family issues, and now this damn pandemic. And through it all we’ve always found a time and place to meet somewhere, blow off some steam and work together to some kind of goal and joy.
Left 4 Dead isn’t the first game to remind me of how thoroughly these guys and these kinds of games have saved my neck. It is the latest, though, and one of the greatest to do so, and at a time when, more than ever, I needed some friends and the fun that comes with them.
Moises Taveras is an intern for Paste Magazine and the managing editor of his college newspaper, the Brooklyn College Vanguard. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.