Left 4 Dead 2
I recently found myself in a French Quarter courtyard pumping lead into a horde of zombies, trying desperately to survive long enough to reach safety, more ammunition, and maybe a health pack.
I was battling hard in the final phase of Left 4 Dead 2, a first-person-shooter video game in which four characters battle the undead all the way from Savannah, Ga., to New Orleans, where they hope to be rescued. The final chapter, titled "Parish," is set in the French Quarter, and the series' signature fast-paced, undead-splattering action is well suited to its narrow alleys, surprising spaces, and unique architecture.
Most games feature fictional settings. For the Left 4 Dead games, Valve Software opted for realistic settings. The original Left 4 Dead was set in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The idea is to ground the game's action and horrific elements with everyday surroundings, which also mimics the great zombie movies Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and others.
Does knowledge of New Orleans help a seasoned player through the game? Not exactly. While characters run down what seem like authentic French Quarter streets, the game flow follows surreal connections. "Bienville Street" appears in familiar tiles as an art element, but street signs are not otherwise present. It may cause confusion for someone expecting to turn right from Bienville onto Decatur Street, expecting to forge ahead to Canal Street. Entering what looked like a riverfront access to the levee brought me to what appeared to be Armstrong Park. Such distortions are not unique to games. In The Pelican Brief, Julia Roberts exited the familiar interior of Igor's on St. Charles Avenue and stepped onto Bourbon Street. And while the French Quarter is actually overrun with ghost and vampire tours, the game creates spaces from which packs of zombies can surprise players. In one scene, a miniature Mardi Gras float blocks a street and players must work together to move it, which sets off jazz music recordings from the float, alerting a horde of zombies to their location.
But some of the carnage and the idea of battling in the streets of New Orleans may trigger other associations. A standard feature of these games is finding messages scrawled on walls by characters presumed to have already passed through. These seemed like a callback to the days of FEMA-bashing spray-paint on refrigerators and houses marked by search teams after Hurricane Katrina. Some of the messages say, "Go to the park. Army's evacing everyone out," "Don't Break the Quarantine Line" and "Why are they separating everyone?" Some game reviewers questioned whether the zombies suggest negative aspects of the post-Katrina chaos, such as looting.
Doug Lombardi, Valve's vice-president of marketing, says the aftermath of Katrina was not a factor in developing the game. "It didn't come up at all — either that we should avoid the setting or be sensitive to it, or ignore the issue completely," he says. "It really wasn't part of our agenda. We have people who went to school there, or are simply from there, and they are very passionate about the city."
If the game started in New Orleans, some of the parallels might have seemed unavoidable. But the New Orleans action comes long after players have confronted the same menace in numerous environments. And Valve's approach to narrative, having the environment tell part of the story, has been a feature of its games since long before Katrina. The onslaught in the Quarter is consistent with the game world Valve developed, and it doesn't come off as exploitative.
But the game's conclusion evokes another odd reference. When the characters finally escape from the historic district, they have to fight their way across a bridge to the West Bank, where there's a military helicopter they can use to flee the city. It's not a reference to the standoff on the Crescent City Connection after the levee breaches, Lombardi says.
It may be hard for some New Orleanians to miss the irony, but it may indicate that for better or worse, non-natives have moved beyond the city's association with the storm.