Quick, without thinking too much, describe Left 4 Dead in only a few words. You probably came up with something like “a co-op zombie shooter.” Or perhaps “an online co-op FPS zombies game from Valve.” Point is, zombies would almost certainly be in there. Even so, back during Left 4 Dead’s development, Valve president and co-founder Gabe Newell wasn’t sold on making undead the game’s baddies, apparently finding the concept of zombies a bit cheesy.
As spotted by VG247, YouTuber Kiwi Talkz recently interviewed former Valve writer Chet Faliszek about his time at Valve, working on Half-Life, his new company’s recent game The Anacrusis, and of course Left 4 Dead. And according to Faliszek, writing a zombie game circa 2006 wasn’t too hard, as The Walking Dead TV show and the massive proliferation of zombie media that followed hadn’t yet come about. The genre wasn’t as tired and its cliches weren’t as overused, yet.
But that didn’t stop Valve president Gabe Newell from questioning if zombies should be in the game. During a dinner meeting with Newell, Faliszek explained how the president criticized the choice of zombies.
“Once I went to dinner with Gabe,” explained Faliszek. “And he was beating me up, that um…’if you look at zombie movies’ [Newell said] ‘Night of the Living Dead is about racism…Dawn of the Dead is about consumerism.’”
“[George Romero] had purposely made those movies about things kind of like, to talk about them, and [Newell asked] ‘What is your movie about? What is your game about? What’s your zombie story about?’” said Faliszek, “I’m like, ‘Well, you know it’s about working together. It’s about the game itself, it’s a reflection of the game. Of you know, in the zombie apocalypse what are you going to do?”
That apparently wasn’t good enough for Newell, who still felt zombies were too “cheesy” to include in the co-op horror shooter.
“We’d kind of get pushed more and more,” recalled Falizek, “because I remember [Newell] said ‘well let’s not do zombies, zombies are just…cheesy, right? They’re just really cheesy.’”
And Faliszek agreed that—at least back then before The Walking Dead TV show helped make scary zombies more mainstream—the idea of the undead rising and killing people was very campy.
“But, as a kid who saw Dawn of the Dead at a midnight movie [screening] and was just like, terrified…it wasn’t cheesy to me,” said Faliszek. “I had no idea those scenes were cheesy until watching them later.”
The solution that Valve, Faliszek, and Newell settled on was having some of the characters in Left 4 Dead be aware of zombie films and comics, so those characters understand and comment on how wild it is that what was once only in horror films is now a reality. And the key to making all of that work, according to Faliszek, was making sure the characters all play it seriously.
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According to the writer, a similar strategy is employed in his company’s recently released The Anacrusis, a co-op shooter heavily inspired by Left 4 Dead that hit Early Access earlier this year.
As for Left 4 Dead, considering how popular the game and its sequel ended up being across both PC and console, not to mention all the clones that are still coming even today, it seems the choice to stick with zombies was the right call, even if it took some compromise to reach that point. This is a great example of how fluid and messy game development can be, with an element as important as L4D’s zombies potentially on the cutting block even as folks continued to write and develop the game. Once again, a reminder: Video games are hard to make.