Left 4 Dumb: The Master Plan

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Jul 7, 2009

Filed under: Column 31 comments

Left 4 Dumb, Part 21. It’s the beginning of the end, now.

Left 4 Dumb
I’m pretty happy with how Left 4 Dumb turned out. It was a lot of fun to make and I think there were a few laughs in there even for people who haven’t played Left 4 Dead. But it’s not quite what I’d aimed for in the beginning. I began DM of the Rings with the intention of making 20 or so comics, and wound up with 144. I began Left 4 Dumb with an arc that could have run for months, and ended after just 20 strips or so.

I’ve realized that one of my great joys in writing is finding cracks in an existing plot and coming up with “clever” explanations to cover them. During DM of the Rings, I explained the seeming nonsense and inexplicable changes of the Lord of the Rings movies. In my book, I filled in plot holes in System Shock. A lot of my humor is based around finding gaps in someone else’s writing (real or contrived on my part) and then justifying it in unexpected ways. I really, really wanted to do that for Left 4 Dumb.

The one thing that prevented this was that I just couldn’t get screenshots using the in-game environments. I use Garry’s mod to set my scenes, but Left 4 Dead uses a newer version of the source engine and GM can’t load the levels. It was possible to get the character models out of the game, but I was still stuck using levels from Half Life 2 or Team Fortress or other Valve games.

What I wanted to do was to go through an existing campaign. This would have provided a familiar story arc to hang everything on, so that I didn’t have to waste panel space setting the stage. Like DM of the Rings, the story would have supported the comic instead of the other way around. This would have left me free to make fun of individual areas and set pieces. It also would have made for better screenshots, since I wouldn’t have been fighting to keep explicitly Half-Life themed scenery out of every other shot. (I never really thought about that aspect of Valve level design until now, but there are very few spaces in the game that don’t have Half-Life specific elements in them. Graffiti, combine infrastructure, posters, not to mention the stuff that would clash with L4D, like pseudo-Euro signs, buildings, and automobiles.)

Below is a bit of what I wanted to do. Note that this is just a synopsis, not a series of jokes. This won’t be funny, although maybe you’ll be able to see how it could have been funny. Maybe. I dunno. Read it and find out, I guess.

The thrust is that all of the sad, annoying, or nonsensical stuff in the game is the result of our hapless protagonists. The first several Left 4 Dumb strips would have been almost exactly the same, except they would have started on the roof of the apartment buildings at the beginning of the No Mercy campaign, and they would have unfolded as the survivors worked their way through the apartment building.

Once they reached the street, Francis would have explained the path ahead: Through the subway, then a warehouse, then into the industrial zone, and finally through the sewers. Zoey would then point out how stupid, gross and difficult that sounds. They’d scale a fence and walk to Mercy Hospital in a single strip, thus skipping most of the first campaign.

Then I’d jump to Death Toll. (I never worked out how I’d bridge between the two, since I abandoned the idea.) This is where the bulk of the comic would have taken place.

I would have had some jokes about the start of the drains. You know, the sewers that seem to be inside of a building. On top of a hill. With no visible access to roads or other infrastructure. I don’t know why you would make a building for your sewage, or what you would do with it (it’s obviously not a water treatment facility) but I do know you need to have a way for the people who work in the building to get to it.

Now that I’m looking at the screenshot: What gives with the inner-city spray paint graffiti thirty feet off the ground, on the side of a municipal building in the middle of the woods, where nobody will ever see it?

Eventually they would reach the church, where the nice man inside would let them in and offer them food and a place to stay. Francis would bite him, as a joke. Zoey would then pull Francis aside and point out that while the four of them are immune, they are probably still carriers, and Francis has probably just infected the guy. Oops! They make their excuses and hurry away, and Francis tells the guy not to bite anyone. “Better safe than sorry!”, he says before running off.

Finally they reach an open city street. As part of his ongoing and eternally doomed plans to impress Zoey, Louis decides to build defensive fortifications for them, and he ends up constructing the set-piece we see in the game:

Generators, vehicles, and other potentially useful things are mixed in with dirt (from where?) and used to build a heap that forms a ramp on the attacker’s side and a wall on the defender’s side. A minigun is then pointed at the wall and set close to it, so that it won’t be useful until the attackers crest the top of the very-helpful ramp. This means the ramp not only traps the defenders, but it helps the attackers into the base and shields them from gunfire until the last moment. Brilliant.

Louis has taken the time to errect a wall of sandbags, which might offer a slight amount of protection to the guy using the minigun – if the zombies actually used firearms. He’s also locked the keys inside the van so they can’t hide inside, and parked the van beside the gun so that almost half of the useful firing arc is blocked. The (still operable) forklift is placed in front of the gun to give the attackers a bit of additional protection. The big boxes of ammunition have been placed out in front of the gun where they will be unreachable during an attack, and the small arms and ammunition have been placed way back. Finally, lights have been placed to illuminate the defenders instead of the attackers.

In the end, you have “fortifications” that are far worse than the open street they started with.

They would eventually reach the boathouse, where Bill would wander in and strike up a conversation with John & Amanda Slater (a fishing vessel!) while the other survivors were off doing something else. John would have been put off by Bill’s profound cluelessness and his circular conversational skills. Eventually John learns that Bill doesn’t even have a gun, just a broom. He then makes an excuse that they’re only interested in people who have guns.

Bill leaves without even realizing he just blew their chance at rescue. The team then goes on to the Left 4 Dumb ending we’ll see this week.

In the end, I cut more than I used. We never got around to seeing hunters, or smokers. I never got around to the joke where Louis invents the pipe bomb, throws it, and Bill chases it. Never got to make fun of the people downing bottles of vitamins to treat zombie bites. Along the way I’d have also tried to blame the Dead Air airliner crash on our heroes. I’d also have liked to do a couple of strips on the car alarms.

Someone said that Left 4 Dumb should have been spun off into its own strip. I certainly would have done so if I’d been able to maintain both at once. I think the timing of Left 4 Dumb was fortuitous. It’s covered ten weeks, giving me a nice build-up of games to get us through the summer gaming drought.

I haven’t decided if it will end this Friday or next. The Escapist’s 4th birthday is next Tuesday, so I can have the b-day comic in the middle of the finale, or I can shorten the finale.


From The Archives:

31 thoughts on “Left 4 Dumb: The Master Plan

  1. Nyaz says:

    So… you’re not doing any more Left 4 Dumb…? *Sobs* But… but… I really liked them…

    …I need a hug.

  2. Doug Brown says:

    Yeah, not being able to use the L4D game environments must have been like trying to make DMotR with screencaps from, er, Ladyhawke?

    Or substitute your own movie joke.

  3. MintSkittle says:

    Even though I haven’t played L4D, the comic was still very enjoyable.

  4. Mike says:

    Well, at least it was good while it lasted…

  5. Rutskarn says:

    Dammit, that comic would have been awesome. It’d be the Concerned of L4D.

    That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed this series, of course–I have, quite a bit. The characters are still solid, and they work together pretty well. It would have been interesting to see what they would have done if turned loose into their natural environment.

    Regarding today’s strip:

    I always maintain that the following methods of transportation are upcoming.

    Bus Stop: Have to wait at a bus stop for the next one to come by. Spend 10 minutes enduring your inconsiderate fellow commuters. Also zombies.

    Ice Cream Truck: Wait for the Good Humor man to make his rounds, but beware–the zombie hordes are attracted by the haunting notes of “Turkey in the Straw”.

    Man with Wheelbarrow: Some guy with a wheelbarrow runs over, loads you all up, and sprints into the sunset. Zombies, for some reason.

  6. TehShrike says:

    Thanks for posting this, it’s cool to see what was going on in your mind… what could have been.

  7. Saint Rising says:

    Never played L4D, but I enjoyed this series immensely. It’s probably the reason I’ll be getting L4D2. Thanks Shamus!

  8. Factoid says:

    Maybe they’ll eventually upgrade GM so it can work with L4D and you can do a reboot.

    Or maybe L4D2 will provide similar useful material for a spin-off.

    I still think Versus mode could make for an awesome storyline told from the perspective of the special infected. Maybe they’re only half-zombie and they still have some human sensibilities. Maybe they think of themselves as the Zombie version of the A-Team. Could be great. Just saying.

  9. Pederson says:

    … bottles of vitamins? The running gag with the group I play with has been that certain players have an addiction to painkillers.

  10. Cat Skyfire says:

    I didn’t play Left 4 Dead, but I enjoyed Left 4 Dumb because it really made fun of all games of the genre. The “Oh, just drop your arms down and you reload”. Or the ‘why are we going this way, and not just, say, over the fence…”

    It was good.

  11. Rutskarn says:

    Pederson: Running jokes for Twenty Sided playthroughs have described them as anything from painkillers to multivitamins to placebos.

  12. Mad Flavius says:

    Well, Shamus, though you warned us for the lack of overt humor in your plot synopsis, I still laughed audibly at the bit with the guy in the church. I don’t think I’ll be able to play through that set piece without thinking about Francis, infection vector.

    I submit my vote (as if this was a democratic decision…pshaw) to continue this awesome series if/when Garry’s Mod is sufficiently upgraded. I applaud the series thus far, and look forward to the newest entries in Stolen Pixels.

    1. Shamus says:

      Mad Flavius: I am sort of hoping Gmod will update in the next few months and that next summer I can run a Left 4 Dead 2 comic.

      Garry hasn’t even mentioned that he’s thinking about considering an update. (And there are forking / tech issues he’ll have to contend with) Here’s hoping it happens anyway.

  13. Nazdakka says:

    I’ve enjoyed Left 4 Dumb, but I’ll welcome a return to the more ‘regular’ Stolen Pixels comics.

  14. OEP says:

    Very nice. Like the poster above, I laughed.

    I especially enjoyed your description of the fortifications and how they came to be.

  15. DGM says:

    So plotwise, your plan was basically to do for L4D what “Concerned” did for HL2?

  16. the_JJ says:

    I agree with Nazdakka, it was a great idea and nice how you gave everyone a new personality, but still, I think the format of the first Stolen Pixels, able to (as you appearently discovered) make fun of the game within it’s own plot.

  17. Ferrous Buller says:

    In the end, you have “fortifications” that are far worse than the open street they started with.

    That probably explains why so many people ignore the minigun entirely and camp out at the other end of the street or in the building overlooking the street – y’know, somewhere you actually have time to blow away Infected as they crest that slope.

    Enjoyed Left 4 Dumb, but also looking forward to whatever you’re doing next with SP.

  18. Carra says:

    I’ve reread the two LOTR comics and laughed out loud again. I’m not the kind of guy who wonders how there are only heads when I watch a movie. But it sure made me laugh. Makes me want to read through the entire comic book again. Would be fun to be able to have it on paper ;)

    And Conan! I’m actually reading through Conans stories now so it’s a nice link. I’ll go read some more!

  19. Joe Cool says:

    Reading your descriptions of what you had planned out, whether it be for Left 4 Dumb or Chain Mail Bikini always makes me weep for what could have been. I hope that if/when Gary’s Mod gets upgraded, you’ll consider doing this.

    But hey, I’m still holding out hope that the rest of CMB will get drawn at some point. Don’t burst my bubble! It’s the only thing keeping me from hitting the bottle!

  20. Zaghadka says:

    I’m expecting the No. 9 from Grim Fandango to show up. ;)

  21. Ell Jay says:

    I only have one real criticism of the Left 4 Dumb comics (and I’m trying my best to be constructive instead of just negative here)– you pretty much always did a good job making the facial expressions on your characters hilarious, but the format of the strips (perhaps inescapably so) kept them so small that they often could barely read, if at all. I’ve never had the opportunity to play around in G-mod, but “Concerned” really opened my eyes to how much good shots of the faces can count in a G-mod strip. Otherwise, fun and enjoyable comics– I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m disappointed I couldn’t see enough of your good hard work!

  22. illiterate says:

    I can think of a michael bay film or two, involving large robots with certain shapeshifting abilities, that could do with a good skewering.

  23. Sempiternity says:

    Just as a fun fact, up here in the run-down remnants of the industrial Northeast, even out in the middle of the closest you can get to nowhere off of the State Game Lands, the all too common abandoned & condemned buildings quickly find themselves covered with graffiti of various quality…

    …welcome to Pennsylvania, home of the zombie! ;)

  24. Ian B. says:


    Garry hasn't even mentioned that he's thinking about considering an update. (And there are forking / tech issues he'll have to contend with) Here's hoping it happens anyway.

    Maybe when (if?) Episode 3 comes out it’ll use the same engine as L4D. If that’s the case I imagine Garry will release an update to make use of that when the SDK inevitably comes out. He already did an engine upgrade once when Source 2007 came out with the Orange Box.

  25. SteveDJ says:

    I have thoroughly enjoyed Left 4 Dumb – and the fact that you had to provide additional story/explanation (because of the non-matching screenshots from a different game) made it more understandable for me, and others, that have never actually played the games. I was still able to enjoy the humor.


  26. Galen says:

    I never played left for dead until last night. I think the game was even MORE enjoyable because I kept thinking of scenes from the comics. I’ll miss the strip but knowing your work so far I’m excited for what’s next.

  27. Pickly says:

    I can think of a michael bay film or two, involving large robots with certain shapeshifting abilities, that could do with a good skewering.

    Or, really, most Michael Bay movies, from what I’ve heard at least. (I’ve only seen The Rock and Armageddon, i like the Rock, don’t like Armageddon, though the other ones do sound like stuff I wouldn’t like.)

  28. Will says:

    Anyone who has read the Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks will tell you that a bicycle is actually one of the most useful available civilian vehicles because it is faster than walking, and also nearly silent, so you don’t need to worry about attracting undead hordes with your passage, and also it’s small enough to maneuver through tight spaces.

  29. Scarlet Knight says:

    I’ve connected and grown fond of the Left 4 Dumb crew. I hope to see them again in the future.

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