For the past four weeks, Valve Software has been giving their Zombie Apocalypse a bit of a ‘fleshing out’ in the The Sacrifice, a web comic prequel to the upcoming Left 4 Dead expansion. Featuring line-work from artist Michael Oeming (Powers, The Mice Templar) The Sacrifice tells the story surrounding events that will spell the doom for one of the four original survivors, events that gamers will be able to play out for themselves when the interactive version is released on October 5th for PC and Xbox 360. Newsarama recently sat down with Oeming as well as Valve Staff Writers Chet Faliszek and Jay Pinkerton (Portal) to talk about the comic, the game and the end of the world’s peculiar appeal. The creative team answered as a group.
Newsarama: Why tell the Left 4 Dead: The Sacrifice story in this way?
Valve: At Valve it always drives us a little crazy to watch a great game be made into a bad movie or read a comic that is disconnected from its source. To combat that, we believe in making the content in house. On the movie side animators and artist from places like WETA, Pixar and Disney now work at Valve. You can see their output in our games, trailers and in the TeamFortress 2 movies. To get serious about comics, our first step was to bring in Michael Oeming to work at Valve. The Left 4 Dead comic is just a first step in the process for us.
Nrama: The first thing readers notice is the comic’s length, practically four full retail sized issues, was that always the intention?
Valve: It was always going to be four issues… the actual page count ballooned out a bit as we were fleshing out the various parts. We love these characters and as we started to tell their stories we wanted to make sure to give each one time in the spotlight.
Nrama:Game comics are experiencing a significant boom, why do you think the two media are so compatible?
Valve: People become attached to the characters in video games. In a movie you might spend 2 hours with a character. In a game you spend hours and hours, even hundreds of hours with them. You become attached to them in a way that is different than other media, so you want to learn more about them. Comics are a great way to cover the story that doesn’t fit in the game.
Nrama:Was there any thought of publishing The Sacrifice and selling it retail?
Valve: We never count anything out. Right now we are definitely looking at other ways for our community to experience the comic. We recently polled them on how they would like to see it and the results were in order of popularity were: TV, computer, mobile device and print.
Nrama:The comic reveals more about the world of L4D than has ever come across in the game itself, how much of the backstory of the zombie apocalypse was developed for the comic and how much has been kept secret from the beginning?
Valve: Most of it has always been there. When we are first working on who the characters are, we write quick character sketches and create a few scenes for them. We use these later when writing in-game dialogue as a way to make sure the character stays in the same voice. Francis’s scene in the comic was one of the first things we wrote for him. We think it sums up his personality and attitude pretty well. If the world is going to hell, he is going to have fun while it does.
Nrama: What is it about the original four survivors that has the games coming back to them again, are they somehow more appealing than the L4D2 survivors, or were they just first?
Valve: We don’t see the groups as separate. One of our goals in-game, first with the DLC The Passing and now with The Sacrifice coming out in October is to show they share the same universe. We have known the L4D1 Survivors for a little longer and wanted to move the story down South so bringing them into the L4D2 world made more sense to us than the other way around.
Nrama: The comic introduces several new characters and despite their ultimate fate, what do these new faces mean for the franchise's atmosphere?
Valve: The comic allows us to create a larger stage for our Survivors. In the game we are very intimate with the characters. There is a larger world around them, but the minute to minute is all about them. The comic opens that world up for us. We see the regional and global implications of the Infection. The Zombie Apocalypse isn’t just interesting because it attacks four people in the woods, but that it is this force affecting the entire world. The comic helps us talk about that bigger world.
But even when talking about the global scale, you need to do it through individuals you can identify with. It has been fun watching the community react to those characters. We have a minor character named Annie who is a prison guard. I just got an email asking – just between you and me I won’t tell anyone – does Annie survive?
Nrama: Like the graffiti in the games, are there details in the comic that fans and astute readers should be picking up on?
Valve: Observant gamers have already figured out much of the story before they read any of the comic. The Passing which came out this spring told the story of “The Sacrifice” from the point of view of the L4D2 Survivors as they meet three of the four L4D1 Survivors. Bill was already dead we just never said how it happened.
During the ending scene of that campaign, there is a chance one of the L4D1 Survivors might make a comment that at the time doesn’t make perfect sense. But the community took that comment, all the graffiti and some other clues and pieced it together. The comic just confirms their hunches and helps them piece it all together.
Once inside the comic, we continue to add clues, hints, and shout-outs. In the first chapter, Louis has a Heavy character from TeamFortress 2 on his desk. Readers instantly noticed it and started looking for other Easter eggs.
Nrama: In writing for comics, is it harder to ‘sell’ basic gaming conceits like near-instant healing and the properties of the special infected?
Valve: So many people play games now that there is an ingrained shorthand for those rules. In a form that embraces a dude who when he gets angry, turn green and gets super strength – I don’t think Special Infected like the Smoker are such a stretch. Readers are smart, they get it.
Nrama: Zombies are back in a big way, do you read Kirkman’s The Walking Dead? If so, what you do you think about it, and are you looking forward for the TV series?
Valve: We’re all big fans of The Walking Dead. Kirkman gets the zombie genre. It’s about how people react to a world taken over by monsters. The Left 4 Dead series explores a lot of that—the games take place in the immediate aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, so there’s this running thread through both games of how different characters react to this new world with new rules. The character of Francis, for instance, is convinced the world’s changed forever, and doesn’t seem too bothered by it. The character of Louis, by contrast, is convinced that with a little hard work, everything can still go back to the way it was. As for the TV series: too soon to tell. But the early trailers look promising.
Nrama: Could we be seeing other comics made from Valve properties soon?
Valve: We have already dabbled in comics for Team Fortress and will definitely be working in this form in the future. This isn’t the last you will see of Left 4 Dead comics.
Nrama: Finally: why Bill?
Valve: If you are going to kill off a character it needs to be one that means something to you and the community. It needs to have impact. Bill is one of our favorite characters and his story matched The Sacrifice perfectly. We will miss Bill.How would you like the L4D Universe to expand?