Left 4 Dead has one of the best box art designs in recent gaming history. Simple, eye-catching, and memorable thanks to that neat little joke with the fingers, the bright-green, L4D cover was a staple of everyone’s PC gaming desk, or on the floor near their TV, back in the zombie game’s heyday. Chet Faliszek, however, a Valve developer whose credits also include Portal and Half-Life, says getting the Left 4 Dead art exactly right was a bit of a nightmare, with one particular meeting at the future Steam Deck maker being especially “brutal.”
It’s no easy task, trying to encompass everything a game is about in one, attractive, distinctive image. Left 4 Dead would eventually pull it off, earning its place among the best box art canon, but an image of a prototype cover recently shared online – which you can see below, alongside the final design – prompts Faliszek to recall the challenging creative process.
“The box cover meeting was brutal,” Faliszek says. “I was unprepared and got my ass handed to me for being sure what I didn’t think worked, but not being able to express clearly why.”
Faliszek, who also worked on the Half-Life 2 episodes, outlines in detail how the Left 4 Dead cover was conceived and finalised – and how it started with a reimagining of the artwork for Steven Spielberg’s WW2 TV series Band of Brothers.
“So there was a box art meeting,” Faliszek explains. “I didn’t know it was coming. I did not prepare for it. The Band of Brothers photo was the first one shown. I didn’t like it, and I was unable to express why I didn’t like it because of a couple of things. One, I had not lifted my head up – I had not looked up and seen where the project was with everyone else.
“This meeting made such an impression on me that I can tell you where I was sitting. Gabe [Newell] was across from me, the door was over there. I had screwed up, and Gabe was not letting me off the hook. I had not prepared for this and I was not ready. So not only was I not looking up, but also, I had not expressed to the team the vision, the feeling, the guts of the game.”
Faliszek discusses how he felt within the meeting, and some of the reasons why he felt unable to properly explain his opinion on Left 4 Dead’s draft box art. As you might imagine, working at Valve, especially just after the launch of Half-Life 2, could feel a little scary when it came to sharing your own creative visions. Faliszek explains more:
“Up to this point, Valve had made Half-Life 2 and beautiful things that are like symphony orchestras, and they’re near perfection. I was making college rock bands and getting too drunk so that you’d puke off the side. And I was scared to say that. I don’t come from a family of creatives. We don’t make movies. And so it was weird that in this room I was allowed to say things like ‘oh, no, you’re wrong, this is not it.’
“But at this time I was getting beat up. Gabe talked to me afterward about it to see if it was okay because he likes to have these kinds of meetings where he can be very clear with people. And he was being very clear with people that I let him down, and he was right, I did. And I was like ‘yeah, that’s great,’ because I learned so much from that. It imprinted on me that I’m allowed to own this, I’m allowed to be creative, I’m allowed to talk about this.”
Faliszek describes how the meeting enabled him to describe Left 4 Dead in different terms, and gave him an improved sense of how to discuss other creative ideas. In fact, he credits the “brutal” meeting with helping to solidify the vision for L4D’s core experience.
“It’s a zombie apocalypse with your friends, right?,” he says. “It’s this horrific thing, but with your friends, so it’s a good time. All of these kinds of things came out of that. And it only came out of that – not because I was smart enough to talk about that ahead of time – but because Gabe dragged it out of me and he pushed me on it. That was great, and I’ve kept that lesson since then.”
So, next time you fire up Left 4 Dead and marvel at its perfectly balanced co-op gunplay, painstakingly detailed environments, and classic monster designs, bear in mind that even the box art was pored over and meticulously constructed. I wonder what the cover for Left 4 Dead 3 might look like…
Check out some of the other best horror games, or maybe the other best games like Left 4 Dead. Oh, and if reading about some of Valve’s all-timers have you feeling nostalgic, you can also jump back to the classic era with some of the best old games on PC.