It’s my professional opinion that games created by Valve are made of pure, concentrated awesome-sauce. Really. Do you like your games filled with original, engaging stories, exceptional game-play, and a wicked sense of humor? Games that inspire fan art, cosplay, music, and some cases overwhelming fandom? Two years ago I gave away a Companion Cube plushie as part of my library’s teen summer reading program and found teens competing for it as if it were the holy grail. All this is to say that Valve stuff rocks. Vol. 1: The Sacrifice and Other Steam-Powered Stories gathers together many of Valve’s iconic characters and provides some backstories to three of their games: Left 4 Dead (L4D), Team Fortress 2 (TF2), and Portal.
The collection opens with an introduction by Saxton Hale, Australian daredevil and president of Mann Co., who insults readers and art majors while promising heroics later on — and yes, he totally delivers. The first (and lengthiest) story is “The Sacrifice,” taken from L4D. Those who have played L4D will recognize this as the ending chapter of the game. There’s little exposition, but it doesn’t take long to become familiar with the characters. Zombie apocalypse, small band of scrappy survivors, lots of firepower… What’s not to know? Bill (a Vietnam vet), Louis (an IT analyst), Zoey (a college student), and Francis (a biker) have survived the zombie outbreak long enough to be rescued by the military. They’re taken to Millhaven, a strongly fortified base that’s researching the cause of the zombie virus, only to discover that the base is surrounded by hordes of the infected.
While closely following the game’s ending, this story gives us glimpses of each character’s life at the start of the outbreak, providing enough background to flesh out the small cast. “The Sacrifice” starts off quickly enough, but the pacing slows after the first chapter, moving between past and present in bursts. Like the game, this story is brimming with action and gore. If you’re looking for zombie variety, you won’t be disappointed. Boomers, smokers, tanks, and witches all make appearances, with tips on how to take out each kind of infected. The artwork is very dark, with heavy contrast between shades of black, grey, green, and bright reds and yellows.
A collection of TF2 comics follows, exploring the history of the Mann Co., the creation of the RED and BLU teams, the Administrator’s attempt to sabotage friendship, and a variety of Saxton Hale shorts. These stories perfectly capture the humor and spontaneity of TF2. I’ve always been impressed with the way a multiplayer first person shooter game (FPS) could impart so much personality to its players, and these comics build on that. The artwork reflects the game’s style while also playing with the comic book format. Many of the Saxton Hale segments look like they’ve been pulled from the Silver Age of comics, complete with Ben-Day dots, aged page-edges, and ads for equipment for the dapper rogue or jarate lessons (the jar-based karate!). If you’re looking for a comic featuring a burly, shirtless Australian beating up some hippies, look no further.
The final chapter is “Portal 2: Lab Rat.” This segment ties up some of the loose ends between the first and second games, while also giving a little history for our favorite silent female lead, Chell. For anyone who’s discovered the curious murals hidden in Aperture Labs, this chapter introduces us to the artist, Doug Rattmann, a scientist who’s managed to avoid GLaDOS because of his schizophrenia. As Chell faces GLaDOS for the first time, Rattmann has the opportunity to escape the lab. He flashes between the present, where he’s guided by a Companion Cube, and his past, assisting with the fine-tuning of GLaDOS’s morality core. We learn that Rattmann has a connection with Chell that won’t allow him to leave her, even as she is dragged back into the lab, thus setting up Portal 2.
The artwork here is the most daring of the entire collection. Rattmann’s psychotic breakdown warps the panels and creates fluid, heavy lines of black, blue, and white, reminiscent of drippy watercolors. Chell appears angelic and warm, whereas Rattmann is gaunt and hollow. When he’s on his meds, the panels are orderly. We can see that as he’s learning to avoid GLaDOS and the medication is wearing off, his world is starting to bend and twist. For a game that challenges players’ perspectives, this story is a perfect fit.
All of these chapters feature mature content, though “The Sacrifice” shows it most prominently. People are torn apart by the infected, who are already fairly gruesome. TF2 is somewhat lighthearted and goofy, but at the core, it’s about two groups of men trying to blow each other up on a daily basis. Oh, and Saxton Hale punches a crocodile — through its spine. Lab Rat, while not nearly as violent on the page, is about an AI that’s poisoned her creators with neurotoxin. There is drug use, though it is a prescription and not really abuse.
While I enjoyed all of these stories, I see two potential problems with them. First, they are full of in-jokes that will fly over the heads of anyone unfamiliar with these games. That said, I don’t know that many of those people will make up the customer base for this book. The other issue is that all of these comics are available online for free. And if you’re into TF2 comics, there are new ones posted online on a regular basis. So, if you’re having trouble deciding if you want to spend the money on this book, you can visit each game’s site and read them in their entirety. Of course, you’ll be missing out on a gorgeous, oversized book with pretty, glossy pages. And the opportunity to own them forever, even in the event of a zombie apocalypse.